Iceland Airwaves 2019, Day 1

After a one year absence, Holly and I and our intrepid friend Norberto made it back to Reykjavik for our 10th Iceland Airwaves together.  Joined by Tristen (4th Airwaves) and Andy (3rd) we are rolling deep this year. And while I certainly missed the bands last year as a work project kept me confined state-side, what I missed most was seeing the friends we’ve made over the years attending the festival, be they folks who live in Iceland or those who, like us, make annual or sometimes sporadic visits to this rock in the Atlantic.

But first, Holly and I spent a few days in London at the start of the trip.  We did so specifically to see A-Ha perform at Royal Albert Hall (below), a two-set performance that featured all of Hunting High and Low in order, an intermission, then another dozen or so songs from the band’s catalog.  To see such a great band perform at such a seminal venue was indeed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we enjoyed every minute of it.  A-Ha still has it, that’s for sure.  If they ever make it stateside again, we’ll definitely consider a trip to go see them.

aharoyalalbert After seeing A-Ha on a Tuesday night, it was off to Reykjavik for the start of Airwaves the very next day.  By time we got into the city, dropped off our bags, and made our way down to get our wristbands it was getting close to 6PM.  At the media center we got to say hi to our friends Bob and Ingvar from Lucky Records before dashing into the night in search of food followed by the first band at 8PM.  It wasn’t relaxing, but it’s why we’re here. Some nights we bounce around from venue to venue, others we camp out in one spot all night.  For Day 1 we opted for the latter and headed to the Reykjavik Art Museum because we really wanted to see the opening and closing bands there, plus as an added benefit sandwiched in the middle was up-and-comer and recently signed Sub Pop artist Orville Peck.

And away we go! First up was the trio Kælan Mikla.  We first saw them live at Airwaves back in 2015 and I for one was blown away by the sheer emotion their songs were drenched in, all angst and doom and beauty wrapped into one.  Since then we’ve seen them two more times at Airwaves, and again a couple of months ago in Seattle opening for Test Dept. That Seattle show revealed a more refined and intentional band, one confident in their abilities but one that also felt like it lost a little of that raw edge, that slightly open wound that you just can’t help but pick at.  However, they brought that back at Airwaves, especially in the vocals.  They owned the big room with both their music and their presences and it was definitely the best all-around show of theirs I’ve seen.  Next up was aYia, an intriguing trio about who not a lot is known and who have not yet released any material in a physical format, though they do have some stuff on Bandcamp HERE.  This was our second time seeing them and they delivered a dreamy set comprised of fluid electronics and almost mystical vocals.

That brought us to Orville Peck (below), the country-styled masked crooner who seems to be taking the online world by storm at the moment.  And it’s easy to understand why, with his (and his band’s) unique style of dress, easy presence on stage, and songs about transvestites who work in country bars.  They played ’em fast and they played ’em hard, and while this generally isn’t my thing, Peck is a great performer and it was a fun set, one I’m glad we got to see.

orvillepeckairwaves Last, but definitely far from least, we arrived at the promised land – Une Misère (below).  With a new album, Sermon, due on the shelves any day now, they found themselves in top form, a five-man hardcore and metal attack that will tear your spine from your body.  They flat out attacked the audience, which responded with a series of mosh pits and a fair amount of head-banging.  As if that wasn’t enough, one of my all time favorite Icelandic vocalists joined them on stage for a song – Arnór Dan Arnarson of Agent Fresco fame.  Never one to shy away from screaming into the mic, Arnór and Une Misère vocalist Jón Már Ásbjörnsson battled it out to see who could shred their vocal cords first, ending in a tie as neither broke down nor gave in.  I’m very much looking forward to their new album.

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As an added bonus, we were able to connect with some of our friends as well.  “Scotland Paul” (♠) and members of his crew caught up with us earlier in the evening, followed by “Vancouver Matt” (♣) and Tanya.  Catching up with old friends and making new ones is one of the best parts of Airwaves, and we can’t wait to hook up with more of them as the festival continues.

(♠)  As we refer to him at home, as in “did you see what Scotland Paul posted on Instagram today?”

(♣)  See above

Kælan Mikla – “Nótt Eftir Nótt” (2018)

kaelanmiklanottKælan Mikla has been stacking up the accolades as of late.  There was a lot of great press about their performances at Iceland Airwaves 2018, they made the cover of Distorted Sound Magazine, and their latest album, the recently released Nótt Eftir Nótt, came in at #14 on Revolver‘s “30 Best Albums of 2018”.  And the praise is well-deserved.  The trio have developed from being a band that caught your attention because of their raw emotional power to very talented musicians, all the while still maintaining that air of mystery tinged with an undercurrent of anxiety.  Over the last 10 years of following the Icelandic scene we’ve seen lots of bands start up and develop over time, and Kælan Mikla are right up there with Fufanu in starting strong and  then just continuing to improve release after release.

Initially the most defining characteristic of Kælan Mikla’s sound, what truly separated them from the pack, was Laufey Soffía’s vocals, the insistence of her delivery and her soul-piercing screams.  But as the band matured and their musicianship evolved they no longer needed to rely on that vocal power, giving all of them more room to explore and maneuver – not only is the music denser and more layered, but the vocals don’t have to be so reliant on making that icicle-like stab into your amygdala.  That’s not to say that songs like “Skuggadans” won’t trigger your fight-or-flight responses, because they certainly will; but there’s plenty of dark beauty to be found on Nótt Eftir Nótt too.  The hauntingly beautiful “Næturblóm” could just as easily find a home on the club dance floor, and if you’re more of an old-school Kælan Mikla fan “Andvaka” will take you back to the very first time you heard them, sitting alone in the dark, afraid of what was lurking outside your bedroom window.

You can preview the album on Bandcamp HERE, as well as purchase physical copies.  If you haven’t heard Kælan Mikla before, you owe it to yourself to give them a listen; and if you think you know them from their prior albums, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much they continue to grow and improve as artists.

Sólveig Matthildur – “Unexplained Miseries & The Acceptance of Sorrow” (2018)

solveigmatthildurMusically speaking Sólveig Matthildur is best known as a member of the angst-ridden synthwave trio Kælan Mikla, a band that completely captivates me every single time I see them perform live.  Last year she, like so many Icelandic musicians, moved to Berlin to expand her musical career, and the result was her recent solo release Unexplained Miseries & The Acceptance of Sorrow.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the album, and what I got was a combination of familiar and surprising.  Musically it’s synth-electro, less dark than Kælan Mikla but still a bit somber… or perhaps serious is a better description.  You can definitely dance to it in a low key, mid-tempo kind of way.  But the big surprise is Sólveig’s vocals; she’s not the primary vocalist for Kælan Mikla and that band is known for an intense, passionate style; but on Unexplained Miseries & The Acceptance of Sorrow her voice has an otherworldly quality to it, a sort of beauty that gives a sense of longing and at times takes on an almost religious quality.  It’s a mature album, one that bottles up the raw emotion of her previous music and presents it in a more serious and deliberate manner.

Released digitally as well as on limited edition CD and cassette, Unexplained Miseries & The Acceptance of Sorrow is available via Matthildur’s Bandcamp page HERE.

Iceland Airwaves 2017 – Day 1

Norberto and I were up at the crack of not-dawn here in Reykjavik on Wednesday morning.  About 7AM, to be precise.  It wasn’t because we’re gluttons for punishment, but because we were meeting Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane and our friend J, who arrived from Seattle a few days after us.  That meant all of us were feeling a bit groggy today as Iceland Airwaves Day 1 officially began.

Much of the day was spent eating, getting our wristbands, and generally bouncing around town, and we didn’t see any off-venue shows.  Our plan for the on-venue evening was to post up at the Hard Rock Cafe, where a handful of bands we like were all scheduled to play.  This is the second time the Hard Rock has been in Reykjavik; the prior restaurant closed around 2005, literally a few weeks before Holly and I arrived in Iceland for our first ever visit.  But given the growing recognition of the country’s music scene it’s not surprising that the corporate juggernaut that is the Hard Rock was open to giving Reykjavik another chance.  As an added bonus the new location, which opened in 2016, includes a cozy basement venue that is an official on-venue this year.

The night opened with PHLEGM, the hardcore duo we saw play Lucky Records on Monday, and they gave us another high-energy, enjoyable set.  From there it was on to a band I was looking forward to seeing and one creating quite a buzz, Skelkur í Bringu.  They’re perhaps most notable for being a project of one Steinunn Eldflaug (below), better known by her nom-d’electronica dj. flugvél og geimskip, she of the trippy sonic soundscapes about cats in space.  Skelkur í Bringu is a three-piece, featuring Eldflaug on bass and accompanied by an impressive guitarist and an even more impressive drummer.  There were big noises, references to snakes, and some overall strangeness, but none of that took away from the obvious musical talent this trio brings to the stage.  I found them to be incredibly intriguing and impossible to ignore, enough so that I made a point of buying their new cassette Þrífðu Þetta Hland, each copy of which comes in a unique hand-made package (mine is a stencil cut cardboard box with zebra pattern fabric on one side).

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Next up was Benny Crespo’s Gang, a group we haven’t seen for years, and after the show tonight I’m kind of kicking myself that we’ve passed them up so often.  They played a solid modern rock set, sharing lead vocal duties across three of the four members in a well-received show.  We Made God packed the house for their intense post-rock/post-metal performance and didn’t disappoint – it sounded like a lot of folks were at the Hard Rock specifically to see these guys and their almost hardcore-style compositions.  DSCF4672 copyGuitarist Arnór waded into the crowd on multiple occasions while bassist Stúni (left) intrigued me with his three-string guitar.

For my money, though, the big winner was Kælan Mikla, which should come as no surprise to any regular Life in the Vinyl Lane reader.  Truly the one thing I can say about their performance tonight is “wow, what a difference a year makes”.  This was our third time seeing them in as many years, and tonight’s show was light years beyond what we saw before – they are incredibly poised on stage, thereby closing the loop between their sonic and visual  performances.  Someone needs to sign this band immediately, and given that Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke was in the house tonight, maybe they’ll get that piece of press that pushes them forward to the next step in their musical lives.  I certainly hope so, because they fully deserve it.

Day 1 of Iceland Airwaves 2017 is in the books.  I can’t wait to see what Day 2 has in store for us!

Kælan Mikla – “Mánadans” (2017)

kaelanmiklamanadansI first encountered (and fell in love with) Kælan Mikla during their Gamla Bíó show at Iceland Airwaves 2015.  The darkness of the music combined with the power and rage of the vocals blew me away and I’ve done my best to keep track of the band ever since.  They were the honorable mention for my “Best New-To-Me Band” of Airwaves ’15, and their debut LP Kælan Mikla made it into my Top 5 best new releases of 2016.  I knew there was some pre-Kælan Mikla material available digitally, though I hadn’t done much to track any of it down because I’m sort of addicted to physical media, which is dumb but true. (♠)  Fortunately for me the band decided to issue their shelved first recording Mánadans as a limited edition (of 200) cassette.  I pre-ordered mine yesterday via their Bandcamp page (HERE), and it came with a digital download to hold me over until the tape ships later this month.

The album opens with “Lítil Dýr”, which is frankly Kælan Mikla being their most Kælan Mikla-ish – all my favorite elements of their music packed into one song.  The opening is slow and heavy and moody, a calm almost detached flow of bass and drums and synths that then explodes with the righteous fury of Laufey Soffía’s vocals.  Hearing her cutting loose for the very first time during their show in 2015 was a startling experience for me, and I was hooked immediately; “Lítil Dýr” perfectly captures that feeling.

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“Umskiptingur” is one of the more intriguing cuts on Mánadans, musically more along the lines of a dark country or surf song than the band’s normal darkwave/post-punk feel, like something out of a David Lynch movie.  “Ástarljóð” is another highlight, its relentlessly driving bass propelling you forward into the darkness…

Ég vona að þú farir til helvítis, ástin mín,
svo ég fái kannski að hitta þig aftur.

(I hope you go to hell, my love,
So maybe I’ll meet you again.)

I’m impressed with he sonic variety on Mánadans. This isn’t a darkwave band playing the same gloomy synths over and over again; Kælan Mikla bring hints of different music styles to their sound, giving their songs subtly different flavors while still remaining consistent to their overall aesthetic.  It sounds like they have a new album in the works, and I for one can’t wait to hear it.

(♠)  Hi.  My name is Jeff.  And I can’t help but collect physical objects.  I’m like a goddamn squirrel sometimes, I swear.