Iceland Airwaves 2019 – Reflections

It was great to be back in Reykjavik for Iceland Airwaves after a one year absence, with the added benefit of this being a milestone for us – our 10th Airwaves.  It’s bizarre to think that as someone closer to 50 than 40 I’ve attended an Airwaves during over 20% of my years…

Because we missed 2018 this was our first time experiencing the festival under the new leadership and with the shorter four-day format.  There were considerably few bands in 2019 than in 2017, and perhaps even more noticeable way fewer off-venues.  My understanding is that the fee for being an official off-venue increased significantly, and based on the numbers I heard from folks in town the cost was prohibitive for many of the small businesses that hosted shows in past years.  This was also the first time I remember hearing people referring to Airwaves as a “showcase festival”.  With all that in mind, there wasn’t as much music happening as in years past, and bands played significantly fewer shows.  Despite that, there was plenty going on and we got into the groove of the slower pace, taking advantage of the extra time to connect with friends.

And friends were the theme of Iceland Airwaves 2019 for us.  While I missed the music last year as I sat in the basement of my workplace and desperately worked with the team to try to get a software release done in time, at the end of the day what I missed most was seeing all of our friends.  So this year we made a point of connecting with everyone possible, while also making some new friends along the way.  Some folks weren’t sure if they’d be coming back in 2020, but by the end of the week most of them were already talking about early bird passes being available.  The smaller, more intimate feel of Airwaves, and Reykjavik in general, creates these opportunities to build relationships, and that’s a big part of what makes it special.  If you’d have told me in 2009 how many people we’d know and stay and touch with due to Airwaves I wouldn’t have believed you.

Best Venue:  It was a strange year without Harpa, and while KEX Hostel was elevated to on-venue status we somehow never made it there.  In fact we spent most of our on-venue time at the Reykjavik Art Museum, which while adequate is never going to be anyone’s favorite spot.  Ultimately I come away with feeling that once again Gamla Bíó is the best place in Reykjavik to see a show, despite the fact that we only saw one band perform there (Glass Museum).  The strangest place we saw a show was definitely Waldorfskólinn Sólstafir, a local school where we were surrounded by kids.  You’d never see that in the US, my friends.  Here if a bunch of foreigners show up at a grade school, someone is calling a SWAT team.

Best Show:  For the second Airwaves in a row I’m going with Hatari (below).  To say that their set is a performance would be an understatement, and since I also love their music it was more or less a no-brainer.  A super close second was a bit of a surprise – the off-venue Lucky Records show by Hermigerville.  Not only did he have half the crowd actually dancing, but he also dropped in a couple of The Magnetics covers since he’d performed as part of their retro set the night before.  We ended up missing that show because it conflicted with Hatari, so it was awesome to catch a few of those old 80s-style synth bangers.  Honorable mentions to Mammút, who I hadn’t seen in forever and who sounded fantastic, and the up-and-comers Blóðmör with their straight-ahead style of classic metal.

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Best New-To-Me Band:  The winner here is definitely Lydmor.  We’d never heard of her before seeing her at Hressó and her performance was one of those experiences where even if you’re not 100% into whatever is happening at the moment, you’re still captivated by it and don’t want to leave because you know something completely different and unexpected is right around the corner.  I’m not sure how this will translate to listening to Lydmor’s music without the live component, but I’ll definitely be checking out some of her stuff.

Coolest Music Purchase:  I bought a TON of stuff this trip.  So much, in fact, that I couldn’t fit all the vinyl in my DJ carry-on bag which left me with a hard choice – try to pack some in my suitcase or spend a bunch of money to have it shipped.  I opted for the former and the guys a Lucky provided me with a solid box and some extra 12″ cardboard pieces, and after strategically deciding what I’d put in my suitcase (i.e. less expensive stuff) and what I’d carry on (more expensive stuff) we got the box into the suitcase surrounded by clothes and… it worked <phew>!  The finally tally was something absurd like 45 records of various sizes, probably 25 CDs, and a fistful of cassettes.  Restraint is not my strong suit. Plus I had a lot of catching up to do after having missed a year.

As for the coolest purchase, well, it’s actually something we picked up in London at Sister Ray prior to heading to Reykjavik – Sensational‘s debut album Loaded With Power.  I pretty much never find Sensational vinyl in the US and this was released by a German label, so I was stoked to find it.  Honorable mention for the super limited (edition of 20) Blóðmör demo tape Á Hljómleikum that a friend snagged and held onto for me.  Those guys are definitely going places and this stuff will be even more impossible to get in the future.

Biggest Regret:  There were a few bands we missed who I’d like to have seen, especially Agent Fresco and the Biggi DJ set.  However, the biggest miss was not seeing Berndsen perform at a clothing story, because everyone who went said it was off the charts.  And having seen some photos, it clearly was.  So I’ll make a point of catching up with the big redhead next year.

 

We didn’t see nearly as many bands in 2019 as we have in the past, even when you account for the Airwaves being one day shorter.  Typically we’d see somewhere from 35-40 performances in five days, but this time around that number was probably in the low 20s.  And I’m fine with that.  In fact I liked not feeling like I just had to be on the run all day every day, tracking down show after show like I was just filling out a checklist.

I’d say there’s probably a 90% chance we’ll be back in Reykjavik in 360 or so days for the next installment of Airwaves.  Hopefully we’ll see you there.

Iceland Airwaves 2019, Day 3

Day 3 began with me sorting out my big stack of potential purchases from Lucky Records.   Turns out I’d put aside way more stuff than I realized, so much so that I may in fact be throwing away at least one pair of pants to make room (♠) enough in my bag.  I may need to re-evaluate my willpower.  But not until we get back home from Iceland with all this vinyl.

From there we hooked up with Rob of Revenge of Calculon fame for lunch, then caught up with him again later to see is solo set at Lucky Records in the afternoon.  It was every bit as funky and dirty and sleazy as we’ve come to expect from Calculon (below), and the crowd was definitely into it, including the one lucky fan who came away with his own luchador mask thanks to his dancing efforts.

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That took us to the on-venue portion of the evening, and for the second time this trip we decided to post up at the Reykjavik Art Museum for the entire evening.  The first two performers were pop-centric, Icelander Hildur and Norwegian Anna of the North.  Hildur’s set was reflective, the artist providing a bit of context for each song before it began, while Anna of the North was about unadulterated energy and joy.  Next up were Icelandic rock veterans Mammút (below), a band I believe we first saw all the way back in 2010, and man they have come a long way.  The music was tight and Kata’s vocals powerful, drawing tons of support and energy from the crowd, especially the Icelanders.  It was one of the best sets of the festival so far.

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And that, my friends, brings us to Hatari.  Ah, Hatari, a band loved by some, hated by others.  They garnered significant attention as Iceland’s entry for Eurovision 2019, the finals of which were held in Tel Aviv, for their pro-Palestinian statements prior to the finals, their pre-final release of a collaboration video with Palestinian singer Bashar Murad, and capping it off by showing a Palestinian flag on live TV immediately following their performance.  So again, loved by some, hated by others.  They’ve also received criticism for appropriating certain subcultural fashions on stage.  You can decide for yourself.  As for me, I clearly like their music, having ranked their four-song EP Neysluvara as my favorite release of 2017.

The show at the Art Museum (below) was, of course, a spectacle of bondage and fetish fashion cocooned in a story arc of impending global demise.  There were dancers.  There was a video projection.  There were lasers.  There were canisters shooting showers of sparks.  There were guest performers, including, I believe, none other than Murad himself. And there were beats, growled invectives, and falsettos.  In other words, it was absolutely fantastic.

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Three days in the book.  One more to go…

(♠) Seriously.

Mammút – “Kinder Versions” (2017)

Well, we’ve been back home for almost a week and Iceland Airwaves 2017 already feels like it happened months ago.  Or at least it does until I look at my “To Listen To” shelf, which is sagging under the weight of music on vinyl, CD, and even cassette.  There’s so much of it that it makes me antsy just looking at it – I don’t want the process of going through it to feel like work, but at the same time I’m anxious to get to all of it.  Since I feel like this calls for some semblance of a plan, I’m going to try to focus on the newest releases first, especially those that came out in 2017, so I can make sure I don’t overlook some gem for my year-end best-of lists.  With that in mind, the first thing I grabbed off the shelf is Mammút’s Kinder Versions.

We first encountered Mammút back in 2010, seeing them live in Reykjavik and picking up a copy of 2008s Karkari.  At that point Mammút were already well-established in the Icelandic music scene, having won the national battle of the bands, Músiktilraunir, in 2004 and with a pair of successful albums under their belt.  One of the things that struck me about the band over the years is that almost all of their material is sung in Icelandic; in fact singer Katrína Mogensen often seemed apprehensive to speak English to the crowd at all, which is a bit unusual at an international event like Airwaves.  Given that I was a bit surprised to learn that Kinder Versions is sung entirely in English.

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Reviewers and critics have been heaping praise on this latest effort.  And rightfully so – it’s an intriguing album.  Over the years the band has seemingly moved away from their more aggressive punk roots to more mellow territory, a trend that started with 2013s Komdu Til Mín Svarta Systir and continues on Kinder Versions, the emphasis on Mogensen’s vocals becoming more and more apparent.  In my review of that earlier album I remarked how much she sounds like Björk, and while that may seem like a cop out comparison (comparing a female Icelandic singer to the most famous Icelandic singer ever…), it also happens to be accurate, perhaps even more so on Kinder Versions.  The opening track “We Tried Love” could easily be something off a Björk solo record, and I fully mean that as a compliment.  But this is hardly a copy-cat kind of album, as is evident on songs like the brilliant “Kinder Versions” with its internal stylistic changes, the vocal distortions on “Bye Bye”, and the breathlessness of “The Moon Will Never Turn On Me”.

There’s an undercurrent of simmering sensuality running throughout Kinder Versions.  At times it’s overtly physical, as on “Breathe Into Me”, but mostly it’s simply part of an overall feeling from the music and vocals.  While I miss Mammút’s earlier, more overtly passionate and aggressive feel, Kinder Versions is clearly the work of a very mature band that understands exactly what it wants to accomplish and does so with style.  You can listen to it HERE, or check out the live video of the title track below.

“Record Records 10th Anniversary 2007-2017” Compilation (2017)

Normally things on Life in the Vinyl Lane take a hard turn to all things Icelandic in early November, generally running through the end of the year.  The reason, of course, is because that’s when we head to Reykjavik for Iceland Airwaves and return home with a bag full of amazing new (and not so new) albums to share with you.  But this year my record pusher dealer enabler collecting friend Ingvar came to Seattle for a visit and brought with him a big box of stuff that Reykjavik’s Lucky Records had on hold for me.  That means that my “To Listen To” shelf is full of Icelandic records (and a smattering of tapes), so we’ll be getting an early start on Airwaves this year.  Don’t fret though, because Ingvar and I did a fair amount of record shopping here in Seattle during his visit too, picking up a lot of interesting non-Icelandic stuff and meaning I have so much “To Listen To” stuff right now that it’s actually causing me anxiety.

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So without further ado, I’m dropping the needle on the beautiful 2XLP Icelandic label comp Record Records 10th Anniversary 2007-2017.  I was lucky enough to get the red vinyl version, which is limited to 100 copies and comes in simple and elegant gatefold

The Record Records roster is deep – Of Monsters and Men, Retro Stefson, Agent Fresco, Mammút, Vök… it’s an Icelandophile’s dream.  Of the 15 bands on the album there’s only one that I haven’t heard of – Ensími; and I’ve managed to see about 2/3 of them live over the years.  You don’t really need me to tell you much about a label comp that’s this deep – these are great bands, and while I may personally have made a few different song selections, they definitely go this one right. (♠)  Most of the tracks are from the second half of the label’s lifetime, including some new 2017 tunes like Mammút’s “The Moon Will Never Turn On Me” and Moses Hightower’s “Mjóddin”, giving the whole thing a more contemporary feel.

Is Record Records 10th Anniversary 2007-2017 a good Icelandic music primer?  Yes… but with caveats.  Record Records has a certain style, so while there’s rock, reggae, and singer-songwriter stuff, you won’t hear any punk or metal or electronica.  What you will get though is a broader sample of the type of stuff that you may catch of whiff of on the radio, and there are some beautiful performances here such as Vök’s “BTO” and “Jolly Good” by Ojba Rasta.  I know one thing for sure though, and that’s that this record is getting me hyped for Iceland Airwaves 2017!

(♠) OK… I definitely would have included a song by Bloodgroup… but given that they’re no longer active, I can understand their exclusion.

Mammút – “Komdu Til Mín Svarta Systir” (2013)

mammutnewrecordI’m a bit late to the game in getting to Mammút’s 2013 LP Komdu Til Mín Svarta Systir.  I knew the band had a brand new album out before our April 2013 trip to Reykjavik… and I bought the wrong record by mistake!  I meant to buy Komdu Til Mín Svarta Systir, but instead picked up a copy of the band’s 2008 album Karkari.  Mind you, this was no big deal really since I was already familiar with much of Karkari from having seen Mammút live a number of times, and I like their stuff.  I rectified this oversight when I placed an order with my friends over at Reykjavik’s Lucky Records last month and included a copy of Komdu Til Mín Svarta Systir.

My initial impression was that this is a much more mature album than Karkari, though the more I listen, the more I’m not sure that’s a fair comparison.  It’s a much quieter album for sure – slower paced songs that showcase Katrína Kata Mogensen’s voice, allowing her more room to sing and less to scream.  Mogensen sounds hauntingly like Björk to me, both in terms of range and the pure power of her voice.  But it’s not just the signing, because musically there’s a lot of richness here, with a deep, full sound and well structured songs.  It’s almost not even a rock album but instead something that would have a much broader appeal, though one slightly hampered by all the songs being sung in Icelandic (though I certainly respect that decision).

It’s been a few years since we last saw Mammút live, so I wasn’t quite prepared for the new material and more mellow direction.  That being said, I’m impressed with Komdu Til Mín Svarta Systir… though I would have liked one or two rocking tracks just to mix it up a little.  But that’s just a matter of personal taste.  We’ll definitely need to try to see them at Airwaves this year so we can experience the power of this new material live.