Image: Florian

Iceland Airwaves 2018 – From Yin to Yang

 In Reviews

Iceland Airwaves is always a good time of the year. There’s a buzz about the town, as a drove of foreigners hit the streets of Reykjavík ready to discover new music and good times. For this year’s edition, there were changes afoot as the festival has been racking up a loss in recent years. Event management company Sena took over the proceedings. There’s often been more hype among Icelanders for the festival, as people felt the hipster festival Airwaves had fallen in the hands of a corporation. The worries of nervous locals proved needless as Sena put on a top-notch festival, which ran like a well-oiled machine. But enough of local music politics – let’s get to the music.

Punctuality sounds great

You might say this year’s Iceland Airwaves had somewhat of an ‘un-Icelandic’ feel. The Reykjavík Art Museum, a prison style hall, and the festival’s largest venue, featured a countdown for acts on screens either side of the hall. Punctuality isn’t one of Icelander’s main strengths, so the new tagline ‘Punctuality sounds great’ was a fresh change. There were also fewer off-venue sites, where artists have had the chance to put on a more personal show in tightly packed cafes, restaurants, and hotels all over the city. It didn’t seem to affect festival goers too much, as they came out in numbers all nights, and the town, along with the venues, smelled of good vibes.

I saw R’n’b starlet GDRN last Airwaves and was looking forward to seeing the progression in her so-far blossoming career. Fresh off releasing her debut album ‘Hvað ef’ (What if), she hit the stage with confidence and belted out her hits. It’s hard to put a finger on it as she was shy, yet outgoing at the same time, and has definitely grown in performance and music since I last saw her. When it comes to artists such as GDRN it’s often tempting to find what acclaimed artist they resemble, with tags such as “The Icelandic Insert-Famous-Artist”. But GDRN is simply the Icelandic GDRN, and definitely worth a watch. Shout out the veejay as the visuals were amazing. Top notch show.

Hildur at the Reykjavík Art Museum. Photo by Julie van den Bergh.

Next up was Hildur, whose music can be described as Scandinavian diva pop. Her stuff always moves butts, and Hildur herself took over the stage with dancing. One punter commented: “I liked her but I thought she was a bit weird with her dancing”. Agree to disagree fellow Airwaves attendee. Hildur’s new song ‘Picture Perfect’ has been doing bits online and her show was solid. She asked first time Airwaves attendees to raise their hands, and the majority of the hall raised their hands. It was in line with what event organizers announced, the majority of the ticket holders were foreign this time around. That didn’t make for a dour Airwaves at all, as it was a joy to see Icelandic artists win over new audiences.

“It’s my 10th time at Airwaves. The first few years I wasn’t allowed but you know I got in” – Hildur

Auður’s performance was one of my favourites at the festival. His newest release, ‘Afsakanir’ (Excuses), is an album where he opens all the way up about his personal trials and tribulations. A self-reflective album with themes such as depression, break-up, and mental health issues doesn’t seem like a recipe for a fun time, if I’m honest. But it’s necessary. And, even though it was a heavy subject, Auður put on of the most energetic performances I’ve seen. He split the crowd in two and danced in the middle, playing with the often-stagnated festival format. Here was a performer in the zone, putting his heart and soul into both music and performance. At one point, Auður broke down in the middle of a song as a collage of webcam recordings of himself played behind him. One thing’s clear, Auður is a talent and his shows are must attend at this point.

The night was heading for a wrap but before I headed home I caught a glimpse of hip hop acts Úlfur Úlfur and GKR. Úlfur Úlfur were the first act to show up with an alcoholic beverage in hand, so shout out to them for that. They had the crowd at the Reykjavík Art Museum with them, as attendees had followed suit with the alcohol. It was a performance stripped bare. No fuss, no frills show. No video in the background. All about the beats, lyrics, and good vibes. Solid show which both foreigners and Icelanders seemed to enjoy alike. GKR spewed out hip hop at new venue Silfursalir. The room felt a bit empty and the crowd wasn’t giving him a lot to feed off of, but GKR powered through and his humorous stage antics took over the half empty area and filled it to the brim with his character. His shows are always playful, as he quips back and forth with the crowd comedy style, and even threw cereal boxes into the crowd. In a festival where punctuality was the key, an Airwaves employee tried cutting the show short, but GKR played it off and brought an ensemble of guest rappers onto the stage for a final banger where the crowd turned up. A solid end to the night.

“Our next song is about brotherhood and money. Not a lot of money, but some money” – Úlfur Úlfur perfectly encapsulating the Icelandic rap scene.

Bríet at the Reykjavík Art Museum. Photo by Jimson Carr

Bríet is the new star-to-be in the Icelandic music scene. I caught her at the Reykjavík Art Museum early on Thursday night. Schedulers might have picked a better venue and time for the young artist, but Bríet did her best to grip the crowd with her – even starting an impromptu drinking game which a few parties took part in. Still, a really solid outing for the newcomer. She’s someone we’ll see on stage for years to come. Shout out to the DJs as well. One was lively while the other didn’t move a single muscle during the set. Elli Grill at Hard Rock Café was a sight to behold. Going through his acid trap repertoire, wearing a hospital gown, with gigantic gold earrings and singing “Enginn eins og ég” (No one’s like me), he put on a show which few others in Iceland can. Everyone in the building who wasn’t seeing him for the first time knew what was up. Just Elli Grill things.

Tommy Black at the Reykjavík Art Museum was… interesting. Backed by surreal and hellish visuals, and a DJ with a haircut like an elf from Lord of the Rings, his set had a weird vibe. But you get the feeling that’s exactly how Tommy would have liked it. The bass was unreal in the show, and the crowd went off when the show went full blast after a long intro. Tommy even managed to create his own mosh pit, kind of out of nowhere.

Yin and yang

The revelation of the festival was Spanish dance duo Mueveloreina. I jumped in to Hressó to catch them and it was quite a scene. There was a crowd of 50 or so going at it! The duo had stripped their sporty chic clothes and the dance beats were flowing. It was clear from second one that they enjoyed performing to the fullest, and the crowd responded in tune. The Hispanic community in Iceland was out in force as people knew every word. No visuals, no costumes. Just all out party, sweat, grit, and a whole lot of fun.

I saw the end of Australian trio Haiku Hands’ set at Silfursalir. Complete with synchronised dance moves, the outfit took no bullshit as girl power was in full effect. Their first song had the lyrics ‘I dare you not to dance’, and the reverse psychology worked wonders. A fun show which made me wish I had seen more of them.

Högni at the National Theatre. Photo by Sigurður Ástgeirsson

Time for a completely different tune. That Thursday night, Iceland Airwaves proved it was a festival like no other. Högni and Ólafur Arnalds at the National Theatre was the yin to Elli Grill’s and Mueveloreina’s yang. Högni’s show was surreal at times. but he kept the audience latching on to his every word and movement. In the stoic hall, Högni stood on a balcony and directed four string players, before he read an… interesting story which involved rats, a ring falling into the Hudson river, and Högni sporting both Australian and British accents. Other than the two women next to me who fell asleep (which we’ll blame on jetlag rather than Högni) the artist played the crowd like a string. It was humorous. It was playful. It was light-hearted. But Högni’s artistry fully came out when he stepped down to the main stage and played the piano, accompanied by his singing. Next up was Ólafur Arnalds, the most hotly anticipated artist of this year’s Airwaves as it was his first concert in three years on home turf. Although I admit his music isn’t exactly my cup of tea, his show was a sight to behold. At one point, he recorded the crowd and used the recording in his next song, meddling with an effects machine all the while playing the piano. Seeing the lights show along with the looping self-playing pianos is definitely unique, and you could feel the crowd was loving every minute of it.

“If you guys don’t know how to sing, I’ve got a backup with a crowd from another concert that can” – Ólafur Arnalds

Ólafur Arnalds at the National Theatre. Photo by Linda Fährmann

Mayhem at Gamla Bíó

The venue Gamla Bíó (Old Cinema) was where the scene was set on Friday night. An almost ballroom style hall with balconies overlooking the stage, and a massive crystal chandelier on top, Gamla Bíó is a great concert setting. First on stage were Fufanu, which always make you feel like they’re in the wrong decade. The hall was quite packed and although the crowd wasn’t overeager, Fufanu put on a solid show. Front man Kaktus kept attendees on their toes as the show grew in tempo over the course of the set. The band has been touring in Europe in recent years, and although it wasn’t the most memorable show in Airwaves history, I would happily shell out some cash to see a show of theirs.

“We finally got through an Airwaves show” – Fufanu

Next, I caught DJ Flugvél og Geimskip (DJ Aeroplane and Spaceship) at Húrra. Her shows are always fun and weird. She’s often in her own world, playing with sounds and enjoying the moment. Somewhat like Tommy Black, you get the feeling that’s exactly how she wants it. DJ Flugvél og Geimskip is the kind of girl who would come home with hidden gems from a garage sale. Worth a watch if you ever get a chance to see her.

“Remember – everything in life is nonsense and nothing matters” – DJ Flugvél og Geimskip

Gaukurinn, which somehow always manages to smell a bit bad (no matter the time of day), hosted post-rock veterans Stafrænn Hákon. I’d caught them once before this Airwaves, in a downtown hotel. The scene in the hotel was at times surreal as tourists in huge overcoats waded through the crowd, pizza in hand, as Stafrænn Hákon were going at it. Their song titles are often surreal, with songs such as ‘Val Kilmer’ and ‘Frigid – Bag’. It’s the kind of music I find myself falling deep in thought to, which is always a good thing. Gaukurinn was undoubtedly a more fitting scene for Stafrænn, where heads went bopping. You could feel the audience getting into the music as the show went on. The show crescendoed with ‘Val Kilmer’ as attendees called out for it. A solid outing from Stafrænn.

“Our next song is called Grocery bag, it’s a song about a grocery bag. Not really much else to say” – Stafrænn Hákon

Agent Fresco singer Arnór Dan in the crowd at Gamla Bíó. Photo by Julie van den Bergh.

Back to Gamla Bíó. Agent Fresco put on a show which cemented my belief that they are a truly unique band. Lead singer Arnór Dan goes effortlessly from falsetto to scream in a matter of seconds (well, not effortlessly, but you know what I mean), with drummer Keli going crazy in the background with his huge red afro. The love they got from the crowd was unreal as they went through both old and new material. It was the 10th time they played at Airwaves, but they looked fresher than ever. Shout out to the lights show as well. In the end, Arnór crow surfed all the way to the back of the venue. He must’ve had the world’s longest microphone cord.

Next up was The Voidz, led by Julian Casablancas of Strokes fame. It was clear they were having a lot of fun, and the show was balls to the walls. I kind of got an 80s glam rock vibe from them, with one of the guys sporting a grey oversize mullet in a leather vest, gigantic electric guitar in hand. You somehow get the feeling it’s one big ironic joke for Julian, who wore a Statoil shirt and biker gloves. Still, the show was a spectacle, and hey, there were solo cups on stage. Maybe The Voidz were the US touch Airwaves needed.

“I just realized Iceland is basically all D&D and Game of Thrones vibes” – Julian Casablancas of the Voidz

 

Hatari at Gamla Bíó. Photo by Rúnar Sigurður Sigurjónsson

Rounding off the night was Hatari. This show was crazy. Crystal chandelier swinging up above and fancy bars to the sides, Hatari would have been more at home in an industrial district in eastern Europe. Their show is eurotrance-meets-narcolepsy. It’s like Hellraiser on steroids featuring the elevator scene from The Shining. Decked out in leather outfits, Hatari equally shout obscenities at the crowd as well bellowing out sweet falsettos. It’s a sight you have to see to believe. Do not miss out on this show if you ever get the chance to see Hatari in the flesh. An almost completely naked singer other than some leather strips and a drummer towering above the stage, wearing a cyberpunk mask and a full leather outfit – Hatari is everything you need and everything you didn’t need at the same time.

Hangar, never again

This year’s Airwaves was solid. Although there were some dissenting voices and Icelanders might have shown up in greater numbers, the festival was a joy and a great vibe swept over the city. I especially liked that event holders kept attendees well fed on queue updates through the app. It was also a great decision to have Högni and Ólafur Arnalds back-to-back on the Thursday and Friday nights at the National Theatre. Their performances were highly anticipated, and this type of scheduling ensured more attendees got to witness them. Hatari was definitely the highlight of the festival for me, but Airwaves to me is about discovering something new and going with the flow. I managed to do that this time around, popping in to see acts such as Haiku Hands and Mueveloreina which really caught both ear and body. This year’s edition provided music from all genres and directions – pure yin and yang.

Thursday night was definitely my favourite as I let curiosity steer me and take control. I think I’ve never had more fun at Airwaves. Although some have claimed it a lackluster festival, maybe folks have got to the set the reset button on the whole festival feel – taking it at face value rather than as some “myth of glories past”. Airwaves isn’t ever going to be held at a hangar at the Reykjavík airport again. The festival isn’t maybe the hipster paradise of the past – but it still is a sure fire way to bask in quality music and have some fun. If you’re pondering whether to attend Iceland Airwaves 2019 – don’t hesitate!

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