For the 8th time Reykavik hosts the Iceland Airwaves music festival. What started out as an improvised showcase for Icelandic bands in one of Icelandair’s aircraft hangars – a concept reminiscent of Norway’s by:Larm – has grown into a festival of international content and not least attraction: Reykavik and Iceland represent a paragon of 21st century flexible serenity, a fusion of polar nature, uncompromised national heritage and technological ease. Nowhere is the wielding of personalized technology –for information and individual expression– more a matter of course than for Icelanders. On invitation from Icelandair MIC took the trip to find out more and witness this year’s special Norwegian feature, which entailed the presenting of three of the currently most exciting Norwegian acts.
Greeted by immaculately clear skies –highly unusual for the season, and indeed for the island as such– our group of Scandinavian journalists was bussed to our hotel at Reykavik’s domestic airport, which sits almost in the middle of the city.
In fact it is a brisk walk from downtown, taking the sub arctic climate into consideration, but the epitomic jet-age feeling of overlooking Harrison Ford land his private jet outside your window makes up for this.
The opening night, Wednesday, was dedicated to lesser-known acts, mostly young Icelandic bands. Your correspondent strayed to and fro, trying to figure out the profile and location of the different venues, and not least the city itself. A general feeling of confusion prevailed among the journalists, but also exhilaration, because it was beginning to dawn on us first-timers what a special atmosphere Reykavik has to offer.
No Norwegians artists were scheduled; we indulged instead in Icelandic rock, American soul and bizarre tri-lingual country punk.
Thursday on the other hand, was a designated “Norwegian Night” at the club Gaukarinn. Two in-vogue bands were to follow each other on either side of midnight: Datarock and The Whitest Boy Alive.
Datarock has been called “the future of indie dance” and stand for an incongruous blend of thrash-sexy electro rock. In Norwegian ‘data’ means not only sets of information but also the processing device, i.e. the computer. Thus the name spells out the essence of the band: combining the guys’ childhood love for punk-rock and guitars with the possibilities of electronic music.
But on this particular night your correspondent found that the blending was somewhat ill executed. Although the hugely danceable beats and riffs caught on immediately, too much was made of the punkishness of the vocals. This made the so-called sexiness suffer and the audience seemed to be waiting for some streamlining and a proper musical condensation. The entire sonic experience was a bit confused. However, the closing number Fa Fa Fa –their latest single– materialized into a delightful, many-faceted tour de force, with saxophone, tom toms and the whole audience doing the fa fa fa chorus.
The next band, Erlend Øye’s (Kings of Convenience) German-Norwegian outfit “The Whitest Boy Alive” entered the stage on an entirely different note. Very tranquilly they built up gentle but compelling grooves and managed to encapture the audience in a subtle way, with nicely constrained playing and lots of room. The performance demonstrated Erlend Øye’s clever musical stance and his command of the live situation. Sporadic themes and odd phrases went in and out of patterns, and when the band picked up, and a hook-line was doubled by the synthesizer or Rhodes, the surge in the groove was monumental despite the relative calm of the output. On top of this subtle dynamic Øye’s suave vocals came through as both warm and transparent. The audience was won, and one could witness a rare combination of attentiveness to the slightest hint from the stage and complete, dancing surrender to the groove. Watching Erlend Øye be cheered in unison for the tiniest little combination on his Telecaster, or a wee on-stage dance-move, was testimony to the evening’s success, and everywhere you looked press people had put away their cameras and their scrutiny and just decided to love this music and enjoy it too.
Friday dawned and the daylight hours were designated to Icelandic exploration. We were taken underground in nasty lava tunnels, drove big-wheeled jeeps on black sands and through glacial streams. Arctic trucking is big in Iceland, and now we know why; no one, certainly no male, can resist roaring through rivers and over gravel banks in super modified jeeps with American car-music (ZZ Top) pumped up.
In the evening your correspondent had been promised a chat with the most hyped of all the Norwegian bands at the festival, the dark-glitzy 120 Days, whose recent album-release was met with unprecedented critical acclaim back home.
Though mercilessly pressed for time, Kjetil Ovesen – on keyboards and synthesizer– sits down for a little chat. The boys are very concerned about the sonic aspect, because as Kjetil says: “Our favourite synth is old and susceptible to ill form after flights. Sometimes we have to alter our entire sound relative to the shape of that one machine.
But then jubilation fills the locale, as front man Ådne Meisfjord has performed the test, and the sound is as it should.
120 days are signed to Vice Records of New York, and after Iceland they embark on a massive US tour, with more than six gigs in NYC alone. “Vice is a New York label” says Kjetil, “and their approach is to win foothold for our music there as a leap-off point for the rest of the country.”
The label discovered 120 Days on the web, something that perplexes Kjetil, since they were not at that time on MySpace and didn’t have much of a regular site either.
We move on to discuss the album, and the effects of such massive critical acclaim. “We are already mentally preoccupied with the next one Kjetil reveals, which will be different and even better. Most of the songs are ready in outline and the album will be even more danceable than this one. It will be more open and sonically constrained. The present one is very dense, we want to open up the sound and simplify the production. Our aim is to make people dance: tonight, over in America and with our next record.”
They enter the stage at the well-filled but not packed club Gaukarinn a little before ten. The many machines come to life and music; metallic and precise, builds and builds in layers. And only when the air is dense with synthetic airwaves does Ådne start singing. His performance is one of stirred despair and drugged convulsions, his voice powerful and young but with a timbre of sorrow and distress. The audience is transfixed for a while, but then, rather then merging with what Pitchfork media recently called the band’s “dark euphoria”, they seem alienated and immobile. Our impression is that the formula doesn’t really work this night, and that the synthetic essence of the band makes them unable to remedy the mismatch. However, on the closing number, the eight minute "Come out, come down…” the atmosphere pivots and we are all sucked into the maelstrom of the gleaming and precise, yet convulsing, musical entity up on the stage. 120 Days end their show on a truly spine-shivering note, darker than expected and danceable in a hypnotic more than joyful way.
Saturday morning every journalist, many artists and hundreds of others were transported to one of Iceland’s natural wonders, The Blue Lagoon. The “hang-over party” there is a festival highlight, as it is of course pleasant to linger in body- temperature blue-white water –saturated with silicia and other minerals that agree with body and skin– while sipping blue drinks and being caressed by suave DJ-ing.
As night fell the headliner choice had to be made. We opted for one of the festival talkies, Brazilian girls from the US, playing at the cool-blue lounge theatre NASA. The band blends electronica, rock and jazz and the music largely revolves around their unique singer Sabina Sciubba. Many in Reykavik were talking of her impending ascendance to stardom, an event which would not surprise us at all. Entering the stage in a black plastic bag her voice is all we get, and it is immediately captivating. Soon she doffs the plastic and reveals a diamond-studded golden body-suit with a rabbit’s head. She’s the human mirror ball that attracts all attention and around which the music seems to fall into constellation. It is very “arty,” but also very compelling indeed. However, comparing to their recorded material Brazilian Girls live appeared as too monotonous for this listener. The vocals are lustrous and range widely, but the music behind seemed bland and lacking in interesting tonal structure and chord progressions. Still it was a not a bad choice for closing act.
Summing up, we feel it safe to say that Iceland Airwaves is a unique festival. It is a fusion of Iceland’s polar, and futural serenity, Reykavik’s many incredible venues and a truly super-national artistic atmosphere. Nowhere else would so many cutting- edge artists and critics, from around the world, be so much at ease and so closely related, in a way, as in Reykavik when the airwaves are music, the sun is shining brilliantly and the night sky is alive the shifting film of electric absinth they call the Aurora Borealis.