I arrive drenched and disheveled at Harpa, ready to see what this years Airwaves ‘it’ venue (or just this years ‘it’ venue in general) has to offer. Insane weather forced me to put off leaving my apartment until the last minute so I have to bike hard to get there in time, but I make it as Vigri are pounding Norðurljós with a rhythmic wave of music.
People are strewn around, sitting on the floor and propped in corners, and everyone’s attention is firmly set on the stage, where Vigri are making some interesting noises. Generally a core of five guys, tonight they are an eleven man band, whose sound hearkens Sigur Rós, with a few forays into tentative, classic sounding guitar riffs, which break up crashing walls of sound and harmonious melodies. Whew. It’s quite a naval gazing experience and the prone position of some members of the audience says a lot for the effect of the music on people. All good and well.
They seem to be doing some kind multimedia thing, with pictures and videos shown on the screen behind them. This video is kind of the glitch in their gig actually. Some of them were alright. There was a super cute one with a teddy bear. Lovely. Then, right after that, there was one with mutilated pictures of Jesus. Yes. Not so nice actually, when you are trying to enjoy a concert. The story behind this is that the guys made an album by traveling around Iceland and recording in a bunch of our lovely churches (which are numerous and amazing). The pictures were connected with this, at first being of churches and stuff before descending into a Passion of the Christ-style horror show. I am not particularly concerned with whether or not there is a religious message to be found in the song, I didn’t actually bother to follow the lyrics, I was just so put off by the images. This detail put a major damper on the act for me, and though the music was fine, I couldn’t get over the whole dying Jesus in my face thing. Shame.
The crowd stayed chilled and more people joined for the next band, Hljómsveitin Ég, with some of the loungers actually standing, shock horror, as these guys rocked out in a most classic way. Though no one was actually game enough to push the envelope and dance at this early stage, these guys did an mighty set of meaty sounding music, guitar riffs abounding and memories of older, simpler times being dragged up in the process.
It was a pretty straightforward show really, nothing fancy. Though it was not bad musically speaking, my attention was easily diverted from the show to the sideburns of the lead singer, which, set below a gleaming bald head, looked as though his hair had melted off and was running down his face. Crazy. Kind of cool actually. Anyway, I know this is supposed to be all about the music but I feel that if their performance was more captivating then maybe I wouldn’t have been so fascinated by these sideburns. Facial hair aside, the band, who have been on the scene here in Iceland for a while now, have a cool, old-school sound. Their gig was just maybe lacking a bit in the performance aspect, being kind of bog standard there somehow, not really making anything out of the show. Guess that’s one way in which they differed from Vigri.
The place gradually fills up and when Mugison takes the stage, everyone is ready for what he has to offer. Which is rock. And which they thusly do. Profoundly. On first impressions, to the uninitiated or naive, the guy on stage with the hat and the beard might look like some Amish farmer who knows how to rock out and sing like a demon. The reality is that this is none other than Mugison himself and while his roots might be far from Amish, in his soul he knows how to rock the heck out.
Backed up by his equally praiseworthy band, he starts his set with a few older numbers before moving on to stuff from his latest album, which, word has it, is all that in an Icelandic musical bag of chips. The timing and communication between the guys is great and they play a really tight set, which duly blows all previous acts out of the water (sorry guys, but it’s pretty stiff competition) and gets all kudos deserved from the crowd, who join in losing their shit, though in a somewhat restrained way.
With everyone sated after the beautiful cacophony that ends Mugison’s performance, the room empties out with a smelly, sweaty crush of people all attempting to leave at once, muttering about the awesomeness of the show and the difficulty anyone will have in topping it.
Ólöf Arnalds, therefore, has some pretty crazy big shoes to fill following this display of raw musical power. Things had thinned out considerably by the time she started, though fortunately not to the point of being tomblike in atmosphere, and the room settled into a cosy mood, with people sitting back on the floor to watch the show. There was a friendly vibe, and after the crunchiness of Mugison, Ólöf Arnalds was like a balm, soothing the raw edges of the night.
Though her style is not for everyone, with her trilling, fluttering vocals being a bit much for some of the more (or maybe less) hardened characters out there, she played a really nice show, with her sister Klara (namesake of one of her songs) joining her on stage. They actually took a good cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Tambourine Man’ together which was cool, and not easy to cover well, but they succeeded. Their dynamic together on the stage was lovely and sisterly, a bit rough around the edges, with the second to last song deteriorating into laughter after baselines were a bit botched and things fell on their head. They were even successful at getting a now much sparser crowd to sing along, which can be cheesy and annoying but worked in this instance and the show ended on a lovely feel-goody note. Hooray for that, and it would be nice to see them perform together again.
All this did not in any way lay the ground for Zun Zun Egui, who came all the way from Bristol, in the U.K with a suitcase full of chunky guitar rhythms and indecipherable scat-type lyrics. Gotta hand it to the guys and girl who came all the way from to Iceland to play to an almost empty room and still manage to give an enthusiastic performance. Their are quite interesting, with a rhythmic, gyrating sound, and some psychedelic stuff thrown in there too, not to mention their sort of garbled (and not saying that in a derogatory sense) lyrics.
Pretty hard to say what they are like, but it’s kind of like a whole lot of stones being shaken in a can, and weird, cool music coming out. In the end, I like them, but unfortunately the show they put on wasn’t that good, not really because of them, but just because without the audience it lacked an atmosphere. Would have been better with a crowd. Later on in the set, their lyrics became a bit more decipherable, and their sound becomes a bit surfy, kind of like The Beach Boys if they ever made a metal album. The crowd, though small, gave them good support and they went out with a bang, leaving the stage only under duress from the guys setting up for the next band.
Ending the night were Jónas Sigurðsson og Ritvélar Framtíðarinnar, who must have something going for them as they managed to draw a fairly large crowd back to Norðurljós and everyone seemed pretty pleased with what they were doing. They belted out their classics, which have a driving, pounding beat, and a brass section which gives it a ‘big’ sound. Their act was pretty standard and nothing really special happened though actually, there was a nice piano solo, which after a night of guitar solos made a good change. Nothing wrong with guitar solos but you only need so many in one night. The band has a forceful sound which ended things with a high energy feel, and though for me their thing lacks a particular x-factor, they clearly made their audience happy.
Harpa Norðurljós was a pretty good venue for Friday night. Though there were moments when it felt a bit empty, for the bigger acts it was perfect. The night was more a rock night than anything else, with the exception of Ólöf Arnalds, who takes a whole other route, and in the end, the sound of heavy guitars and pounding drums making basically the same rhythms with minor variations, got a bit tired, though there was nothing specific wrong with the music. Thanks for the evening Harpa. If nothing else when the music got too much, there were always your interesting windows to look out.