And so, I return to Harpa’s Kaldalón, safely segregated from the party of Airwaves in the city’s newly finished metal-and-glass music and culture venue.
This night is opened by Einar Stray (his surname pronounced str-eye), who plays music that sounds like the definition of that MySpace nu-genre favourite “melodramatic popular song”. His simple piano-and-voice compositions are augmented by some intense violin and cello work that go straight for the jugular, and underscored by a bombastic, pounding rhythm section. He brings physical drama to the piano, hunched over the keys like an urchin that’s been through a krutt makeover, complete with severe blonde bowl cut and pencil moustache; like if Patrick Wolf’s formative musical years were spent in Scandinavian music school rather than the basement nightclubs of London. “We Are The Core Seeds” begins with an orchestral swell that sees Einar drumming on the piano with his hands as his bass player clicks the base of his strings amidst a barrage of ratatat rim shots; their closing number is an eagerly optimistic, tune that pummels the audience into breathless smiles.
Mógil play warm winter hymns, with sparse, pretty arrangements. Singer and focal point Heiða Árnadottir performs with a beaming beatific smile, the guitar tones and groaning violin offset by tinkling miniature xylophone and bass clarinet. That they’ve performed a tour of small Icelandic churches comes as no surprise – they have some strong god-people vibez going on. It’s nice stuff, though.
Electronica wizard and longtime Amiina collaborator Kippi Kaninus (aka Vignir Karlsson) has developed his live set into something ambitious over the last few years. From performing a deft one-man mixture of organic, sampled and processed sound, his setup now features an all-star band that includes two phenomenal drummers, a double bass, a brass player alternating between tuba and trombone, and a guitarist who adds ukulele embellishments. Together they create a lush, symphonic, textural series of instrumental vignettes and crescendos, bursting with micro-melodies and musicality. Magnús Tryggvason Eliassen deserves a special mention for turning a show-stealing virtuoso performance on drums and percussion. His talent is hard to do justice here – it’s an acrobatic, ingenious display of musical tightrope walking, constantly pulling out counter-rhythms and unexpected touches, techniques and timings that literally takes my breath away at several points, such as when he plays the floor tom in with a small cymbal that bounces from the drum skin into his other hand with every strike. The formidable dual rhythm section, also featuring former Sugarcube Siggi Baldursson, together build a driving momentum that powers the tuneful, delicate electronic thrust of their sound forward. Kippi Kaninus in this band has built entirely the right combination of musicians to fully develop his potential – his next album promises much.
Next, some more traditional fare from Canadian singer Leif Vollebekk, who plays a set of bluesy Americana, singing wistfully about long train rides, trips to Coney Island, the New York subway, and stuff like guns, eagles and missing girls a lot. It’s a very familiar style done well, but if a musician treads such crowded territory it’s all the harder to stand out from the pack, and in honesty Jeff Buckley perfected this style so absolutely that Vollebekk suffers badly by both proximity and comparison.
Norwegian Jenny Hval was formerly known as Rockettothesky, and despite the name-change still plays as part of the same remarkable three-piece band. Her guitarist sometimes hacks at the strings with a violin bow for a rasping effect, wrings the guitar’s neck and bothers the strings for a series of quite disconcerting sounds, and her excellent drummer plays with fluid grace, a hypnotic performer in his own right. Hval herself makes remarkable intensity look easy, her singular voice ringing out clear and strong, mesmerising in both her astounding range and darkly poetic lyrical content. They finish on a powerful, memorable crescendo. Jenny Hval is the real deal, and this is an effortlessly brilliant performance.
Árstíðir have been eloquently summed up here by Grapevine regular Bob Cluness: “their music takes in numerous influences, from folk and ‘60s pop, to modern classical music, all the while with their gliding vocal harmonies and mournful strings, they’re truly the balm to sooth your ailing soul after the inevitable excesses incurred in your Airwaves experience.” My soul, however, is unfortunately not yet ailed by Airwaves excesses, having been stationed as your dutiful Grapevine correspondent in the party-free-zone of Harpa for the last three nights; my frame of mind is a little too twitchy, itchy and hungry to fully appreciate Árstíðir’s swooning, folk-inflected arrangements, regardless of their undoubted quality. So, I head out into the freezing night in search of that more chaotic kind of Airwaves fun, but glowing from this wonderfully programmed evening of music.
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