The Secret Solstice music festival breaks fresh ground in Icelandic history in two ways. For starters, it is the first annual international outdoor music festival in Iceland’s history. Secondly, it features the largest selection of international hip hop and electronic talent I’ve witnessed in the country (with all due respect to a great Sónar Reykjavík 2015).
Not that the locals, assembled at the Laugardalur site, cared much about any of that. We were too busy blinking in disbelief at the sunlight bearing down on us. We finally had trees and grass and sunlight and human beings after a long and miserable winter—Secret Solstice 2015 could have featured 48 straight hours of Maroon 5 and I doubt anyone would have noticed.
To wit: The musical aspect ultimately turned out to be the biggest let down of this year’s Secret Solstice. The festival organizers deserve praise for providing a smooth ride—for instance by getting rid of that stupid beer token system from last year—a disastrous idea. While not quite on par with that time the janitor at Fukushima decided that big red button needed polishing, it was close.
Indeed, anyone who was there for last year’s Secret Solstice could note some changes. Changes. The festival area has been organized differently, the main stage is now up front by the main entrance in the Ásgarður section and as a result, Miðgarður was half-empty most of the festival (Miðgarður was the area with all the grey plastic tiles). The most popular spots seemed to be Valhalla Main Stage, the Fenrir side stage, and the indoor club/ MDMA vortex that was Hel.
Get on the bus!
The Friday night started when a couple of friends ambushed me, threw me into a rented tuk-tuk, handed me a pale ale, and whisked me off to the main area. We marched right on to the Thugfucker stage.
Thugfucker is a half-Icelandic, half-American group that has become a steady presence at a lot of the outdoor music festivals, best known in Soundcloud land for their 2012 and 2014 Burning Man sets. Thugfucker’s Secret Solstice appearance was tastefully distorted and reasonably bass heavy house and the crowd had fun wrestling with the giant yellow balloons like stoned Patrick McGoohans.
On the way back to the main area we caught a portion of Uni Stefson, led by the older of the Retro Stefson brothers. He was playing his future R&B track, “fuckboys/black book”. The Gimli stage had been slotted for all of the various side projects and acts associated with Retro Stefson and—at a glimpse—it didn’t look like they got much of a turnout.
Talked into shit, then, a highlight!
I came to this festival to catch Stormzy but let myself be talked into checking out Flight Facilities before his set. Flight Facilities play indie pop with a disco/R&B inflection. They were joined by Owl Eyes who was on vocal duties for tracks like “Crave You” and duetted with the singer wearing a Pharrell hat and doing his best Jay Kay impression. Harmless, catchy, sunshine pop music that was well received by the mostly female audience eye-measuring the skimpy polka dot dress worn by Owl Eyes.
I wasn’t my crowd, I needed my darkened tent and the fast, hard, relentless machismo of grime monster Stormzy, I needed fast cars and fights in the club.
The year 2015 has been an amazing one for grime, a total renaissance. I don’t remember seeing such a strong US crossover for the scene—with Skepta, JME, and Wiley leading the charge. Stormzy himself has benefited from support from artists like Kane West and his name is only going to keep soaring on both sides of the Atlantic. And the influence has worked both ways, as Stormzy is just as likely to swerve into US hip hop styles to compliment the familiar UK grime style, arriving at a mélange somewhere in the mid-Atlantic.
If you aren’t listening to grime in 2015 then you are missing out, and if you didn’t catch Stormzy on Friday at Secret Solstice then you robbed yourself of witnessing the festival’s highlight, period.
Stormzy gave every-fucking-thing he had at a festival marred by musicians half-assing it or indulging in lazy karaoke to their own catalogue (more on that later). This was one of the most intense gigs I’ve been to in my life and the crowd was 100% there in the moment with him, the air felt dense with electricity as the whole room chanted along to “Know Me From” (all three times) and bounced in sync.
Stormzy is a hungry, natural talent. He’s authentic and aggressive but still has an ear for hooks and plenty of charm both off and on stage. His off stage likeability could be easily seen by how he hung out for a while after the gig and patiently posed for photos with overeager fans. Onstage delivers the grime relentlessness without topping into the Tasmanian Devil antics of someone like Tempa T.
Stormzy. Stormzy. Stormzy. Hell yes.
Kelis: Friendly American mom
Everything after that was bound to be a disappointment after Stormzy and GusGus’s middle-aged lounge tech-house was definitely no match. It was familiar territory; the band seems to shed a member with each appearance but may have stabilized with Biggi Veira and Daníel Ágúst (and Högni as a husky hired gun). Daníel Ágúst did his usual soft-shoe routine in a black-and-white grid suit and the crowd went along with it.
The festival organizers should consider wedging some proper DJ talent between the sets on the main stage instead of the low volume, iPhone shuffle garbage we had to put up with. It was getting old by the time we were waiting an hour for Busta Rhymes.
Kelis wasn’t as big of a disappointment as Busta Rhymes but she tried anyway. Kelis is in her early thirties but it felt like I was listening to a gnarled veteran phoning it in at a Vegas lounge show. Her voice was mostly there and she seemed to be enjoying herself but the energy was completely missing. Kelis kicked off with “Millionaire”, her decade-old, underrated André 3000 collaboration, before launching into a story of her whale watching tour as if to complete her Northface jacket ensemble. The set felt like I was listening to some friendly, American mom humming to herself in line at a Reykjavík puffin store.
On the decks we had a blonde gal in a cowboy hat that looked like she had just dropped her kids off with weekend dad before hitting up the slot machines. The pair tried to appeal to the all-white European crowd by throwing in Nirvana, EDM, and dubstep in between the 40-second snippets of the her greatest hits. The result had me eyeing the exit after the third song.
After Kelis, we tried to move over to the Hel sweat pit to catch the rest of the Skream set, but as the entrance to Hel and the festival exit were one and the same the chokepoint killed any chance of Hel.
What do you do when you can’t get into Hel? You go to a nearby hotel lobby for strawberry daiquiris and melt into the leather seats. What do you want me to say; I’m only a few years younger than Kelis.
Did I mention that I really liked Stormzy?