After a quiet and thoughtful start, Norður Og Niður festival turned the fun up to eleven for a spectacular, invigorating, wildly diverse Friday night party. Here’s what went down.
The Many Routes To Euphoria
Words: John Rogers
The lineup of Norður Og Niður proves, on a daily basis, that euphoria comes in many guises. Every night, Sigur Rós go the maximalist route in Eldborg, blasting the eyes and ears of an enthralled crowd with their widescreen, spiritual arena-rock spectacular. It’s an ambitious and direct route to take—the motorway, if you like—but all around them, their carefully curated lineup of like-minded friends, family, artists, dancers, and musicians work away diligently in Harpa’s rooms and hallways, mapping out detailed alternative routes to that same prize.
The Rex Pistols method is a dive into deep melancholia via minimal 80s pop and new-wave gloom. Her echoing, catchy backing tracks and sonorous, off-kilter vocals resonated around Harpa, showing that expressing personal sadness doesn’t have to be about self pity, but can be about solidarity, sharing and mutual understanding. Rex Pistols’ simple, memorable tunes are a perfect vessel for exactly that, and her courage in sharing such private, complex emotional states is laudable.
JFDR’s approach is a quietly lyrical one, with Jófríður Ákadóttir’s intimate, whispery voice issuing forth mesmerising tangles of poetic imagery and world-weary/world-wise sentiments, with a woodwind, guitars, synths and electronics ensemble summoning up powerful crescendos. Songs from her debut LP ‘Brazil’—if you haven’t heard, you’re fucking up—were mixed with some impressive new tracks, including “My Work,” a song that’s simultaneously completely heartbreaking and absolutely inspiring, with a rising vocal melody that’ll stick in your head for days. JFDR goes from strength to strength, and there seems to be no limit to her potential.
When it comes to whipping a crowd up into a joyful frenzy, Dan Deacon is king. An unassuming, jocular figure in a yellow wizard hat, he instructs the crowd in a variety of group manoeuvres such as a large scale dance-off, a “wall of life” high-five marathon, and the construction of a huge human tunnel through which the newly-formed joy cult dances. The spectacle is hilarious, and activates the entire audience—no mean feat, in Iceland—with strangers of all ages laughing, hugging, passing round Dan’s vodka bottle, and dancing together to cult hits like “Wham City” and “The Crystal Cat.”
While all of this is thrilling to watch, it’s the music that makes it possible—Dan Deacon’s sonic tapestry is an astoundingly detailed storm of high-speed beeps, bleeps, loops and beats that sends adrenaline rushing through the veins of the listener, catapulting them into the celebratory carnival. Dan Deacon: please keep doing exactly what you’re doing. We salute you.
The Past, The Present, and the Pussy
Words: Grayson Del Faro
After two days of experiments, pushed boundaries, screaming, thrashing, mild hypnosis, desperately trying not to doze off, and many, many loop pedals, the third day of Norður og Niður finally gave us something we didn’t realise we’d been missing: fun.
But first: reflection. This was offered up to a starstruck audience by JFDR, the solo project of prolific musical artist Jófríður Ákadóttir, also known from a bajillion other Icelandic bands. I’ve followed her career for the past few years, with some scepticism—I like all of her projects, but never quite understood the hype until I saw her perform her solo set at this year’s Iceland Airwaves. And now, having a full hall in Harpa at her disposal, I could finally feel the full extent of her talent.
Between delicately picked guitars and waves of crashing static, she speculated on reflection, change, and letting go. Her words were as hopeful and effective as her music: wise without being pretentious, simple but full of substance. A shimmering vision in her silver dress, she was a transcendent harbinger of the returning light and the beautiful year it will bring. If you couldn’t tell, I am now officially a baptized member of the Cult of Jófríður-Ákadóttir-is-a-Goddamn-Genius.
Next up was Dan Deacon, who I haven’t seen since he played in my university’s quad in my first year of college. I have vague memories of it being like a musical dodgeball game and I was glad to see he hasn’t changed much in those years. Wheeling his DJ set-up onto the floor to be right in the crowd, he conducts the audience as he plays. Each song has a kind of accompanying mini-game, such as separating the crowd into two halves at opposite ends of the hall and making them run at each other, crashing together into a brutal storm of high-fives. I don’t think I’ve ever high-fived so many gleefully smiling strangers in my entire life.
When he asked two strangers to put their hands together to make a bridge through which everyone had to dance and then add to the bridge at the end, I lucked out and ended up paired with a giant, beautiful man, spending the next few minutes face-to-face with this handsome stranger, holding hands, dancing, and laughing as other strangers and friends danced beneath our linked hands. I’ve never seen any musician create such pure, childlike form of euphoria. The most interesting part was later, when I saw that same stranger—he had returned to a stately, stone-faced, black-clad cool guy, gliding through the hallways of Harpa like he’d never smiled a day in his life. That’s the magic of Dan Deacon.
The journey into my musical past continued with Peaches. Like so many of us, ‘The Teaches of Peaches’ was a massive part of the sexual liberation of my teenage years, and I’ve waited twelve years to revisit it in real life. The strangest (or maybe saddest) thing is that her anthems of sexual empowerment are equally necessary today as they were fifteen years ago, especially for women. Although she was backed up by huge dancing pussies, neon bondage slaves, and strobes flashing from the bare asscracks of the dancers, she didn’t need any of it to make her point. She alone is a commanding presence, like the general of a sexual army barking orders of bacchanalia we actually wanted to obey. And we did. In fact, one woman—who I believe is a performer at the festival—was so empowered that she climbed onto the stage, stripped down, and joined the ranks of the dancers on all fours, bare tits a-swinging to the clashing beats of the anthemic “Fuck The Pain Away.”
This day started with JFDR—the future—and moved backward in time to my college years and into the teens. But at the same time, somehow I was also moving forward from inspired, to uplifted, and finally, to utterly fucking free.
Words: Jessica Peng
I have been dying to see Dustin O’Halloran, an American pianist and composer with beautiful soundscapes. As it turned out, his live set is just as enchanting as the recordings. The audience were all sitting down, and Dustin said, “my goal tonight is to get everyone to sleep.” He was successful: many listeners were lying down to enjoy the full experience. Accompanied by two violinists, a cellist and some video visuals, Dustin was able to transport everyone to his or her deepest memories. It may be a sad or happy memory, but it was calming either way.
Mogwai has also been on my to-see list for a while now, and they delivered a solid performance in Silfurberg. Beautiful lighting was interspersed with warm guitar melodies, sending everyone into a post-rock trance. Meanwhile in Norðurljós, a whole different kind of trance was going on. Peaches brought her infectious electronic beats to the festival, along with her assertive rap vocals. There were no other live musicians, besides two amazing dancers who accompanied her during some songs. Peaches changed her outfit every few songs, and completely tamed the crowd. She’s an artistic persona that’s loud, angry, assertive and powerful. Don’t even try to take your eyes off her once you enter the room.
From meditative film music to punchy electronic beats, the third day of Norður og Niður covered my wide range of musical interests. It’s like eating a delicious stew seasoned with many ingredients. I feel satisfied.
Happy To Be Sad
Words: Alexander Jean de Fontenay
My first stop was Rex Pistols, who sported pink hair, red lipstick and a black dress as she crooned for the crowd on the Hörpuhorn stage. Her stripped-to-the-bone synths and drum machine sound was reminiscent of Angelo Badalamenti’s score for Twin Peaks, and the famous vocals of Julee Cruise. Rex Pistols created a dream-like world filled with bass chords, delayed vocals and a coming-of-age theme. I would have liked to see here in a dimly lit concert venue, but the sun setting over Reykjavík through the windows of Harpa was a nice alternative.
Right after Rex Pistols, Sigrún took the stage. Her music included a minimal synth playback with occasional outbursts of modern glitchy bass and d’n’b parts. Sigrún’s stage presence was visually pleasing, as she wore a an outfit consisting of a red flower-child sweater, red yoga pants and designer sneakers. Her setup was a trusty computer and a homemade percussion instrument made of gold painted rocks connected to a digital controller to produce various sounds. Her distorted and broken beats mixed with her often unfathomable vocals created a soundscape reminiscent of Julee Cruise and Sigur Rós’ own Jónsi. Her songs intensified as she beat the rocks with her cue stick; Sigrún seemed to be interpreting a fleeting moment, and the feelings that go with it.
In Harpa’s Silfurberg JFDR (a.k.a. Jófríður Ákadóttir) started on a mellow note with a long intro of piano as the stage filled with smoke and soft purple lights. She expressed her positive feelings for both the festival and coming new year–the season to reflect–wearing a shiny “reflection dress.” Her band was made up of well-known musicians from the Icelandic scene, including Áslaug Magnúsdóttir (a.k.a. Slugz) improvising on computer, Tumi Árnason on saxophone, Albert Finnbogason on bass and a mysterious figure sitting on the stage wearing a winter hat and sunglasses playing a Moog synthesizer–later introduced by Jófríður as Shahzad Ismaily to the crowd. It was a laid back, beautiful and personal set, and a beautiful row of melancholic sounds that progressed into happy and positive ones. Music for those who are happy to be sad sometimes.
Next came something completely different. Dan Deacon shook up the crowd with his empowering electronic thumping beats. Deacon–balding and wearing a colourful checkered short-sleeve shirt–engaged with the crowd with participatory games such as an anti-anxiety exercise and a dance duel. He played his usual relentless beats, and as the crowd was dancing you could feel the floor starting to wobble like crazy. With all of Silfurberg’s available lights set to 11, it was happy and pretty hardcore.
To close the night Peaches delivered a jam-packed show for a pumped audience in Norðurljós. Furry costumes, pussy-masks, breasts and numerous costume changes where on the menu. She played futuristic and upbeat new numbers, and pleased the crowd with older ones, aided by a choreographed dance routine delivered by two trusty dancers. The sincerity of her song about a backstabbing ex-lover sent shivers down my spine, and the show climaxed as the audience let her walk over them as she continued her relentlessly empowering singing. When Peaches asked with excitement: “Reykjavík, are you nasty?” the crowd screamed “YES!” in approval. Peaches, you are awesome.
Read more about Norður og Niður here.