Just off Laugavegur behind some tall red doors lies Gamla Bíó, a grand seated theatre with a high balcony circle and a spotlit stage. Despite being in the heart of downtown Reykjavik, it feels like a secret somehow; an atmospheric sanctuary from the bright lights of Harpa and the nearby chaos of the 101 party scene. For those in a quiet mood, or still suffering from Friday’s hangover, it’s the perfect spot to hang back.
Úlfur Eldjárn opens the night, presenting solo material quite different to his work as a mainstay of Iceland’s motorik synth cult, Apparat Organ Quartet. These compositions, performed tonight by a seven-part ensemble, represent another side of his oeuvre whilst using some of the same distinctive sounds and reference points. Eldjárn plays organ and manipulates found sounds that vary from ambient hiss and disembodied voices through to heavy Vangelis synths and syncopated octaves; clicking, popping microbeats intertwine with some wonderfully sensitive live drumming (from a percussionist also to be seen playing in múm), with a string quartet swooping in and out from time to time adding some organic warmth and colour to the digital mix. Vocoder vocals glide over the top of it all, and the set climaxes in a soup of sound with a kind of utopian science-fiction naiveté.
Next up is the perpetually popular Sóley, who affects the winning persona of a scatty young schoolmarm with those trademark oversized glasses and a neat hair-bun and floaty dress. Her songs are stories with a fairy-tale quality, sometimes ephemeral and at times verging on spectral. At one point, she uses a loop pedal to become the world’s cutest beatboxer (all chicka-chicka and purrrrr), dressing the bones of the song in a cloak of warm organ and chiming piano. It’s a thoroughly charming performance underscored by a strong aesthetic, and Sóley has the capacity crowd eating from the palm of her hand from beginning to end.
All of which paves the way nicely for amiina, who create a gentle moonlit harmony of swooning saws that swells slowly into an evocative and haunting electro-acoustic soundscape. They’ve grown in scope due to the emphatic drumming of percussionist Magnús Trygvason Eliassen and the rich electronic textures of Kippi Kaninus, and whilst the core of the music is true to their trademark gentle, feminine warmth, amiina’s sound has new momentum in this configuration. As they deftly weave melodies on zither, xylophone, keyboard and accordion, Maggi and Kippi build crescendos within each track that touch on post-rock dynamics at times. amiina have outgrown their quiet, folky beginnings and developed into an exciting live band that get even this seated crowd moving.
El Rojo Adois are a Swedish quintet fronted by singer Titiyo Jah, who takes to the stage in a sharp suit and a totally great hanging feathery headdress type thing. They play sultry Americana with elements of Spaghetti Western soundtracks and US folk music. Jah is very happy to be playing Airwaves, saying so several times between songs, and suggesting she has fallen in love with Reykjavík enough to move here. Her voice is powerful and refined, and she’s focused and comfortable onstage – an experienced, professional singer, perhaps in the Chrissie Hynde mould. All in all, it’s a well-crafted pastiche that entertains the crowd efficiently whilst falling far short of the other acts’ impressive creativity.
Skúli Sverisson is a man with an impressive CV, having worked over the years with artists ranging from Laurie Anderson to David Sylvian, and from the late Lou Reed to Ólöf Arnalds, who joins him onstage tonight. He begins with a deep, reverby salvo of mournful strummed chords and some intense, wailed, discordant vocals from Arnalds. It then lapses into a series of quite beautiful arrangements for three guitars that are utterly engrossing as they circle and repeat. Shahzad Ismaily appears as an impromptu guest on drums, just because he happens to be in the room, adding some nice texture to a slightly more up-tempo track. But Sverisson’s compositions need little embellishment: they’re brave in their simplicity, exercising both confidence and restraint.
Zola Jesus, aka Nika Roza Danlilova, is one of the hot tickets of Airwaves this year, and she takes the headline slot seriously, coming out strong for the whooping audience. Her voice is the star of the show, a soulful bellow that induces goosebumps and adrenalin when she lets rip. Her three-piece band, on drums, keys and violin, is apparently brand new and playing together for the first time before an eight-month tour, but they show an absolute lack of first-night nerves, playing the gothic backdrop to perfection.
When the diminutive, porcelain-faced Danilova jumps down from the stage and starts moving through the crowd singing to awestruck audience members one-to-one, the atmosphere in room crackles with electricity. She strides imperiously past the front row, and happens to stand on the chair next to mine, singing into the faces of the second row; just as she steps down, she looks down directly into my eyes, reaches out and touches my face whilst singing, and I feel a zap of energy in the eye contact. My heart races in the weird, intense, wordless moment of communion.
Zola Jesus pours energy into her performance, using her huge voice to fill the room with something that feels powerful, primal and at times even transcendental.