Arguably, drone is the root form of music; the first tonal noise, repeated. What that means is that, in essence, there are no key changes, just an ongoing jam on top of a nice root key.
Drone was celebrated, in all its perpetual glory, for the first time in Húsavík in mid-October at the inaugural Arctic Drone Festival, organised by Barði Jóhannsson of Bang Gang fame. The line-up featured a mixture of Icelandic and international artists, headlined by Julianna Barwick, Nathan Larson, Atli Örvarsson and Melissa Auf der Maur.
Each act in the admittedly eccentric lineup had their own take on the genre. Most are not primarily known as drone musicians, coming from backgrounds as varied as stadium rock, indie, movie soundtracks and trip-hop. In fact, those I spoke to at the festival didn’t even have a lot to say about the drone genre. To be honest, the consensus was that calling it a genre proved difficult. It’s more of an ingredient than a recipe.
24 hours of otherness
The form of the inaugural edition of the festival was clear: 24 hours non-stop of drone music accompanied by yoga sessions.
The space was, for lack of a better term, unique. It was composed of a large hall in a pretty nice hotel, with a stage that was really just an island of musical equipment flowing throughout the room, surrounded by yoga mats with pillows.
The question of the festival became, “Did you sleep in the room yet?” It was clear that as a stage dive is to a normal rock concert, the peak experience of Arctic Drone was dozing off on the mats in front of the stage.
The day was like a spiritual retreat, yoga, or meditation of some sort, but more free-flowing. No one adhered to a program and experiences varied widely. Some called it meditative and soothing; others described the whole thing as psychedelic. People ate when they felt like it, had a couple of beers at the bar when they desired, but it was anything but a party. The vibe was casual, but weird, and that strangeness grew as the event progressed. It was 24-hours of otherness—that’s what made it so special.
No host, no applause
The festival began with a collaboration between the hosts, Nathan, Melissa and Barði, followed by a darkly jazzy drone outing by bassist and composer Borgar Magnason.
Every other hour, from 12:00 go 21:00, there was a yoga session. The first one accompanied by the music of Dísa Jakobs, who melded electronic playback and gong in her set. The gongs dominated the room, huge and imposing, set up in a circle.
The yoga was free-flowing. As the event had no host, no intermissions, and no applause, a piece of paper on the wall told you when each set and event was happening, but seemingly everything actually started and stopped randomly.
Following Dísa was a mesmerising set by Kjartan Hólm. Those gathered also saw performances by Ólöf Arnalds and Skúli Sverrisson. Ólöf and Skúli’s sets were up to their usual high standards, a bit like their otherworldly collaborations on ‘Sería’ but even more serene in this setting.
It was IamHelgi that was the curveball of the festival. One-half of rap duo Úlfur Úlfur, Helgi is one of Iceland’s foremost hip-hop producers, known for his party music. Here, he went off on a modular synth jam, delivering a different but interesting take on the sound of the day.
Crouching tiger, hidden film composer
Composer Atli Örvarsson’s set was a highlight. The Akureyri-born and -based film composer started out in countryside party bands in the 80s, then decamped for LA where he built a formidable career in movie and TV music. On his return to Iceland a couple of years ago, many were surprised to hear of his career, as he hadn’t been sending out press releases.
Ten hours into the festival, Barði’s set harked back to his roots in rockabilly-tinged shoegaze music, only this time more droney.
My favourite set of the night though was that of Melissa and Nathan—a bass and guitar jam on top of a menacing drum machine; an unchanging soundtrack for robot cowboys.
Juliana digitally made choral-sounding works were probably the night’s most natural fit. Sindri Már Sigfússon, Iceland’s indie stalwart who’s bands Seabear and Sin Fang are both releasing albums this fall, followed. His set was on the ambient side, computer based, flowing, beautiful, trippy.
Jófríður’s, a.k.a. JFDR’s set was the last one I caught before decamping to bed. Starting at midnight, the polymath wunderkind of Icelandic music and chronic bandstarter whose output belies her age, took to the stage with her boyfriend providing accompaniment. She served a chilled, more acoustic take on some of her most placid music.
Finally a doze
I woke up just before 6:00. Ólöf Arnalds was finishing her third set; her voice had taken on Billie Holiday-esque qualities. Next up was an impromptu set by Dísa Jakobs. I took a yoga mat and a pillow, placed myself directly in front of the biggest of the gongs that she was playing, and dozed off again.
I came to in the midst of the morning yoga session—a musical collaboration between Ingibjörg Stefánsdóttir, the organizer of the yoga portion of the festivities, and Barði. Ingibjörg was a dance-pop singer in the 90s before she founded a yoga studio. Her vocal performance was an entrancing spiritual chant of some sort. I must say I’ve woken up in worse places.
It then came time to journey out of our drone-cave, onto a sailing trip around the bay courtesy of North Sailing. The wind and the waves offered a contrast to the womb-like qualities of the festival. The weekend was capped at the spectacular Geosea Baths in Húsavík. There, warm and hot seawater infinity pools lie on the edge of a small cliff, with a lighthouse on one side and surrounded by mountains. I floated around in a dizzy state, trying my best to converse with my fellow travellers, but mostly residing in the drone-created adjacent dimension I had departed only hours ago.
While the festival often felt like a dry-run of sorts, it was a successful one and a welcome addition to the North’s (and Iceland’s) annual calendar. The genre of drone might be difficult to define, but the Arctic Drone festival managed to distill it into 24-hours—not through words, or course, but through differing varieties of no-rules, no-bounds, no-parameters ongoing tones.
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