Airwaves

Airwaves Day One: Terror In The Chest, Taking It In The Ass & Unexpected Horse Dick

 
Culture
Airwaves
Airwaves Day One: Terror In The Chest, Taking It In The Ass & Unexpected Horse Dick
 

So I’m just back from a four day trip around the south of Iceland, when I wake up from a deep ten-hour sleep, aching head to toe from walking and hiking and being in a car for a long period of time. There’s a strange pinging alarm sound coming from my iPhone. My phone is basically silent all the time, because I rly hate those pinging alarm sounds. So I’m just rolling over slowly and groaning and being all “what the fuck, phone?” when I see that sound is coming from an unfamiliar app, alerting me about something.

It is, of course, the Iceland Airwaves app, suddenly awaking from its slumber and coming to life to alert me that the schedule is beginning. “Svavar Knútur is playing in 15 minutes,” it says. And then, through my half-awake fug and throbbing muscles, the realisation dawns. OMG! It’s Airwaves! Airwaves! Airwaves! Airwaves has somehow crept up on me! And now it’s fucking Airwaves! AIRWAVES! AIIIRRRWAAAVVVEEES!

It’s enough of an adrenalin rush to propel me out of bed, which is saying something. Because, to fall immediately into sentimental cliche, Airwaves is more than a music festival. It’s a kind of frenzied, hyperactive annual summit of everything that’s good in Icelandic music, and a city-wide party like no other. All those musicians and friends and acquaintances and scene-figures that you see around Reykjavík day in, day out, from peak pink-sky summer to bleakest dour midwinter, working in their laptops, doing little weeknight shows in quiet cafes and bars, starting new bands and folding up old ones, trudging through a snowstorm off to the practice room, or maybe doing some stuff in the studio, or planning a little tour somewhere… it’s THEIR TURN. At Airwaves time, the world comes to their doorstep. Suddenly, every shop, bar, cafe and venue in Reykjavik is packed out with happy, curious, wide-eyed, open-eared, photo-snapping, air-punching, hyped, psyched, pumped, up-for-it music fans. Every new band that’s on the bill, for once, has an audience — every venue has a healthy crowd at all times. And all the bands of Reykjavík want to be at their very, very best, whether opening a scummy rock bar, playing off venues parties in tourist shops, or headlining at Harpa.

stofan

After trying, with some small degree of success, to start feeling more human, via a soak in a hot pot and a strong cup of coffee in my regular morning haunt, I start to be able to focus enough to overhear various groups of American and English people chatting excitedly. They’re talking about glaciers. puffins and whales. Aurora borealis and Jökulsárlón, day trips, food, the weather, and — sometimes — bands. “I think Imma see something called The East In My Youth at Kex,” someone drawls. “That sounds like a good idea,” I reply (silently, inside my brain). I have never seen East Of My Youth, and I think someone I know manages them, or something, maybe. So, I pack the laptop, creak up out of the sofa like a particularly inflexible septagenarian, and head to the show.

Kex is already rammed, and the distinctive white haired KEXP host and DJ Kevin Cole is watching from the mixing booth, where his station is broadcasting live. East Of My Youth are in full flow, playing what seems to be a breezy brand of breezy, bright-eyed pop. What’s immediately noticeable is the singer’s voice – clear, effortless and charming, echoing and immaculately mixed. She smiles a lot, in that “I’m an entertainer” kind of way, looking pristine and well-groomed, in a cool hairy sweater, with freshly clipped hair and a kind of healthy glow about her. But I always feel a bit turned off when I feel like a musician is “trying” to entertain me, especially if it feels like it’s for the sake of only that. Like it’s music that is on the national lottery draw, or Eurovision, or a cruise ship, or something. Even if they’re charming and engaging, a solely entertainment-focussed musician is missing something. Missing a chance to transmit something. Something powerful, and true! The chance to beam something important or beautiful or ridiculous straight into the brains of everyone watching! The penultimate, as if to prove the point, includes lines like “I could be quirky like my brother”, “I could be like my father / I’m gonna be like my mother” and then something like “but I don’t care.” I suddenly wonder if this lyrical insight was gleaned from the margins of a school exercise book. The set ends. People clap. It’s a success! East Of My Youth’s charismatic frontwoman beams with pride. They did the job. But, somehow, I feel absolutely numb to their charms.

East Of My Youth by Matthew B. ThompsonPhoto: Matthew B. Thompson

A lot of Airwaves’ appeal is about the crowd. As a British ex-pat who worked for a years around Europe in in various areas of writing, media and music publicity, the streets of Reykjavík are suddenly full of familiar faces. I see Marte, a stunningly positive and energetic Norwegian festival worker, and after a brief catchup, we head off to the next show.

Rythmatik are just finishing up at Bíó Paradís. They have a youthful, bracing, melodic, fearlessly promising take on the traditional indie-rock setup. The guitarist is a virtuoso, with a voice that bounces between Malkmus wonkiness and scream yelping. It takes quite a lot these days to make me interested in four white male 20-somethings on guitar, bass and drums, but Rythmatik manage it — they are teeming with potential and imagination, and feel like more than the sum of their parts.

Milky whale at Laundromat
Milkywhale Pic: John Rogers

Next it’s off to Laundromat for Milkywhale. This is a new project formed by Árni of FM Belfast and a dancer lady and vocalist. It feels fun, from their sole music video. That’s all I know. The dancer lady, as it turns out, is Melkorka Sigríður Magnúsdóttir – an inspired, somewhat divine individual who has decided to use her time on earth to plant an immovable smile on the faces of every human being possible. She jumps, writhes, spins, stamps, pumps her hips, reaches for the crowd’s faces, throws herself to the ground, stretches for the sky, pops her shoulders, and is a generally unstoppable maelstrom of movement. The energy that pours from her isn’t that kind of “let me entertain you” professional-but-practiced stagey dancer feeling, but rather a channelling of a deep love for life, dance, music and movement — her face regularly breaks into a grin as she feels the building energy of the room. The music is energetic contemporary electronica in same ball park as SOPHIE, perhaps, but more playful – enough to makes your feet move, and get your mind pinging pleasantly. In the end, people stop eating and jump, scream, dance. My heart glows, my mouth spreads into a broad, uncontrollable smile, and I feel a familiar warmth spreading through my body. There’s always a show that gets things started, and for me, this is it — Airwaves is officially open.

After a few Brennivín cocktails (it’s somehow made drinkable by the barmen at the “industry mixer” in Gamla Bíó by the addition of a liquor called Luxardo (?) and a few drops from a mysterious white bitters bottle), the evening programme begins. I’ve already made the rookie error of skipping dinner, I’m still lugging my laptop around, and I’m on 20% battery, but I head down to the grand reopening of Reykjavík’s most-loved downtown venue, Nasa, which closed several years ago for redevelopment, but has come back from the brink. Walking into Nasa has a special place in my heart. It was the venue back in 2007 where I saw some of the best shows of my life, and learned just how hands-in-the-air euphoric Airwaves can get.

Wesen at Nasa

Because we have fancy green wristbands, a few of us members-of-the-press are let in first. Loji from WE$EN is lingering in the hallway. “Are the doors open?” he says, looking at his watch. “I was gonna go for a smoke, but I guess we’re on…” A few moments later, he’s onstage, and the crowd fills the cosy hall, gathering under the pink-lit doric arch of the stage, and clustering around the viewing platforms that give Nasa it’s colosseum-theatre feel. They play a nicely formed set of melodic, electronic indie with a nice interplay of Júlía Hermansdóttir’s off-kilter style and Loji’s more impassioned voice. WE$EN are a humble proposition, and they’re all the more charming for it – their songs are catchy and low-key, the chemistry between the two is warm, and it’s a sterling start to the evening.

We pop into Gamla Bíó to see Steinunn of DJ Flugvél og Geimskip performing in her old/reformed band Skelkur í bringu (rough translation: “terror in the chest”). It’s a rough-around-the-edges concoction of sludgy, surfy, messy rock ‘n’ roll which Steinunn plays bass, making it spark to life with her ever-astounding high vocal register. Steinunn always shines out effortless warmth and charm, and is a complete joy to watch, in any incarnation.

After popping in to see Sturla Atlas play their middling on-trend R&B-lite to a teeming crowd, I catch the last song of Royal – an unlikely collaboration between the somewhat studious, rotund figure of Borko, and Reykjavík’s fearless beatz champion Futuregrapher. The two click together in a quite unexpectedly ergonomic way, and as their set climaxes in a purposeful and humorous juxtaposition of their different but complimentary personalities and voices, I make a mental note to try and catch a full show — this “side-project” seems like a runaway success, maybe even to the point of eclipsing their respective solo projects.

Reykjavíkurdætur @ NASA - Airwaves 2015 Wednesday
Pic: Birta Rán

What comes next is one of the biggest spectacles on offer in Icelandic music. Reykjavikurdætur (translation: “Reykjavík’s daughters”) is a teeming collective of female rappers, who swarm onto the stage in flesh-tone bodystockings. They’re a fierce unit who look like a cross between a writhing 3D pre-Raphaelite painting of heaven (or maybe hell?) and a Chicks On Speed/Pussy Riot-esque feminist art riot. The tracks are basic and straightforward, with the rappers taking turns in the spotlight. Some are more proficient than others, but the main attraction here isn’t the music, but the attitude on display. This sex-positive, heavily-politicised feminist rap collective are a force of nature, and they draw mixed responses. When they switch into English language for a song with the chorus “It is so nice / to take it up the ass,” the crowd is oddly still, their reactions ranging from awe to uproarious laughter and awkward bemusement to embarrassed silence. Love ‘em or or hate ‘em — you can’t ignore ‘em. And maybe that’s the point.

Æla @ Gamla Bíó
Pic: Rúnar Sigurður Sigurjónsson

With just enough energy left in my aching limbs for one more band, I head to Gamla Bíó to close out the night with a band that’s been a near-constant fixture of Airwaves for as long as I’ve been coming to the festival (nine times, if you’re asking). Æla (translation: “puke”) are a band that put together seemingly disparate elements of cross-dressing, tense post-punk, noir rock ’n’ roll, screamed vocals, dangerous acrobatics, unreformed masculine sexuality (one song, “Your Head Is My Ground”, is about getting a blowjob) and bizarre humour into a dizzying, theatrical mess. The music itself is built on angular, build-release dynamics and the howling, shrieking voice of frontman Halli Valli, who starts dressed in a suit and tie and ends doing laps of the room on someone’s shoulders in head-to-toe glitter and a Snow White dress. The projected visuals are of male and female mouths alternately fellating and devouring bananas, and screaming bearded faces covered in smashed fruit. A person dressed as a horse sometimes wanders around the stage aimlessly, and ends the set butt-naked, bouncing up and down, with his dangling cock spinning in circles. It’s like David Lynch directing Shellac vs. Kurt Cobain’s drag phase, through a filter of Flaming Lips weirdness. And who the fuck wouldn’t wanna see that? Æla are at their wild, unhinged best here, and it’s a joy to behold.

And with that, we spill out into the night — some to parties around town, but, in my case, straight to bed, and a deep uninterrupted sleep. Airwaves is here, indeed. One day down, and four to go.

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Posted November 5, 2015