What Just Happened? Grapevine’s Airwaves 2016

What Just Happened? Grapevine’s Airwaves 2016

Wow. It feels like the starting gun has just been fired: but Airwaves 2016 is over. Airwaves happens fast, and it comes at you from all directions. In the case of FM Belfast, it came in the form of a rain of glitter and ticker tape and streamers. In the case of Björk, it came from inside: our writers spoke of feeling physical heartache after her show. This festival generally has the ability to open people up, somehow: to activate them, in any number of ways, and leave them dizzy, blinking and emotional, asking: What Just Happened?

Gislí Pálmí - art bicnick

Jessica Bowe

PJ Harvey and her nine-piece band, dressed in sombre black, enter to a solemn drum procession. The mood, like the air inside Valhöllin, is heavy. We are witnessing the metaphorical funeral for the 2016 Iceland Airwaves festival. It’s had a good, long life of 5 days and its memories will be treasured by its many worldwide friends. RIP, #Airwaves16.

Perhaps it was just my existential dread–a long-standing Sunday evening tradition–or the complete physical and mental meltdown of excessive beers and insomnia, but I couldn’t get into this performance. It could also be that I hate sports arenas as concert venues, and PJ Harvey did have several hard acts to follow. And to be honest I can never love a finale performance more than 2014’s trippy climax by The Flaming Lips. How do you possibly top FUCK YEAH ICELAND balloons, a human hamster-ball and all that glitter? I wanted to love PJ Harvey’s show, I wanted it to feel like the amazing fucking culmination that this festival deserved. To me, it felt like the band wasn’t fully bringing the intensity; some of her more classic songs sounded watered down and lacking in her characteristic fighting spirit. Have politics finally broken you too, PJ?

Sorry to be a downer on a Monday. But it’s not all doom and gloom today. I’m still basking in a warm glow from some of the highpoints earlier in the festival. There were the free fancy Einstök beers at the Grapevine Off-Off-Office Venue Party. There was the lovable rap-weirdness and silver light-up disco shoes of Krakk & Spaghettí. There were the morbid yet oddly positive lyrics and beautiful strings of Myrra Rós in Kaldalón. There was Milkywhale, my first real #YASSS moment of the week: Milkywhale is a bowl of Skittles combined with eight double espressos, topped with the mania of receiving both a new puppy and a trampoline on Christmas morning. Imagine an aerobics instructor in a 1960’s quasi-futuristic space station jumpsuit, with a giant “M” in the background meant to hypnotise you — like Zoolander at the Mugatu compound. Or, if you’re old enough to remember, a Rainbow Brite doll from the 80’s come to life. There was even more YASSS at Santigold, fangirling at Julia Holter and worshipping the ground Kate Tempest walks on. If I had to choose a winner of this year’s festival, I’m going to go with Kate Tempest by a landslide. But those bloody mary’s at the Kaffibarinn BRNLV off-venue party came pretty damn close. Thanks for another year of blurry memories, Airwaves.

Highlights: Kate Tempest, Santigold, MilkyWhale, Julia Holter, Krakk & Spagettí, brunch at Hverfisgata 12, catnaps, disco shoes, meaningful connections in bathrooms, talking to strangers, the penetrating eye contact between the guys of Throws, free beer, poetic 4 AM booty calls

Lowlights: the entire atmosphere of Valshöllin, attendees’ mental and physical health, drunk assholes at Habibi at 3 AM, selfies, not enough free beer, trying to get a taxi after shows, people who stand too close and spit when they talk to you

Björk at Harpa by Santiago Felipe

Hannah Jane Cohen

The title of my Airwaves: That Time Hannah Felt So Much That She Missed The Gísli Pálmi Show, feat. Bjork

My high points were: Trying (relatively unsuccessfully) to start a dance floor for Krakk og Spaghettí with Grapevine’s Arta. Cutting lines with my press wristband. Dancing alone at Paloma unselfconsciously. Feeling more than I ever thought I could after watching Björk. Becoming one of those stupid people who live in Iceland and love Björk. And the low points? My bank account, and when Sturla Atlas didn’t play Vino.

The best quote of my Airwaves came from Ciarán Daly: “PJ Harvey… isn’t that the guy from XXX Rottweiler?” (For all you foreigners, the answer is yes).

Song of Airwaves: “Family” by Bjork.

Possible Headliner-Ideas for Next Year: Taylor Swift & Nick Cave duo, Burzum, the Kardashians, Lenny Kravitz.

Last thoughts: Right now I am so done with music. I will never listen to another note in my life. That’s right, just burned all my vinyls, threw out my CDs, ate my cassettes, and deleted my Spotify account. That $4.99 a month will now buy me half a beer each month. What’s the point? What will compare to Airwaves?

Nah, it’s been fun. See you next year.

Krakk og Spaghetti - Art bicnick

Ciarán Daly
Every autumn marks the end of harvest. Ferns, moss, scant crops force their way out of the black soil. Life here is a fight for survival. It blooms best in places where there is none.

The sun hangs quietly in the sky during the summer months. These blinding streets are almost lost on you as night erases itself from your memory. Out of the loft windows of the downtown apartments leaks song, occasionally. Snatches of voice, of a violin tuning up—but in the blitz of parties and light, we forget these seeds.

You’ve been under that big, yellow star for too long. You leave your apartment, ready for time to fold in on itself once more, this unending weekend. Rinse, repeat, but never renewal. Not yet. But tonight, something is different. Tonight, darkness descends upon the island for the first time in four months—and when November comes, we start to reap what we have sown.

Iceland Airwaves. I am certain that there is no festival quite like it in the known universe. Of course, there are a lot of festivals in Iceland. These short, weekend-long events pop up all around the country, and disappear just as quick. Airwaves, though, is a monolith around which these simian astronauts, pale impressions, gravitate.

Most festivals are segregated from the everyday. You find your way to a field, or maybe a hangar, and you park your tent. What occurs there is safe. Isolated, it remains non-threatening to the established social order. Airwaves is different because it is not segregated from the everyday—in fact, it becomes the everyday.

The creative and political implications of this are far-reaching and profound. Rather than stratifying space throughout the ‘festival grounds’ in terms of genre or talent, the entire city opens its doors. There is no hierarchy of attendance, line-up, or location thanks to the off-venue. The music starts in one place and never, ever stops. The police back off, the amps are turned up to 11, and Reykjavík comes to life, a living, breathing, musical cosmos rich with constellations of noise.

It washes through the streets, an edification of colour, a creative harvest. What took place during this week, as in years gone by, will be permanently stitched into the fabric of the city. This festival rewrites the idea of a festival. More than that, it colonises. Finally, the fields bear fruit, and we all share in the feast before returning to the sowing.

Moment of the festival: the festival is moments


Grayson Del Faro
My Airwaves began when I walked off the plane, into the Flybus, and then straight into Grapevine’s office party. I had the flu, and about 20 minutes into aYia’s performance, I felt feverish, weak, and scared that I wouldn’t be able to stand for even another song. The performance was good but I wasn’t really there. As I walked home from that only show I saw the first day, I thought it was going to be the worst Airwaves ever. I ventured out the next night after a lot of sleep, stone-cold sober, and went from watching an off-venue set in a tourist shop to seeing a local indie record label performing with the symphony orchestra in the fanciest venue in Iceland. I knew then it couldn’t be the worst Airwaves ever because no Airwaves could be the worst. It’s about experiencing music in every single form, and pushing music into every available space, medium, and experience.

So by Sunday night, I used my last ounce of dancing energy for Kira Kira’s ethereal beats in Kaffibarinn before a final chill-out with young ambient neoclassical composter Magnús Jóhann. And after all the dancing, headaches, lasers, brunches, booty calls, beers, places you shouldn’t have pissed, secret parties, nostalgia, mind explosions, whiskey, surprises, cold fingers, hot coffee, old friends, new friends, and love, a few things have floated to the top. For me the Song of the Festival was one you’ll probably never hear again if you didn’t hear it when it happened. During the Airwords showcase, poet Ásta Fanney performed a song that evolved from jazzy beats and spoken word into death metal screams of “it is important to be seen, do you understand me.” I understand you. Visuals of the festival definitely got to Santigold, who wore a dress filled with candy, choreographed tiny shopping carts on the stage, and had fake ads for 3d selfie printers.

Brunch of the festival goes to the trout at Hverfisgata 12. Surprise of the festival is definitely Kate Tempest (feel free to read my love letter to her in yesterday’s review and also buy all of her books and albums please). Beat of the festival goes to aYia’s last song in their set (which I ended up seeing three times), which still has a flashing red triangle pulsing through my brain in quiet moments. Biggest asshole of the festival goes to my flu, who I’m slowly overpowering but still won’t chill the hell out. “I don’t know how the fuck I ended up seeing this but I’m really glad I did” moment of the festival goes to Hatari. Best pool of the festival, as always, goes to Vesturbæjarlaug where I saw many of the festival’s artists half naked and totally relaxed. And for anyone who needs some “hair of the dog” musical exploration to treat their Airwaves hangover, Björk’s virtual reality exhibition is still running at Harpa for the next several weeks. Every day should be Airwaves. Do whatever you can to make sure it is.

A crowd screams as confetti falls from the ceiling

John Rogers
I went into this edition of Airwaves with a very small amount of “must see” bands ringed on my schedule. While that might sound like a lineup diss, I’ve learned over the years that having few plans is the perfect way to experience this festival. If you don’t let go of the steering wheel and fall into the wind a bit at Airwaves, you’re doin’ it wrong.  

One of these few must-sees, though, was aYia. My song of the festival was their debut single, “Water Plant”—an astonishingly atmospheric track full of airy space pulsing bass, synth stabs, and a floating, pretty vocal. It’s one of those hyper-addictive compulsive-listening repeat-button songs that you get a palpable hunger for, and a sense of relief when the opening sequence comes on your headphones. The live show revealed other songs full of restraint and space, which creates tension; the tension is resolved as relief when a beat, bassline, drop or a chorus arrives. It’s dynamic, creative, aesthetically well-honed music, and it sounds like they have more good stuff coming.

In fact Húrra was easily the best venue, for me—the simple lighting, the crisp but bassy sound system and the wrap-around stage made it feel like a show could turn into a party at any second. Which it definitely did at Gaika. This UK rapper absolutely tore up the stage—I felt like someone should have frogmarched in the young rappers of Iceland to see a master at work. He skipped between styles effortlessly, pumping up or bringing down the energy, inciting the crowd, and refusing to let a weirdly muted audience response dampen his electric energy—and in the end, he won the room over completely.

Just up the road, Kaffibarinn was my off-venue of the festival. Despite it being a victim of it’s own popularity and often very crowded, for those dedicated enough to fight their way in, the atmosphere was always electric, and the Bedroom Community programme was stellar.

My favourite moments of the festival were many. The lush, caring first notes of Björk’s “Stonemilker” sent a tangible ripple of electricity through the audience. When múm played “Green Grass Of Tunnel”, I was quietly freaking out on my chair—it was purest magic. Sam Amidon playing Arthur Russell’s “Lucky Cloud” at his Kaffibarinn off-venue made me want to scream when he announced it—a joining together of two of my favourite singers. But instead of emitting an inappropriate “YYYYEEEAAHHHH!” I managed to just quietly bite my knuckles with anticipation. DJ flugvél og Geimskip being mobbed by toddlers at her Hotel Alda off-venue was adorable—they intuitivey responded to her playful warmth, her generous energy (and probably the bright colours of her shiny sequinned dress) and followed her around like a row of ducklings as she came offstage. And I had the pleasure of curating an off-venue myself, with Bastardgeist, Crispin Best, Gyða, Mat Riviere and Kira Kira. They were all flawless, and it was a total treat to witness such a range of creative approaches to solo music.

The disaster of the festival was the cancellation of Ben Frost at Silfurberg. A must-see amongst must-sees, his profound, vast reboot of noise music was born to be played on huge speakers, in a massive room like this one. It was an occasion I was anticipating from the moment it was announced, and I was dying to bathe in his sound—so it was huge disappointment to find it quietly pulled from the schedule (it was reportedly due to some kind of technical mix-up.)

Finally, it seems ridiculous not to mention Jófríður Ákadóttir—a singer who gives everything every time, and plays in four different band. In Samaris and GANGLY she’s the breathy, whispery vocalist who breathes humanity and soul into the electronic music; in Pascal Pinon, she plays intimate acoustic songs with her twin sister. In her new collaborative solo project JFDR, she spreads her wings as a songwriter of rare sensitivity. The first album, themed on cycles, circles and journeys, is full of poetry, lyricism and quiet wisdom—and it’s still just the beginning.

A photograph of Kate Tempest and her drummer performing on stage. She is holding a microphone with her hand outstretched to the crowd.

Parker Yamasaki
They’ll tell you not to spend all of Airwaves seeing your favourite bands twice. I don’t adhere. The thing with Airwaves is that the venues, times, and crowds are so variable that no two shows are ever going to be the same. And sometimes, especially with newer bands you have never heard before, it helps to see them in different contexts.

The band that comes to mind as I write this is Sturla Atlas. In Harpa one night and in a hair salon the next afternoon. Their Harpa show was packed and splitting at the seams with energy, but it was during their humble Slippurinn set, rich with family wholesomeness (literally there were toddlers and puppies running around the stage) and everyone drinking hot chocolate instead of spilling vodka on each other, that their music sort of settled in for me. It was the sincerity of this set that got to me. In Harpa when they charged out with “101 boys, we came from nothing” the cynic in me flared up; but here, in the small space surrounded by hairdresser’s mirrors, I saw a different side of them.

So that’s why I think it is important to go ahead and see your favorites, or your less-than-favorites, again. And again, if you want. I saw Kate Tempest on Saturday night for the first time and immediately regretted not having trailed her around the whole festival. I can’t imagine regretting seeing her set twice. Not only because of the energy she cast but because her set is so lyrically dense there are always going to be new subtleties to catch.

And please, if you’ve heard the music before, then you can really dance. Sometimes it feels good to know exactly when the music is going to drop. Cue shots of me riling around by myself in the middle of the Dizzee Rascal crowd.

And as much as Airwaves is all about the music, the music, the music and the music, I’ve got to give shouts out to a couple things that were not…the music. First is the Nonference series that Airwaves held in Harpa’s Media Centre. I attended the Rap nonference, it was a nice change of pace to be able to think about these things in an environment created especially to be informative, rather than at the bar where you have to yell each point across or on a street corner at 4:31 am. Second is the visuals. Harpa’s performers were all backed by stage-to-ceiling visuals that go uncredited at the end of the show. But from GKR’s cycling fast food to the gender-shifting automatons behind Vaginaboys’s set, to Gangly’s liquid voidland, there were some incredible visual performances up on stage this Airwaves (I hear Santigold also made great use with faux-infomercials advertising herself). My final non-music highlight happened in Stofan Café, where I sat down for some soup with two organizers of music and culture festivals happening in Greenland. They were here scouting out bands to bring over to our Nordic neighbour, and it generated a fun exchange of names and sounds to keep our ears on beyond the festival’s final days. Airwaves, you’ve been good to me. But Nuuk Nordisk Kuulturfest, I’m coming for you next.

A photo of PJ Harvey holding a microphone, backlit by white light

You can also see our Airwaves In Pictures, and check out our extensive Airwaves 2016 coverage here.

Posted November 7, 2016