A trip east to the Eistnaflug metal festival
For the rockers and metalheads of Iceland, the second weekend of July is a religious holiday, road trip and family reunion all rolled into one. It marks the annual Eistnaflug festival (“Flight Of The Testes”), held in Iceland’s eastern-most village, Neskaupstaður. During the three days of festivities, the fishing hamlet’s population of 1,437 more than doubles, with crowds flocking from all over Iceland, and to an extent Europe, to witness a line-up of more than 50 local and international metal bands share a stage.
Eistnaflug has come a long way from its humble beginnings ten years ago, when only three bands travelled to Neskaupstaður, Hrefna Hugósdóttir, a seasoned member of the ticket office staff (and wife of festival head Stefán “Stebbi hressi” Magnússon) tells me. “They stayed at our place and partied with us afterwards,” she says, “and then the festival doubled in size every year until 2010, when it reached its current format.”
They’ve been close to selling out the last four years, and this year they actually had to turn people away. “People used to just show up on Friday or Saturday and catch the main bands,” she says, “but now guests are very organised and show up a day early on Wednesday so that they don’t miss any bands.”
With violent assault and rape being unfortunately all too common occurrences at Icelandic festivals, Eistnaflug has taken a strong stance on the issue with its “no bullshit” policy. Indeed, there have been no reported instances of either occurring since they set up shop ten years ago. Festival head Stebbi vocally enforces this policy every day of the festival by taking the stage and asking attendees to look out for one another, help those in need and make sure to have fun together.
Along with enlisting festivalgoers to help keep the peace, the organisers, security guards and police all work closely together to ensure that people feel safe at all times. Hrefna stresses the importance of this ethic to the festival’s success. “We’re not going to have a festival where violence is tolerated,” she says, noting that she sees no reason why other festivals can’t adopt a similar approach to make the experience enjoyable for everyone involved.
Everybody Is Welcome
Arriving late on Thursday, I was met with a throng of Eistnaflug regulars hanging out in the courtyard outside venue Egilsbúð, smoking, drinking and being merry after witnessing a Brain Police performance. Some were decked out from head to toe in metal garb, donning leather jackets and spiked collars with corpsepaint dripping off their sweaty faces. Others were dressed more like your average Joes and Janes, wearing jeans and jumpers, looking equally at home at Eistnaflug and Kaffibarinn. The festival may be half a day’s drive from Reykjavík, but it’s not just the extreme metal fanatics that make their way here.
Hrefna notes that the number of women in attendance increases with each passing year. “Initially we would only see girls accompanying their boyfriends, but now there are whole groups of women who travel here,” Hrefna says. Female-fronted bands are also getting more prominent, with Angist, Kælan mikla, Mammút and Skelkur í bringu leading the charge this year.
The attitude of inclusivity also extends to people with handicaps as is seen in a touching display when the festival-goers come together to allow a wheelchair-bound man to crowd surf. Afterwards he wears a smile from ear-to-ear, admitting he was worried sick he’d fall out of his chair, but that it was absolutely worth it.
The crowd remains animated throughout the festival, and strangers are happy to strike up conversation in between shows. Between sets, first-timer Jóhanna Sigrún Bjarnardóttir tells me she came because she was really excited about the line-up, confessing that she had wanted to go for years, but for one reason or another hadn’t made it until now.
Frequent Eistnaflug-ers, like Hallveig Kristín Eiríksdóttir, claim that Eistnaflug offers a much better atmosphere than other Icelandic festivals, as people get along very well and that it’s easy to chat with the members of your favourite bands. Gemma D. Alexander from the U.S. says that Eistnaflug offers the best opportunity for foreigners to see the best Icelandic rock and metal bands in one go. Johanna Persson from Sweden says that the road trip from Reykjavík also makes the festival unique.
It’s More Than Metal
One commonly heard complaint from the more “serious” metalheads was that there were too many pop and indie bands playing, and that “noted Euro-disco stalwarts” Retro Stefson had no business being the final act on Saturday.
The fact of the matter, however, is that such bands actually helped smooth out the schedule. If the elegant, boisterous and hip Reykjavíkurdætur feminist rap group hadn’t stepped up after the loud Pink Street Boys and death metal band Morð, the crowd would have burned up. Without the brilliant math-rockers Agent Fresco, I couldn’t have appreciated the fine instrumental genius of Bölzer. Same goes for Skelkur í bringu’s haunting set, Mammút’s touching experience and Grísalappalísa’s explosive show (which was hands down the most rock and roll performance of the festival), they helped pace the whole festival.
And Retro Stefson? They were absolutely smashing! They went on stage after legendary local rockers HAM had played for a full hour, and provided the perfect transition from head-banging to dancing. Their set had a distinctly more industrial vibe to it than usual, with heavier synths, spectral howls and a guitar solo thrown in for good measure. The band then put all the other performers to shame by creating the festival’s sole wall of death.
Despite most festivalgoers, bands, locals and the police all leaving Eistnaflug with smiles on their faces, head of festival Stefán Magnússon has expressed doubts about the festival’s continuation in Neskaupstaður. “The festival is just too expensive,” he says, “and there are too many companies freeloading off of Eistnaflug’s success.” In addition, he says getting there is difficult with the steep fuel prices and Air Iceland’s monopoly on domestic flights. He assures me that Eistnaflug will be back next year, but if things don’t change in the meantime it will have to be held somewhere else.
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