From Iceland — Norður Og Niður Finishes In A Wistful Haze Of Ambient Sound

Norður Og Niður Finishes In A Wistful Haze Of Ambient Sound

Published December 31, 2017

Norður Og Niður Finishes In A Wistful Haze Of Ambient Sound
Photo by
Timothée Lambrecq & Magnús Andersen

The fourth and final night of Norður og Niður dispensed once again with the party vibe as weary festival goers wandered between sets of feel-good ambient music, blissed out pop and orchestral post-rock. Here’s what went down.

Words: Grayson Del Faro

This festival takes its name from the Icelandic expression “Farðu norður og niður,” Literally translated, it means “go north and down” but those are simply directions to Hel and so it’s true meaning is something like “go to hell.” Unlike the typical fiery vision of the Christian hell, the expression harkens to the Old Norse underworld, which his instead a cold, dark place at the end of the known universe. Kinda like Iceland! So with this Hel-ish festival set between Yule and New Years, it is a kind of celebration of the cold, the darkness and all the things that happen in them.

The final night of Norður og Niður definitely showed me the extremes of both light and darkness—as well as leaving me quite literally cold. I had resigned myself to not seeing Sigur Rós perform any of their sold out shows. At the last second however, I managed to secure a spot to catch at least the second half of their final show last night. Karma had given me a break.

“Enshrined in a state-of-the-art lighting system, they gave a luminous, emotional performance.”

Enshrined in a state-of-the-art lighting system, they gave a luminous, emotional performance. Despite the lights, this show was definitely encompassed by a feeling of darkness that only creeped into their previous tours. I’ve seen them once before and the imagery was all light and stars, trees and animals, all things organic and beautiful and alive. This performance, however, ignited into a blaze of explosive, apocalyptic world. The background was an endless sea of black spikes and red beams as they built up to the finale and at the end, a mirrored ceiling of black spikes lowered down as if to crush them. It seemed less like a celebration and more like a warning or even a eulogy.

The crowd was electrified as they left the symphony hall. For me, however, this high was short lived. I soon found out my Vík Prjónsdóttir scarf, my favorite article of clothing that I have ever owned in my entire life, was stolen. It was rolled up and stuffed into my jacket sleeve behind a locked door in Harpa, no less. Is nothing sacred? After such a radiant reminder of all the light and kindness in the world, here was a painful reminder of darkness in the human heart. The night before, JFDR talked about New Years, emphasizing the importance of letting go. I tried to channel her as I walked home through dark, colder than yesterday, thinking how short the distance is between heaven and Hel.

Breathe In The Sound, Hold Your Breath
Words: John Rogers

I stand on the black beach, looking out at rippling ocean. To my left, craggy rock formations jut out from the sea under screeching, wheeling sea birds. To my right, through rolling dunes, a snowy mountain rises into a light, cloudy sky. The wind rustles in the grass, and the waves lap at the black shore. It’s a tranquil scene—right until the moment that it fades to black. I remove the VR headset, finding myself back inside a bustling Harpa, with the black night peering in through those trademark geometric windows.

FlowVR’s presentation—soundtracked by Sigur Rós, and with a voice over that leads you briskly through a short series of breathing exercises—was a much needed break on the final day of Norður og Niður. I’d alighted briefly at Stars Of The Lid, but found myself unable to concentrate on their ambient slowcore after several days of similar sounds; sat restlessly in Hörpuhorn while Julianna Barwick played mellow, soothing songs that resounded pleasingly through the space. I looked on with interest as Sóley, Sin Fang and Örvar Smárson presented the fruits of their year-long songwriting project in Norðurljós, with an enjoyable dynamic and some warm and friendly in-jokes between their languid cycle of songs.

The queue for Gyða’s show was so long that getting in was impossible, including for the assemblage of Icelandic music celebrities who hung around outside. So, finally, I sneaked into the back of Eldborg for one last glimpse of Sigur Rós. A highlight of the show saw a high spotlight drop onto Jónsi as he sawed away at the his guitar with a tattered cello bow, the groaning whalesong sound reverberating around the concert hall. Sigur Rós are the kind of spectacle that’s more than a gig: they create a specific feeling that’s like a location all of its own. Visiting with Sigur Rós is closer to the immersive fantasy of FlowVR than a simple performance of music, and as the concert ended I breathed in deeply, holding my breath as if were possible to keep that warm atmosphere inside my lungs after the concert was over.

A Rollercoaster Into The Darkness
Words: Alexander Jean de Fontenay

Stars Of The Lid delivered a heartfelt performance with impressive visuals and lights in Silfurberg. Their setup was two violins, a cello, a couple of electric guitars and a keyboard mingled with a large modular synthesizer positioned in the back. It was a slowly moving mixture of acoustic and synthesized sounds. Their tunes floated through space, but felt somehow grounded as well. Video imagery of faces, nature and abstract forms were projected over the performers. Their delicate mix of string instruments came with rolling waves of deep and rumbling bass. It was dark at points, but also serene and unhurried. Stars Of The Lid reached out to the audience and gave them a warm hug with their performance. Bravo.

“These people do what they love and love what they do, that much is clear.”

At the Hörpuhorn stage, Julianna Barwick produced a set of delicate tunes consisting of her heavily reverbed voice, layered with live looping over her keyboard. Icelandic artist Sara Riel—head and shoulders swaying to Barwick’s music—drew a picture that was projected onto a small screen, that I imagine was improvised alongside the music. These heavenly layered voices reminded me of the aura inside a peaceful church. Later in her set she was joined by a guitarist who added ambient effects and noise layers. Barwick made me think of feelings of longing, affection and hope. Everything is going to be okay.

I caught the last half of Sin Fang, Sóley & Örvar Smárason’s set at Norðurljós. They played a selection of the singles they released every month this year. Gylfi Freeland provided live drums as well as lo-fi drum machine sounds. It was a slow-moving, melancholic set that progressed to a positive conclusion. Their last song—made for the month of December—was both dreamy and empowering in its harmonious, rising sound. The voices of the group blended seamlessly, and between songs they had a laid-back and humorous dynamic when they spoke to the audience. These people do what they love and love what they do, that much is clear.

Ulrich Schnauss closed the festival with a set that was a rollercoaster ride from start to finish. I stayed for the whole set hour and 15 minutes, and it simply flew by. One half of the crowd stood and/or did interpretive dance, the other lay on the floor in leisurely poses. A video was projected on the Silfurberg stage that suggested a journey through nature, and travels in a man-made world.

Schnauss’ music contains futuristic and otherworldly sounds at various intensities in an interesting mixture of IDM, world music and synth-pop. Booming bass mixed with high pitched strings and brass sounds. It was a multi-layered wall of sound intermingling with languid ambient parts, resulting in a unique meditative vibe. In my calm state I imagined this music to be a musical story of sorts, going through different chapters of sadness, happiness, a state of unknowing, intensity, uprising, overload and redemption. I felt that Schnauss might be telling us that nothing is perfect, but that’s okay. Life is random, full of journeys and surprises. Thank you Ulrich Schnauss, and thank you Norður og Niður.

Read the rest of our Norður og Niður coverage here.

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