From Iceland — Apótekið – Saturday

Apótekið – Saturday

Published October 17, 2010

Photo by Hörður Sveinsson

After last night’s disaster of a dance concert, my hopes for my third straight night at Apótekið are low. But, to hell with it all, I will do my best to enjoy the line-up, which seems like it’ll be fun.
Music from a submarine in the bay
Kiasmos are old school, bringing to mind Gus Gus’ ‘90s techno classic Polydistortion. They’re in no way imitative, they’re simply working within the same tradition. The crowd is sparse, about a dozen or so at the start and a few stragglers wander in out of the October drizzle over the course of the performance. The audience nod their heads, sip drinks, and chat. The two members of Kiasmos dance happily behind their equipment, enjoying the rhythms and sounds they offer up.
The element of Kiasmos’ sound that reminds me so much of Gus Gus is how the beat often sounds like it’s coming to us through the earth and sea from a submarine lying on the bottom of the ocean. And that’s nice, early in the night. Even nicer is when the beat returns to the surface, suddenly becoming crystal clear. The effect is exhilarating. It’s too bad that their set is very short.
If a DJ plays a really good set in the forest and no one hears it…
Besides me, a photographer, a couple making out in the corner, there are two people in Apótekið when Már og Nielsen start. Within ten minutes the only person left in the audience is me. Which is a shame, because Már og Nielsen, highly experienced DJs both, play a great set. Like everyone scheduled to play at Apótekið this year, they deserve better. Funnily enough they’re the performers who make the most sense for this place, as they play a kind of cocktail bar techno. When the place has emptied out even further, leaving just me there and the bar staff, Már og Nielsen do what any sane person would do in that situation, they go get beer from the bar. A friend of theirs shows up. A few people stick their noses in, but leave quickly.
During the first half of their set they play electronica that’s on the energetic end of loungey.  The basic structure of the songs they play in this segment is simple. There’s one repeating rhythmic sample, and over that central sample smooth electronic soundscapes are layered. It makes for very pleasant listening. It’s music that makes your cocktail taste better.
The second half is more uptempo. It’s perfectly timed so that people can take the last sip of their cocktail and step out on the dance floor, but there’s no one there to do so. Towards the end of the set a few people wander in and sit down in one of the corners. One of them furtively pulls a bottle of vodka from his jacket and passes it around. They leave shortly thereafter.
At every music festival there are acts that are unfairly ignored, and I can’t imagine anyone’s gotten less attention this year than Már og Nielsen. If you can ever catch one of their sets, I suggest you go. Order a cocktail. It’ll taste better than you expect.
Starting strong
A few people show up before Oculus starts. Twenty or so lucky people see the song he does first, accompanied by a saxophonist. Over a plodding, booming and slightly ominous beat, the saxophonist wails plaintively and sorrowfully, while Oculus adds synth notes. It’s an amazing, emotionally powerful song. The mood it evokes is hard to describe. Perhaps something akin to being at a really joyous New Year’s party, then walking in on the hosts, your close friends, tearfully breaking up.
The rest of Oculus’s set is strong, but doesn’t live up to the incredible opening. The audience stood transfixed for the opener, but thereafter the familiar pattern at Apótekið reasserted itself. A few people tried to dance, but people standing around drinking and talking were spread all through the available floorspace.
Great music, shame about the venue
Before Kenton Slash Demon start, a friendly Brit and Airwaves regular named Andy tells me that this will be good. He is proven right. Kenton Slash Demon begin with pulsing, rhythmic electro, and that’s basically how their entire set is. It never feels samey, though. Their set is made up of distinct songs, which helps foster the feeling of variety.
A proper dance floor almost developed before our old enemy, the people standing around on the dance floor drinking, invaded again, just as things were getting properly out of hand. Once more at Iceland Airwaves, a great electronic dance music set was ruined by the terrible choice of venue. Hopefully next year the organisers will put a tiny bit of thought into choosing where to host dance music. Too many times over the weekend I’ve seen people come into Apótekið, attempt to dance, only to give up when surrounded by the immobile chatting drinkers. Frankly, I can’t believe I’ve spent most of this year’s Airwaves in this awful place. I feel sorry for the musicians who had the misfortune of performing here.
“I’m in a bad mood because I can’t dance.”
Before Kasper Bjørke begins, I decide to check if the despair over Apótekið’s suitability as a dance venue was limited to myself. I asked a woman standing nearby, whose name turned out to be Tinna. This is what she said: “The music is heavenly, irresistible, but in a terrible place. There is no vibe here. I’m in a bad mood because I can’t dance.”
Kasper Bjørke played simple, fun as fuck electro, perfectly calibrated to get a crowd of people shaking, jumping and twitching. But no one was dancing. A group of fifteen or so people would periodically attempt to dance, but other people kept passing through, for example getting a beer or crossing from one side of Apótekið to the other, which would stop the dancers. People kept on trying, but they managed to dance for maybe two minutes before they were stopped.
But then a miracle happened. Well, sort of. Some clever staff member moved some tables around, big marble things that looked like they were built into the floor. Once they had been shunted to one side, much more space existed in the far side of Apótekið. Not a lot of room was created by this, maybe six or seven square metres, but that was enough to relieve the pressure on the crowd between the stage and the bar. The dancers spread out along the front of the stage, forming a line two people deep. This way the drinkers could pass by the dancers, and not through. It was still no good as a dance venue, but at least people could dance uninterrupted for ten, fifteen minutes before someone decided that right in front of the stage was the perfect place to stand still and drink beer.
As I said in yesterday’s review, I’m sure that Apótekið is perfectly fine for other kinds of music, but the organizers of Iceland Airwaves decided, in their infinite wisdom, to put dance musicians in a place that seems like it was designed with the express purpose of keeping people from dancing. Just so that I make myself clear, by “infinite wisdom” I mean “boundless stupidity.” The artists playing at Apótekið have made the most of an awful situation and deserve plaudits for giving their all when the people who hired them to play didn’t give two shits about them as performers.
[Sindri Eldon steps in to review the rest of Apótekið. Thank you, Kári!] So I’m at Apótek and it’s about 2 AM, and I’m supposed to take over from another journalist, but I can’t find the fucker anywhere, so I just take a conspicuous seat and make myself comfortable. Kasper Bjørke is making the room feel alive and constant with sort-of-artsy minimal stuff, and people are dancing, sweating, making out. I feel kind of like a king sitting here on the couch watching everyone partying, it’s kind of cool. I can’t believe people are paying 850 ISK for a small bottle of beer, though. Digging all that change out of my pocket does not make me feel very kingly.
The beat throbs on, shifting seamlessly from one track to the next, and this place is actually starting to feel kind of comfy to me. It’s not that crowded and not insanely loud… good acoustics in here, which is weird because it used to be a pharmacy and then a restaurant, so you wouldn’t think they’d design the place with acoustics in mind.
Cleavage is prominently on display pretty much everywhere here, which is a change from my usual hang-outs, and I try not to be too much like a creepy tourist at a nude beach. I wonder if there’s a lot of fake breasts in here; I vaguely recall hearing some pretty startling numbers about the amount of breast implants in Iceland. I heard a story once about some girl’s dad paying for implants as a birthday present when she turned eighteen, and wonder how old these girls are. They look my age (I’m 24), but I’ve been fooled by make-up before.
It’s 3 AM and DJ Margeir has shifted the mood to a more accessible, sing-along-heavy one, lots of funk samples and fun choruses with distinctly German-sounding beats underneath. The toilet has really weird faucets and I think I actually hear someone sniffing in the next stall. Is he really doing coke? Wow, this place is awesome! I should come here more often… although I doubt the bouncer would let me in.
Shumi turns out to be more inclined to fatter, juicier stuff, with riffing distorted synth lines and hard-edged basslines and kick drums. People keep filing in and I’m amazed how civil this place is compared to some of the other bars in town. I actually fall asleep at one point. I panic when I awake, but a look at my phone tells me I only slept for about fifteen minutes (and also that I still have my phone).
It’s only after the cab ride home that I realize how loud the music must have been: my ears are ringing a fairly solid tone. How do they do that? How can it be that loud, and not seem loud at all when you’re there? When I think back, I realise I had to yell to be heard when I was up in the seats talking to people sitting next to me, but not at the bar girl when I was buying drinks. Weird.

Watch this space! Commentary on sets by DJ Margeir and Shumi is forthcoming!

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