Review: Iceland Airwaves 2015.

It may be no more than a mere few hours away, although Reykjavík – the home of Iceland Airwaves, now in its seventeenth year – really feels like it finds itself a whole world away from the increasingly colourless, and creatively languorous capital that London has, alas, become. Because, but not because of the timely demise of the Camden Crawl and its commensurately limp contemporaries, for all of its incontestable musical prowess, the British city is no longer the European powerhouse – artistically speaking, at least – that it once represented. Allowing for the likes of this sprawling Icelandic metropolis to make themselves heard with the crystalline transparency of a Þingvellir lake, put themselves on the proverbial map, and, potentially, replace the seemingly, inexplicably potent influence afforded our steadily dwindling cultural relevance.

The city itself is, if still suffocated by scaffolding as though awaiting the grand reveal of a revelatory facelift, positively vibrant, respiring profusely both day and night. Come Sunday night, for instance, sinewy techno rattles away at Kaffibarinn’s (rather ironically, London-indebted) burgundy corrugated iron façade long into the ensuing Monday. (Intriguingly, so regular a goer was one Damon Albarn once upon a while ago, that he was ostensibly donated a 1% stake in the place by its previous proprietors.) Most visiting Brits have, by this point, departed, readying themselves for the resumption of the grim mess we’ve come to recognise as reality; yet Iceland, and its extraterrestrial, tectonic landscapes – which, at a surprise press conference, Björk extolled in support of the Gætum garðsins (or ‘Protect The Park’) initiative – still has so much to offer the wide-eyed wayfarer, regardless of wherever they may have come from.

Iceland Airwaves 2015

For Iceland, remote though its location may seem on preliminary inspection, and both weirdly wonderful and wonderfully weird though its otherworldly topology purely and simply proves, is an incredibly accommodating island; one made all the more so, to Europeans and North Americans alike, thanks to airlines such as the faintly rakish WOW air, and the like. There’s something for more or less everyone, also: from barbaric cretins keen to scoff such touristic atrocities as fermented shark, puffin, reindeer, whale and whatnot, to quaffers of the apparently lethal (and, personally speaking, largely unpalatable) Brennivín; backpackers, to those looking to pack as much of the country’s terrific contemporary musical output into five dark days and feature-brightening nights, each and every one brimming with genuine ingenuity. All of which makes for ‘a festival like no other … in the most stunning festival setting in the world.’ Festival Nº6, eat your ‘bespoke banquet of music, arts and culture’ out…

Without necessarily wanting to unnecessarily condemn my compatriots, homebodies and such like, the UK contingent never fare all that well in Reykjavík this time around: on the closing night, the boorish Sleaford Mods’ boring lad-punk proves completely vacuous in the vacuum Vodafonehöllin, while Hot Chip’s proceeding set feels less geothermal, and more merely lukewarm on an Aurora Boreal Sunday evening that’s as bracing as any Reykjavík barman’s demeanour. It’s not strictly the Brits’ fault, it ought to be stated: to reiterate, many a kinsman has already reset coordinates for Blighty, while the sound is somewhat blighted by the Vodafonehöllin being a basket-cum-handball arena by day. By night, or tonight at least, Alexis Taylor et al. do their utmost to get one final, hurrah-fuelled finale going in earnest, but technical difficulties strip the sheen off of Huarache Lights, Flutes has been (Afro)beaten out of shape with all the klutziness of an amateur flautist, infuriated by their own incompetence, while Ready for the Floor increasingly resembles Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want to Have Fun by way of William Onyeabor’s glistering, starry-eyed aural workouts. The less said about their overly zealous interpolating LCD Soundsystem’s All My Friends in Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark the better, but considerably better, therefore, are the likes of Need You Now, the nihilistic single smouldering like the volcanic land on which we all stand, and the incongruously melancholy, Joe Goddard-spotlighting I Feel Better. The Londoners have endured a rather unrelenting touring schedule these last few months, so a slight lethargy is understandable; Airwaves would possibly do better to have their stadium-based speaker blowout take place on Saturday, also.

Iceland Airwaves 2015

Although otherwise, criticisms and qualms are few, and far between as and when: as is with Utrecht, home of Le Guess Who?, Reykjavík boasts an indubitable abundance of very enviable venues, whilst the city’s investment – whether that be financial, or in terms of general interest – doesn’t merely rival that of Austin in March, but trumps it, too. Swanky clothes shops, surprisingly likeable hostels, dingy pubs, glitzy clubs, sombre churches, sterile museums and welcoming galleries all muck in, with shows taking place amidst clothing racks, queues, pews and paintings, the festival not only commanding much attention both nationally and internationally, but so too commandeering Reykjavík, and the acquiescent denizens thereof, for the duration of the week – something that, whether by virtue of its size or its (incontestably consequent) impenetrability, London has never really had. And it’s one which, ultimately, promotes a rather more positive, vibrant atmosphere than its most (in)famous American counterpart…

But what of our North American counterparts; or those most relevant over in Iceland, at least? Well, alas and alack, they fare infinitely better: Saskatchewanian raconteur Andy Shauf may be made invisible by the backs of innumerable heads in Bravó, on Laugavegur, but his intricate narratives and plaintive strums still resonate, reverberating in such a way so as to ensure hairs on said heads stand on end; Weaves, meanwhile, thrash through their trashy, idiosyncratic sonic mêlées with the sort of intoxicating vigour to ensure they really thrive in a live environment, interweaving squealing guitars with Jasmyn Burke’s crazed squawks. Yeah, yeah, yeah; Karen O comparisons are sure to endure, although there’s such invention to she, Morgan Waters, Spencer Cole and Zach Bines’ quickening, blitzkrieg art-pop to ensure the likes of Shithole live on long in the Gull-muddled memory.

Weaves, Iceland Airwaves 2015

A third, and final Canadian lot caught over the course of the week rank among the most indelible of moments, though; they are BRAIDS, and tonight, Matthías Matthíasson, they are ineffably brilliant. With this year’s Deep In the Iris representing an intense, sensational collection of songs both celebrating and, more oftentimes, lamenting the human condition, the Albertan trio were needing to ramp up their (already vastly impressive) live show, so that it should be commensurate to so compelling a record. That they’ve done so so readily and, seemingly, relatively effortlessly is to their immense credit; that theirs is one of, if not the show of Iceland Airwaves is immensely credible, also.

BRAIDS, Iceland Airwaves 2015

They’ve moved into a more exoteric realm musically, while Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s flourishing lyrical competence has seen the three-piece gravitate in a more vital direction: for while the exertions of Austin Tufts and Taylor Smith are visible silently, facial expressions revealing their growing, respective proficiencies, Raph’s trials and tribulations are rather more explicitly articulated, not least in the likes of Miniskirt and Taste. But it’s Sore Eyes – a paean to porn; something that onetime Innanríkisráðherra, or Minister of the Interior, Ögmundur Jónasson vehemently attempted to completely prohibit when in office – which remains the real ear-opener in BRAIDS’ steadily lengthening, and increasingly essential repertory…

As for fellow North Americans from slightly more southerly reaches of this world, few answers are provided re: the [ongoing/ enraging] debate as to whether Ariel Pink is merely a miscreant imp with a penchant for provocation, or, conversely, an odious misogynist, devoid of any merit. Meritorious Picture Me Gone may remain, living on long in an all the more impaired memory, yet following straight on from BRAIDS – albeit in the truly incredible Harpa, rather than the rather more intimate, and newly reanimated NASA – I’d prefer to err on the side of precaution. Cautionary tales of social dissociation are provided by the much harped-on-about Father John Misty, on an evening when the beardy ‘dreamboat’ never quite reaches those same heights of six nights previous, before a further two members of the admirably well-represented Bella Union – namely Beach House – put on a swoonsome, lovey-dovey couple-approved performance, tempered with the backlit, and thereby grandiose Victoria Legrand’s great ire at being “the only vagina” on The Line of Best Fit’s Silfurberg curation. It’s the climactic Myth which quietly steals the show though, twinkling away with all the gelid lustre of Hafravatnsvegur by night.

Battles, Iceland Airwaves 2015

Later, on this same one, Battles’ full-frontal, thoroughgoing sensory assault takes shape, the amorphous forms of Futura, Ice Cream and so forth afforded gloriously aggressive reconfigurations. From September’s La Di Da Di, John Stanier leads the charge during a rambunctious take on Dot Com, while Dave Konopka does likewise, while chewing gum with utmost nonchalance, with the jittering, restive FF Bada and The Yabba thereafter; but, rather predictably, it’s Atlas – brutal as an Icelandic winter, and imposing as the Lutheran Hallgrímskirkja – that stands head and shoulders above every other.

Among the more imposing figures seen onstage throughout the week, meanwhile, is another Bella Union signee, and John Grant. Having first made his way over to the island for Airwaves 2011, he returned several months later to record sophomore full-length Pale Green Ghosts, before relocating to the Icelandic capital indefinitely; he still lives here today. (Indeed, the artwork which adorns said record was shot in the city’s oldest coffee shop, and his personal favourite, Mokka.) And it’s on (adopted) home turf that Grant’s indomitable boldness is dramatically reasserted: ably backed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, the impact is almost dramaturgical; the impetus put as much upon the songs’ orchestral accompaniments as Grant’s dry, forever wry vocal.

John Grant, Iceland Airwaves 2015

There are times at which the latter is slightly lost against the grand majesty unravelling beyond him, such as during the denouement to No More Tangles, or throughout the hefty, trudging Geraldine, although Grant wins us over with his oneness with the country he now calls home. Because tracks such as the wilting Global Warming, the surging, sludgy Magma Arrives, and the photo op[eratic] Glacier suggest he’s singing from the same hymn sheet as Björk when it comes to the essential safeguarding of Iceland’s “spectacular landscapes.” But it’s when Grant’s admiration for this inexpressibly beautiful land is more implicit that he’s at his most imperial; songs grafted from Pale Green Ghosts, such as the prepossessing, if not possessed title track, during which ascendant strings combine majestically with throbbing bass undulations, or the improbably FM-friendly GMF (or ‘Greatest Motherfucker’). And, on this sort of evidence, John Grant is now eminently capable of presiding over events that are as central, and with that special, as this with the authority of a Muscovite autocrat…

Iceland Airwaves 2015

However, it’s arguably away from the central schedule where Airwaves really comes into its own: for the freebie off-venue festivities – think more Alternative Escape than OFF Sónar – are those which showcase the very best in contemporary Icelandic produce of a musical persuasion, and these also happen to provide some of ‘the very best’ performances of this year’s edition. A mightily impressive, and vastly diverse alternative scene has, slowly yet surely, established itself here, with music apparently of paramount importance nationwide. We hear Axel Flóvent’s Forest Fires emanating from a toilet in Geysir; each and every service station we set foot inside is selling Agent Fresco’s latest, Destrier; RÚV’s Rás 2 plays everything from Amaba Dama to Young Karin, as we rumble back to Reykjavík from the staggered, staggering Gullfoss in a knackered Toyota Yaris that the Icelanders are probably too stoic to send to the knackers’ yard. The quotidian integrality of music to British culture may be an increasingly quondam phenomenon, although the geysers, hills, crater lakes, volcanoes and waterfalls of Iceland are very much alive with music today. And so, although the terrain may not be the world’s most fertile, the music scene is consequently among the most fecund I’ve seen in recent times.

From the pulsating, idiosyncratic techno collages of Kiasmos (who, on native territory, put on their finest performance to date) and TRPTYCH, to the bewhiskered escapades of Júníus Meyvant (think an Icelandic Leon Bridges, by way of a bucolic, Legao-like meekness) in a former biscuit factory, there is ample style and amplified refinement at play here. There are lesser, more disappointing moments also, such as Guðmundur ‘Good Moon Deer’ Úlfarsson’s overly elaborate minimal electronica-thon over in Harpa Norðurljós; or the aforementioned Agent Fresco’s excessively bombastic, tinnitus-inducing dins; or Börn’s similarly cacophonous, if dissimilarly lo-fi stylings; or Kimono’s laboured, dated post-punk; or dj. flugvél og geimskip’s jejune nonsenses; or GANGLY’s humdrum, underdone vapidities; or W€$€N’s excessively cutesy kitschiness. Surprises are aplenty too, however, with Milkywhale’s elasticised dance routines and, frankly, ludicrous lyrics (“I wanna meet you/ I wanna eat you” the central refrain from recent single, Birds of Paradise) readily enamouring those luncheoning in The Laundromat Café. Elsewhere, whereas they may be hampered and impinged upon by spatially restrictive venues here in the UK, Vök sound decidedly invincible in Harpa Silfurberg as, complemented by magisterial projections, Waterfall taps into all the allure of Öxarárfoss. Purveyors of prime ‘live house music’, Sísý Ey – a sororal trio backed up by the rather omnipresent producer-cum-DJ, Oculus – emphatically enliven those inside the resplendent Gamla bíó on Friday night, the irresistible Ain’t Got Nobody the sort of sultry smash hit that anyone would go with, were they to give it a bash…

Reykjavíkurdætur, Iceland Airwaves 2015

Doing exactly that, though, is David Berndsen – ‘a bearded iconic pop figure in Iceland’, who very evidently has little issue with confined spaces, Skólavörðustígur’s Geysir (one of umpteen ‘swanky clothes shops’) improbably transformed into a place capable of harnessing the expansive Italo disco of Planet Earth, from 2013. It remains Berndsen’s most recent release, but, given that it taps into the respective lifeworks of the likes of Alexander Robotnick and Baltimora; the unapologetic naffness of Carrara, La Bionda, Den Harrow, Gary Low, Gazebo and, perhaps needless to say, Duran Duran, the past is very much a part of his present. And, passé though most of these songs might sound, they appeal as much to the kid with fingers stuffed down his lugholes down the front as much as they do the bespectacled smokers stood outside, longingly gazing in through glass and condensation likewise. And at €10 for either one of a record or a rub of his belly, with so fine a line in merchandising, it’s easy to see why so many want themselves a piece of such brazenly retrograde stuff as Two Lovers Team.

East of my Youth, Iceland Airwaves 2015

Twenty-odd minutes later, and East of my Youth are up; Thelma Marín Jónsdóttir, Herdís Stefánsdóttir and Guðni Einarsson going on to contrive some of the week’s most immediately beguiling electronica, the latter two’s analog synthesis a most synergic foil for the formermost’s mesmeric vocal. As one half of TRPTYCH also, Einarsson must be about the busiest man in Reykjavík around this time of year, and yet never is there a moment, nor movement that’s lacking in vitality. A vital performance from one of this northerly city’s brightest, most opalescent lights…

Reykjavíkurdætur, Iceland Airwaves 2015

Similarly scintillating are Reykjavíkurdætur, who storm Airwaves with no fewer than six shows, each more rapturously received than the previous. It’s thus their final hurrah, taking over the vast Reykjavík Art Museum, rather than Húrra, which is their most convincing; the twenty-strong hip hop troupe thrashing through hypnotic, tyrannical rap tracks, when not flashing to the trappy Slut. They’ve no more than a mere three microphones, ensuring changeovers have to be smoother than those of, for instance, Aníta Hinriksdóttir’s relay lot; yet they’re a slick assemblage, and having promised ‘a fierce show and some Icelandic spit’, the likes of Brauðmolakenningin ensure their amusingly meta rhymes are lapped up more readily than, say, Låpsley that little bit later on in this same venue.

Vaginaboys, Iceland Airwaves 2015

However, were this Músíktilraunir, rather than Airwaves, there would only be one winner. Because, as ‘the most popular and exciting band in Iceland,’ the enigmatic Vaginaboys enthral, bringing “heart-warming sensual vibes, goosebumps and a rush of blood flowing to your genital area” on a more or less daily basis: trading in tremendously infectious “electronic romance music”, we bear witness to a vocoder masterclass upstairs at the Loft Hostel; to a packed, and newly perfected recital later on at Húrra; to a stripped, Live Lounge-y one at Northern Lights information and exhibition centre, Aurora Reykjavík; and last, but by absolutely no means least, to their “fireworks” show at NASA – for which they’ve enlisted two backing vocalists, in order “to make it a little more ‘Vagina’ than ‘boys’” – which is somewhat bittersweet. Because it signals the final time, for what could be quite some while, that we’ll revel in the nacreous keys of Inn Í Þig; the supple pulses of the superlatively lo-fi Ekki Nóg; their anguished, crestfallen and fucking languid ‘breakout hit’ Elskan Af Því Bara, which was initially only uploaded to YouTube “for storage.” Thus presuming, prematurely, that Vaginaboys are to play, and play similarly unrelentingly next year would be reason enough to return; that they may then contribute to a commensurately masterfully curated line up is another; that Iceland Airwaves ’16 is certain to take place in this pretty much impossibly magical country, however, is that which cinches it. In which case, sjá þig á næsta ári, Ísland! Because, as says one nameless member of the Vaginaboys themselves, “the mysterious is sexier than the obvious.”