9 Icelandic Acts (And One Adopted Son) That Dazzled at Iceland Airwaves | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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John Grant

Iceland Airwaves 2015

9 Icelandic Acts (And One Adopted Son) That Dazzled at Iceland Airwaves,

Nov 16, 2015 Photography by Laura Studarus Iceland Airwaves 2015: Day Three
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Björk and Sigur Rós cast long shadows over this year’s Iceland Airwaves. Ever the nation’s musical ambassadors, both managed made an impact without performing. Björk, (who was once slated to headline) hosted a press conference to discuss environmental initiatives, while Sigur Rós debuted a new concert film. With the lack of a big-name Icelandic show, the sixteen annual edition of the fest became an excellent hunting ground for new and upcoming artists. Outsiders may still see Iceland as a magical place—and certainly the sheer amount of top shelf talent the island produces does seem to indicate a touch of supernatural. But very few of the new class of Icelandic artists could have the word “ethereal” attached to their music. From down and dirty to divine, here are some of our favorite home team acts to make a splash at this year’s festival.


Behold: a new band with several names you might already know: Sindri Már Sigfússon (Sin Fang), Jófríður Ákadóttir (Samaris/Pascal Pinon), and Úlfur Alexander Einarsson (Oyama). But like the Wonder Twins with their powers combined (wonder triplets?), Gangly is a completely different beast than their other bands, full sprawling electronic soundscapes with a touch of R&B, and enough sass to avoid the all-too cliché Icelandic tag, “glacial.” (There are no glaciers in the city of Reykjavik. Please, tell a friend.) Gangly is a misleading name, since the word suggests adolescent awkwardness. Sprawling, epic, and thoughtful, this is a group with music ready for the big leagues.


I “discovered” Tonik Ensemble at a pool party, so I can attest that Anton Kaldal Agustsson’s work sounds incredibly great when heard from underwater speakers. (Side note: if you find yourself in Reykjavík, go for a dip at Sundhöllin.) But even on dry land, there’s something magical about his brand downbeat ambient. Ghostly vocal drones, crackling backbeats, live sax, and moments of minimalism—on paper any description of his recent album Snapshots feels a bit like an exercise in music elitism of the highest order. But it comes together in a blend that’s both emotionally satisfying and easy to listen to…even if you don’t know your EDM from trance. Agustsson’s work makes for a stunning, watery world—but I suspect it would sound just as good on dry land.


Like most of the other Icelandic artists to play Airwaves, Sóley spoke in English during her solo set at Slippbarinn, charming the audience with quips about her parenting skills (“I got pregnant and started writing really sad songs”) and apologizing to stop and chug apple cider vinegar. (“Nasty stuff!”) Likewise, her music carries with it a whiff of intimacy. The former Sin Fang member’s gentle compositions on both keys and guitar felt like tiny universes, and served as the perfect emotional respite from crazy festival life.


With 19 members, who often perform in nude body stockings, feminist rap collective Reykjavíkurdætur wouldn’t have to do much too much to hop on most people’s radars. Their sheer size and gender slant are memorable enough to earn status as a novelty act. But the band’s challenging lyrics in both Icelandic and English (sex, slut-slamming, and politics all make appearances), coordinated dance moves, and aggressive rap flows place them in the legitimate artist bucket. Empowering, with tongues placed firmly in cheek, it clear that Reykjavik’s Daughters know exactly what they’re making fun of. They’ll let you in on the joke—but they refuse to become one themselves.


The temptation here is to call Grísalappalísa pop/punk. But I’m not going to do that, because you’ll be thinking Blink 182 when the reality was closer to, say, Bowie with an axe to grind. It should go without saying: if you ever have a chance to see seven glitter-covered Icelandic men scream at the top of their lungs…and then perform a set that includes horns, dance moves, and stage dives, you must do it. Skydiving and swimming with dolphins are lame bucket list items anyway.


Most bands don’t have the kind of character needed to successfully pull off a compelling show when music is created by punching buttons and turning dials. (Which is why I secretly believe most electronic musicians are sneaking mid-show peeks at their Facebooks.) But then there’s Kiasmos. Best friends, music geeks, and composers in ever sense of the word, Janus Rasmussen and Ólafur Arnalds aren’t satisfied with half-measures. With not an iPad in sight, the two men managed a show that managed to somehow improve upon the already standout disco groves, ambient synth drones, and throbbing, post-pop swirl of their self-titled debut. Plus they managed to look like they were having the time of their lives in the process, leading by example with gleefully wanton moves.


I am not historically a punk person, so that fact that a band that traffics in loud louder loudest makes my favorite sets of the festival is impressive. Muck look like metal kids and sing like they’ve got a mouth for pebbles, but rest assured that’s a compliment. The air was hot and heavy inside the tiny punk club Gaukurinn, and the guitar licks were even heavier, making it a set that was easy to lose yourself in—even if the de facto mosh pit area was shockingly empty. (Icelanders = not agro?) Even though, I felt kinda tough just listening. It was a nice break from my life, where I am generally considered to be about as threatening as a My Little Pony.


I never hit as may off-venues as I would like to at a fest. Which makes catching Wesen at Bíó Paradís (a local movie theater) all the more rewarding. The male/female electronic duo pushed through some sound issues to play a low-key set that came across not unlike an early entry in Zero 7’s catalogue. It might have been the middle of the afternoon, but cocktail hour levels of chill were already in full swing.


Högni Egilsson heads up his solo project and GusGus. But the frontman is at his best at the helm of Hjaltalín. The band’s Friday night set at Harpa was an exercise in dramatics of the orchestral, pop, vocal, and well-tressed, kind. Icelandic Arcade Fire? While comparing one band to another is an exercise in folly of the highest order, evoking Win Butler and the gang is a good a place to start.


John Grant does not originally hail from Reykjavik. But his sold-out Iceland Airwaves set confirmed that the American singer/songwriter (who now lives in Iceland) has been fully embraced as the country’s favorite adopted son. His Thursday night headlining performance at Harpa was treated as a spectacular homecoming, as he performed highlights from Grey Tickles, Black Pressure and Pale Green Ghosts with accompaniment from the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. Impressively, he also spoke fluent Icelandic and English between songs, a slightly unexpected feat, given his lyrics high level of self-deprecation. (Sample: “I wanted to change the world/but couldn’t even change my underwear.” It felt refreshing to be part of a crowd that cheered on a song inspired Woody Allen’s Interiors (“Geraldine”), didn’t bulk at lyrics that include SAT vocab like “obsequious,” and fully embraced the singer/songwriter’s rampant wordplay. Fact: John Grant may be the GMF you’ll ever meet. But he’s Iceland’s GMF.



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