Iceland Airwaves, Reykjavik, Iceland, November 2-4, 2023 | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Sunday, April 14th, 2024  

Gaukurinn, one of the festival's many venues

Hauschka, Trentemøller, Spacestation, Virta

Iceland Airwaves, Reykjavik, Iceland, November 2-4, 2023,

Nov 20, 2023 Photography by Thelma Arngrims (Lead photo) Web Exclusive
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Over its twenty-five-year history, Iceland Airwaves has gone through a sequence of transformations. If there was a tour around all ever-existing festival locations, the accompanying map of Reykjavik would be red with dots all over the place. Formerly based at Harpa, the country’s biggest concert hall, the current headquarters of the festival took over the city’s flea market Kolaportið with the ticket office and conference space occupying the area normally filled with stalls and bric-à-brac. This somehow reflects a pragmatic strategy of the current management.

Although the festival still maintains the status of the biggest event in Iceland, some artists believe that the showcase captures only a fraction of the local music scene. Others feel dissatisfied either with the current effort to keep off-venues to a minimum and charge the remaining ones a high fee or with the fact that sponsoring company IcelandAir is involved in the deportation of immigrants. Regardless of their motivation, quite a few Icelandic musicians teamed up to run an alternative programme.

In response to the Airwaves hierarchical approach, where the line-up is split between on and off-venues (for ticket holders and free-entry respectively), some artists joke saying that they run “a very off-off-venue”. A two-dayer, organised by the local paper Reykjavik Grapevine, discloses and emphasises the acts that would otherwise be less obvious. Five-piece collective Spacestation are a cross between Spacemen 3 and Blur with one of their Gretsch playing guitarists looking like young Pete Kember. They play at Djúpið (translates as The Deep), a cave-like cosy basement place with an entrance facing the most popular hot dog place in town. Hence, tourists pop up and cheer the band.

Reykjavik Art Museum (Photo by Thelma Arngrims)
Reykjavik Art Museum (Photo by Thelma Arngrims)

Unlike Spacestation, also performing this year at the festival’s off-venues, four-piece art punk collective Skoffin runs a show outside the programme. At a backyard of local bar Lemmy, the band let off steam through vigorous jumping and guitar riffs so intense that frontman Jóhannes Bjarkason’s fingers bleed, spraying the bridge of his Fender with a thin layer of red. At some point, the communal frenzy is ignited and the audience starts slamming with gusto.

In 2018, when the festival management changed and Iceland Airwaves was taken over by the concert company Sena, the off-venue programme ceased to be a diverse showcase of global talent. Since then, up-and-coming and, especially, foreign acts have appeared less, and priority is given to local better-known performers. Oddly, despite being well-established in Iceland and beyond, these off-venue acts don’t have a detailed profile on the festival site.

One of the off-venue artists is Steinunn Eldflaug Harðardóttir aka DJ Flugvél Og Geimskip (DJ Airplane and Spaceship), doing her only show during the festival at 12 Tónar, an iconic vinyl record store and cafe. On Friday evening, it’s chock-a-block with the artist’s fans of all ages. Equipped with synths, a sampler and accompanied by a toy alien, the artist starts her space-y set with a composition that she wrote shortly before the event to extend her support to the people of Palestine. “I hope we can all think about all human beings together tonight and remember in the world many things happening at the same time. We are here, feeling good while I’m playing music, and there is also someone, feeling sadness. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, we can hold everything in one open heart”. Disarmingly playful and charming, DJ Flugvél Og Geimskip reminds everyone present of the joy that people, distracted by overwhelming news, sometimes fail to notice or aim for.

On the same evening, at 19th-century Lutheran church Fríkirkjan, composer ​​Kristín Björk Kristjánsdóttir aka Kira Kira delivers a similar message suggesting the audience think of their loved ones. “Remember we are not just playing music here – we are actually performing magic”. With the subtle arrangement comprising keyboards, strings and tubular bells, Kristjánsdóttir and her band create a gossamer of sounds that conjure up the mythological Moirai and their fabric of destiny. There is something imponderable in this music, sparse and dense at once.

While off-venues hosting local acts often have a full house, foreign well-known musicians playing at bigger spaces do not enjoy equal attention. Strange to see Berlin-based pianist and producer Hauschka performing before approximately 200 people at Gamla Bíó, an old cinema converted into a concert venue. American composer Dustin O’Halloran, appearing on stage shortly after, gets a bigger audience. Still, the contrast between attendance at off and on venues is striking. One might wonder how the festival team manages to keep their head above water financially.

Hauschka (Photo by Florian Trykowski)
Hauschka (Photo by Florian Trykowski)

Still, some headliners are more on-demand than others. On Saturday evening, most attendees head to Reykjavik Art Museum. The queue for the show of Danish electronic producer Trentemøller starts nearly five hundred metres away from the venue. Facing the museum, Gaukurinn bar has smaller queues that stay outside until the security staff is instructed to let people in. This takes five minutes and longer while the bouncers explain that the venue is at full capacity. Getting in, one can see that the bar and venue area is half-empty.

Playing at basement room Nýló in Kex Hostel, a venue at the edge of the festival area, Finnish trio Virta is a confirmation that Iceland Airwaves is still capable of surprising a visitor who gets jaded easily. With the name that translates as “electricity, stream”, their freeform compositions incorporate elements as contrasting as contemporary jazz, drone-y post-rock and hypnotic traditional song. Their album Horros was released earlier this year on Finnish label Svart Records whose signing Mikko Joensuu played Airwaves in 2017. The connection between Svart and the festival has seemingly remained strong. Gratifyingly, the label’s artists are always a breath of fresh air in the somewhat predictable environment otherwise.

What’s the verdict? To some sceptics, Iceland Airwaves might be past its prime time. Next year, the festival turns 25, with its first edition organised in 1999. Despite all the changes and incarnations, Iceland Airwaves is certainly a catalyst for the local artistic community, who are either pro or anti. Yet, it’s important to pay attention to things happening beyond the festival bubble. At least, before Airwaves might decide to go back to its more all-inclusive previous version.




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