Five Discoveries from the Iceland Airwaves Festival

By: John Gaudes 

Even in the near-freezing climate of early November, Iceland is a stunning country to visit. Mountain faces with falling water, deep fjords, spitting geysers, and cap glaciers all stand tall in a country of just 320,000 people.

Iceland’s natural beauty has plenty to offer in its small space – a fitting metaphor for Iceland Airwaves, an urban music festival that’s gained a quiet reputation as one of the world’s friendliest and most diverse.

Taking place in capital city Reykjavik, Airwaves provides a clear window into Iceland’s dynamic and overwhelming music scene. Over 170 Icelandic bands had their name on the lineup this year, playing daytime sets in coffee shops, clothing stores, and hostels for passers by. At night, they were joined by more renowned acts like Hot Chip, Beach House, and Father John Misty at beautiful concert venues and bars around the downtown core.

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With an intensely walkable downtown, Reykjavik provides the perfect setting for such a festival. You’re no more than a five-minute saunter between shows, with sound spilling into the streets and genres spanning rap, folk, electronic, and (not a joke) 16th century classical. Whether the lyrics are in English or Icelandic, the love among locals for listening to and creating music is obvious, and it’s a feeling that infects the 9,000 tourists who migrate in for the festival.

As someone who doesn’t listen to Icelandic bands on the regular (feel free to gloat if you do), there was plenty to discover in my five days at Airwaves. Here are just a few of the bands whose sets I’ll remember best.

Vaginaboys

Though their band name belies something very punk rock, Vaginaboys is four men, self-described feminists, making “experimental electronic romance music”. Wearing masks on stage to hide their identity and, as they describe it, “really bring our inner souls in to our music”, the band rolled through a bunch of stage banter between laid-back, poppy tracks like “Í svefn”. The set was my first of the festival — profoundly weird, yet enticing – an effective starting point for Iceland’s up-and-coming music scene.

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Dad Rocks!

If you’ve ever yearned for alternative rock with horns and lyrics about how technology is poisoning youth, then Dad Rocks! is the band for you. With both Icelandic and Danish members, this six-piece group put in a memorable, melodic set at Gaukurinn, a dive bar and one of the better night venues at Airwaves.

Earnest lyrics are at the heart of Dad Rocks!, as the band was formed after lead singer Snævar Njáll Albertsson became a father in 2009, with songs like “Weapons” reflecting on the world his son and daughter will grow up in. Aw.

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GKR

For a country that has no police homicides since 2013, and no guns at all beyond what’s carried by the government S.W.A.T. team, the underground rap scene in Iceland came as a bit of a surprise. Twenty-year-old GKR is one of the fresher faces on that scene, and he put in a blistering set at downtown bar Gamla Bio.

With “MORGUNMATUR” (loosely translates to breakfast) hitting hardest with the locals, GKR took the opportunity to open travel-sized boxes of cereal and make it rain on a sweaty, moshing crowd. On first look, GKR reminded me a bit of an Icelandic Tyler, the Creator. It was, as the kids say, lit.

Milkywhale

Of all the Icelandic artists, Milkywhale clearly had the coming out party of the week. A two-piece electronic music project spearheaded by choreographer Melkorka Sigríður Magnúsdóttir, Milkywhale got to the essence of what makes Airwaves so special.

Set up in the back corner of a high-end retail outlet on a Friday afternoon, Magnúsdottir turned out Robyn-inspired tracks like “Invisible” with improvised dance, eventually warming a clothing store crowd into an energized dance party. Infectious to a fault, Milkywhale turned in three sets like this one throughout the week, culminating in a packed official show at concert hall Harpa on Saturday night. Turns out building hype does work.

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Braids

While they are admittedly from Canada, I plead home country bias for Braids after their blistering set at NASA theatre on Friday night. I saw them in Winnipeg earlier this year, but the experience was very different this time, with an audience wholly unaware of their music.

Though it’s less apparent in the studio mix of their tracks, drummer Austin Tufts keeps plenty busy with Braids’ songs on 2015’s Deep In The Iris. With staccato rhythms reminiscent of Radiohead, Tufts turns up the volume in a live setting, effectively turning beautiful tracks like “Taste” into an emotional assault.

It’s rare that a drummer is the centre of a crowd’s attention, but Braids had that going for them in Iceland. In awe of Tufts, the crowd cheered him on as he began his riff halfway through disquieting set closer “Miniskirt”, reaching a fever pitch as the Canadians left the stage.

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It was a microcosm of an entire week, a country whose music intelligence bleeds into what they create, which bleeds into a festival like Iceland Airwaves. My first flavour of the international, it was as strange, as breathtaking, and as diverse as the country it takes place in.

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