FESTIVAL REVIEW: Iceland Airwaves, 06-09/11/2019

FESTIVAL REVIEW: Iceland Airwaves, 06-09/11/2019

At around 1.30pm on Saturday 9th November in an empty Reykjavik City Hall eight people dressed as witches and warlocks and wearing horror masks danced and crawled around the floor and generally made themselves scary. I thought it might be Extinction Rebellion or another protest group, or that Halloween was later in Iceland.

As it turned out it was a promotion for Of Monsters and Men and their ‘homecoming’ gig that night, one of the final events of this year’s Iceland Airwaves (Or ‘Icelandair X Waves’ as the sponsoring airline appears to have rebranded it this year), the 20th in the series. The track ‘Alligator’ from OMAM’s latest album that was being played dimly through a speaker and a flag featuring an eye, the same as the album sleeve design, should have been a giveaway to anyone who knows the band but it certainly isn’t the case that everyone in Iceland, a very conservative society, is even aware of them. Otherwise, there was no other promotion, no hand-outs, nothing. In any event the country is so overrun with tourists now that it really is a case of ‘spot the resident’.

Welcome to the weird but wonderful world of Iceland.

This can’t be anything like a full review of the event, which also included high standard conference sessions with panellists from across the world. There were over 150 individual performances and many times that number of associated on- and off- venue shows, most of them crammed into a small area only half a mile square at most of the legendary downtown district postcode 101 Reykjavik. You are literally spoiled for choice and Sod’s Law dictates that if there are three artists/bands you really want to see on any one day they will be scheduled for pretty much the same time. We’ve all been there…

So I restricted myself in part to artists I’ve featured in Nordic Music Review (NMS) but had never seen live, or only rarely, rather than the likes of John Grant, Orville Peck, Mac DeMarco, Japanese girl-band CHAI and OMAM (who were recently reviewed here: https://www.godisinthetvzine.co.uk/2019/11/04/live-review-of-monsters-and-men-academy-1-manchester-01-11-2019/). This is a primary ‘new artist’ showcase event as much as are the Reeperbahn, Great Escape and Eurosonic festivals and the spin-off for some of these Nordic artists is to be featured here as well, for your delectation (there were few other UK journalists/writers this year).

I twice made the mistake of thinking I was going to see the well-known Icelandic composer Olafur Arnalds. On the first occasion it was actually Gabriel Olafs, at the KEX Hostel, a popular venue over the years. He and his string quartet ensemble were only ‘on-venue’ here and it was only 2pm but the place was crowded and they had to stream him live on a big screen next door, which was just as good.

On the second occasion it was Ólöf Arnalds, who is a woman. She sings her indie-folk mainly in Icelandic, possibly about the disappointing cod catch this week for all I know. She’s very popular but her songs are hardly international in flavour.

I chastised myself for these mistakes until I remembered the (true) story about the high-society brigade who showed up en masse at a posh Sheffield venue once in evening suits and black dresses only to be seen leaving it equally en masse a few minutes later. They’d turned out to watch Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. The actual artist was Tanita Tikaram, twisting the suits in her sobriety.

Next up were a unique band I’ve wanted to see for six years since I discovered them and ended up doing so twice on successive nights; the electro-pop masters that are sugar sweet, hence their name Sykur and especially their front woman, the amazing Agnes Björt Andradóttir, tonight with hair like prizewinning carrots. They’ve just released a new EP, their third, called ‘JÁTAKK’ and it will be reviewed in NMS. The songs from it don’t seem quite as strong as some of the previous ones and they made up most of the set both at Slippbarinn, a venue in the bar of a hotel, and the following night at Gamla Bio, a tastefully converted cinema, But Agnes’ lungs were pumping away as powerfully as ever and there are few bands that can compete with Sykur for sheer dynamism and charisma.

Bríet I’ve previously highlighted in NMS, contributing to an Olafur Arnalds track. She’s pop/R&B with a big emo voice but she surprised a big audience in the main hall of the Reykjavik Art Museum with a visually stunning display, entering the stage wearing a hooded black outfit which made her look like The Grim Reaper, and appearing to be about 6’ 4” tall in platforms that must have been eight inches.

Later in the set, having changed, she let a muscular dancer throw her around the stage.  But the biggest eye-opener were the screen visuals behind her, mainly revolving interpretations of her head, and a chilling white wolf, and which came together perfectly with the music. Oh, and she can sing. I checked her out again in Slippbarinn again the following evening to confirm that, when she sang alone to just backing tape music and a drummer. One to watch.

Axel Flóvent I’d heard good things about but at the Hard Rock Café he was an Icelandic Ed Sheeran. Need I say more?

Quickly back to the Art Museum for the UK’s Georgia, who is relentlessly bigged up just now. She’s a White Stripe-alike, hammering away at drums and from a standing position. But perhaps she puts a little bit too much emphasis on the percussion at the expense of the vocals? For me, she doesn’t have the same wow factor as Briet.

The half-Greek, half-Norwegian Amanda Tenfjord has often featured in NMS as ‘the next big thing’. On this night, back at the Hard Rock again, she dashed across that line like a 100-metre sprinter. I often imagined she would be timid when playing live and that is how she often appears in videos. But the Greek side was in charge, confidence simply flowed out of her, she delivered every song brilliantly and one of them, co-written with her guitarist, was one of the most powerful songs I’ve heard all year. Watch your back, Sigrid, you’ve got serious competition.

The well-known local guitarist and experimental musician Pétur Ben played two shows that I saw, a raunchy set at Dillons, a whisky bar; and a slightly more sedate one at a Lutheran church, Frikirkjan, although there was still plenty of strong language there. (And John Grant followed the previous night; I don’t know what the parishioners thought about it). It wasn’t the experimental gig I envisaged, rather a set of acoustic classic covers (the first was ‘Stayin’ Alive’), some of them delivered in the church along with guests – the Icelandic diva Emiliana Torrini and someone called Helge.

I wanted to see the Finnish rockers The Holy but the queue (one out, one in) was about 100-deep, so that was that.

There are few artists that would introduce themselves to the audience as “one of a family of eight siblings, raised on a farm where I was the family’s arch curser, aged seven”, but then Soffía Björg ‘s honesty is one of the factors that attracted me to this clever writer and wordsmith who appeared solo off-venue at Joe and the Juice and then on-venue the following night at Kornlaðan with a band including Pétur Ben (above) and Iceland’s #1 bassist, Ingibjὂrg Elsa Turchi.

There is something Joni Mitchell about Soffía as she performed songs mainly from her debut album such as ‘The Road’ and her futile attempt to give up dating and become a spinster, ‘Back and back again’.

 

 

All her songs are straight from the heart and now she’s frozen herself out of her job as a tour guide inside a glacier hopefully more will follow.

Siobhan Wilson phoned in sick so the next artist was Norway’s Siv Jakobsen, back at the Frikirkjan church. Jakobsen has always had a beautiful, fragile voice but on her to be released album she’s exceeded the standards she’d previously set.

Always dressed in black, with black hair and pale skin, Siv could be Morticia from The Addams Family at a glance but during her set of songs from the new album and previous ones she registered some notes that were quite divine and one, in ‘Blanket’, that defied description. With her uniquely sad ballads (one new song she described as “the happiest I ever wrote” starts with the line “I’ll never be over you”) she occupies a place that no-one else does in the UK and I’m confident that this album will be her breakthrough here.

Iceland’s Mammύt were the first rock band I saw and rock in general seemed to be in a minority compared to singer-songwriters. The female vocalist is out of the Björk mould but the three songs that were allowed before I had to shoot off yet again were of a fairly plodding nature. They are, though, very popular locally.

I stayed on at Gamla Bio after Sykur for GDRN, a hot Icelandic artist who had a tough act to follow. She has a strong local following (which, in truth, is all that many of them desire) but while she put on a good show I saw little to suggest anything special.

Which leads me on to the night’s headline act at that venue, one I was keen to see. Norway’s Girl in Red (Marie Ringheim) played three shows at the festival and has made a big impression these last two years. But on the night I was underwhelmed. I would categorise many of her songs as ‘pop-punk’. She’s very active physically and when she isn’t singing she’s talking away like an excited 14-year old with a new ‘phone and about the same subjects. She doesn’t so much know how to get a young audience onside as does it instinctively.

Her all-male band mates are even more energetic, jumping around incessantly like they’ve got ants in their pants.

But the songs are mostly thin, tuneless, one or two chord affairs, the guitarists’ fingers barely moving on the fret board. Her ballads are better.

I even got the feeling she’s been manufactured, or more likely that she has identified herself, as an antidote to the angelic presence of compatriots Aurora and Sigrid, as a sort of female 21st century Buzzcocks or even The Sex Pistols. But that department is already occupied by Sløtface and they do it better and with much more melody.

W. H. Lung seem to be as keen on identifying themselves to their audience as were fellow Mancunians Wu Lyf. They played their set to a packed Gaukurinn with barely a word spoken. Their songs are long, intricately wrapped around synth riffs which suggest New Order but with less bass and heavy on guitar effects.

Along the way I saw a few unknown artists by chance, of the hundreds who were performing. Omotrace at Dillons are Iceland’s answer to Erasure and representative of the hundreds of laudable Icelandic artists who go unnoticed outside the country.

Then at a Nordic countries’ cultural event I attended, along with Siv Jakobsen (above) and Lydmor (below) were Pink Milk, a Swedish duo which, along with compatriots like Memoria, are describing a new Goth-anchored rock sound in Sweden.

Even though she was the last artist I saw – and what a memory to take away on the long pre-dawn drive out to the airport through a lava field and in a howling gale – I’ve purposefully left Lydmor until last. I saw this Danish lady, Jenny Rossander, in Manchester at this time last year and was totally blown away. Again I managed to see her twice here, this time in the space of a couple of hours.

Firstly, she showed up unexpectedly at the Nordic Culture House along with Siv Jakobsen and Pink Milk, playing a heart-tugging three song piano-only set which had the audience – mainly music industry luminaries from around the Nordic countries – welling up. It is very rare that I compare anyone with this lady but she really was the Danish Fiona Apple.

Two hours later at Hresso she adopted her aggressive electro-pop persona and she could have been a completely different artist altogether, in her body paint and surrounded by flashing neon bulbs and strobes. The set was simply awesome, a word I never use. She was every bit as innovative as Madonna ever was when she started out. Apple to Madonna in the blink of an eye, just think about that.

Lydmor ticks all the boxes; the girl has everything. She writes the smartest, most poetic lyrics without ever being a smart-arse. Every single song is a powerful statement, be it a ballad or full-on EDM (and sometimes both in the same song). She has a terrific voice and a magnetic personality. She’s always doing the unexpected, particularly coming down forcefully into the audience and addressing its members individually like a Shakespearean soliloquy during the mysterious ‘Claudia’, written during her time in Shanghai.

And, here’s the rub, the new material that will form her second album is even better than the first.

For my money she’s the most ground-breaking, inventive artist in Europe right now, possibly in the world. If you get a chance to see her, you must take it. I hope she finds the success in the UK that she deserves.

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