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The Secret Solstice Diary: Festival of Ice and Fire

on July 07, 2014, 2:00am

Reykjavik’s proximity to the Arctic Circle makes June’s midnight sun tease along the horizon like a hesitant maiden unwilling to embrace her skyline lover aside from a brief 2:00 a.m. kiss. These long, mistful, sunny days allow Secret Solstice to take place beneath a continual dusky light that’s staggering and beautiful.

Iceland’s sunshine is not going to sleep, so neither should you. Fortunately, there are 150 bands, plenty of friendly locals, and a cavalcade of world travelers to keep you company on this journey. And Secret Solstice’s inaugural show was just that, an exciting journey atop a fantastical landscape scored by an impressive array of musical talent and environmental wonder.

What follows is a diary of choice performances and observations from this odyssey. These words could never hope to capture the rare artistry — both man-made and natural — that enveloped this unique and exotic gathering of musicians and festivalgoers. But please enjoy, and start saving those Kroner because next year’s show is just a few dreamy seasons away.

Arrival

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It’s dawn. Fifty kilometers of volcanic rock pave the shuttle ride between Keflavík’s international airport and Reykjavik, Iceland’s most populous city. Secret Solstice is going to be an experience like no other. Iceland is also like nothing I’ve ever seen before. A Hawaiian island and Irish coast mashed together, made even more exotic by percolating hot springs that bubble beneath a dewy morning breeze. A coffee-fueled delirium takes hold as I step off the ride and into my hostel.

The key clicks, the door shuts behind me, and I’m met with a naked girl napping on the bed next to mine. Unsure if this is a product of sleep deprivation, I muster a deep breath before creeping inside, hoping not to wake the beauty that rests on the adjacent mattress. But my creaking steps and gum-smacking nerves generate too much noise and she’s up.

A tense pause blossoms into laughter. The awkwardness cracks us up.

“Didn’t think you were arriving until tomorrow,” she yawns above the cotton sheet clutched to her chest. I’m booked to stay with British performers all week long in Reykjavik, so it’s best to get used to these random encounters and odd exchanges. We swap pleasantries and discuss which bands we’re excited to see. She shares that people have been arriving all week. “It’s good that you’re here because the Solstice party has already started.”

A contemplative smile spans my cheekbones. I pretend that this happens all of the time.

The Festival Grounds

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A dirt path leads me past lodgings and campsites and wildflower fields. The festival is getting closer. Deep and dancey rumbles echo off a gymnasium wall. Cement balls, truck tires, and other bits of improvised workout equipment are strewn along the trail. Iceland is home to more winners of the World’s Strongest Man competition than any other nation. It’s intriguing, but the entrance gates of Secret Solstice beckon me past the makeshift playground for giants.

Secret Solstice utilizes five stages. They’re spread out across acres of green land, a hockey rink, and a soccer pitch. The designers did an exceedingly fine job of putting together a space that combines the lushness of Iceland with two heaping scoops of Viking decor and statues. Carved Norse soldiers stand guard and wave banners along a tract of trees that slice the location in half. Giant yellow orbs dot stages in tribute to the summer solstice. It’s the longest day of the year. Hammocks, swings, and streamers adorn the premises. There’s also plenty of tempting food throughout the site, including Iceland’s famous lamb hot dogs, which go great with the sparkling Icelandic water.

Banks

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Photo by Robert Altman

Banks is a rising star. Her potential is high, and her presence is beyond large. Banks’ performance at Secret Solstice also cements many positive superlatives that get tossed around, even though her debut album, Goddess, won’t be released until early September. She won’t settle for rookie status. The 26-year-old from Los Angeles has a lot to say and carries herself as a serious performer.

Banks bookends “Drowning” and each cut that follows with humble stories of inspiration. She thanks the swelling crowd of onlookers with dignity, grace. Banks shares that every song is spawned with just her and a keyboard. Despite these basic origins, the tunes are gigantic and powerful, especially the titular track, which reminds all the women and men in the crowd that they too are goddesses and gods and that we’re all lucky to have each other.

She previews plenty of unreleased material for the Solstice crowd, and it’s a real treat. But the highlight is a cover version of the late Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?” It’s a stripped-down rendition with Banks handling both Aaliyah’s angelic vocals and Timbaland’s diplomatic breakdown. She’s even tweaked a few of the lyrics to praise and thank the wonderful people of Iceland, plus all who decided to take in her set. But we know better and thank her.

The Green Festival

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Secret Solstice is also incredibly efficient. The vast majority of Iceland’s energy comes from harnessing the geothermal heat that lies underneath the ground in magma chambers and geysers. Even the bath water is naturally heated and pressurized enough to send it up a 10-story building. Secret Solstice’s ecological footprint is among the smallest in the world, which is incredible for an event of this magnitude and duration.

Everything is so clean. The sheer number of volunteers on refuse patrol is stunning and eclipses just about every festival I’ve ever been to. Then again, the fact that these sanitary sentries get in for free speaks volumes about how far people were willing to go to catch one day of Solstice’s bands, rappers, and DJs.

Massive Attack

Massive Attack

Judging by the audience congregating thousands deep, these tunes get around and sneak onto many summertime playlists. They’ve been doing that for a while. Frontmen Robert Del Naja and Grant “Daddy G” Marshall are natural performers with an air of European sophistication and mystery that’s sinister, like the rogue branch of a royal family. A techno eeriness drips from the speakers and pairs well with the feminine vocals that soar over Secret Solstice’s unofficial anthem, “Teardrop”, while the menace of “Angel” keeps the crowd thrashing along.

Massive Attack have always been subversive, and their stage show maintains this proud tradition. Messages criticizing war, greed, commercialism, social media, and celebrity culture flash across six gigantic LED screens as the band explores trip-hop cuts from Mezzanine and 2010’s underrated Heligoland. I can’t even tell how long they’re playing because my phone is dead. Everyone is entranced. The guy next to me catches sight of the setlist and says time constraints might cut off the last few tracks. Regardless, this is what I came to experience. Everyone is dancing, smiling. Some nearby girls help translate the Icelandic phrases that occasionally crawl across screens: “This one is making fun of Justin Bieber.”

Hands in the Air

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The artists’ lounge is filled with smoke and camaraderie. Two men are arm wrestling. One of them is nearly nude. Onlookers stack a pile of bets that resemble the world’s cheekiest Jenga game. It rains 5,000 Kroner bills. Put your money where your mouth is! Who will emerge triumphant? Suddenly, there’s a firm rap on the door. Several matter-of-fact police officers walk in to investigate the swelling ruckus. They’re intimidating, with the strong jaws and light eyes that speak of a viking ancestry and maybe even visits to the Strong Man Gym. Anyone of them could snap the hands off the two jovial Brits engaged in mortal arm combat.

But the cops in Iceland are different than the ones we’re used to. In fact, 2013 marked the first fatal shooting by an officer in the country’s long history. It was so rare as to make international headlines. Sweet home Chicago has desensitized me to commonplace crimes and excessive law enforcement, but Iceland is a remarkably safe country, beyond rival. Police don’t need to overreact. To take liberties with Jackass star Chris Pontius’ assessment of evenhanded policing: “The [Icelandic] cops are stern, stern but fair.”

Police

Nothing “illegal” is going on in this room other than a whole lot of horseplay and backstage bonding. The boys in blue make for the exit. Before they depart, UK DJ Rami Ali — fresh off his dynamic afternoon set atop the Askur stage — asks the officers if they’ll get in on this action and at least place one wager before bouncing out. This bit of levity is enough to make the cops drop their guard. The whole room, badges and spectators alike, erupts in a fit of laughter.

I never did find out who walked out the winner, though, because I follow the cops out and make my way to the Gimli stage. Johnny and the Rest have already launched into a rastafied outing of “Mama Ganja” followed by a short-tempoed blues version of “Good Times”. The crowd sways as the afternoon winds float the smell of food truck waffles. I wonder how many of those delicious, cream-covered delights the arm wrestling winner can purchase?

The Hel Stage

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The Hel stage is a sight to behold. It’s housed at the far end of a hockey rink that has a sound quality that’s better than most discos and clubs. DJs have been spinning since noon to an ebb and flow of crowds looking to escape the outdoors for a dance. But now it’s 1 a.m., and the room is nearing capacity as Jamie Jones marches onto the stage. Within a couple of songs, it’s easy to see why everyone has gathered.

Jones is relentless. He juggles beats off Different Sides of the Sun like an athletic forward attacking an open net. Plenty of time to demonstrate his skills game. Power and finesse at once, untamable and completely unabashed. Everyone is dancing and smiling and loving their neighbors. Beer cans and wine glasses splash laser reflections as a body-trembling bass punches your guts.

Artists who have already performed raise a toast near the benches. They’re sticking around to party all week in Reykjavík, a town held in high esteem for its wild nightlife and enchanting cuisine. Daddy G gives honest pours of champagne and whiskey to other members of Massive Attack, while Robert Del Naja discusses the richness of the indoor speaker system. Here, mixology skills favor generosity over practicality. The dark indoor rink eclipses a 4 a.m. sun with an artificial nightfall. Gyrating bodies melt into one another like icebergs. No one is going to sleep tonight.

Múm

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I fell in love with Múm’s quixotic ambiance after a cousin burned me a copy of Summer Make Good years ago. The Icelandic group was a late addition to Solstice’s lineup. And everyone is happy that the set has arrived. Múm don’t quite fit the glitchy label attached by music critics and Wikipedia entries and certainly can’t be relegated to a background sound. Their cherub vocals pair with a trial-and-error exploration of odd instruments and harmonies, giving them a distinctive vibration deserving of the same high regards affixed to contemporary acts like Sigur Rós.

I lean against the security fence and watch as the group tunes up and double checks their range. It’s not often that a soundcheck can mesmerize like this, but that’s exactly what’s happening. The multi-instrumental players swap violins, cellos, guitars, and synths with ease. This polyamorous love of musical tools continues throughout the actual show as the bandmates cavort about the stage, switch spots, and blur melodic lines. Their harmonics sound like fallen angels who stand at the gates of a Dirty Projectors concert. The diversity of the Solstice acts and unreal sunshine is warming the hearts of all the lovely people in attendance. This moment is surreal.

Schoolboy Q

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Schoolboy Q made a lot of headlines this week. Three people were shot and wounded following a Nas-Q show at Red Rocks in Colorado. And it appears the shooting was anything but random, with Schoolboy Q at the top of the hit list. This gang-motivated violence is still being sorted out. Crimes like these rarely get solved, but a brush with death won’t stop Q from making the trip to Iceland.

The Secret Solstice staff hires extra bodyguards to make sure the young, south LA-based rapper can keep the show going without fear or delay. There won’t be any photo pit allowed for this set, though. Even Q acknowledges that it feels weird not being able to leap into the crowd with ease, but given the seriousness of the situation, these precautions seem reasonable.

“I Don’t Like” and “Love Sosa” spin as the DJ’s turntables meld the Windy City sounds of Chicago’s favorite juvenile delinquent, Chief Keef, into Schoolboy Q’s grand entrance to this headlining gig atop the Valholl stage. Schoolboy Q doesn’t discuss recent events. You can tell he is happy to put some distance — both geographically and temporally — between himself and the dangers that haunt him stateside.

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Q opens with an energetic, crowd-pleasing throwdown of 2014’s Oxymoron closer “Fuck LA”, following it immediately with the Kid Cudi/Lizzie-sampling “Hands on the Wheel”. He gives props to homeboys A$AP Rocky and Tyler, The Creator and informs the crowd that “even though the sun won’t go down, I’m still trying to have a hell of night” before running through a number of cuts from Habits and Contradictions, as well as a variety of songs off mixtapes and EPs.

The night came to a close with an uproarious crowd sing-along to “Man of the Year” and Q promised to return to beautiful Iceland many times in the years to come. It was a perfect closer to the night. My spirits, a touch weak after hearing that the Portugal vs. USA soccer match ended in a tie, remain jubilant. What a week! Some men stress over bullets, while others think too much about soccer balls. But the only thing Secret Solstice festivalgoers mull over after three days of uninterrupted music is where the after party be at!

After-Party at the Blue Lagoon Spa

The Blue Lagoon

The sun is still up. Hostels are thinning out as folks head east toward next weekend’s Glastonbury Festival. But the Solstice organizers schedule one last victory lap in celebration of the lively artists and staff who made Secret Solstice a shimmering musical achievement. Buses arrive. Off we go to the Blue Lagoon.

All of Iceland is stunning and wondrous, but the Blue Lagoon is a rare gem. Like Secret Solstice, it’s more an experience than a destination . And I don’t know if it can ever be topped. Imagine an enormous outdoor pool of chest-high, warm water that sprawls over misty acres. Add in naturally occurring, youth-enhancing silica mud, a waterside bar, and an event-closing set from Icelandic heroes Gluteus Maximus, and you’ve got a blissful evening without rival.

Fellow music journalist Chris Sea remarked, “Some might call this heaven.” And I think he’s completely right about that.

So long, and Takk Takk for All the Fish

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Secret Solstice’s lineup ran the gamut from headline rappers and trip-hop pioneers to up-and-coming electronic artists and acoustic swingers, all built upon an endearing landscape of Martian extremes. Likewise, the Icelandic music scene boasts cool edges bathed under a glowing sky of flames. Secret Solstice took advantage of these polarities and established itself as the new summer kickoff for Europe’s vast festival circuit.

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