Photo by Nina Corcoran
Venue-hopping in Reykjavik during Iceland Airwaves is a curious proposition: You bundle up severely to make sure you can handle the biting cold and frequent rain, but then the second you get into a venue, all the warm bodies and heating systems combine to make those layers unbearable. Such was the case for the intimate but massive performance from Sóley, the singer-songwriter’s hours-long performance at tiny experimental space Mengi packed to capacity, attendees stripping off dripping jackets and hats, all glasses steamed up within a second of entering the room. That highly engaged crowd meant too that it was difficult to see much of anything if you didn’t plan ahead and get there early.
Luckily, Sóley’s enchanting songs (which take shape somewhere in the mystical realm that both Joanna Newsom and Julia Holter operate within) more than made up for any temperature or vision problems, her piano augmented by strings, bass, and more as if by magic. The Icelandic crowd seemed familiar with much of what she performed, but an electricity ran through the room as she announced the start of new material. The first of which she explained was her first song written exclusively in major keys, all for her daughter. “I’ve started making mommy music, which I never wanted to do,” she shrugged. But when the muse strikes with a sweet lullaby melody like this, it’s good that she didn’t say no.
Photo by Lior Phillips
The best thing about attending festivals in countries other than your own is finding an already exciting and prominent band you had no idea even existed. One such band at my time in Iceland Airwaves was Fufanu. They’ve gotten some coverage in America, but they’ve apparently been one of the “It” bands of Iceland for a couple of years now — and the thrilling, cool, and composed performance showed it. Led by mischievous frontman Kaktus Einarsson and his maybe ironic swagger, the quartet dug through some impeccably composed new wave and post-punk-indebted goodness. “Do you mind coming closer?” Einarsson mugged at the under-enthusiastic crowd, blowing raspberries and rolling his eyes after they failed to catch his attempted stage dive. “We want it close, we want it loud, we want it sober and erotic,” he deadpanned. They spent a lot of time on tracks from their upcoming record, Sports, including the rippling, sublime title track and the threatening “Bad Rockets”. By set’s end, Einarsson had windmill-spiked his microphone and kicked over the drumset. Like the self-aware, smart-ass little brother Interpol never wanted, Fufanu are poised for something big.
Múm with Kronos Quartet
Photo by Nina Corcoran
Nearly two decades into their career, Múm uphold their magnificently strange work in the only way that makes sense: with bashful, recluse anonymity. The Icelandic experimental act have been riding a pulse of electronica, folk, and indie rock that never quite made sense, but its awareness of rhythm sections and lyrical intrigue provided all the allure needed to cultivate a group of diehard fans. Their seventh studio album is in the works (and supposedly coming later in 2016, though the ticking clock intensifies that wait), but it’s been three years since they last shared new music, and with it comes anticipation for more. The group joined forces with the Kronos Quartet for a special live performance in their hometown at Harpa’s regal Eldborg theater.
Split by an intermission, the first half saw Múm knead their way through older numbers and a chilling version of “The Colorful Stabwound” off their most recent album, 2013’s Smilewound; and Kronos Quartet showed off their unorthodox string skills by performing original compositions by Tanya Tagaq, Laurie Anderson, The Who, and more. The second half of the show combined the groups’ efforts with spectacular results. Gunnar Örn Tynes, Örvar Þóreyjarson Smárason, Hildur Guðnadóttir, and more turned their cellists and trumpets into instruments of miniature magic, covering the venue in invisible glitter and childlike wonderment. It was a return to sound that kept the audience’s breath still, all the way through to a closing number that exploded with force, causing the woman next to me to burst into tears, a small smile pinned from ear to ear. I may have done the same.
Punk With Power
Photo by Nina Corcoran
Digging through emails, CDs, and records in search of the next big band can be a serious challenge, but can be a lot of fun too. Even more fun and less of a challenge? Strolling into a festival venue after hearing some good things from locals and finding your new favorite Icelandic band, and one of the most exciting young bands period. Such was the case for me with Hórmónar, a pop-friendly punk group with equal parts warm charm and sneering venom. Now, some of you may be saying: “These guys just won the Icelandic Music Experiments, the biggest prize a young Icelandic band can achieve!” (“If you don’t know what that is, it’s the award that Of Monsters and Men won,” bassist Urður Bergsdóttir mischievously smiled. “Just saying.”). That’s true, but if it takes me flying to Reykjavik to get to know them, it should be easier for others.
Hórmónar (Whoremoans in English, they point out) are a sax-toting quintet equally capable of doing airy harmonies and slinky grooves (as on the first half of “Ekki Sleppa”) as they are screaming feral freakouts (as on, well, the second half of “Ekki Sleppa”). The rubbery, caustic “Kynsvelt” is another winner, Brynhildur Karlsdóttir chewing up and spitting out syllables while Örn Gauti Jóhannsson pummels out a frantic pace. Katrín Guðbjartsdóttir’s guitar parts subtly blend the rhythmic drive, while Hjalti Torfason’s saxophone adds a square-peg energy to their already oddly-shaped compositions. Though they may be steadily on the rise in Iceland, Hórmónar deserve to be equally rapid in their ascent worldwide.
Public Heartbreak at a Hometown Show
Photo by Santiago Felipe
As expected, Björk loomed large over Iceland Airwaves. Everything prior seemed like a prelude to her performance, and that was especially reinforced by her Digital VR experience that was being presented across the six floors of Harpa, the glass concert hall and conference center designed to reflect light from all edges, like an inside-out kaleidoscope. Even more ceremonial, that exhibit worked in a way to draw attendees into the iconic artist’s inner world — and even her physical one.
The Digital VR experience began in a dark room with large screens and speakers surrounding attendees to envelop them in her music. The next room offered a VR headset in which the “Stonemilker” video played as the singer circled around you (the chair could swivel to keep up with her). In the next room, the “Mouth Mantra” took you deeper, allowing fans to see the world as if they were inside her mouth — pink flesh and animal teeth, with occasional glimpses of the outside realm. Subsequent rooms allowed the VR user to stand up, walk around, and use their hands to interact.
As you move deeper into Björk Digital, you go deeper into Björk, connecting with an artist who can be enigmatic and perfectly difficult to pin down. Her emotions are always laid bare, but they can also be raw to the point of alienating. Through Björk Digital, however, the line between artist and audience becomes entirely blurred. “You don’t have to speak/ I feel,” Björk sang on “Jóga” during her performance, and, considering the way we were tied by then, that line couldn’t have been more apt.
Photo by Santiago Felipe
She moved around the stage, fingers lacing through imaginary, audible rays, hearing and seeing things we couldn’t — but that’s what we want, as she has become our catalyst, connecting each and every listener to a deeper world beyond their own, whether they went through her VR wonder world or not. This comes in part by having exposed her own deepest world, the rawest part of herself left after the divorce that informed Vulnicura. She’s so intimately aware of the most fragile moments of life that she was able to alchemize the pain into majestic strength, her music, words, emotions, even body language giving the world a way to see these lessons without having to experience the same personal pain.
On stage, she seemed aware of the effect her words could have, her head ticking and tocking as if she weighed each syllable for their power. There was something extra fitting to hearing her sing lines in Reykjavik about “returning home” on a “shiny rocket” during “Black Lake”, layers burning off as she re-enters the atmosphere. The stage afforded a 30-piece orchestra, leaving her plenty of room to relentlessly interrogate and inspect her pain through the audience’s eyes as well as her own. And how that song’s almost R&B beat thumped and bumped into the auditorium revealed the living, breathing Björk — the moment you pinched yourself in disbelief that you’re actually seeing her as a flesh and blood human being.
She showcased two pieces of her musical personality: eight songs from Vulnicura and the rest from Homogenic, Selmasongs, Vespertine, and Volta with an intermission in between, fitting like a complementary puzzle piece, her voice stitching the ethereal patchwork together. After introducing four members of the orchestra sitting behind her who formed the original core group of instrumentalists on Homogenic, I remembered that her plea for emotional respect is what allows us to configure a sort of empathic accuracy, an ability to map our own mental terrain from her words, emotions, and body language. “I wouldn’t mind if you would sing along, and maybe stand up if you feel like it,” she gleaned to the crowd before the encore of “Pilot”.
Photo by Santiago Felipe
But re-immersing oneself in this woman’s work is frighteningly real. Her face radiated pure pleasure around the room like a lighthouse glow as she gently skipped. A few minutes into “Stonemilker”, she sang: “And if one feels closed/ How does one stay open?” She is half mythical creature questioning a fully human conundrum, acting as an aerial, a lightning rod wiring into the elements, her currents thrilling our core. You don’t need to smack on VR goggles to feel her reality after all. It’s vital in the understanding of Björk to realize that she isn’t an alien, she’s really just a heightened version of ourselves, a conductor of the real emotional world. The vivid, magical, and shattering evening dwelled in the warm imagination of its creator; a true individualist who never compromises and who makes strong music about the weakest moments.
“When we’re broken we are whole/ And when we’re whole we’re broken.”
Click ahead for an extensive photo gallery…