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Iceland Airwaves 2016: The 25 Most Exciting Performances

on November 07, 2016, 6:30pm
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Iceland Airwaves thrills and mystifies with equal strength, offering a choose-your-own adventure for music fans everywhere. The magic of the festival tosses any sense of time right out the window, rewarding those with comfy shoes who swagger down the cobblestone streets of Reykjavík until dawn. There’s so much going on that you may be tempted to meticulously planned schedule, but your best bet is to imbue your sense in the astral infinity surrounding you, whilst catching everything you possibly can down below. Through venues, hostels, cinemas, swimming pools, record stores, and clothing shops, Airwaves builds a world where what you hear depends entirely on your own perspective.

Walking around Iceland feels like that moment in The Wizard of Oz when everything goes from black and white into Technicolor. The haunting, unclassifiable beauty of Iceland’s mountains, glaciers, volcanoes, and hot springs magnifies and entangles the music. The few hours of wintry sunlight are reflected in the darker electronics and weighted post-rock, while the country’s seemingly endless summer days bake the area’s chewy bubblegum pop and elated hip-hop.

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With 16 hours worth of music on a daily stretch, Iceland Airwaves really makes you think back on all the homogenized lineups that start piling up month after month on any given year. This is the antidote for the ordinary, chock full of incongruous pairings of grit, guts, and soul, where ambition meets invention, where a megastar like Björk can easily and logically coexist with some upstart punks called Hórmónar, and where rockers and ravers meet at the same juncture as reggae and rap.

There are so many intense microcosms of passionate musicians and fans at Iceland Airwaves, each with incredibly specific demands and desires. But when you step back and see the forest for the trees, it all looks like one giant churning collage of Iceland. The only way to truly reflect on the weekend is when you’re flying away, 10,000 feet up in the air, suspended in your very own time capsule, already a soupy mixture of nostalgia for the few days that have passed and excitement for the next drizzly, chilly, sublime year.

–Lior Phillips
Associate Editor

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Gangly

The Real Magical Mystery Tour

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Photo by Nina Corcoran

Though they arrived hot on the Icelandic scene without announcing their identity, Gangly were eventually revealed to be a supergroup comprising Sin Fang’s Sindri Már Sigfússon, Samaris’ Jófríður Ákadóttir, and Oyama’s Úlfur Alexander Einarsson. That they can still operate with a sense of mystery after the anonymity veil was lifted (once you perform live and unmasked, it can be hard to keep up that ploy, especially in a community as tight-knit as the Iceland music world) is a testament to the mystique of their slow-burning electronic R&B. They also continue to draw massive crowds to their intermittent performances (including more than a few other major musicians noted upon a quick scan of the room), even on the back of only two officially released songs in as many years. They do promise more material, and the duality of Einarsson’s vocoder-laden vocals and Ákadóttir’s rime-covered croon, the bewitching “Fuck With Someone Else”, and the interpolation of “No Scrubs” all bode well for a strong individual identity beyond their main bands, whenever that day may come. Like the black and gold 3D-generated animations project behind them, Gangly deliver something incredibly opulent but more than a little cold.

–Adam Kivel

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Berndsen

Synthpop for Hangovers

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Photo by Nina Corcoran

Rain fell down again Saturday morning. “Who has a hangover?” Berndsen asked, scratching his red beard. Hands shot up throughout the lobby that he and his band were playing in — a combination hotel loft, art space, and coffeeshop. “We’re going to cure your hangover,” he said with a grin and a nod. Like that, he peeled the mic from its stand and began pulsing in front of the store window singing “Supertime”. It doesn’t take long for Berndsen to climb through the crowd, belting notes out like Iceland’s own Matt Berninger without the levelheadedness of The National, often flitting into a vocal range on par with Robert Smith of The Cure, though perhaps that’s because the synths that hopped beneath him sounded like The Cure, too. It seems unlikely his blend of snappy electro-pop would ever cure migraines or drowsiness, but after each song, audience members began yelling out thanks, noting they felt better.

–Nina Corcoran

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Leyya

Experimental Electro-Pop

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Photo by Nina Corcoran

Even though it’s stuffed with variations and options, electronic music is difficult to style in an original way. Those who find their voice within the genre pick and choose, merge and mash, pulling a style from a digital instrument that rings truly as their own and theirs only. Vienna-based group Leyya manage to do exactly that within the alt-rock electronica realm. Faced with a large crowd at Harpa that only grew bigger, Leyya parted from their poppy sound on record to burst with a tougher edge in Iceland. Maybe it was the explosions of “Superego” or the creepy inching of “I’m Not There” that collapsed into a gorgeous storm of digital dust. Maybe it was the heavy crunches of “Butter” paired with the frontwoman’s sweet falsettos. Whatever it was that Leyya imbue in their music — that individualistic combination of groove, beats, and guitars — drew onlookers into the room, convinced them to stay, and had them clapping ravenously long after the band left the stage.

–Nina Corcoran

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Conner Youngblood

Master of Instrumentation

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Photo by Nina Corcoran

Conner Youngblood, the 25-year-old Texan native turned Nashville bedroom pop musician, stood on one of Harpa’s stages with endearing nerves between songs. “I don’t know what else to say about myself,” he said, head bowed with a smile spread across it. “I like dogs!” he offered. The crowd cheered; though, they would probably cheer no matter what. Thanks to his dreamy, layered music, everyone — even those sitting on the floor in the back — were in a trance. Youngblood filtered melodies and beats on “Confidence” and “A Summer Song” with the ease of tUnE-yArDs but the calmness of Sylvan Esso. And while his intimate songs certainly aren’t simple, they charm with utter ease, even when the guy’s sandwiched between rock acts and dance-heavy groups as he was at Airwaves. Altogether, Youngblood’s set stood out as the moment of rejuvenation many festivalgoers sought.

–Nina Corcoran

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Warpaint

Atmospheric Landscapers

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Photo by Lior Phillips

American and English acts tended to draw pretty heavily at Airwaves, and Warpaint’s Friday night set at home venue Harpa may have been one of the most difficult to get into. Listen: It may have been more of a challenge to get a ticket to see Björk, Múm, or PJ Harvey, but in pure physical body-space logistics, cramming through Harpa’s halls with the eager Icelandic fans to catch sight of the California quartet was not for the faint of heart. Those that made it through the claustrophobic confines were treated to a smoky, sultry set, and roared in appreciation for classics old and new. The propulsive “Undertow” remains an absolute stunner, but standout tracks from Heads Up like “Whiteout” and “New Song” received similar adulation. This was the band’s first time in Iceland, and the crowd made sure to give a warm welcome, the energy clearly fueling one of the groovier rock sets of the week.

–Lior Phillips

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Dream Wife

Punk Pop House Party

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Photo by Lior Phillips

Pop punk trio Dream Wife deliver the ultimate form of empowerment, the type that’ll make you want to hug someone and lash out at an oppressor, all at the same time. “I am not my body, I’m somebody,” Rakel Mjöll sang, positively glowing with a righteous strength. “I spy with my little eye bad, bad bitches,” they chanted. And they’re not just looking out for other women, Dream Wife are bringing the change to the children. Between rousing anthems at their Harpa set, Mjöll detailed an off-venue show they’d played earlier that day, in which a group of cute five-year-olds came up front. “We taught them a very important thing that kids have to know these days,” she smiled, then holding her hand up with the rock and roll horns. “I think it was my highlight of the year.” In an increasingly conflicted and strange world, Dream Wife’s feminist-powered hooky jams make them an absolute inspiration.

–Lior Phillips

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Julia Holter

Piano and Pop Ballads

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Photo by Lior Phillips

The performance space at the Reykjavik Art Museum seems difficult to navigate; the long white hall is beautiful in its simplicity, but its sharp angles and metal and concrete surfaces are unforgiving sonically. Visually, Julia Holter’s set was bathed in pulsing white light, making the place feel like a lighthouse, further abetting her siren qualities. The echoes bled together a bit during some of her quieter moments, but Holter’s set overcame those pitfalls handily. The magnificent “Horns Surrounding Me” opened the set on a high note, while the parading Have You in My Wilderness epic “Sea Calls Me Home” rang out majestically. Though she occasionally appeared angelic, a note after pulling out deep cut “In the Same Room” made her feel more human. “I’m going to have some wine, I haven’t played that song in four years,” she laughed. But none of the rust showed, and Holter delivered a sweeping set full of beautiful subtlety.

–Adam Kivel

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The Ills

Slovakia Pop-Rock Trio

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Photo by Lior Phillips

One of the best things about a festival like Iceland Airwaves — one spread across multiple venues throughout a city and with schedules occasionally in flux — is stumbling across a band entirely by happenstance. In a quest to see another band, I found instead that The Ills had their set time swapped with the set I’d planned on seeing. But, what the heck, why not stick around? And the Slovakian quartet’s massive, heavy post-rock/math/shoegaze slabs more than rewarded that curiosity. “We landed yesterday, but we still feel like we are hovering over your beautiful island,” guitarist Martin Krajčír laughed. And thanks to my stumbling and lucking into their instrumental swells, I felt like I was floating a few inches off the ground too.

Adam Kivel

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Minor Victories

Moody Supergroup

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Photo by Lior Phillips

Where there was some concern that performers like Julia Holter or Margaret Glaspy might suffer some from the echoing sound at the Reykjavik Art Museum, those built-in effects seemed destined to amp up the massive strength of Minor Victories — and they did just that. The post-rock supergroup’s performance pushed a little more into aggressive rock than shoegazing soundscapes, and the crowd ate it up, roaring in appreciation at Mogwai guitarist Stuart Braithwaite’s wah pedal-infused solo. While he and vocalist Rachel Goswell of Slowdive never looked morose in their main bands, they just looked excited and happy to be performing with Minor Victories, and that feeling was contagious. The ambitious “Folk Arp” and the explosive “Cogs” stole the show, but the set was jampacked front-to-back with powerful alternative rock with plenty of noise and reverb to back it up.

–Adam Kivel

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Karó

Future Radio Pop

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Photo by Nina Corcoran

Unlike other Western countries, Iceland doesn’t chase American trends. Their music world is caught up in the experimental, and often that means pop acts stay weirder than anything casual US listeners will find on their car’s radio dial. But Karó, one of Reykjavik’s newcomers, sings like she grew up listening to our biggest pop names. Like the middle ground between Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus, she hits relaxed high notes with a semi-raspy undertone, skating through vocal leaps over rounded but vibrant electro-pop. But live, she picks up the cadence of Lorde, likely because she’s notably young herself. Karó releases her debut EP early in 2017. Her first festival performance took place at Sonar earlier in 2016. She avoided eye contact with those at NASA while she performed, staring at a spot on the back wall or the floor by her feet. Instead of detracting from her booming voice, though, it increased her authenticity, showcasing an artist who’s clearly gifted with a powerful set of lungs and knows how to use them, but has yet to become self-absorbed with that power — if she will at all.

–Nina Corcoran

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Dizzee Rascal

UK Rap Comeback

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Photo by Lior Phillips

While the Icelandic rap scene certainly delivers its own heroes, there was a certain reverence for Dizzee Rascal’s, as easily evidenced by the crowd of hometown rappers making their way from the backstage area of Harpa to take it all in. The UK rap star pulled out all the stops, nimbly hopping between hits like “Sirens” and “Bassline Junkie”. “I wanna see all my lovely Icelandic ladies,” Diz grinned, just before DJ MK spun the way into the lusty 2007 jam “Flex”. Between the high-stepping dance moves, constant big ups to the “lively crew,” and epic smile, Rascal made that cold room in Iceland his own, as if he transported everyone momentarily to London for a spin through garage, grime, bassline, and more. While it comes as no slight to the trap-indebted Icelandic scene of the moment, it was a real pleasure to get to the source with an absolute rap legend.

–Adam Kivel

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Margaret Glaspy

Punchy California Rock

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Photo by Lior Phillips

“Are there any Lucinda Williams fans out there?” Margaret Glaspy asked, not long after noting that it was her first time in Iceland. While you might not think of the chilly island as being a hotbed for American country music, there were more than a few hearty woos ringing through the room. The Californian singer-songwriter’s take on the legend’s “Fruits of My Labor” that followed, though, merited a response ten-fold, a rendition warmer and more intimate than the pair of furry long underwear needed to survive the trek between Airwaves venues. Her own songs were just as successful, “Emotions and Math” and “Parental Guidance” resonating like a Speedy Ortiz song with a little bit of Southern growl and twang added in for good measure. The only thing that more people were Googling than Lucinda Williams after this performance was Margaret Glaspy.

–Lior Phillips

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Glowie

A Rising R&B Rihanna Star

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Photo by Lior Phillips

Glowie exploded into the Icelandic music scene with her first single “No More”, the undeniable pop jam that became the country’s song of 2015. She was immediately tapped for bigger things, and has since been taking her time in producing the appropriate next steps, teasing out new pop singles here and there. There are some good songs tucked into that bunch (“Party” is a strong followup, and a new song that begs someone to “wrap your arms around my body” and “give me your loving” got the crowd grooving), but “No More” is such an undeniable super-smash that it’s unfathomable that the song hasn’t yet made a big splash internationally. Seeing the young pop star sit on the edge of her DJ’s table, kick her feet back and forth, and whip her long braids around, it was quite obvious she has the charisma destined for the bigs, and the Jay Z, Beyonce, and Back to the Future-referencing “No More” should be her ticket. This set was proof.

–Lior Phillips

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Digable Planets

Hip-Hop Jazz

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Photo by Lior Phillips

“We’re going to take y’all back to 1993,” grinned Craig “Doodlebug” Irving as the legendary Digable Planets took the stage at the Valshöllin. And, considering the large, gymnasium-like room that their performance was held in (complete with basketball hoops cranked up to the ceiling and out of the way and rubber tile covering the hard wood), there was a nostalgia for a sort of dream school dance, what could have been had things been better. The trio of Doodlebug, Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler, and Mary Ann “Ladybug Mecca” Vieira have been on their latest reunion tour for a little while now, but it was still plenty fresh to the people of Iceland Airwaves, many returning to the days when they grooved to Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) all the way back when. Little touches like subbing in the host country for Brooklyn in stone-cold classic “The May 4th Movement Starring Doodlebug” (“Three times for my Iceland dimes”) were surely appreciated, but this one was all about the nostalgia, and Digable Planets were on their game and sounding as tight and fresh as ever.

–Adam Kivel

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Nico Muhly & Nadia Sirota

Moving Modern Classical

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Photo by Nina Corcoran

Even though the day’s schedule was being organized by a label called Bedroom Community, you’d expect a venue to be a little bit bigger than a king-sized bed. And Kaffibarrin was bigger (a little), but it was more crowded than any space that size I’d ever been in. I’ll admit that I’m a bit of a claustrophobe and felt an urge to flee while waiting in the long, feedbacky soundcheck, but once the strains of Nico Muhly’s piano and Nadia Sirota’s violin began, that panicked, cramped feeling all but floated away. Muhly started by detailing the event, explaining that the day’s schedule (which featured the two musicians onstage, Sam Amidon, and Puzzle Muteson) would flow smoothly between their combinations — fitting, considering the tight-knit feel of the space and the label that hosts the assembled musicians’ work and collaborations. The “Viola Concerto” and “Drones and Viola” pieces that Muhly had written for the pair were stunning, producing a hushed intimacy in the room that ceased any potential interruptions, but nothing came near the exquisite “Keep In Touch”. The song fused samples and voices from the various members of the Bedroom Community, and at over 10 minutes, truly felt like weaving the fabric of the label around and through each and every beating heart in the room.

–Adam Kivel

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Valdimar

The Chillest Trombone Alt-Rock

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Photo by Nina Corcoran

If you see a band in 2016 with horns onstage and the lead singer’s fingers are roped through a trombone, panic may rattle the brain. Luckily for Icelanders, Valdimar is better than the ska or jam band memories they recall visually. The six-piece local act formed when Valdimar Guðmundsson and Ásgeir Aðalsteinsson began writing songs together and, soon after, the rest of the group joined. Their horns empower songs that ride on dynamics, opting for gentle introductions and swaying melodies to offer an engaging but peaceful listen. At the front of it all is Guðmundsson, a man who wields his voice with surprising warmth and openness. Take a step back and it would be easy to mistake Valdimar for an opening set during an O.A.R. show right before Brett Dennen, but upon closer examination, their songs express an openness and plea for help, an emotional honesty that doesn’t try to make you weep, but rather reach for awareness followed by the conscious decision to grow stronger. Listening to “Yfirgefinn”, I had no idea if that’s what the song was about, but Guðmundsson sings in a way that makes it seem like there’s no other interpretation of it than that — and being able to convey a language to someone who doesn’t speak it is a remarkable feat by itself.

–Nina Corcoran

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The Sonics

Retro Rock Never Dies

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Photo by Lior Phillips

“Our main job is to play some rock and roll, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do,” said Rob Lind, his saxophone gripped triumphantly in one hand, a proud smile plastered on his face. While The Sonics have certainly done well in America since their return, they weren’t exactly holding primo spots in the festival scene, and at Iceland Airwaves, they were being treated as returning champions. The older segment of the crowd came out in full force, twisting and bopping to the classic garage punk outfit. Pairing classic rip-roaring tracks like “Cinderella” with equally seminal B-movie exploitation stuff that’s heavy on cars (think Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!), the Tacoma band kept up with all the younger garage acts on the festival scene, even inducing the only crowdsurfing I spotted throughout the entire festival. Whether busting out the ubiquitous “Have Love Will Travel” or grabbing the driving “Be A Woman” from last year’s This is the Sonics, Freddie Dennis howled and screamed his way into the hearts of Sonics fans new and old.

–Adam Kivel

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aYia

Dark Twisted Electronica

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Photo by Nina Corcoran

No self-applied descriptor has been more fitting to an Icelandic band than aYia’s. Their website’s bio — “aYia is a nicely polished rock in your teacup” — provided quite the curious image for those who entered their set blindfolded like myself. Once there, crammed between a wooden staircase, bookish wet bar, and cozy lighting in Kaffibarinn, that verbal noise of harsh, cold tones surrounded by a warm liquid was unavoidable. The trio bashfully wormed their way through a set of almost entirely unreleased material, the exception being standout single “Water Plant”. Like most acts, aYia seem likely to rely on pre-recorded samples and automated drums. Instead, the three replicated as much of their original sound as they could live. From drum pads to numerous keyboards to intricate undistinguishable instruments, each member had a pool of options at their fingertips, with their leader singer slinking about in a black hoodie, her face alternating between ominous moodiness and childlike joy as she mirrored the smokey vocals of The Knife. Then, far too suddenly, their set came to an end, and everyone stared at the bottom of the teacup begging for more.

–Nina Corcoran

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Reykjavikurdaetur

Rap Group Superheroes

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Photo by Lior Phillips

Last I’d seen Reykjavikurdaetur, they were tumbling over each other and tearing at each other’s plastic coveralls at Denmark’s Roskilde earlier this year. The first time I caught the Daughters of Reykjavik (as their name translates to) in their hometown, however, they strutted onstage in white button-up shirts, hair slicked back like Robert Palmer’s backup dancers, and many stood disaffectedly vaping. But a moment later, and it was clear not all that much had changed: “We are here to fuck this place up,” one of the 17 women on stage barked, and they then tore through a set of raucous, fist-pumping feminist rap.

The MCs perform in Icelandic, but their presence conveyed more than enough for those who couldn’t translate. Tracks like “Hæpið” and “Ógeðsleg” got the crowd moving almost as fluidly as the mics that were getting passed back and forth (not to mention the vape pens) with each woman eager to step up and spit her part. A particularly powerful moment came as they performed a song they wrote for SlutWalk: “You can wear whatever you want, drink whatever you want, you can walk around naked and you’re still not asking to be raped.” The song was furious, yet empowering and engaging, impossible to deny in both its fun and its message. As a bonus, at a festival like this one, you have the opportunity to see many acts multiple times, at on or off-venue performances — something I definitely took advantage of for this group of supremely talented ladies.

At their next set, they had a completely different aesthetic, opting for fashion-forward dresses emblazoned with guns and explosions. Reykjavikurdaetur have a lot to say, and they deserve every platform they will be given.

–Lior Phillips

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The Internet

R&B for Dancing

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Photo by Nina Corcoran

By Saturday evening of Airwaves, I had been in Iceland for about a week, and the novelty of being there had stopped being the first thing in my mind. But seeing The Internet play at the massive Valshöllin, the feeling came flooding back in. “The people at home are like, ‘What? We don’t know anyone that’s ever been to Iceland,'” Syd chuckled near their soulful, syrupy set’s end. You wouldn’t know it from their seamless interaction with the crowd, but Matt Martians’ orchestration of tracks like “Girl” and “Special Affair” lead to swooning fans all around the room. A surprise highlight came in the shape of a cover of Outkast’s “Prototype”, the quirky R&B ballad fitting Syd’s rich falsetto and the band’s left hook on the genre like a glove. By the time their set ended, The Internet had fully integrated into their Icelandic surroundings. “Real talk, we’re not used to this cold weather, but it’s refreshing,” Syd smiled. The Internet seemed genuinely thrilled to be all the way across the world from their California home base, and judging by the screaming fans, girls on shoulders, and slow dancing, the crowd reciprocated that love.

–Adam Kivel

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Sóley

Haunting Piano

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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.

–Lior Phillips

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Fufanu

Manic Post-Punk

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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.

–Adam Kivel

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Múm with Kronos Quartet

Sophisticated Orchestration

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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.

–Nina Corcoran

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Hórmónar

Punk With Power

nina corcoran consequence of sound hormonar 01 Iceland Airwaves 2016: The 25 Most Exciting Performances

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.

–Adam Kivel

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Björk

Public Heartbreak at a Hometown Show

bjork 11 05 2015 photocredit santiago felipe 21 Iceland Airwaves 2016: The 25 Most Exciting Performances

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.

bjorkicelandairwavesfelipesantiago Iceland Airwaves 2016: The 25 Most Exciting Performances

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”.

bjork 11 05 2015 photocredit santiago felipe 19 Iceland Airwaves 2016: The 25 Most Exciting Performances

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.”

–Lior Phillips

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Photographers: Nina Corcoran, Lior Phillips

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