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Iceland Airwaves 2017 Festival Review: The 15 Most Exciting Acts

on November 07, 2017, 11:17am
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“Að leggja höfuðið í bleyti.”

This classic Icelandic saying suggests that when you need to really think through something, you must lay your head in water. Considering the island setting, there’s no wonder everything in the Icelandic artistic sensibility seems so immaculately designed and considered. At the opening ceremony to this year’s Iceland Airwaves, Reykjavik mayor Dagur Bergþóruson Eggertsson had his own advice regarding H20: “If you want to talk to people, just surround yourself with water: it’s either alcohol or swimming pools,” he smiled. In every facet, the people are empowered, inspired, and immersed in fluidity and life, always moving on to some new beautiful moment.

Beyond the usual Icelandic water, this year the rains conspired in an attempt to keep visitors from leaving. While there’d been plenty of icy drizzle in previous years, the weather stayed clear and not excessively cold for the extent of Iceland Airwaves 2017. And then, once the days of live music and excitement had ended, suddenly the storm clouds pushed their way in, canceling and delaying dozens of flights and keeping others planted firmly in Iceland for the foreseeable future.

But goddamit there are far worse fates. Even a momentary delay would offer some time to reflect on the week’s worth of remarkable festival experiences. For one, the festival has grown exponentially, expanding to a second Icelandic city, Akureyri, and did so primarily through adding even more Icelandic artists. Now the abundance of unpredictable local talent knots into one entangled totality of incongruous parts that co-exist magnificently together despite their dissimilarity.

Just because your dripping desire for something wild and potent is loud doesn’t mean you know where you’re going. Often the challenge is to search for something new using different tools than the ones you usually reach for — for thinking different thoughts from the ones that spring to your mind, for using different words, for listening to different sounds that you typically would avoid. Iceland Airwaves teaches you that it’s not about needing to abandon what you already know, just that there is a beautiful new world beyond.

Takk, góða nótt, so long, and thanks for all the fish! See you same place, same time next year.

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Aron Can

A rising talent in Iceland’s vast and brightly burning rap scene, Aron Can seems worlds away from other heavies in the scene like Ulfur Ulfur and Sturla Atlas. Can’s syrupy, hypnotic, minimalist electro-trap stands tall against the bombast of many of his compatriots. His tracks have a subtle stickiness, and his flow recalls Kweku Collins or even a slightly sedated Drake. Backed by images of spooky mansions and Gorillaz-esque scenery, Can lit Reykjavik Art Museum up, the massive crowd hitting every word along with him. While rappers can have a particularly hard time transcending national borders, Can has all the ingredients to make the leap to the international stage.

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DíSA

“I wrote a lullaby for grownups, and it’s called ‘Sleep Rhythm’,” DíSA smiled from the lip of the stage at Iðnó. The black clad vocalist proceeded to weave keys, synth bass, violin tones, and heavily reverberated vocals around weighty percussion, a slinky siren call to join her in the farthest reaches of the subconscious. The synth tones pulsed and prodded like a surround-sound didgeridoo, ringing out over the consistently driving beats. DíSA recently participated in a peace meditation project in which children across Iceland spent three minutes meditating, and her compositions are the perfect, soothing compliment to those quiet moments — especially the ones that come naturally from the surreally beautiful landscapes that she calls home. But above all else, DíSA’s clarion vocals produced a spine-tingling shiver, whether effortlessly reaching for mystic highs or cruising along like a low-flying bird, swooping and soaring in the sunlight.

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Emmsjé Gauti

“I fucking love this festival!” smiled Gauti Þeyr Másson, aka Emmsjé Gauti. The 15-year Icelandic rap veteran has now played Iceland Airwaves 11 times, he explained, and the huge following he’s amassed proves that the fans are just as excited he’s back. Gauti controls the beat with the lithe, tiger-like confidence of El-P, his flow just as precisely punctuated and organic. Also like the Run the Jewels rhymer, Gauti is as quick with a joke as he is a verse. “I’m wearing pleather pants, and I regret it so much,” he laughed, quickly transitioning into the sweltering “Strákarnir”. The only thing as charming as Gauti’s smile was his performance, proof that even though he’s been doing this for a while, he’s not ready to phone it in. “I’m not doing this for music. I hate fucking music, but I love the applause,” he smiled. And the cheers that peppered his set must have made him pretty happy.

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Hildur

Icelandic winter nights are notorious for their wet, gray cold, but that just makes the idea of heading into a venue and taking off a jacket all the more appealing. Hildur’s set at the gorgeous Gamla Bíó theater provided the energy boost needed, and it felt as if we could all dance all the way through to next summer. “Give your friend a high-five,” the singer/songwriter/producer urged. “And if you didn’t bring a friend, then give it to the person next to you.” Hildur’s burnished indie pop is the perfect outlet for friend-making and toe-tapping, a mixture between Sia and Chairlift. The ribboned edges of her shirt twisted and spun with every little movement, catching the light in a dazzling display. When the music dropped out, Hildur’s voice felt astonishingly big, filling every inch of the room; when the track built back up, it felt even bigger. Once the last cooed notes of “I’ll Walk with You” flitted over the crowd, the gray night was pushed so far away that the prospect of walking back into the damp darkness was made that much easier.

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Glowie

Since being absolutely floored by her pop star potential just last year, Glowie signed a massive deal with Columbia Records/RCA that should show exactly how ready she is for the spotlight. And, as always, her latest set at Gamla Bíó felt arena-ready; the young vocalist standing in front of a rather ’80s video game screen of her name on a laser-field, her red print shirt glowing in the low-light. “I’m good, so good you got to see me to believe it,” she crooned, a lone guitar laying out only the most necessary base underneath, letting her silky voice shine. While there’s absolutely no need for Glowie to remind the crowd how good she is, it’s true: you’ll come away from having seen her live convinced that she’s ready to make a splash on the biggest pop stage.

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Michael Kiwanuka

The line to get into Gamla Bíó, home of our very own Consequence of Sound stage, stretched down Ingólfsstræti for blocks; once inside the space, the crowd for Michael Kiwanuka was one of the biggest and most ravenous of the entire weekend. Despite the passionate response and massive audience, the dapper English soul musician radiated a comfortable ease, seemingly never without a soft smile. Kiwanuka spent a lot of time on songs from his 2016 album, Love & Hate, including the sublime single “Black Man in a White World” and the down-and-dirty “Cold Little Heart”. The new stuff went over well, but the crowd went wild when he dug deep for tracks from 2012’s Home Again. Every night, Kiwanuka tears open his heart and pours it all out on the stage, a raw and honest expression that continues to connect with so many and should expand his already passionate fanbase even further.

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Ásgeir

Whether subtly daubing his intimate compositions with electronic touches or weaving his honeyed vocals into a lush web, Ásgeir manages to find all the nooks and niches of the heart. The Reykjavik singer-songwriter accentuated his emotional tunes with a dramatic light show, the Harpa stage flooded with light at the trigger of splashy drumbeats and guitar swashes. Whether in English or Icelandic, Ásgeir’s voice floated above the heads of the massive, eager crowd, effortless and precise. There’s something so special about seeing Icelandic heroes at Harpa, the venue part museum, part symphony hall, part community center; just last year I saw Björk softly dominate the massive space, and Ásgeir’s comfortability in the space carried a similar weight.

Though he started at the slow end of the spectrum, his songs flowed together into an expressive acoustic-electronic knot. Some would begin only with humming, but even that simple tool would echo through the hall and into each bobbing head. No matter what type of composition, the key was Ásgeir’s incredibly controlled voice, easily ranging up and down his multi-octave range. As the smoke rose above the band and whirled between the lights’ reds, purples, and blues, his majestic voice grew even higher for “I Know You Know”. The hall fell into silent awe for large portions of the set, punctuated only be equally amazed adoration.

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Mammut

At the July release of their fourth album, Kinder Versions, it was clear that Mammút were taking a step towards expanding beyond their reign as one of the most important Icelandic indie rock bands. To begin with, it’s their first record with an English title, and the songs follow suit, Katrína Mogensen’s epically emotive voice connecting to a larger audience on another level. However, as their Iceland Airwaves set at Gamla Bíó proved, they haven’t given up any of their intricately detailed compositions, layers of alt rock smoke, or lush songwriting in the process. Throughout the set, drummer Andri Bjartur Jakobsson toyed with the pace, changing tempos frequently and without warning, but the band followed each tune’s mercurial shape without missing a beat. And over the top, Mogensen continued to burn like a bonfire — a signal that their power can overcome any language or border.

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Pranke

As Pranke, the hyper-talented duo of Icelandic guitarist Daniel Bödvarsson and German drummer Max Andrzejewski take their jazz and improvised music influences and blend them up with some Krautrock and math rock, resulting in a candy-coated headrush in the vein of Battles or Can. At the unlikely venue of the Hard Rock Cafe, the duo created their incredibly detailed and inter-linking webs with ultra-adroit precision. It’s one thing to hear their complex pieces on record, but it’s another to see their ability to nimbly shift between genres, tones, and moods, all while building silvery melodies — all without edits. The synthetic atmosphere of the venue (all red light and plastered walls) felt claustrophobic, but Pranke’s songs used the same level of layering to a dizzying advantage. At times, honeyed vocals would drip in between the synth ticks, guitar licks, and percussive thumps, like paint spattered onto a canvas. There’s a robust, layered complexity to Pranke, and yet also an immediate beauty — the Jackson Pollocks of noise rock.

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Pinegrove

One of the most hotly anticipated non-local acts at Iceland Airwaves, Pinegrove have a sound and vibe so sweetly attuned to the Icelandic scene and countryside. The New Jersey outfit so smoothly and warmly transition from indie rock to golden folk tones, led always by the welcoming smile of Evan Stephens Hall. And the crowd felt that encouraging grace, singing every word back nearly as loudly as the Pinegrove frontman did off the mic — even on a cover of Aretha Franklin’s “A Natural Woman”. In another moment of beautiful synchronicity, Hall dedicated “Size of the Moon” from 2016’s Cardinal to the “really big moon” the band (and surely every attendee) spotted on their way into Gamla Bíó. Much like the celestial body, Pinegrove’s music is subject to a beautiful mystery and a light in the darkness.

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Nilüfer Yanya

“Take Time To Be Kind,” read a sign raised above the stage over Nilüfer Yanya’s Friday night set. Considering the dazzling performance and tender-hearted warmth the 22-year-old, London-based artist is capable of, there’s little need to be reminded of the benefit of kindness — it’s a contagious feeling that pours into your soul from the first note out of her mouth.

It only takes a minute or two of seeing Yanya live to become absolutely obsessed with her at-once mind-bending-ly complex and easy-going compositions. On one hand, the 22-year-old London-based artist dazzled with the skyrocketing new track “Baby Luv”, her voice reaching croaking lows and then soaring high to ask, “Do you like pain again and again?”, like a indie rock-adjacent Amy Winehouse. On the other hand, there’s her absolutely charming personality: “We’re at the Hard Rock Cafe,” Yanya deadpanned, eventually succumbing to a little giggle. After a busy, manic day, Yanya is the perfect antidote, helping the eager crowd wind down with a smooth, sexy sweetness. All the body warmth from the full-to-bursting crowd also offered a little warm reprieve during the coldest night yet — or maybe that was just Yanya radiating. Fusing guitar, lithe percussion, burnished brass, and more, all under her fascinating voice, Yanya pierced and teased in equal measure, a truly captivating and enrapturing performance unlike any other at the festival.

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Sigrid

“I’m from Norway, but this place is so much cooler,” smiled Sigrid, the Norse synthpop star almost as eager to rave about the Icelandic amenities as she was to perform. “I dunno if i should say this, but the nature here is better than Norway. We went to see a fucking geyser today.” And, much like the bit of nature that she had witnessed earlier, her set exploded into life as time went by, her physically small presence bursting into a massive ball of white-hot energy. Sigrid bounced smoothly across the stage at the Reykjavik Art Museum, cutting a stark figure against her name emblazoned in massive lettering at the back of the stage. And though old favorites peppered the set, new song “Strangers” was received most warmly, proof that she still has plenty of explosive energy to come.

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Hatari

Like Viking S&M in the year 3000, Hatari commanded the Gamla Bíó stage with a stony ferocity. Clad in leather, spiked masks, strapped harnesses, and precise regalia, there’s something slightly unsettling about the intensity of the Icelandic outfit, but compelling in all its thrill. Klemens Hannigan, Matthías Tryggvi Haraldson, and Einar Stéfansson stood at silent attention momentarily and then would gnash into attack mode, screaming and spitting. Like a fusion of Marilyn Manson and Depeche Mode, the trio have quickly garnered a massive following in Reykjavik, thanks in large part to a famously intense live show complete with cat-eyed dancers in spiked armor of their own. It’s difficult to teeter between seething aggression and taut control, and yet Hatari make the move seem easy, their grinding electronic compositions washing over the room. Part David Lynch nightmare, part goth dress-up party, part industrial love letter, Hatari are a sight to behold, a unique experience that will crawl under your skin and claw its way out.

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Iceland Symphony Orchestra

Sitting in total darkness like statues waiting to be animated, the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra’s prestigious performance at Harpa Eldborg carried a serious sense of drama from the moment the doors opened. The evening’s schedule included pieces from four essential modern Icelandic composers, a set of women taking classical music to innovative places: Sigur Rós collaborator María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, Handmaid’s Tale composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, Nordic Council Music Prize-winner Anna Þorvaldsdóttir, and electronic-orchestral composer Þuríður Jónsdóttir. Just as the anticipation crested, the musicians sprung into action as the conductor beckoned, beginning with strings tickling the air. Horns entered like smoke curly underneath a closed door, somehow both ominous and with the potential for light to come. As the pieces ebbed and flowed, light began to flicker and spread across the stage, as if the breath of the room. The musicians followed conductor Anna-Maria Helsing hawkishly, strong and righteous when needed and then softening to a whisper at a moment’s notice. Violins screeched and scratched, low-end horns creaked like the bottom of a moving ship, and the cello hummed and thrummed. Each piece had its own emotional weight, at times transcendently beautiful and at others rapturously sad. The orchestra performed as though they weren’t scores of musicians on a stage but rather a single deep-breathing, heart-thumping organism.

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Fleet Foxes

“Come down from the mountain/ You have been gone too long,” Robin Pecknold cried out, the Fleet Foxes frontman relishing every syllable and acoustic churn on “Ragged Wood”. Whether wandering the forests in the Appalachians or crunching along the snowy countryside of Iceland, Fleet Foxes have an innate ability to connect with the world around them. That skill manifests in their songwriting as well, each instrument and part written precisely and fitting together sweetly, a harmony as beautiful as the most picturesque scene in nature.

“This is our first show in this country, and it’s going well so far,” Pecknold smiled warmly, an understatement to be sure. The massive space at Harpa boomed and burned, the drumming more aggressive than I’d heard from Fleet Foxes in the past, the proggy interludes more sultry and sexy. The band members passed instruments around, moving equally fluidly from older songs like “Your Protector” to Crack-Up highlight “On Another Ocean (January / June)”.

Mid-set, the band left the stage, leaving Pecknold alone, beaming larger than life on the massive stage. The crowd smattered out an impromptu attempt at a slow-clap, much to the frontman’s delight. “Was that a dramatic slow-clap?” he giggled. His solo performance of “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” was a festival highlight, a life highlight really, but that too was swiftly topped by the entrance of the choir, Graduale Nobili, 20 girls who are between 18 and 25 years old who have all finished or are finishing their music studies and who did a two-year world tour with Björk, whose parts were written by Þorvaldur Örn Davíðsson specifically for the work with Fleet Foxes. The Icelandic vocalists joined the band for takes on “Mykonos” and “White Winter Hymnal”, as well as “Crack-Up” on the encore. Between the choir, tangled strings, and fluttering flute, the band’s sterling expanse had doubled, giving further base for Pecknold’s remarkable voice. Whether on “The Shrine / An Argument” or “Helplessness Blues”, both Pecknold’s vocals on its own and the, expansive harmonies soared through the heart. “I love you!” someone shouted. “I love you too, Thor!” Pecknold smiled back. It was as if the entire hall had broken up, crushing beneath your feet to expose the moment to the galaxy in all its robust beauty.

Click ahead for more exclusive photos from Iceland Airwaves 2017.

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