Take to the Airwaves for a magical journey of musical discovery

Bjork performing at the Airwaves Festival
Bjork performing at the Airwaves Festival
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Iceland’s biggest visitor attraction, a music festival launched in 1999, is a diverse mix of national and international talent

TO THE uninitiated, Iceland is best known for temperamental volcanoes, a massive banking crisis and Björk. But for music lovers, the country is also famous for its annual Airwaves festival.

Launched by Icelandair in 1999 as a way of filling flights from the US, it has gone on to become Reykjavik’s biggest visitor attraction, with literally hundreds of gigs taking place across some 30 venues.

While this year’s event, which wound up on Sunday, incorporated two performances of Björk’s epic new album Biophilia, Airwaves is less about headliners and more about musical discovery. A diverse programme of domestic talent – including folk, hip-hop, punk, electronica and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra – was interspersed with some exciting international artists.

Among them were Scotland’s The Twilight Sad and We Were Promised Jetpacks, whose extensive touring has given both bands an extremely confident presence and a commanding sound.

The former’s frontman, James Graham, performed one song in the crowd before returning to the stage to continue his spirited performance. These days The Twilight Sad are definitely more Mogwai than Morrissey, having evolved from miserablism into an awesome live beast.

We Were Promised Jetpacks, who are also signed to cutting-edge Fat Cat Records, showed an equal aptitude. The song Pear Tree, taken from the just-released album In The Pit Of The Stomach, got the Icelandic audience jumping and promises to be an instant crowd-pleaser for their forthcoming US tour.

Among the other international highlights were Norwegian teenage punk sensations Honningbarna, fronted by an enjoyably intense cello-playing singer. Their infectious energy provided a sonic shot in the arm, which was definitely necessary after two days of concerted gigging.

While local heroes often tend to have only local appeal, cult Icelandic rock act HAM proved a big hit among many of the 2,000 ticket holders who had come from abroad. Active in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they are said to have inspired Rammstein and re-formed in order to support the German pyro-rockers when they played in Reykjavik.

HAM’s various members usually keep themselves busy playing in a diverse range of other acts, a common practice among Icelandic musicians. The same faces cropped up in different bands throughout the festival and the number of players on stage regularly reached double figures.

Moreover, in a music-obsessed country of only 300,000 – Reykjavik boasts almost as many record shops as Edinburgh, despite only being a third of the size – many people have day jobs which belie their on-stage antics.

Along with former Sugarcubes member Einar Örn, HAM’s Óttar Proppé sits on the city council for the anarchist-leaning Best Party, while one of their contemporaries is a famous lawyer by day and sings for veteran punk act Saktmodigur at night.

But it is not just the older artists who catch the attention at Airwaves. Olafur Arnalds blends his training as a classical pianist with hints of electronica and a string section. The 24-year-old has already toured extensively, but seeing him in the stunning Harpa culture centre – which was completed amid much controversy following the financial crash – was particularly special.

Female-fronted Vicky, who dropped Pollard from their name a couple of years ago, are also beginning to attract attention outside Iceland with a nod to Siouxsie and the Banshees.

Like many of the local bands they performed several shows as part of the daytime “off-venue” bill, which took place in shops, cafes, bars, youth hostels, recording studios and even the home of one local musician. This is a particularly positive addition to Airwaves, allowing under-18s and anyone without a ticket to see many of the bands for free. It also serves as a kind of musical open day and another reminder that there is a lot more to Iceland than volcanoes, dodgy bankers and Björk.