I’ve Saved The Best For Last (Iceland II)

The second half of Iceland was spent at a five-day international music festival called Iceland Airwaves. It was an incredible experience full of mind-blowingly good music. We averaged around six different shows a day, making a point to see artists we had never heard of before. Iceland Airwaves is a great festival for discovering new music. The crowd is genuine and interested, which makes a huge impact on the overall environment in Reykjavik throughout the week. While there were a handful of people bobbing around in drugged-induced stupor throughout the shows, most of the festival-goers were surprisingly sober. Our time at Iceland Airwaves was truly spent in the company of amazing people from all over the world, who were passionate about music, and wanted to support superbly talented musicians. The sense of authenticity and intimacy that underscored our entire experience at Iceland Airwaves sets it apart from other festivals, and is the exact reason that I plan on returning next year. There simply isn’t anything else like it.

While the bands at Airwaves were from all over the globe, the Icelandic bands were by far and away the best. These angelic Icelandic women had the highest falsettos I’ve heard in my whole life, and I was moved to tears on more than one occasion listening to them belt out tunes. I loved the variety of music we were able to witness. We saw everything from folk, to reggae, to hard rock (never again), to electronic, and alternative rock. Every genre was represented, other than country…which doesn’t qualify as a genre of music anyway.

During the day, shows around the city were free, so every venue was backed to the brim. People overflowed into the streets, where they watched through foggy windows and occasionally managed to push their way inside. I particularly enjoyed the shows at Kaffibarrin, a cozy local bar that housed many of our favorite shows. It would be morally abhorrent if I didn’t mention the band Samaris, who we saw at Kaffibarrin and again later at the ultra-modern Reykjavik Art Museum. Samaris is an Icelandic group comprised of an unbelievably talented vocalist, Jófríður Ákadóttir, and clarinetist, Áslaug Brún Magnúsdóttir. There’s also Þórður Kári Steinþórsson, who specializes in electronics, but the two girls easily steal the spotlight. Jófríður and Áslaug Brún (ahem) had great on stage chemistry, producing some of the most ethereal and mesmerizing music I’ve ever heard. Their performance at Kaffibarrin was so casual and close-knit. I wonder if I’ll ever see a show like that again. They two girls arrived slightly disheveled, but charming nonetheless. They sipped on beers (and spilt them), took down their hair, and danced all evening. It was inspired fun.

We also saw performances at KEX Hostel, which had an amazing atmosphere. (I had considered booking a hostel when I initially began planning the trip, but soon realized that Airbnb would undoubtedly be the cheaper route.) The lobby of KEX was a Pinterester’s daydream, with vintage maps that lined the walls, antique book cases full of quirky odds and ends, and perfectly soft lighting. I loved it. Our first day there, we met a personable group of travelers from France, Austria, and England, who had met the year before during Erasumus. We chatted about the music, swigging our beers happily as the speakers blasted by our side. The first show we saw at KEX was Kiasmos, and it was one of my favorites. It was so much fun stumbling into shows, entirely unsure of if we’d love them or hate them. The best shows were the ones we were wholly unprepared for.

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Kiasmos at the Harpa in Reykjavik, Iceland | Copyright Liam Gillies

There was a singer from the Faroe Islands, Greta Svabo Bech, who did a cover of Arcade Fires’ ‘My Body is a Cage’. Her rendition of the song was haunting. I could barely keep my act together as I stood in the audience. I so badly wanted to take out my phone and record a video, but I couldn’t bare to miss a split second of that performance. I am left now habitually searching the internet for a video of this cover. (I have even commented on her Facebook page, pleading her to post it.)

In the evenings, only paying festival-goers could gain admittance to the shows. Generally the “bigger” bands got these spots, performing at larger venues and concert halls in the city. We were constantly scrambling to put together some sort of schedule so that we’d be able to see as many shows as possible. Fitting in food was occasionally an obstacle. Finding decent beer was a more consistent (and serious) one. Note: the beer at markets in Iceland is NOT alcoholic and is so light it should not qualify as beer at all.

There were so many memorable moments and unprecedented performances…But I’ve saved the best for last: Vök. Hot damn, this band is amazing! They’re Icelandic, of course, and completely kick-ass. The lead singer, Margrét Rán Magnúsdóttir, has a raspy, seductive voice that resembles Karin Park. Beside her was a male saxophonist, Andri Már Enoksson. Andri is a passionate performer, and a perfect compliment to Margrét Rán’s unorthodox voice. There’s a third member of the band, Ólafur Alexander Ólafsson, though to be honest I can’t quite recall his role. I’m not sure how to describe this genre of music. It had an electronic undercurrent, but was highlighted by the fusion of the live saxophone and unique vocals. Not to mention, the lyrics were emotional and relatable; a difficult combination to achieve. We saw them twice, and I’m sure I’ll see them perform again in the future. Swoon…

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The Knife at the Harpa in Reykjavik, Iceland | Copyright Liam Gillies

Unfortunately, since most of the bands chosen to play at Iceland Airwaves are somewhat unexposed, many of their recordings I’ve found hardly measure up to their live performances. Such is the case for Vök, and it crushes me! Luckily, I did get a few videos of their shows, which I have listened to on repeat for extended periods of time. All in all, Airwaves was a once in a lifetime experience. We saw The Knife’s last performance ever. It says a lot that the band, who has toured all over the world for over a decade, chose to play in Reykjavik for the last show of their career. The atmosphere during Airwaves is special, as every Icelander we met attested to. The combination of the fantastical environment and the explosion of music is totally surreal and completely inspiring. I’ve already began looking up tickets for next year…who wants in?

Vok on Soundcloud

Greta Svabo Bach on Soundcloud

You can find Samaris and Kiasmos on Spotify

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