Iceland Airwaves is a truly international event with a definite Icelandic feel. Founded in 1999, the metropolitan music festival takes place across several venues in Reykjavik, where thousands of people brave the changeable Nordic weather in early November to catch a variety of local and foreign bands and artists in bars, cafes, shop windows, street corners and larger venues. This year, even John Lydon made an appearance, notably opening the Icelandic Punk Museum with an informal Q&A session on the street at Laugavegur.
I always find it tricky to describe my experiences of Iceland to those who haven’t been: on the one hand, I want to wax lyrical about the outstanding scenery, welcoming people and unique vibe; on the other, I daren’t sell it too much in case an avalanche of people descend and ruin the wilderness covering 99% of the island. I was really looking forward to my first Airwaves. It’s one of the friendliest music festivals you can imagine, and a real treat for a photographer and fan of new music.
As with any urban festival, there are lots of events going on at any one time. Airwaves are one step ahead, and developed an app this year to remind you where and when each of your favourites are playing. Many artists played several times at different venues across the week, too, so it was easy to avoid potential clashes.
One such act was Icelandic dance duo, Milkywhale, who I managed to catch at the Hlemmur Square Hotel – a fringe venue – whose singer threw herself around in full voice in front of some pretty loud DJ decks. The fringe venues host acts all across the city during the day and tend to be packed out, and this was no exception.
The headline acts were all in a handful of larger venues during the evening (and well into the night), including at the fantastic purpose-built Harpa in the centre. I was lucky enough to join another hundred-or-so photographers at the front for Dizzee Rascal, who played an outstanding energetic set to a crammed room.
Other great Icelandic sets I was able to see were Axel Flóvent, an acoustic singer with a captivating voice who played with a band to create a dreamy sound; bouncing indie band Fufanu, who put a lot into their guitar-driven set with a charismatic frontman; Vök, whose electro-guitar sound felt superbly Nordic; and the rather awkwardly-named Vaginaboys, an electro-dance act with similarities to the distorted vocals and retro of Daft Punk.
From the UK, the highly-rated Kate Tempest played one of the most intense sets I’ve ever seen at the cool KEX Hostel, while being filmed for a local television channel. Her say-it-how-it-is style of London rap, with her own take on socio-political issues, had the entire audience mesmerised.
A complete curveball was Ljóðfæri, a father-and-son experimental duo who performed a captivating Icelandic spoken word dialogue with electronic effects to a seated audience, including the use of an old telephone and typewriter. On my way back, I stopped to watch a local band called Quest in a shop window, and was really impressed with their eighties-style electro-guitar style.
However, perhaps the most exciting music I saw were consecutive sets from Samaris and Mammút respectively, at the Bryggjan Brugghús, a fringe venue near the harbour. The setting in a working micro-brewery, packed to the rafters, added to the special atmosphere, but these two Icelandic acts really need to be seen if you haven’t already. Samaris are an incredible electronic three-piece with lovely smooth vocals, while Mammút are a simply outstanding female electro-indie band with real stage presence and attitude.
As a photojournalist, I was lucky enough to be invited to the artists’ party at Harpa, where I met some fantastic people from a number of different countries. This was yet one more reason why the festival is so incredible: Iceland is an incredibly civilised country with a welcoming attitude, which is reflected all the way through the relatively relaxed but excellently-structured Airwaves.
Words & Photos: Mike Powell / Glossy Onions Photography