Iceland’s slate-grey sky is darker than it usually is. A low pressure system, spun off from Hurricane Sandy, is wreaking destruction across the capital Reykjavik with gale force winds. Rumours spread of houses with their roofs blown off, and people needing the help of the local search and rescue team to get back to their hotels.
But the city’s annual music festival, Airwaves, continues regardless. Over five days at the start of November, more than 200 acts play in the ‘official’ part of the festival, and countless others take part in unofficial fringe gigs.
Danish all-girl trio Nelson Can are one of the acts that have travelled to Airwaves from abroad. Their sarcastic, spiky, Riot Grrl-via-DFA1979 punk is pouty and confrontational, but the mask slips when they talk to the audience between songs, flashing big Nordic smiles that betray their excitement.
Later that evening, local composer Ólafur Arnalds brings his lush, pastoral soundscapes to the city’s brand new, and somewhat controversial, modernist concert hall Harpa. He samples the audience during the show, melding those sounds back into his performance, and at one point specifically asks that assembled photographers not disturb the quiet sections of his music with shutter sounds.
The next day, snow is falling, but not big fluffy flakes from a Christmas card — instead tiny crystals whip through the streets, more like a sandstorm than a blizzard. It’s archetypically Icelandic weather, which matches up nicely with archetypically Icelandic Rökkuró. Their dark post-folk and ethereal vocals fit into the country’s otherworldly landscape but it’s also warm and inviting like a thermal spring.
Norwegian trio Philco Fiction’s sophisticated alt-pop bridges the gap between The Knife and Bjork, blending the fragile vocals of singer Turid Solberg with rhythmic piano and synth. The result is a perfect cocoon of delicate but extravagant ballads and quirky pop that sits happily next to the likes of Lykke Li without being quite so pushy.
The last thing you might expect to come out of Reykjavik is convincing soul music, but local heroes Retro Stefson have got charisma, talent and tunes by the bucketload. With a reputation for anarchic live shows, Retro Stefson bring a party atmosphere to Harpa — at one point refusing to continue until a certain quota of t-shirts had been removed from the audience’s bodies and thrown on stage.
But the jewel in Airwaves’ crown is arguably the biggest band in Iceland — Sigur Ròs — playing their first show in the country in four years. Rather than a set composed predominantly of tracks from their latest release, Valtari, the band opt for a two-hour greatest hits set, packed with crowd-pleasers from ‘( )’, ‘Takk’ and ‘Agaetis Byrjun’, and accompanied by the band’s otherworldly, mesmerising visuals and lighting. One new song, ‘Brennisteinn’, is debuted in the encore, which sounds like Jupiter crashing through an asteroid belt.
Reykjavik might not have the best weather in the world, but Airwaves fuses an incredible mix of music with the city’s infamous party scene. In the darkness of November in the North Atlantic, there’s no warmer place to be.