Well, this is a little bit different, isn’t it? Usually, Reykjavík would be pumping with music as the city’s venues play host to the usual locals and the global music fans who convene in the capital to get a glimpse of what’s good in the Icelandic scene. For those musicians who make up the community, the yearly Iceland Airwaves music festival is confirmation of their place within the scene, as well as an opportunity to celebrate their collective achievements.
Like almost every festival on the planet, though, Iceland Airwaves was postponed until 2021 due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. But it stands out as an outlier, using this disruption to innovate and to host the Live From Reykjavík live stream, a virtual showcase and celebration of the Icelandic music scene. Only a festival with such a strong community spirit and ethos such as this could pull off something like this.
Hosted over two consecutive days, the ticketed stream – which offered over four hours per day of music performances – gave a window into the Icelandic scene without compromise. Sure, there’s no sweaty mosh-pits and bustling queues to get into a buzzy venue, but instead a rare opportunity to enjoy an intimate view of musicians at the top of their game. Basically, there’s no tall bloke standing in your way – it’s just pure musical goodness.
If the lack of interaction might make some artists phone it in, Cell7 has no interest in doing so. Her early set – three songs and fifteen minutes long – provides a thrilling start to proceedings. Ragna Kjartansdóttir – who found her footing as a member of rap group Subterranean – is just as confident in an empty museum as she would be in a packed venue, each of her songs reinforcing her qualities as a true individual.
On ‘Powermoves’ there’s serious attitude when Kjartansdóttir gleefully states that she’s hotter than “jalapeno and Halle Berry” and a “single lady in a monastery”. On ‘Peachy’ the efficiency of her set-up is showcased – a live drummer and an MC – when a funky groove akin to Kaytranada and GoldKink slithers beneath her relentless bars, and they do it again on the weekend’s unofficial anthem, ‘City Lights’. Uncompromising good vibes shake off any fears of awkwardness and kickstarts an exciting weekend of live music.
Mugison’s set provides a similar reminder of the power of live music. His six piece band begin their show by draping across the altar of Fríkirkjan í Hafnarfirði (The Free Church in Hafnarfjörður) with a rousing rendition of ‘Pathetic Anthem’, but also showing some peace and love with an ode to the (best) Beatle, ‘George Harrison’. Soon, the merry crew march across Hafnarfjörður during their rendition of ‘Gúanó Stelpan’, utilising a broom to provide percussion on their travels. When they arrive at Bæjarbíó, that’s when the real magic happens.
A pair of dapper ballroom dancers welcome them in the foyer, and their gentle swaying to ‘Stingum Af’ offers a reminder of the kind of intimacy that has felt so alien to many this year – it’s a genuinely lovely moment. Things eventually get a bit gritty in the main hall, as the trio of ‘Mugiboogie’, ‘Sweetest Melody’ and ‘I Want You’ showcase Mugison’s versatility and inventiveness for a set that started in a holy place and ended in a sweaty club. Both are thrilling.
Emilíana Torrini and Friends offer another totally unique performance. No audience? No problem. She assembles a crew of beloved friends and acclaimed musicians including Pétur Ben, Marketa Irglova, Helgi Jónsson and Tina Dickow to do something a little bit different. Sipping from mugs in a mic’d up living room, their acoustic performance – in which they take turns to perform each other’s songs in unison – showcases the strength of their musicianship in its rawest sense. Performances of Ben’s ‘The Great Big Warehouse In the Sky’ and Dickow’s ‘Someone You Love’ aren’t just heavenly to witness, but an example of how this collection of musicians are turning lockdown and isolation into something quite wonderful.
Like few other festivals, Iceland Airwaves embrace the off-venue performances around the city every year, providing more opportunities for bands to perform and often something alternative. This quickfire showcase on Saturday night provides good reason for them to continue doing so. There’s War On Drugs-esque dream-pop from BSÍ and some ravey theatrics from gugusar, then dueling falsettos’ in Moses Hightower’s performance before rounding out with rap-rock from JóiPé x Króli, accompanied by a crew in an assortment of mismatched football kits.
Vök are no stranger to the Reykjavík Art Museum where they perform their brilliant set, sprinkling in cuts from their first two albums, particularly 2019’s ‘In The Dark’. On that album, the trio identify a rich seam and expose it, mastering an array of funky alt-pop that pack serious emotion, including ‘Erase You’ and ‘Autopilot’. When things get trippy – like on closing song ‘Round Two’ – the comparisons to Portishead and Massive Attack begin to make sense.
No set over the entire weekend is quite as thrilling as Hatari’s, though. When an automated voice warns that this we live “the society of the spectacle” and barks a chilling welcome “to the society of Hatari” there’s tension and danger in the air – but that’s just the way they like it. Ushering in a crash-course of anti-capitalist, postmodernist theories is no good if you haven’t got the tunes to hold attention-spans, but Hatari have them in abundance. Dressed as the world’s sexiest motocross team, each song is relentless, anarchic techno-pop to punish and provoke. Little wonder that their performance as Iceland’s entry to the Eurovision Song Contest in Israel last year is already deemed a cult favourite.
The higher the stakes, the bigger the reward. Backed by masked dancers and a frankly astonishing array of lasers, the ensemble do away with the tired notion that Nordic countries are only good for picturesque waterfalls and glaciers – this is playful techno-punk that can hang with the best of them. When they invite Svarti Laxness on for the industrial-rap anthem ‘Helviti’, they fire on all cylinders: melodic, powerful and slightly terrifying.
Another Eurovision alumni is man of the moment Daði Freyr, who was due to perform for Iceland at this year’s cancelled ceremony. His single ‘Think About Things’ became a streaming sensation in spite of the cancelled performance – proof that a brilliant song can thrive outside of the competition.
His set, recorded in his Berlin base, is goofy, sincere and raucous all at once; elasticated basslines rule ‘Lag Sem Ég Gerði’ and ‘Where We Wanna Be’. Key to Freyr’s success is his desire to master his craft, but to have some fun with it too – his cover of the Harry Potter theme song and a punk-rock rendition of ‘Believe’ by Cher reminds that while live music can be both moving and shocking, there’s still fun to be had. Hit single ‘Think About Things’ eases off on the silliness, but if this set is anything to go by, this is only the start of a long and enjoyable career.
It’d be rude for an Iceland Airwaves weekend to finish with anything other than one of the nation’s biggest musical exports in decades, Of Monsters and Men. Their 2010 single ‘Little Talks’ was a worldwide hit, but for those paying attention there’s been an accomplished evolution across their three albums thus far.
‘Alligator’ opens their set with gnarly garage rock, while the poppier ‘Wars’ dueling vocals provide some depth. A stripped-back version of ‘Little Talks’ is certainly welcome, but the Arcade Fire theatrics on ‘Dirty Paws’ and thumping closing song ‘Visitor’ are where their future clearly lies.
This array of music is a bittersweet reminder of what has been taken from us this year – the kind of communal moments that provide solace and joy to a music-loving nation. But Live From Reykjavík has set the bar for what a live streamed festival can achieve; highlighting both emerging and established names, providing unreplicable sessions and the power of a community’s can-do spirit.