Their economy may be screwed, but their music scene and annual festival are still booming. Various venues, Reykjavik (October 15-18)
Brown, darling, your credit is not welcome here”, reads the sign on a shop door, while next to the till at a bar is a plastic cup bearing the legend “tips for the economically depressed”. A drunk, angry young Icelander steals bottles when the barmaid’s back is turned. “I have no fucking money and I need some fucking beer,” he tells us.
Times in Iceland are so dark that they’re currently debating whether to be bailed out by the IMF. But on its 10th anniversary, the country’s ever-expanding, ever-improving Airwaves Festival is booming in the face of the bust. From the minute we step into the tiny Prikið bar to be confronted by the Monty Python metal of Dr Spock, a Scandinavian System Of A Down in flat cap and rubber gloves, it’s a riot of energy and quality. Flying the home flag on the opening night are Biffy Clyro, who rush headlong into a battering, mane-thrashing, triple-Borrelled white-jeaned assault on the Nasa venue. It’s sweatily impressive, but the unabashedly devil-horning crowd look more confused than anything by the polished post-hardcore anthemics of ‘Mountains’.
On Thursday, things kick off in earnest at the vast, prison-like white space of the Reykjavík Art Museum, with The Mae-Shi showing the Biff how it should be done with their bratty, infectiously exuberant garage punk, before techno-soul godfathers GusGus strip off our inhibitions, leaving us dancing like goons before we even know what’s happened. The next day, White Denim’s muscular, sex-faced blues rock reminds us of Jon Spencer and the time when Kings Of Leon were fun. Final Fantasy, over at Iðnó, has fallen foul of the baggage-handlers, and is playing with a strange keyboard (“…he’s called Roland. Hello!”), but this is one man who can make a virtue out of necessity, creating a complex, unique soundworld from only one violin and a loop pedal. Not so Simian Mobile Disco, who, down to a one-man DJ set at Tunglið, rustle up nothing much more than progressionless four-to-the-bore dance music for people who’ve never really listened to much of it.
On Saturday, CSS are spangly chicken soup for the bankrupt soul, Lovefoxxx’s extravagant stagewear (tonight: disco bladder wrack) and unhinged bounding coming more and more to resemble a famous daughter of these very shores. Back at Nasa, Boy Crisis prove to be worth at least some of the hasty hype, their cheesy-sleazy electropop fun somewhere between Har Mar Superstar and Hot Chip. You would think Vampire Weekend’s breezy preppy-pop would be as wholesomely refreshing to Airwaves as it is on the airwaves, but in practice, their closing Art Museum set falls flat. Maybe it’s the space, which leaves them sounding thin and twee, or maybe it’s that the subtle, refined angsts of comfortable Ivy League graduates isn’t quite the right catharsis for a hall of recession-hit Norsemen, but we’re not really feeling it.
But as the festival comes to a close, we begin to realise that it’s not really about the bands we already know, but about the strength and resilience of a music scene that, from the yearning anthemic drivetime-isms of Wolfgang, via the thick, churning American indie three-guitar attack of Sudden Weather Change to the dark, grinding, Black Angels-esque shoegaze of Singapore Sling, is as disproportionately awesome as this small country’s banking sector once was. Bringing it all to a fitting end are band of the weekend FM Belfast, who pair Lo-Fi-Fnk-ish electropop with the knowing, camp humour of The B-52s or even compatriots The Sugarcubes. “We don’t really want to talk about the financial crisis,” sighs singer Arni, “but we thought we’d better say a few words…” They launch into a jaunty song whose only words are the refrain “What the fuck is going on?”, and before long, members of other local bands invade the stage for a riotous, glitter-spangled singalong that’s the perfect end to a festival of defiant creativity.