Iceland Airwaves 2016: 10 Best Things We Saw

Festival's 18th annual edition ranged from chamber music to metal, with a challenging Björk centerpiece

Read David Fricke's detailed recap of highlights from Iceland Airwaves 2016, featuring Björk, múm, the Sonics, Sólstafir and more. Credit: Santiago Felipe/Redferns/Getty

"Don't be shy," John Lydon said, his voice and eyes alight with mischief as he dared a cluster of fans and curious bystanders to ask him some questions. "I came all this way. And my fingers are freezing."

Lydon, a.k.a. singer Johnny Rotten, formerly of the Sex Pistols and still of Public Image Ltd., was the honorable guest at the unofficial opening on November 2nd of Iceland Airwaves 2016 – under a white tent in a cold, drizzling rain at the entrance of a public underground toilet on the main shopping street in Reykjavik. The small swinging gate led down to the Icelandic Punk Museum, a new exhibit dedicated to the eccentric but influential history of punk rock in this arctic nation. Lydon, clutching a cigarette and a beer, his hair a wet nest of reddish-white spikes, had yet not gone through the newly decorated stalls, documenting the early-Eighties rush of youthful impatience and inventive vigor that produced the Icelandic avant-rock scene, which eventually led to the worldwide emergence of the Sugarcubes, their elfin star vocalist Björk and the symphonic-drone band Sigur Rós.

But Lydon had a lot to say about punk and museums in general – notably that punk deserved one. "I support it," he said of this enterprise, conceived and curated by local musician and writer Dr. Gunni, author of the Icelandic rock history Blue Eyed Pop. Lydon also insisted that "proper punk," as he put it, "advances itself" and lamented "the mad deluge of bands" after the Pistols "that all sounded the same." He contended that Gunni's retrospective "should be followed by a punk museum two, a punk museum three, a punk museum four" – in other words, a history on the march.

Appropriately, Björk was a major presence at this edition of Iceland Airwaves, founded in 1999 by its still-principal sponsor, the national airline Icelandair. She did not physically appear at the November 2nd opening of Björk Digital, her own exhibit of immersive video and virtual-reality experiences at the concert hall Harpa. But Björk made up for her cancellation of an Airwaves show last year with a November 5th concert at Harpa in which she revisited the anguish and healing of her recent, harrowing-breakup album, Vulnicura, with dramatically expanded string arrangements, no electronics and emotionally acrobatic singing.

This year's Airwaves, which ran through November 6th, was itself a vigorous extension of the festival's usual creative and patriotic idealism, with an increase in venues – 14 over five days – and performances by more than 220 bands and projects, most of them Icelandic, of course, and playing multiple gigs at the 60 off-venue stages as well. At the punk-museum opening, Lydon – who also appeared in an Airwaves spoken-word revue at Harpa – was asked if he planned to see any live music while he was in Reykjavik. "If I wake up with a blinding headache," he replied, growling and grinning, "of course, I'm going to see a load of punk bands."

There were plenty to go around.

Icelandic Punk Museum, Bankastraeti, Reykjavik, November 2nd, 5 p.m.
The urinals have been thoughtfully plugged with plastic sheets and covered in yellow crime-scene tape, so no one gets the wrong idea of what's important here: the vintage photography; grainy, exotic video clips; and extensive commentary in Icelandic and English. The stalls are decorated with a chronological account of Iceland's rock life starting with the dark ages – pretty much the whole of the Fifties and early Sixties. There is a photo of Led Zeppelin on stage in Reykjavik in 1970 – a gig that inspired their "Immigrant Song" – but the exhibit then jumps quick and deep into the youthquake that followed late-Seventies and early-Eighties visits by the first wave of British punk bands – the Stranglers, the Clash, the Fall and Killing Joke. Three of the raw and outlandishly inspired Icelandic groups founded in that wake – Purkur Pillnikk, Theyr and KUKL –  all contributed members to the Sugarcubes. A video of Björk performing in her own teenage-renegade combo Tappi Tíkarass, from the Eighties documentary Rokk Í Reykjavik, will be a revelation to those who only know the singer from her modern-pop discography. Sporting Raggedy Ann makeup and shrieking with avenging glee, she looks impossibly young and vividly feisty, like a toy doll on an urgent mission. Admission to the museum is about 10 dollars (in Icelandic kroner), and there is just enough room for a tiny merch stall selling two cassette compilations of rare and unreleased Icelandic punk recordings. The digital generation need not feel left out; both tapes come with download codes.

GlerAkur, November 2nd, midnight, Gaukurinn
"It's earplug time," my friend Johannes – of the Reykjavik label and record store 12 Tonar – warned me. He wasn't kidding. This group – the name is Icelandic for Field of Glass – was viciously loud. It was also brutally irresistible. I kept coming back to this description all weekend to anyone asking if I had seen anything great: Metallica covering the live half of Pink Floyd's 1969 album Ummagumma. What seemed at first to be huge, gray slabs of unrelenting distortion proved, over a full set's exposure, to be four guitarists issuing multiple, weaving strands of sustain and harmonic feedback, resolving into slow-motion melodies hammered into the air by two drummers. One of GlerAkur's guitarists also plays with the local avant-metal institution HAM; another is a sound engineer for the national theater. But this mayhem was new even to the locals. GlerAkur have just released an EP on a German label, Can't You Wait (Prophecy), and this was only the band's second Icelandic gig. More, please. And soon.

Soley, November 3rd, 7 p.m., Mengi
Mengi is an intimate gallery-like space in central Reykjavik that is analogous to New York's East Village experimental-music chapel the Stone, specializing in progressive composition, unique local collaborations and workshop-style residences. The female singer-songwriter Soley announced, for the benefit of Airwaves visitors, that she was in the middle of a series of performances here, testing new material for her third album. Her delicate singing and pensive minor-chord writing, built on stairstep-piano arpeggios that suggest Philip Glass channeled through Laura Nyro's R&B balladry and Kate Bush's larynx, was framed by extra keyboards, cello, flute and tip-toe percussion. That is, until she opened a mini-set of songs currently in development, noting that there were a few passages with words missing – she wasn't finished writing yet – and that the first of the four tunes would actually open with a rarity: a major chord. That sunshine didn't last long; Soley was soon back to a more reflective sorrow that, as rain fell in the darkness outside, felt right and comforting.

Fufanu, November 3rd, 10:50 p.m., Harpa Silfurberg
One of the pleasures of returning to an annual festival like Iceland Airwaves is checking in, across a few years, with bands that hold promise but haven't quite grown into their own skin. Fufanu is one that I've seen at a variety of stages – coming through techno, hip-hop and punk-rock aggression. But this was the year that they looked and sounded like a knockout rock & roll band, still using machine-generated loops as embedded, rhythmic devices yet mostly stripped down to the bone-dance sinew of guitar, bass and drums, like the early Blur streaked with the distorting snarl of the Jesus and Mary Chain. Fufanu mostly played new material, from a forthcoming album produced by guitarist Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and they did it with conquering verve. "It's a win-win situation for everyone!" singer Kaktus shouted at the end, like a chant. He was right, too. Fufanu finally hit the gas; we all scored.

The Sonics, November 3rd, 12:10 a.m., Harpa Silfurberg
Here's a fun fact: When this legendary garage-punk combo from Tacoma, Washington, broke up the first time around, in 1967, it had never played live east of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Forty-nine years later, the Sonics made their Icelandic debut at Airwaves, riding the momentum of their studio reunion from last year, This Is the Sonics. They are now down to one original member, saxophonist Rob Lind; guitarist Larry Parypa, who was still in the touring version when I saw the band last spring, has quit the road. But the rhythm section from the album, drummer Dusty Watson and singer-bassist Freddie Dennis, are still a high-octane combination and Dennis honors the signature howl of original singer-organist Gerry Roslie with his own shredded belting in "He's Waitin'," "Psycho" and "Cinderella." It was a cross-cultural treat to see young Icelandic women dancing to "Boss Hoss" – Sixties' American slang for hot wheels – and to hear the crowd join the hellbent chorus in "Strychnine": "I like the taste of straight strychnine." Some things need no translation.

múm and Kronos Quartet, November 4th, 8 p.m., Harpa Eldborg
Iceland Airwaves has taken increasing advantage of the formal-concert atmosphere of this 1,600-seat room, the country's modern equivalent of Carnegie Hall, and the advanced possibilities of collaboration outside pop, rock and hip-hop. This one-off meeting of múm, Iceland's leading electronic band, and America's premier, new-music string quartet was a three-set affair – one each by the principals, a third in union. múm's opening turn was a surprisingly analog chamber music, a whispery impressionism of piano, cello, trumpet and percussion with striking electronic accents. One piece, featuring the large vocal group Kórus, began as a kind of alt-pop march, set to an impatient set of piano triplets, but turned into something grander and unexpected when the voices kicked in, evoking the pastoral hallelujah on Side One of Mike Oldfield's 1975 prog-rock concerto Ommadawn.

The Kronos Quartet performed a half-dozen miniatures, most of them new, commissioned works from a series called "50 for the Future," recorded by the group and available for free download. The closing exception was a stunning cover of the Who's "Baba O'Riley," with the strings nailing every detail in the Who's Next rave-up, including Roger Daltrey's "We're all wasted" wail, via scraping violin. For their set with múm, Kronos were empathically interactive, enriching the younger band's instrumental and electronic settings, especially in the two closing pieces from the latter group's 2002 local classic, Finally We Are No One (Fat Cat). It was hard to imagine another show outstripping this one for elegance, nerve and setting – until Björk showed up the next night.

Sólstafir, November 4th, 12:30 a.m., Harpa Nordurljós
This Icelandic metal group, founded in 1995 with five albums to date, never seemed to be in Reykjavik – or anywhere else – when I was. This was my first concert sighting, and an hour wasn't long enough. The band's latest album, Ótta (Season of Mist), is its giant step out of pure, black lava into a dark but assured, progressive-rock majesty that needed more thrashing room before curfew. Yet there was enough affirmation to go around in the set to warrant patience until the next time and hope for more time on the clock.

Björk, November 5th, 5 p.m., Harpa Eldborg
The heartbreak and healing are not yet over. Nearly two years after the release of Vulnicura, Björk took one of her last live turns through that record's forensic examination of the ruins of her relationship with the American artist Matthew Barney. (A second Harpa show was set for November 8th.) But she came back to that pain with differences from the concert I saw in New York in 2015, shedding the electronics and arming herself with more strings. The 30-piece group was quite nimble for its size: firing spikes of harsh, bowed tension at the start of "Notget"; swooning behind the singer in "Lionsong" in sheets of melancholy; holding the distended suspense of the long notes in "Black Lake" like nerves stretched beyond normal, human breaking point. The second set was a little more forgiving to the crowd with a string-driven reach back to "I've Seen It All" and an encore of "Bachelorette." It wasn't exactly concession. Björk invited the audience to sing along during the latter; the best the crowd could do, in this arrangement, was stand and sway in place. Backstage after the show, I got the chance to tell Björk how much I enjoyed the performance. She replied that she was looking forward to moving past this acclaimed and provocative cycle in her work – on to new music.

Seratones, November 5th, 12:30 a.m., NASA
Any music after Björk's show was bound to be anticlimactic. Most of what I saw next was, with this exception, which felt like loud, lusty cleansing. Seratones, from Shreveport, Louisiana, were a rarity in the Airwaves schedule – a straight-up blues-rock band. That is, one with a modern-rock slice in the writing and healthy servings of church and secular bravado in singer-guitarist A.J. Haynes, who carries on like a cross between Joan Jett and Tina Turner while hitting stratospheric vocal notes with cut-glass clarity. She made a lot of instant new friends at NASA, getting a rousing reception that Haynes reciprocated by jumping down into the crowd during the last song. The group's debut album, Get Gone (Fat Possum), is a strong entrance on record for Haynes, guitarist Connor Davis, bassist Adam Davis and drummer Jesse Gabriel. But this is a band that should be seen as well as heard.

Mammút, November 6th, 9:20 p.m., Valshöllin
There is always time for one more revelation. This one came in the form of a band that I first saw nearly a decade ago, in Iceland and New York. At that point, they were clearly descended from the Sugarcubes with a debut album on that group's own label and a Björk-like contender in vocalist Katrína Kata Mogensen. Mammút have been an infrequent phenomenon even here – only three albums in the past 10 years. But tonight, opening for PJ Harvey at the final-blowout show of Airwaves, in this cavernous sports hall, Mammút fired up a new album of arena-worthy, shamanistic hard rock that bodes well for their next album, just completed and due for release on the Bella Union label next spring. Flanked by the dynamic, slashing interplay of guitarists Alexandra Baldursdottir and Arnar Pétursson, Mogensen has clearly left any Björk and Siouxsie-of-the-Banshees affectations behind, singing with her own icy, piercing vengeance. When I first saw Mammút, way back in the Airwaves game, I thought they were the most exciting, new band in Iceland. Now I know they are ready for the world.