This is how long I have been going to Iceland for music and discovery: The first two acts I saw at Iceland Airwaves 2014, which ended in Reykjavik on November 9th, were true-blood descendants of the Sugarcubes, the arctic island's breakthrough band and the one I saw and interviewed on my initial trip in 1988. Sindri Eldon and the Ways are led by the singer-guitarist son of Björk, the Sugarcubes' superstar siren – she was there early, with her mother and father, to cheer on the industrial-glam trio – while Hrafnkell Kaktus, the vocalist in digital, psychedelic rangers Fufanu, is the son of Einar Örn, Bjork's co-singer in the Sugarcubes. Creative urgency and assurance run long in families here.
The Flaming Lips closed out this year's Airwaves (named after founding sponsor Icelandair) in a blast of acid-rock romanticism and party-store spectacle, previously reviewed here. Intruding deadlines delayed a fuller reflection. But there is something to be said for marinating impressions; lasting effect creeps up on you. A week and change later, these highlights from my seventh or eighth Airwaves (I've lost count) are still reverberating upstairs.
Sindri Eldon and the Ways, Gamla Bíó, November 6th
Sindri's alt-Nineties classicism sounds nothing like his mother's work: meaty-Badfinger pop lined with self-deprecating irony, sung by Sindri in a high, cutting register like Marc Bolan without the warble. A new album, Bitter, Resentful (Smekkleysa), is packed with grim humor and the obvious weight of local expectation ("I Have Earned the Right to Be a Failure"). From this distance, it is solid retro-armed determination, a smart, crisp step back to his own way forward.
Fufanu, Gamla Bíó, November 6th
This intriguing swirl of glaze and propulsion – metallic-paisley guitars, Neu!-like drumming and sharp, chanting vocals, all soaked in painterly electronics – was hobbled by technical difficulties. "Does anybody here know anything about synchronized MIDI?" Kaktus asked the patient crowd, with mounting frustration, as the programming repeatedly expired during the set. A lesson here: When the machines shut down and you have that much live instrumentation on hand, just fucking jam. But when all was functioning the next night, at another set in the club Gaukurinn, Fufanu (who have opened shows in South America for Blur's Damon Albarn) were funky, iridescent honey, ready for record.
Megas/Grísalappalisa, Gamla Bíó, November 6th
In international terms, this 40 minutes of mayhem was like the Icelandic Bob Dylan flanked by the local Foo Fighters. Megas is a genuine hard-living legend, whose declamatory singing and blunt dissection of Icelandic life – a strange brew of poetic drive, supernatural faith and historically strict religious and social conservatism – cleared the ice in the Seventies and early Eighties for the country's avant-punk revolt. (Future members of the Sugarcubes played on some of his biggest and best albums.) The rowdy septet Grísalapplisa, a breakout from 2013's Airwaves, carry Megas' legacy and aggression in their bones; they recently cut a tribute single, covering two of his songs.
This show was, if you know Icelandic, all hits. If you don't, it was gripping anarchy: the thin, grizzly Megas barking his lyrics like Lawrence Ferlinghetti surrounded by a jubilant, hammering band, actually closer to a Fifties-boogie version of Public Image Ltd. Songs ended as if hitting a brick wall; the sound bouncing back to the stage, from the crowd, was pure love.
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Gamla Bíó, November 6th
After the Megas affair, this Australian Krautrock-blues troupe (three guitars, two drums, bass and electronically treated harp) had to rustle up big vibe. They did it best in long stretches, staying on one rhythm and hammering it like Hawkwind. Shorter songs (including one with flute) were less engaging, melodically thin. When the band jumped back to long, straight jamming, it was a train with brains, notching the groove with occasional shifts in rhythm and riff but no dip in focus or speed. For as long as they maintained that, the Gizzards were a hot ride.
Jóhann Jóhannsson and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, "The Miners' Hymns," Harpa Eldorg, November 7th
This performance was the local orchestral debut of this composer's score to Bill Morrison's documentary on the robust history and late-20th Century decline of Britain's mining industry, told in otherwise silent footage. The soundtrack was issued in 2011 by Fatcat Records, and I saw Jóhannsson perform his sumptuous hour-long pointillism on a smaller, poignant scale that year, in the downtown church Fríkirkjan. The Iceland Symphony's billowing translation framed the black-and-white images of hunched, coal-dusted men at work, then marching to save their jobs, with larger grandeur, a sympathetic minimalism big enough to cover the passing – cruel but inevitable – of a working class.
Ólof Arnalds, Fríkirkjan, November 7th
Sometimes setting is everything. Earlier in the day, this singer-songwriter – who pursues confessional balladry through modern-pop space and art-song dynamics on her latest album, Palme (One Little Indian) – played a brief set, without much amplifcation, at the Smekkleysa record store. Her voice, an airy, fragile thing, was a charming whisper over barely-there guitar. That evening, accompanied by Skúli Sverrison on digitally-altered bass and folk-rock electrick guitar, Arnalds filled this church with large, warm presence, projecting her girl-ish pitch and small, emotional quivers with a force that made the reverb a snug fit, as tight in its way as that small, packed shop. In a festival where singers and bands simply play their songs in the short time allowed, this was moving, instinctively calibrated performance.
The Vintage Caravan, Idno, November 7th
In 2013, this young trio from the harborside town of Álftanes, south of Reykjavik, showed up at Airwaves like it was 1969-73, plowing an old-school field of heavy blues-rock, with singer-guitarist Óskar Logi Ágústsson already excelling at Grand Funk-prime hair. If you think that's the kind of antique news no one wants delivered anymore, note this: The Caravan recently signed an international record deal, with Nuclear Blast. They celebrated here with turbulent Seventies power boogie, and unrepentant ecstasy. "This next one is called 'Expand Your Mind,'" Ágústsson announced at one point, followed by a drum-solo intro that flew in straight from Led Zeppelin's "Moby Dick." The Vintage Caravan are all flashback – with spirit.
Samaris, Harpa Silfurberg, November 8th
Kelela, Hurra, November 8th
In between these acts, the Swedish electro-sibling duo the Knife gave their final concert performance before disbanding. The show started as a glittering, percussive entertainment of enlarged-troupe rhythms, vocals and choreography but descended, at midpoint, into Eurovision pantomime: cheesy, overbusy dancing to pre-recorded instrumental and vocal tracks, with extended passages in which the 11-strong crew didn't even condescend to lip-sync. After the spirited, expansive futurism of their 2013 double album, Shaking the Habitual, the Knife said goodbye loaded down in ham and sugar.
The Knife's opening act, the Icelandic group Samaris, did a lot more with a lot less: a woman singing like a young Kate Bush walking through a sea of echo; another blowing arrow-like drones and bird-flight paths on oboe; a young man behind a modest bank of electronics, triggering punctuative-bass rhythms and ice-floe chords. Also, cross-legged on the floor, a tabla player. There were no songs, as in recognizably shaped choruses and bridges. But the motion and enveloping reach of the small hooks and singing were a sublime bath.
Kelela, a Washington, D.C.-born vocalist of Ethiopian descent, packed the very, small Hurra with just two programmers and her own, big, vocal brass, an incantatory-R&B balladry over fuzz-laden beats and dub-reggae dread. Kelela, like Samaris, is about setting and summits, not songs. But like the Icelanders, she came to play, not mime.
Rokksafn Íslands: The Icelandic Museum of Rock 'N' Roll
The scene and history are big and long enough, respectively, to warrant their own museum, which opened last April under managing director Tómas Young in the city of Keflavík, about 40 minutes southwest of Reykjavik. Next door to a venue that in the Sixties was the Cavern-like home of Hljómar a.k.a Thor's Hammer, Iceland's combined answer to the Who and the Beatles, the Icelandic Museum of Rock 'N' Roll is as eccentric in its telling as the tale it celebrates: Memorabilia include gas masks worn by Sigur Rós in one of their videos and a drum kit used on the first Icelandic-language concept LP, . . . Lifun, by the progressive-rock band Trubot. (In a 2009 poll of the best Icelandic albums of all time, it came in at Number Two, behind Sigur Rós' Agaetis Byrjun.)
The exhibits, photography, films and rare vinyl go back as the early 1900s, to the first, locally recorded 78s of folk and dance-band music, then up to current stars Of Monsters and Men. Admission is 1,500 Icelandic kroner – about $12.00, a lot less than the Metropolitan Museum of Art – and the museum is five minutes from Keflavík International Airport. And like everywhere else that feels like home here, there is fine coffee. Go to rokksafn.is for more information.