The 2012 edition of the annual rock paradise Iceland Airwaves was the biggest and longest in the festival's 13-year history: nearly 230 acts performing over five evenings in twelve venues in Reykjavík. That included the arena Laugardalshöllin, where Led Zeppelin made a legendary appearance in 1970 (an experience that inspired "Immigrant Song" on Led Zeppelin III), and where local mystics Sigur Rós were the hot ticket on this year's closing night.
Sponsored by Icelandair, the national airline, Airwaves is still, appropriately, a national sport. Icelandic bands, solo artists, side projects and bedroom-demo novices distributing home-burned CDRs accounted for three-quarters of the long-weekend bill, while prominent out-of-towners came with firm, cool roots. British punks the Vaccines ended their set with an Icelandic folk tune, sung by their locally-born bassist. And Dirty Projectors, the American indie-rock band, made their Airwaves debut to a full house at the Reykjavík Art Museum that included friend and collaborator Björk, who danced and sang along to the group's knotty romanticism in the crush near the stage.
Thursday night, November 1st
I missed the starting gun on October 31st because of Hurricane Sandy. Given the state of New York City and a big swath of the Eastern seaboard when I left, I was lucky and grateful to be here at all. New York industrial-volume veterans Swans never made it; a major influence on Reykjavík's experimental-punk scene in the mid- and late Eighties, they were forced to cancel their highly anticipated Airwaves set at Harpa, a harborside complex of theaters.
That may have had something to do with the overflow at Harpa, in a competing time slot, for Of Monsters and Men. But it was unlikely. The breakout act of the 2011 Airwaves, the Icelandic folk-pop troupe returned as homecoming kings-and-queens, after a year of riding Mumford & Son's tailwinds to their own international success. My Head Is an Animal, Of Monsters and Men's debut album, has sold over 250,000 copies in America, confirming the expectations set by their Airwaves set last year, when they came out like a fireside Arcade Fire, detonating soft grenades of acoustic strum, co-ed vocal harmonies and anthemic gallop, compounded by the palpable excitement of a newly-released record of songs that everyone in the crowd already knew by heart.
The energy and delight were still in place this year, but in a muting space – a large box-y hall – to less delirious effect. Of Monsters and Men, who played for 18,000 people at an open-air gig here only a couple of months earlier, seemed to be punching at air, never fully engaging the 1500-plus crowd. "Lake House," from the album, brought late-in-the-set elation but highlighted an over-reliance on la-la-la's where a real chorus should go. And covering "Skeletons" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs was a nervy gambit, but the rearrangement – uneasily close to Seventies soft rock – lacked the taut eccentricity of the original. Of Monsters and Men are a still-young phenomenon, and this might have just been a good time in the wrong setting. At this point, the band knows how to fill a huge room. Bending the walls will take longer.
Earlier in the day, singer Steindór Andersen, brought traffic in the Harpa lobby to a standstill with his baritone incantation, performing rimur – traditional Icelandic narrative poetry – to the haunted accompaniment of Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson's electronic landscaping and the earthy clang of a stone harp, a marimba made of shards of rock, played by Páll Gudmundsson. It was a promo gig for Stafnbúi (12 Tonar), a new, beautifully packaged volume of rimur by Andersen and Hilmarsson. The effect, despite the clink of cups at the coffee bar, was almost medieval: hushed and ancient, with icy streaks of digital modernism.
A delightful shock from China, Nova Heart arrived from Beijing with a sly variant on Seventies New Wave: a dynamic singer, Helen Feng, who bore a strong vocal resemblance to Blondie's Debbie Harry, fronting a White Stripes-style rhythm section – male guitarist, wicked female drummer – that threaded loops and programming through heavy blues and dance floor rhythms. The trio has a solid first EP, Beautiful Boys, but its Airwaves set – at once rough and digital, in a small, jammed club – was my first best of the fest.
Friday, November 2nd
Iceland has made enough of its own rock history to fill a book. And it does: Stud vors lands (roughly "Pop Music in Iceland"), a coffee-table-sized beast packaged like a boxed set of 12-inch vinyl and written by the Icelandic authority and guitarist Dr. Gunni. At a party to celebrate the tome's release, held at a Reykjavík book store, local musicians-with-pedigree turned out to perform a few of the country's greatest hits. Guitarist Erlingur Björnsson of the Sixties beat group Thor's Hammer (quite the rage with Nuggets-era enthusiasts) revved up his old band's 1966 milestone "I Don't Care," the first record by an Icelandic group to feature a fuzz box. And singer Einar Örn – formerly of the Sugarcubes and the irrepressible voice of the aggro-rap group Ghostdigital – revived, with vintage snarl and harangue, two ragged torpedoes by his pre-'Cubes SWAT-punk band, Purkurr Pillnik.
That was a proper start for the night, which, at least on my itinerary, was all guitar-driven rock. Actually, Nelson Can, a trio of Danish women, skipped the guitar. They looked incomplete on stage – just a mike, bass and drums. But they whipped through their punk-funk minimalism with impressive tribal severity in the rhythms and the call-and-response of vocalist Selina and bassist-singer Signe. The songs from a debut EP, Nelson Can (10000 Records), suggested a more accomplished, stripped-back version of the Slits, with pop choruses to sugar the assault.
The Vintage Caravan were three young Icelandic males digging up a rock first made way before they were born: early Seventies British boogie, rendered with the subtlety and enthusiasm of Grand Funk Railroad. That is intended as a compliment. This is a band with much learning to be done. But as a cheeky look back, the Caravan were vintage fun; it was hard not to get caught up in their fervor.
Thee Attacks, a quartet from Denmark, followed on the same stage with their own evangelism, mid-Sixties-Who clang and crunch that have recently moved a few years ahead, into the hard funk and meaty riffing of the Seventies Stones. This is, by the sound of Thee Attacks' new album, Dirty Sheets (Crunchy Frog), an excellent development. The band also delivered one of the most physical sets of the weekend, with singer Jimmy Attack hanging perilously from the club's rafters, then forced to sing through his mike hanging down to his face after he got the cord tangled up overhead.
Saturday, November 3rd
Iceland's geography and weather inspire awe and silence. That is evident in both the local rock (Sigur Rós, orchestral-guitar quartet For a Minor Reflection) and the country's flourishing modern composition. Solaris, an hour-long piece by Ben Frost and Daniel Bjarnason performed at the church Fríkirkjan, was long on contemplation and tones held for long periods between silences. The instrumentation, when it surfaced, was clarion and provocatively indistinct; it was hard to tell what notes came from where – the string section, the bowed vibraphones or the amplified, treated pianos of Frost and Bjarnason. The guessing was a charm; the suspense, perfectly disrupted at points by the keyboards and percussionists, was invigorating.
Icelandic singer-songwriter Olöf Arnalds was all warming delicacy. Her early-Joni Mitchell chord changes on acoustic guitar and vocal style – a mix of near-operatic Joan Baez and the dusky alto of British psychedic-era folk artists such as Sandy Denny and Bridget St. John – were a beguiling break in the weekend frenzy. A half-hour later, Dirty Projectors recertified their place as one of modern rock's most challenging and compelling bands. Their gleaming pop songs were draped in overlapping-waterfall female harmonies and jolted by sudden rhythm changes that would seem eerily close to mid-Seventies Yes if not for the slick R&B curves in the songwriting and the Nigerian highlife in guitarist-singer David Longstreth's syncopated picking. The Projectors make an unlikely but undeniable party music. And that was how it went down, on the floor around Björk and all the way to the back.
But I must save one last paragraph for the Icelandic trio Epic Rain. The name smells of prog-metal or post-rock guitar symphony. You get neither. Epic Rain are three hip-hoppers that sounded like one thing when I heard their new album, Elegy (self released), in a Reykajavík store, Lucky Records, prompted by the propriet0r. The writing and singing was Tom Waits, Dr. Dre and the Weimar Republic in a blender: German between-the-wars cabaret with jeep-bass thump and rhyming in a junkyard-dog croon. It was all that live too, except the group members showed up like standard b-boys, playing this stuff straight on stage. They looked like nothing special, pulling off something much more than that, which I didn't even know existed until I got here.
There are many reasons why I keep returning to Iceland and Airwaves – the culture and natural majesty; the quality and depth of the music; the friends I've made. Here is another: the endless capacity for surprise. I will expect more of the same next time. And I'll get it.