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Iceland Festival Rocks

GusGus, Purrkurr Pillnikk, Jakobinarina bring out Reykjavik's wild sounds

October 28, 2005 12:00 AM ET

Iceland Airwaves '05 -- the seventh edition of the hippest long weekend on the annual music-festival calendar -- ended with the beginning. At 3:15 A.M. on Sunday morning, October 23rd, at the overflowing Reykjavik club NASA, the Icelandic art-dance band GusGus brought their set and Airwaves to a close with a thudding raver built with samples from an old roaring record by the Icelandic early-Eighties punk band Purrkurr Pillnikk.

It was a fitting climax to the feast: 160 acts in six venues in central Reykjavik over four nights, October 19th through 22nd. Iceland's teenage Sex Pistols, Purrkurr Pillnikk were the start of so much in this island nation (population 296,000) on the Arctic Circle. The band's singer Einar Orn would later be Bjork's vocal foil in the Sugarcubes, the country's first international pop stars, who invested that clout in their own still-thriving record label, Smekkleysa ("Bad Taste"), currently the home of glacial-rock sensations Sigur Ros.

Einar Orn was not onstage for that Purrkurr Pillnikk tribute; the guest singer who joined GusGus turned out to be a judge from the TV show Icelandic Idol. But Einar literally blew out the PA the night before at another club, Gaukurinn, with his avenging-electronics hip-hop squad Ghostdigital. And the youth-will-be-served precedent he set with Purrkurr Pillnikk was alive and well all weekend. In fact, my Airwaves highlight came on opening night, from a band that had school the next day.

Jakobinarina are six young rascals from Hafnarjordur, southwest of Reykjavik, who formed last December and whose average age, 16, belies their storming union of Joy Division-inspired drive and Fugazi-style slash. On the band's demo EP, Boys Are Like Shoes, Size Does Matter, singer Gunnar Ragnarsson's brash enthusiasm is often greater than his tonal accuracy. But live, at the packed club Grand Rokk, Jakobinarina took off like a junior Franz Ferdinand fronted by an aspiring Mark E. Smith. If John Peel was on the air today, he would play their EP in a heartbeat. And with a bit more seasoning, Jakobinarina will be ready to burn up a stage near you -- once they get their parents' permission.

Sponsored by the national airline, Icelandair, and the Reykjavik city council, and produced by Mr. Destiny, a Reykjavik concert promotion company, Iceland Airwaves was born in 1999 as a single-day event in an airplane hangar. The festival quickly expanded in both size and outreach; Suede and the Flaming Lips headlined the next year. But the principal attraction, for locals and visitors, is a confident emphasis on Iceland's own obscenely prodigious scene. Airwaves '05 sold out the last of its wristbands -- 4,000 in all -- an hour before the music started on the first night. Of that total, almost 900 were bought as part of Icelandair travel packages, a figure evenly split between British and American music fans. (The price of a stand-alone wristband was 5,700 kroner, about $90 -- a good bargain in a country where a single beer is ten bucks.) You can start planning for 2006: Iceland Airwaves '06 is set for October 18th through 22nd.

The most anticipated foreign acts this year -- American brother-sister act the Fiery Furnaces; New York modern-dance band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah; Argentine-born, Swedish-based singer-songwriter Jose Gonzalez -- did not disappoint. In a short set at the Reykjavik record store 12 Tonar, Gonzalez made warm, moving melancholy on a borrowed acoustic guitar (his was stranded in Boston), transforming Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" into a lesson in repairing disconnection. Riding the epidemic buzz of their self-released debut album, Clap Your Hand Say Yeah were greeted at NASA like stars, responding with a tight set of spidery twang and keyboard pulse that sent the dancefloor into a frenzy of unison bounce. In their Icelandic debut two nights earlier, Danish party boys Junior Senior had the same effect in the same room, showing off the peppermint-dance power of their new album, Hey Hey My My Yo Yo. It doesn't matter where you're from: You're dead all over if you can't smile and jerk to a song called "Hip Hop a Lula."

But the real entertainment at Airwaves is the chance to join Young Iceland in investigating and cheering its own. The eccentric big band Benni Hemm Hemm got a hero's welcome at Grand Rokk, then repaid the cheers with a shambolic romanticism -- hearty brass sugared with glockenspiel and Hawaiian-whine guitar -- that evoked both the ragged glories of Broken Social Scene and the sunshine prospect of Brian Wilson conducting a troupe of Salvation Army horns at a 1967 Smile session. In one English-language number from the group's self-titled album, singer-guitarist Benedikt Herrmannsson made Beck-with-'65-Beatles sweetness from the improbable chorus, "I can love you in a wheelchair, baby" -- which made me wonder about what kind of wordplay he gets up to when he sings in Icelandic.

Some of the weekend's weirdness was pure juxtaposition: At Hafnarhusid, a huge cathedral-ceilinged room in the Reykjavik Art Museum, the five-piece band Skatar (Icelandic for "scout") wore white biochemical-warrior jumpsuits and played a fast jagged math rock, as if Devo had made it halfway to turning into the Pixies, only to take a hard left turn into early-Eighties King Crimson. They were followed by the Apparat Organ Quartet, all individually renowned experimental players and composers here who, in this combination, whip up a circular storm of Steve Reich-ian loops propelled by thrash-metal drumming -- as if Kraftwerk had hired Lars Ulrich to do backbeats.

I didn't see anything Icelandic that had that Next Big Export smell -- yet. But I heard much that reminded me why I keep returning, and why I have been continually intrigued by the original music made here, since my first trip in 1988. After Jose Gonzalez gently wowed the afternoon shoppers at 12 Tonar, a young Icelander, Thorir (the Anglicized spelling) reduced the room to total silence with his skeletal guitar work and boyish vocal sadness. His two albums, I Believe in This and My Summer as a Salvation Soldier, released by 12 Tonar on its own quality label, are stunning documents of the darkness endemic to Icelandic life, at least during the winter half of the year. But Thorir never walks away from a song without a touch of hope. I had visions of Alex Chilton, circa Like Flies on Sherbert, and the solo Jeff Tweedy going through my head as he sang, but Thorir is very much his own uniquely haunted man.

At the Lobster or Fame Gallery -- a basement record store and performance space that is part of Smekkleysa (and named after a line in a Sugarcubes song) -- the solo female singer and laptop-electronics explorer Kira Kira celebrated the release of her impressive Smekkleysa debut, Skotta, with subtlely aggressive digitalia draped with acoustic guitar and Kira's whispered-secret vocals. There was noise aplenty in the music, which made the long hushed passages of click and strum all the more startling and moving.

Then there was the peculiar triumph of Daniel Agust. At NASA, Agust, a former member of GusGus, sang live to backing tapes from his new solo release, Swallowed a Star, on the One Little Indian label. It was basically a track date; it was also an effective advertisement for the record's bleak majesty: Agust's English-language introspection wrapped in an orchestral rapture that recalled Robert Kirby's arrangements for Nick Drake. Wearing a black jacket embroidered with glass-teardrop thread and topped with a high collar of black feathers, Agust looked like Marc Bolan crossed with Sir Francis Drake and made even the hardcore drinkers at the back bar pay attention to the gorgeous exhaustion in his songs -- and the salvation never far from the surface.

"I keep searching/Repeatedly inside of me/For that sound, sweet sound/That makes so much sense/And harmony," Agust sang near the end of his half-hour, in "Sparks Fly." It's a universal truth: That's what singers and musicians do, everywhere. But at that moment, in a city and country so rich in such adventure, it sounded like the national anthem.

For more information: Iceland Airwaves, www.icelandairwaves.com; Icelandair, www.icelandair.com; Smekkleysa, www.smekkleysa.net; 12 Tonar, www.12tonar.is ; Mr. Destiny. www.destiny.is. Iceland's digital music store, Tonlist, is at www.tonlist.com.

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