Like all politics, Iceland Airwaves is, first and foremost, local – an expression of homegrown musical pride and enterprise, compressed into a walking-distance area of Reykjavík, Iceland's capital city. International attractions have sugared the bill since the festival was founded in 1999 by the national airline, Icelandair; the headlining band that year was the British group Suede. The 2013 edition – more than 300 acts across five nights in a dozen venues, not including unofficial daytime gigs – concluded on November 4th with a grand-finale show by Kraftwerk, in 3D-and-greatest-hits mode, at the concert hall Harpa. Other names from afar included American indie stars Yo La Tengo and Midlake; Canadian terrors Fucked Up; the Syrian vocalist Omar Souleyman; and, in a taut, thrilling set, the hot British female quartet Savages.
But the first person I ran into, as I walked down Reykjavík's main shopping street, was singer-guitarist Jonsí of the band Sigur Rós, who happily paused in our chat to pose for cellphone-camera shots with astonished fans from the U.S. and South Korea. And the country's most famous pop export, Björk, was a frequent presence on the dancefloor, enjoying sets by Souleyman – who contributed tracks to her 2012 album of Biophilia remixes, Bastards – and her ex-singing partner in the Sugarcubes, Einar Örn, with his electro-fury posse Ghostigital. And note this: Björk buys her own Airwaves pass.
The History of German Engineering
A definition of contradiction: Pop's most influential catalog of electronic dance music performed at bone-rattling volume for a seated audience by four men who barely move at all. If anything, Kraftwerk – now led by sole, remaining original member, Ralf Hütter – specialize in hypnotism: elementary melodies and lean rhythms set on endless repetition, manipulated with sly, incremental changes. At Harpa, the streamlined extensions of "Trans Europe Express" and the medley from 1986's Electric Café seemed at once dynamic and still, pared to bare hook and pure momentum.
Once at the lip of tomorrow, Kraftwerk represent a kind of antique futurism, a promise that has passed and mutated. The huge screen behind the group was dominated by a 1990s desktop Mac during "Computer World"; "The Man-Machine," sung by Hütter in German, was illustrated by severe graphics in the style of the early 20th-Century modernist Piet Mondriaan. But this was also music in motion. "Autobahn" came out of the garage with a hip-hop-like intro; the Tour De France sequence was sleek and buoyant, a disco-cadence downhill-speed homage to fundamental human endeavor.
And there was performing. When I saw Kraftwerk at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 2012, it was hard to tell from the floor if there was any hand movement, other than the occasional press of a button, behind the group's neon-lined desks. From the balcony at Harpa, I was surprised to see Hütter actually play an arpeggio – rolling the fingers of his right hand across a keyboard – during "Home Computer." For Kraftwerk, that was practically jamming.
Souleyman was, surprisingly, even more minimalist, the physical opposite of the gallop and curvature in his wedding songs and despairing-love stories. His band at Harpa was one musician with two keyboards, like Daft Punk cut in half, and Souleyman – looking like the desert Roy Orbison in a floor-length thwab and huge black sunglasses – sang in a gruff, mesmeric tenor with a statue's poise, weirdly breaking the spell of his records. Worth seeing, though, was the contradictory crowd: young, dominantly blond, jumping and whooping with respectful delight. Souleyman took evident pleasure in that: smiling like a bemused uncle, enjoying an hour of peace and joy far from the hell at home.
The Next Big Local Thing
It takes awhile to get the hang of pronouncing the name. But Grisalappalisa (it comes from a song by the Icelandic Dylan, Megas) were a frenetic revelation in the packed, upstairs room at Gamli Guakurinn. The seven-piece band has roots in a Next Big Local Thing of a few years ago, punk-poppers Jakobínarína. That group's singer and drummer, Gunnar Ragnarsoon and Sigurdur Möller Siversten, are now the front and back engines in Grisalappalisa, an eccentric, gripping charge of hardcore verve, R&B grounding and avant-garage challenge – the last especially in the contrapuntal bite of the two guitars and the tenor saxophonist's Roxy Music-like honk'n'smears. Ragnarsson's exchanges with second singer Baldur Baldursson reminded me, alternately of the Sugarcubes and the front line in Linkin Park, except the rhythms were firm and tribal, like Can, when they weren't coming at Hüsker Dü velocity. Grisalappalisa's debut album on the 12 Tonar label, Ali, is about a boy-girl relationship that goes right, then wrong, then back, with each song. My affair with this dynamite starts here.
Another discovery turned up at 12 Tonar's store, in an afternoon set by Baby in Vain. These three young women from Copenhagen, Denmark play an improbably fresh stew of riot grrrl confrontation and gnarly-treble double-guitar tangle. Some critic's shorthand: Big Brother and the Holding Company fronted by the Slits, with flashes of the MC5's soloing ascension and the stop-start math of Captain Beefheart's Magic Bands. I don't expect those are literal influences; the resonance, though, was compelling. And it has been pressed into the group's three seven-inch singles.
Other Flashes From the Weekend
I got to Airwaves late this year; I was on Lou Reed-tribute duty. But I caught a lot – and much that was intriguing – in my 72 hours. Armadillo was a metal animal with big-band weight. The brass section air drones across chunky, martial riffing, and the drummer – muscular, shirtless, keeping iron time – made me think of Tommy Ramone's beats, hit with Lars Ulrich emphasis.
The first thing I saw, aptly, was Ghostigital at the Smekkleysa record store. Einar Örn and his programming sidekick, Curver, were promoting a new compilation, The Anti-Matter Boutique (Smekkleysa), which includes two remixes by Björk. Einar was a founding poet-provocateur of Eighties Icelandic punk, the scene that eventually spawned the Sugarcubes; he hasn't changed his stripes. At the store, Einar fired his chants and harangues with undimmed vigor and dare, wearing a Mexican wrestler's mask, against Curver's scouring electronics. During a fuller set at the Reykjavík Art Museum Einar fronted an enlarged group including two saxophonists blowing some Albert Ayler through the lurching, digital squall. Einar is a pillar of Icelandic subversion; I can't imagine Airwaves without him or paying my annual respects.
He was followed, at the Museum, by a New York rapper, Mykki Blanco, who was in fact barely hip-hop – and better for it. A beanpole in a hoodie, working his own samplers and devices when he wasn't surfing the crowd, Blanco issued his declarations and challenges – "The pressure's on!"; "I need a reason/To follow you/Outside" – in a kind of melodic, chanted meltown, like a store-front-preacher version of Suicide's Alan Vega, against serrated-tornado electronics. The chaos across Blanco's ranting tough to decipher. But at one point through the din, I thought I heard him yell "Black savage rock!" He probably wasn't; but that's definitely what he delivered.
After that, the strings, xylophones, delicately triggered keyboards and brushed drums of the Icelandic ensemble Amiina were a welcome bringdown in the seated comfort of Reykjavick's old opera house. The group, which frequently collaborates with Sigur Rós, has become an entrancing other-music experiment of its own – Amiina's latest EP, The Lighthouse Project, features music that originated during a 2009 tour of Icelandic lighthouses. They didn't perform anything from it in this set, but everything they did play was, like a stiff sea breeze, bracing and uplifting.
Down the street, at the club Harlem, Fatima Al Qadiri, a female DJ from Kuwait, was a laptop dance band unto herself. A waifish beauty with a boy-sprite haircut, she looked like an extra from a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream; her mixing was a midnight's jubilee of gangsta hip-hop, dancehall reggae, calypso and pneumatic funk, segued with a wily sensitivity to glide and hook. She had a crew of voguers – drinking, shimmying, snapping cellphone pictures of each other – that tried to make it look like there was something to see. It wasn't necessary. Al Qadri was fantastic without help.
I went from that to Savages, a band I first saw in London a year ago. Their reliance on British post-punk dynamics – Wire, Gang of Four, Siouxsie and the Banshees – is plain. But the elements are refreshed in guitarist Gemma Thoimpson's barbed-wire harmonics, swimming in reverb, and drummer Fay Milton's hammering mimicry of a jungle-telegraph orchestra. The overdriven PA and the Art Museum's unforgiving acoustics did vocalist Jehnny Beth's whooping alto no favors, obscuring notes and lyrics – her voice is the important color in a music largely made of monochrome. There was also some overextending of tunes, a side effect of headlining shows with a set list based on one, albeit great album, Silence Yourself (Matador).
But Savages' Airwaves debut was, otherwise, a full, vital fury – with a neighborhood connection. The band shares management with Sigur Rós. At Iceland Airwaves, everything that matters is, in the end, local.