Iceland is the new Brooklyn. That is the growing impression in central Reykjavik, where the recovery from the nation’s economic crash in 2008 is evident in a forest of scaffolds and cranes, on building sites promised to new apartment blocks and a waterfront luxury hotel. The explosion in commercial development, just since Iceland Airwaves ’14, was enough to make one think of the tech-and-rent boom that’s transforming Austin, Texas, the host city of SXSW, and threatening the local, bohemian heritage at the heart and founding of that festival
The 2015 edition of Airwaves, established and still primarily sponsored by the national airline, Icelandair, was, like the construction around town, bigger than last year: five days, November 4th–8th, with nearly 100 acts appearing in 14 venues just on Saturday, and more than three dozen unofficial-venue sites running across the long weekend. The announcement in August that Iceland’s all-but-literal queen, Björk, had canceled her closing-night concert subtracted a slice of luster from the festival. And the only Sigur Rós action was the premiere of a new film, Circe, an impressionist documentary about circus life with a soundtrack by members of that band.
But if there were no evident successors to those artists — and their international footprint — across the bill, there was no dead air either. I ran into the members of Mercury Rev on arrival, right after I got past customs and baggage, and ended with long solid runs on the 7th — an hour of collective free improvisation at the arts space Menge; the supercharged-hip-hop undertow of the biracial Canadian punk band the OBGM’s (short for “Oh Baby Gimme More”); Japanese psych-metal ninjas Bo Ningen — and the 8th, where a long dance-rap-techno menu at Vodafone Hall included the alpine-vocal modern rock of the Icelandic group Agent Fresco and the agit-loop and socialist-geezer free verse of the English duo Sleaford Mods.
Here is the best of what happened to me in between.
12 Tonar Records, November 4th, 5:30 p.m.
The Mr. is actually a Ms. — Sigurlaug Gísladóttir, an Icelandic singer–keyboard player who is half of a duo, Mr. Silla and Mongoose, and a member of the spectral-electronics group múm. This brief solo set, to celebrate the release of her new solo debut, Mr.Silla (12 Tonar), packed the compact downtown-Reykjavik store, with a line going outside, down the stairs, onto the sidewalk — a testament to múm’s national-superstar stature. Gísladóttir’s voice was a characteristically indie-female coo — a high, feathery suggestion of emotional weight affirmed more by the gently insistent pulse and frosted shadows of the broad chords underneath. In that sense, Gísladóttir performed music that sounded, inevitably, like a piece of múm: an isolation of textures from that group’s hum and flutter, made delicately compelling by the magnification and, conversely, the cozy press of rapt, local devotion.
NASA, November 4th, 10:10 p.m.
Reykjavík’s Daughter is a saucy hip-hop crew of 13 Icelandic women — 12 rappers and a programmer, decked out for bounce and pose in illusion-of-nude bodystockings. The visual effect is a Viking-maiden spin on the Wu-Tang Clan, with mics handed back and forth as the women trade verses and shout choruses, mostly in Icelandic. A local colleague informed me that the raps were as much about politics as empowerment; I can only assume those tracks were more serious than the exception I heard in English — about back-door sex. The vocal choreography was impressive — there was method and practice in the sorority. And it was easy to see how this act could go down a storm, language be damned, on a Bonnaroo side stage or as a mid-show shock at one of those Top 40–radio Christmas Jingle Ball marathons.
Pink Street Boys
Gamla Bíó, November 4th, 12:10 p.m.
This was old-school chaos: a rocket-beat racket grounded by head-lock bass hooks but otherwise thoroughly unwound in the upper registers; a bare suggestion of songs carried in loosely tuneful guitars and robust alcoholically challenged singing. A notion that came to mind the next day, like afterburn: what the Sex Pistols or the New York Dolls must have sounded like, before serious practice and committed songwriting. Still, the drummer came dressed for business, stripped to gym shorts; one Pink Street Boy played a Bo Diddley–style cigar-box-shaped guitar, skidding up and down the neck with a metal slide with high-velocity enthusiasm; and the apparent leader, a burly, bearded sort who looked like he’d just gotten off work at a fishing boat, took his guitar-solo breaks in atonal spasms, staring at the neck as if willing the notes to chaos. But here’s proof that scale matters. Two nights later at the bar Gaukurinn, a space much smaller than Gamla Bíó (a former opera house), the Boys were tighter than flying shrapnel, as if the low ceiling and spitting-distance back wall had boxed the raving into a hail of fists. There is a record of this stuff, Hits #1 (12 Tonar); it’s just on the right side of coherent.
Bubbi and Dimma
NASA, November 5th, 9:40 p.m.
Consider this alternative rock history: Bob Dylan hears the first Ramones album in 1976 and goes electric — in a whole other way. This is what happened in Iceland, when Asbjörn Morthens, a.k.a. Bubbi Morthens — whose 1980 debut album of politically charged rock, blues and reggae went Top Ten here — heard the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the four brothers from Queens, New York, and formed Utangardsmenn (the Outsiders), this country’s vanguard punk group. Bubbi — who went on to an even greater, sustained national success, up there in Bruce Springsteen–like proportions — made a rare Airwaves appearance tonight in the appropriate garb: a Ramones T-shirt. His backing band, Dimma, was closer to Eighties metal, to an unadvisable degree when the lead guitarist — also a well-known local magician — stroked the strings with his ass. But the crowd, primed for hits and ready to sing along, got better than that: Outsiders material that Bubbi hadn’t pulled out onstage in upwards of 30 years. Iceland Airwaves is an event founded on the prospect of next big things lurking around every geyser. Bubbi’s jump into the Airwaves fray was a reminder that Icelanders have their own classic rock. And they know the words by heart.
Harpa Silfurberg, November 5th, 10:30 p.m.
When I ran into this veteran upstate–New York avant-rock band at the Keflavik airport, founding singer-guitarist Jonathan Donahue told me that Mercury Rev performed at the very first Airwaves — held in an airplane hangar in 1999, the year after the band released its ravishing commercial breakthrough, Deserter’s Songs. This return engagement — part of a world tour to spread the word on the group’s fine new album, The Light in You (Bella Union) — was explosive, joyful psychedelia, on a suitably bigger scale (in one of Airwaves’ largest venues) than the club-blowout gig I saw three weeks earlier. The production was cryptic grandeur: generous clouds of dry ice and rainbow-mist back-lit glow, mostly rendering the musicians — and Donahue’s imaginary-orchestra arm cues — in silhouette. But the orchestral colors and ecstatic boom in “Central Park East,” from The Light in You, and “The Funny Bird,” from Deserter’s Songs, were huge and elevating. It is hard to fathom why Mercury Rev have fallen so far from the radar at home while commanding great respect and numbers here — and getting their new album released by a top-line independent British label. That the world, rock and otherwise, turns in wondrous ways was affirmed by Donahue tonight when the Rev turned back to “Holes,” the opening track on Deserter’s Songs. “Bands/Those funny little plans/That never work out right,” he sang in a high, deceptively vulnerable tenor — during a performance by a band deep into its third decade and still-compelling ascent.
The Pop Group
Harpa Nordurljós, November 5th, 12 a.m.
In its first turn-of-the-Eighties lifetime, this recently reunited English band was an inspirational pivot — with the Fall and Killing Joke — in Icelandic rock’s turn from international-mainstream mimicry to an original, incendiary post-punk caught on film, in Fridrik Pór Fridriksson’s 1982 documentary, Rokk í Reykjavik, and which ultimately bloomed in the Sugarcubes. That made it hard to fathom why the Pop Group’s Airwaves set drew barely a hundred people, a paltry sum compared to the packed house next door for the soft-rock reveries of Father John Misty. The latter may have been the hipper, indie-era attraction, but the Pop Group were the greater dynamite: a booming funk of jutting staccato-guitar angles and founding singer Mark Stewart’s apocalyptic incantations, battered and propelled in a wind-tunnel-dub reverb. The current lineup, which features original guitarist Gareth Sager and drummer Bruce Smith, was an uncompromised revolt in its Airwaves debut, an improbable, magnetic coherence of Sager’s switchblade-treble figures, Stewart’s screaming sustain and the warrior dance running all the way from the 1979 single “She Is Beyond Good and Evil” to the forward turmoil on this year’s Citizen Zombie (Freaks R Us). “Thank you, Iceland!” Stewart roared after the closing stampede through the 1980 45 “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way.” For the dancing few who chose this gig over the purple mid-Seventies haze next door, the gratitude cut both ways.
Björk, Gaetum Gardsins press conference
Gamla Bíó, November 6th, 11 a.m.
The Icelandic pop siren has been a regular citizen-presence at almost every Airwaves I’ve attended — supporting local and international friends at their showcases, on the floor and at the bar, where first-time visitor-fans gaze in admiring shock, as if they can’t believe that someone with such evolved, elfin aura walks among mortals. But as the singer explained at this landing to generate international press attention for Gaetum Gardsins (Protect the Park) — a grass-roots movement to protect Iceland’s central highlands from industrial development by creating a national park there — even her exotic, celebrity powers have limits. Although polls have confirmed that a majority of Icelanders support Protect the Park, “Just telling us you support us means a lot,” Björk said with a seriousness only slightly undercut by the woodland-fairy stocking mask she wore at this event. Then Iceland’s right-wing government, sensitive to the needs and voices in the tourist economy, “will listen to the crazy artists in our small country.” This press conference took place on the same day as Björk released a new album, Vulnicura Strings, with acoustic, orchestral arrangements of the songs on her recent traumatic-breakup document, Vulnicura. But when asked about the divison of labor in her life, between art and activism, she insisted that the latter was the greater good. “This will be the biggest thing I do in my lifetime,” Björk said of Protect the Park. She said nothing of the new record.
John Grant and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra
Harpa Eldbörg, November 6th, 8 p.m.
“I wanted to change the world/But I could not even change my underwear,” this American-born singer-songwriter, now resident in Iceland, sang at the climax of this grand, moving show, the second of two sold-out performances, in the title song from his 2010 solo debut, Queen of Denmark. In a deep, mellifluous voice with a subtle cutting edge, reminiscent of the plaintive-comfort tenor of the late David Ackles, Grant broadcast explicit sexual need and consuming emotional revolt in a gripping cycle of mounting piano storms and sudden falls to quiet, ringed and lifted by the gracious sweep of the orchestra. When Grant got to the final, title line, a decisive break from a toxic relationship, he delivered it in otherwise total silence — the relief of escape combined with the devilish pleasure of throwing one last grenade as the strings died away. Grant was just as wickedly funny between songs during this two-hour concert, which included material from a new album, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure (Bella Union). He was also generously grateful to his adopted country, speaking fluent Icelandic and dedicating his last number in the main set, “GMF” a.k.a. “Greatest Motherfucker,” from 2013’s Pale Green Ghosts, to Iceland itself, for making him feel so welcome and productive. Interesting local-rock footnote: Grant’s bassist tonight, Jakob Smári Magnússon, was a member of Björk’s early-Eighties pre-Sugarcubes punk group, Tappi Tíkarrass.
NASA, November 6th, 11 p.m.
At Airwaves ’14, Fufanu were an encouraging prospect frustrated by technical difficulties — a young duo of voice and programming, supplemented by two guitars and percussion, operating in a murky upheaval of aggro-hip-hop, punk attitude and viciously distorted loops. Tonight, they were something much simpler and more enervating: a jackhammer-rock quartet of guitar, drums, those electronics and the half-sung, rebel bark of Hrafnkell Kaktus Einarsson. He comes by his hectoring naturally. Kaktus is the son of Sugarcubes singer and Iceland punk icon Einar Örn. There is also a lot of young-Iggy promise in Kaktus’ vocal charge and dancing spasms. He hasn’t crossed the line into crowd-surfing — yet. But dial up that YouTube clip of the Stooges at the 1970 Cincinnati Pop Festival. Then imagine Kaktus in tight silver-lamé trousers, walking on hands with a jar of peanut butter — you can see the potential resemblance. You can certainly hear the effect of Fufanu’s boot-camp year of roadwork in Britain and Europe on their new, debut album, Few More Days to Go (One Little Indian). I got my copy the next day.
Smekkleysa / Bad Taste Record Store, November 7th, 5 p.m.
Proof again that scale matters: This young Icelandic rapper is the biggest new act of the year here. When his self-titled debut album was released last April by Smekkleysa (the record company founded by the Sugarcubes in 1987 and still run by the ex-members), it sold 300 copies on its first day, just at the label’s downtown shop — the equivalent of a 300,000 first-day sale in the U.S. But Palmi’s appearance on Airwaves’ opening night at NASA — an unremarkable set of Eminem-rewind vocal delivery and moves — did not live up to the advance hurrah. Palmi was a lot more fun in the improbable proximity of this in-store appearance. The crush was such that Palmi, without his DJ or the wingmen of his Glacier Mafia, was forced to work from behind the tiny sales desk: opening his laptop next to the cash register, plugging a mike into the store’s stereo system and cutting a pose from the waist up, in arctic-blue shades. Palmi, who writes and raps in Icelandic, seemed less assembly-line, more authentic, homegrown and engaged. He joked, in Icelandic, that this was “the unplugged version” of his usual act; the fans responded by bulking up the choruses with their own chanting. Palmi is a trickle-down homeboy; his family is one of the wealthiest in Iceland. But for 20 minutes behind a shop counter in Reykjavik, he was as street as it gets.