Since 1999, the Iceland Airwaves festival has been early Christmas for every music enthusiast in Iceland. We may not have the muddy campsite or 60,000 people jumping up and down in front of the Orange Stage, but what we do have is more stages, more bands, and more to drink. To be accurate, 221 bands will perform this year on 13 different stages downtown in Reykjavík at Iceland Airwaves. The number of stages isn’t a problem because the next show you want to see is never more than two songs away.
When Iceland Airwaves approaches every Icelandic musician gets goosebumps just thinking about the festival. It’s the time of the year when Icelandic music goes all in. For domestic bands the festival is a springboard to the world. Many music agents and reporters come to the festival hoping to find something new to show their bosses, and bands hope to make the headlines.
A band doesn’t need to have a radio hit on their résumé to get a gig at Airwaves; if the band can play and someone will show up they are good to go.
In the last few years many Icelandic artists have had great success. The gap between selling a few copies of rare albums at a local store in Reykjavík and playing at a festival for 50,000 is getting smaller. Of Monsters and Men is probably a good example of that. For that reason, more foreign people are starting to show an interest in visiting the festival. It’s frustrating for Icelanders that it can be hard to get one of those 7,000 tickets. But for those who were too late or too broke to buy a ticket there is an off-venue schedule with many big artists who play for free.
Iceland Airwaves is not all about the natives. Artists from all over the world visit the festival. Many great bands have made their appearances at the festival, for example: TV On the Radio, Fatboy Slim, Hot Chip, Florence and the Machine, Bloc Party, and Flaming Lips. This year 64 foreign artists will perform, most of them from USA, Canada, England, and Sweden. The biggest act, no doubt, is Kraftwerk in 3D, however you have to buy an extra ticket to see their show. Other exiting artists playing this year are the long living Yo La Tengo, Jagwar Ma, Mac Demarco, Gold Panda, Fucked Up and AlunaGeorge.
It is not just the bands that make Iceland Airwaves such a good gathering; the atmosphere is one of a kind. Even though you are freezing in a long queue, the show has started, and you lost one shoe, you’re still in a good mood. Let’s take a look at what the fuss is all about.
The Iceland Airwaves festival in 2006 marked a breaking point in FM Belfast’s orbit. The couple Lóa Hjálmtýsdóttir and Árni Hlöðversson were in need of more people for their performance at the festival and were joined by Örvar Þóreyjarson Smárason (founding member of múm), Árni Vilhjálmsson and part time member Björn Kristjánsson (also known as Borko). Together they have made two albums; How To Make Friends (2008) and Don’t Want Sleep (2011). Their main ingredient is hyper electronic pop music that is almost impossible not to dance to. If you intend to see FM Belfast live you should not make any plans afterwards that involve using a lot of energy. These kids will show you no mercy: They will suck all the energy out of you, and make sure that your toes will get stepped on.
If you are used to saying to the bartender, “just bring me something funky, fresh and exotic,” Retro Stefson is definitely your type of cocktail. They mix together various music genres and the outcome is universal summertime dance music with lyrics in Icelandic, English, Portuguese and French. Retro Stefson was formed in 2006 by frontman Unnsteinn Manuel and his brother Logi Pedro. The setup is completed with five former schoolmates. The band’s first album, Montana, was released in 2009, in 2010 Kimbabwe made the spotlight, and last year their self-titled album came out. All of these albums have included many singles which have gained them unstoppable airplay and uncountable number-one hits in Iceland. In spite of their young age, Retro Stefson has gained a large fan base in Iceland and they have started to get noticed outside the country. They have played in every Iceland Airwaves festival since 2006 and 2013 will be no exception.
In 2009 Icelandic reggae gave birth to its second offspring named Ojba Rasta. There had been no tradition for reggae music in Iceland before Hjálmar made their appearance in 2004, so Ojba Rasta was very welcome in the club. All their songs are in Icelandic except for their biggest hit, “Jolly Good”. They released their self titled debut album in 2012, and this month their second album Friður hit stores. Ojba Rasta has eleven band members including a dub-master, organist, guitarist, bassist and several wind instrument players. This mingling of instruments brings their live shows to a higher level, and audiences float in the groovy atmosphere that they create on stage.
Originally performing around the world with the indie band Seaber, she has now discovered that she can just do it by herself. Sóley is more popular than her band ever was and she is gaining a lot of fans in Europe. Her debut EP, Theater Island, was released in 2010, and was followed the year after with the studio album We Sink. Sóley is a multi-instrumentalist supported by a drummer and a guitarist/keyboardist. Her songs contain distant simple beats, beautiful piano strokes, and Sóley’s seductive voice which should be able to calm all the stressful nerves in your body.
He made a huge appearance in the Icelandic music scene last year, topping the charts on every radio station in Iceland. He appeared out of nowhere with the singles “Sumargestur” and “Leyndarmál”. Suddenly he made the album Dýrð í Dauðaþögn and won four awards at the Icelandic Music Awards. It is safe to say that he is the most popular artist in Iceland these days. The music is melodic folk, singing in a high pitch, sounding a lot like Bon Iver and making it hard to sing along. Ásgeir used his father’s poems as lyrics for his album. In spite of his young age and the popularity he has gained (especially from young girls), he has kept unobtrusive and says that this popularity has surprised him and that he just goes with the flow, not trying to impress anyone. Still he got John Grant to translate his lyrics to English to adjust a bigger market. His English version of Dýrð í Dauðaþögn will be released in January next year.
Active since 1997, múm have released seven records. Their debut, Yesterday Was Dramatic, Today is OK, came out in 2000, and their latest, Smilewound, was released last month (with a bonus track featuring Kyle Minogue). Bringing together electronic beats and melodies from founding members Gunnar Örn Tynes and Örvar Þóreyjarson Smárason (FM Belfast), they are supported with classical tones and instruments played by their fellow band members (including Ólöf Arnalds). Following up their album, the band has been playing gigs and festivals both in Asia and Europe. múms’ live shows is always a great experience. The loudness can be surprising compared to how comfortable and quiet their music sounds in the speakers at home. They are often accompanied by a dozen of people who help them put together the show which can be fun and energetic and sometimes feels like a jam session rather than a concert.
He might not be the first artist who comes to mind when think of a music festival, but the gig he’ll be performing will be something special and different from all the other acts on Iceland Airwaves this year. Backed by The Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Ólafur will perform a special show which you will need to buy an extra ticket to see. He will be performing the best from his career, which includes three studio albums: The first one, Eulogy for Evolution, was released in 2007 when Ólafur was only 20 years old. His latest, For Now I Am Winter, came out earlier this year. Ólafur is known for mixing classical music with ambient/electronic pop and the combination is mature experimental beauty.