November the 4th this year represents a little milestone for me. It will mark the beginning of my fifth Iceland Airwaves festival. The musical journey began for me in October 2011 when I came to Reykjavík to attend Airwaves for the first time. I wasn’t living here at the time but was beginning to ‘commute’ every year to visit the place. Like a lot of the really cool stuff that happens to you in life I stumbled upon the festival quite by chance. I wasn’t able to visit Reykjavík until October in 2011 so I was looking for something to do that would keep me entertained. Having misspent six years of my youth on the road with all manner of rock bands back when I was living in New Zealand and Australia I’ve always had a bit of a thing for music especially when it’s of the loud, fast and heavy variety.
Airwaves differs a lot from of other festivals in that it does not all take place at the one venue. Given that it is held at the beginning of November it would be almost impossible to do this outdoors in Iceland due to the weather (that sort of carry on is saved for the very middle of summer) so they have come up with the most cunning and imaginative of alternatives. This year the festivals is spread over ten primary venues: Harpa (a world class concert centre that incorporates four venues including the Icelandic Symphony’s concert chamber), NASA (a once defunct and now reopened venue of much fame and legend), Gamla Bíó (an old theatre converted into a music venue), Húrra (a friendly and cosy bar with a stage at one end), Gaukurinn (the bar next door and upstairs from Húrra that is the definitive rock venue in Reykjavík), Iðnó (a restaurant with a stage at one end that also acts as a live venue), Tjarnabíó (a working theatre that also serves as a music venue, cafe and arts centre), the Reykjavík Art Museum (no prizes for guessing what this one does on its days off), Fríkirkjan (a church) and Vodafone Hall (a large multi-purpose sports and concert venue).
On top of these official venues there is also a huge off-venue programme where anyone in the city can pop along to a vast variety of shops, hotels, cafes, and bookshops who open their doors to the public and host concerts during the afternoon before the real action takes place later on in the evening. You can see nearly all the bands performing on any given year at these off-venue performances in what can sometimes be tiny and very intimate settings. The off-venue system gives the festival a decidedly inclusive feeling as if the whole city is taking part and to a large extent that is true. During the daytime you can walk down Laugavegur and Austurstræti and it feels and sounds as if every shop, coffee house and backpacker’s hostel is in on it. There are bands playing in shop windows, in record stores and hotel bars and foyers. It is a cornucopia of noise, rhythm and beats. And fun. The whole city centre feels as if it’s having a good time.
The main attractions for me this year include the more prominent members of the local rock scene: Agent Fresco, Endless Dark, kimono, Muck and perhaps a little more surprisingly the opportunity to see John Grant perform with an orchestra. Over the last four years I have seen some wonderful contemporary performances when the Icelandic Symphony have teamed up with some of the local composers. This year John Grant will join the elite ranks of Valgeir Sigurðsson, Ólafur Arnalds and Jóhann Jóhannsson all of whom I’ve seen and been thrilled by in the magnificent Eldborg concert chamber.
Agent Fresco have just released their second album ‘Destrier’ to universal acclaim and praise and will be playing songs both old and new to loyal local fans as well as a bunch of new foreign converts. These guys have an intensity about them that very few other bands can match. Not in volume or speed but simple raw emotion and honesty. Last year they were responsible for the best night I’ve ever had at Gaukurinn with their incredibly emotive performance and I’ve had some pretty good nights there over the last four years. Arnór Dan has a no holds barred approach to his lyric writing and the themes of loss, love and regret are always to the fore in their songs. They are not a band that will make you want to bounce or scream, they are a band designed to make you feel and that’s exactly what they do.
Endless Dark were one of the first bands I saw at my first Airwaves and have remained a serious favourite of mine ever since. They have been threatening to release their debut album for some time now but there are signs that this year might actually be the one when it hits the shelves. They have gone through some line-up changes of late but have just released a pretty damn cool video for their single ‘Warriors’. They are definitely a band to keep your eye on.
Kimono are another band threatening to release another album sometime in the not too distant future. Their performance at Airwaves will be only their third this year having played recently with Ari Russo at Húrra and once before that at a recording for local radio downstairs at Bar 11. I was lucky enough to be at that show and can happily say that if the upcoming recordings match the quality of ‘Specters’ and ‘Less Than Zero’ then we are in for a real treat when the album does come out. #thisisgoingtohurt #kimonoiceland
Last but very definitely not least is the Icelandic powerhouse that is Muck. They get described as grindcore but for me they’re just punk rock with long hair. I have seen these guys three times in the last few months and their shows just keep getting better and better. They are a serious force to be reckoned with live and have earned my stamp of approval in a big way. I would have to say that they are undoubtedly the best live act in the country at the moment. That’s a big call given that there are much more popular bands out there who can draw much bigger crowds than the Muck boys do but they have repeatedly shown that their ability to whip a crowd (especially a late-night crowd of drunk guys with shaved heads and big beards) into a complete frenzy is unparalleled. I have seen slam-dancing at their shows that would have put gigs by GBH to shame. Muck play as fast as any band you will ever see but do so with an incredible tightness and clarity that sets them well apart from their peers. Their album ‘Your Joyous Future’ is indeed a joy to behold and despite the recent departure of their long-time drummer I can see these guys going a long way in the business of rocking you till your socks fall off. As far as they want to is what I’m guessing.