Iceland Airwaves 2011

>> Thursday, 20 October 2011

So this seems fairly self-evident, well, at least in hindsight, but if you ever plan to attend the Iceland Airwaves festival, dress for the occasion. Bright a scarf, touque, mitts, a heavy fall coat (or maybe even a winter coat), and a hip flask filled with some gut-warming alcohol. 

Because Iceland is flipping cold in October. The sky spits incessantly and the north wind howls mightily, so when these two natural forces team up, it makes for a rather unpleasant battle with Moms Natures while waiting in the spectacularly long venue lineups. I mention these clothing tips only because, well, we didn’t follow these fairly obvious suggestions and chattered away some tooth enamel while praying to get inside. Then bought some ridiculously expensive winter clothing. 

Complaints about the weather aside (yes, I realize this is coming from a Winnipeger), this was a terrific and memorable festival. I saw many great bands/artists during my seven-day stay in the world’s northernmost capital and even took in my fair share of awe-inspiring tourist sites. And while walking around Reykjavik one afternoon, Bjork stepped out of a salon right in front of us before hightailing it down the street. She’s shorter than I thought, considering her commanding and frankly intimidating stage presence (more on this below).  Oh, and sadly, no Sigur Ros sightings, although I swore I caught a fleeting glimpse of Kjartan Sveinsson prior to Owen Pallett.

My festival favourites

Bjork @ Harpa (Silfurberg Room)

Bjork was a festival add-on, meaning tickets to her Biophilia show (and Sinead O’Connor's) were external to the $100 all-inclusive wrist-band. The chance to catch one of the world’s transcendent artists on home soil in a 700 person capacity venue was impossible to pass up, so we happily shelled out another $110 for these highly-sought-after tickets. And the Icelandic pixie did not disappoint. Adorned in an outrageously big orange wig, a shimmering black dress, and five-inch wedge heels, Ms. Gudmonsdottir performed the majority of her innovative new record Biophilia accompanied by a choir of fresh-faced and (mostly) blonde girls, a percussionist, and a keyboardist. Overtop the stage hovered an octagon of LCD tvs displaying all sorts of weird and wonderful visuals. Also employed was a scary, caged Tesla coil which spat rhythmic lightning bolts and, if my chemistry is correct, emitted the by-product stink of Ozone. Pictures were forbidden during the show, something security was uncompromising and aggressive about this, even threatening to eject us out for snapping photos *before* the show. In the end thought, this was easily one of my favourite concerts to date and Bjork proved why she is one of the world’s pre-eminent performers.  The encore ender "Declare Independence" almost brought the house down. 

Borko @ Reykjavik Art Museum

The friendly and chatty English guys we met in the lineup outside Reykjavik Art Museum vehemently assured me that Borko is “the best.” And while I don’t quite agree with the hyperbole, Borko's densely layered atmospheric-pop sound was idiosyncratic and fresh, with shades of Mogwai, but with much less build-up. 

Beach House @ Reykjavik Art Museum

Regular readers of this blog know I’m a big sucker for these Baltimore-based dream-poppers.  Following Icelandic pep-rally band Retro Stefson, Beach House’s evening-cauterizing set was conspicuously subdued, with around 20% of the crowd filtering out during their first few songs. No matter. Victoria and co. still put on a dreamy, dizzying show and quickly won over the still-very-packed crowd.

Mugison @ Harpa (Nordurljos Room)

I’ve always regretted not catching Mugison when he played Winnipeg a few years ago as part of Nuna, so I was very lucky to have another opportunity. His rock/jazz fusion and clear, distinguishable melodies had the Icelandic majority gleefully singing along to every word the entire time. The absolutely packed room motif continued.

Owen Pallett @ Indo

Again an absolutely packed place filled to capacity, so much that security were forbidden to let anyone else in unless others left. Stood in line for over a half-hour and was fortunate to be admitted about 10 minutes after he started. Fleshing out his violin-led sound with a three-piece band, Pallett completely bedazzled this hot, sweaty, and enthusiastic crowd.  

Olafur Arnalds @ Harpa (Nordurljos)

I apologize for the dark photo. For Arnalds’s intimate performance, the stage lights were dimmed rendering amateur photography difficult. Throughout his set, the room was deathly quiet with the only sound (other than the music) coming from the interminably clicking of professional cameras near the front. I’m actually surprised he never said anything - the shuttering was so conspicuous - but I suppose, like a true artist, Arnalds was completely absorbed in song. His mini symphonies were enchanting and inspiring making this, next to Bjork, my favourite 40 minutes or so of the entire festival. 

Veronica Falls @ Harpa (Nordurljos)

This plucky U.K. group trade in energetic, reverb-y indie-pop replete with dark, brooding lyrics and have the potential to make a viable career out of this aesthetic.


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