Iceland Airwaves, Reykjavík’s biggest musical week of the year, often signifies either the beginning or the end of a band’s autumn European tour. As such, the hectic five-day multi-venue serves as a celebration for a barrage of acts off the back of huge summers.
After Dizzee Rascal fills in for a cancelled Stormzy set on the opening night, Dream Wife begin their first of six (!) sets. Rocking up everywhere from hotel lobbies to ramshackle whiskey bars to a cavernous room of the Harpa concert hall, the trio shine wherever they tread. Joined for the majority of the sets by Fever Dream for collaboration ‘FUU’, their sets career from fidgety post-punk riffs to something gloriously brutal by their conclusion. Rakel Mjöll treats her words like elastic, bending and stretching every syllable to breaking point.
The Reykjavík Art Museum is one of the city’s most unique venues, and setting to Skepta and JME’s ferocious set at last year’s event. Thursday night at Airwaves 2016 tones things down significantly, beginning with a Julia Holter set that’s compelling if inconsistent. Her backing band serve to take her music to darker, weirder places than its recorded self, with layers of strings leading tracks from ‘Have You In My Wilderness’ down a rabbit hole. It works well in parts, though the sound barely travels to the back of the long, thin room. Following her - and being significantly more well-received - is Margaret Glaspy, beginning a European tour and hot on the heels of her debut album ‘Emotions & Math’. The New Yorker’s mesmeric guitar work carries the set, with off-kilter chords of the Elliott Smith ilk colliding with chunky choruses.
Friday starts off on a grander scale, with múm and the in-demand Kronos Quartet teaming up for a collaborative show in Harpa’s Eldborg hall, before Dream Wife - again proving heavier than ever before with added Fever Dream - and the barmy, clan-like Reykjavikurdætur fill the stage with thirty-plus members. Following on from Dream Wife, it’s a politically-charged set, an element seen in countless homegrown bands across the weekend. When the collective hit back at Jay Z’s Tina Turner reference on ‘Drunk In Love’, it’s spat out like venom - “don’t eat the cake, Anna Mae”.
The same fire and aggression will never be seen at a Warpaint show, but the band still prove themselves punchier than ever on the tour for ‘Heads Up’. ‘Love Is To Die’ and closer ‘Disco//Very’ are completely different beasts to the ones that presented themselves on the band’s tour for their 2014 self-titled record, and the confidence and harmony seeping through the four-piece is more evident tonight than ever. That, and ‘New Song’ still possesses one of the choruses of the year, a hook that isn’t even close to getting boring yet.
The festival’s habit of careering between styles continues with a fire-breathing set from Show Me The Body in Harpa’s neighbouring smaller room, and despite it being a show that deserves to reach its full potential in the upstairs room of one of Reykjavík’s dingier haunts, they make the slightly sterile setting feel like a battleground.
On the Saturday of Airwaves - and frankly for every day since she cancelled last year’s headline slot - all eyes are on Björk. Her early show in the Eldborg hall shows a different side to the artist known so well for so many different reasons.
Two incredible and predictably strange outfits aside, Björk’s penchant for outlandishness is scaled back tonight - it’s a show fuelled by heartbreak. The split that informed large chunks of last year’s ‘Vulnicura’ was well-publicised, and stripping the production back to a strings and voice only affair allows this sorrow to scream out of the songs. On ‘Blake Lake’, she ushers in the thirty strong string section with a haunting vocal, before letting them drift out into silence again. This happens about ten times across the track’s drawn out conclusion, and visible exhales are heard when the piece finally comes to a halt. Tonight’s show is tense like nothing else, Björk and her musicians intertwining seamlessly, and the crowd live every second.
The visceral aggression that Björk usually carries around with her is provided by others on this occasion, from two of the best showings of the festival. Beginning the one-two is Anna Meredith, who, benefitted by a crowd who howl their non-stop affection her way, puts in a rollicking show, no drop of energy left unspent. Kate Tempest is next, and while she’s never anything less than impressively current as an artist, ‘Europe Is Lost’ feels particularly potent tonight, exclaimed to a crowd assembled from all over the continent.
PJ Harvey closes the festival at the cavernous Valshöllin, ending her year of touring ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’ with her impressively powerful nine-piece band, and though the album can grate in parts, it feels like a battle cry on the stage.
The festival belongs to Björk. Of course it does. It’s the bands that play multiple times across the weekend though, hopping from bar to pub to bar, that are the most revelatory though. The country’s most famous daughter stole the show, but its new breed is coming on strong.
Photos: Emma Swann
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