Festival Review

Iceland Airwaves 2015

4th - 8th November 2015

An amalgamation of everything the city and country has to offer musically.

This year’s Iceland Airwaves was dealt one of the biggest blows possible back in August, when Björk’s two homecoming performances at the event were among a number of dates she cancelled due to ‘scheduling conflicts’.

With its national hero no longer performing, Iceland turned to its adopted one instead, with the already-announced John Grant taking the top spot alongside the Iceland Symphony Orchestra in the Harpa concert hall’s stunning main room. Grant’s set is in equal parts monstrous and comfortingly intimate, with his band and the orchestra adding swathes of pomp to his wry, personal and hilarious storytelling. Grant could’ve won the crowd on his own here, but the addition of the brilliant string section, representing his acceptance into the musical landscape of Iceland, makes this a special opening event and one that more than matches the intended promise of the country’s most famous export.

Lucy Rose is then the first of a large number of British acts to shine across the weekend, even if her quieter, more reflective early tracks feel out of place and a little too beautiful for Reykjavik’s Art Museum, a renovated prison. Skepta and JME’s midnight set the following night, meanwhile, sets the place on fire.

As well as the official festival program, starting mid-evening, the capital's bars, cafes and hostels hold a packed schedule of 'off-venue' music, and it's here that a number of bigger acts give secondary performances, which turn out to be highlights. Tuff Love's crushingly busy set upstairs at the Loft Hostel feels like a real moment, while their official set later on at the larger Iðnó venue falls flat.

Venue choice serves to either make or hamper sets over the weekend, with Mitski's sweaty, claustrophobic surroundings at Gaukurrin making her set feel even closer and more intimate than her lyrics of suicide pacts already intended. Soak and Perfume Genius, meanwhile, prove impressive but cut off from the connections they try to make in Harpa's cavernous conference halls.

Reykjavíkurdætur, a 22-member rap collective, play seven - yep - sets across the weekend, and while this may have served to dilute each individual performance, their set at the Art Museum early on Saturday couldn't be more aggressive and purposeful. Many Icelandic acts make this many appearances at the festival, with Dream Wife (who include members from the UK) and the unstoppably unique dj flugvél og geimskip ('airplane and spaceship') proving other highlights, using every opportunity to use the extra exposure given at Airwaves to burst out of the confines of the Reykjavik scene.

The dominating presence of Iceland's new breed doesn't stop the old guard making their presence felt though. Björk does end up making an appearance - only to around thirty in a press conference rather than her expected show to thousands - protesting a new energy deal between the UK and Iceland, and its potential damage to the wilderness of the country's highlands. Sigur Rós are around too, with a screening of their new documentary soundtrack 'Circe'. It doesn't serve to overshadow the new breed of Icelandic artists at the festival though; more an appreciation of what Airwaves has done for Iceland's biggest stars, and what it could potentially do for the hundreds of native acts that play anywhere they're allowed over the weekend.

Newly Domino-signed Porches then kick off an evening of to-ing and fro-ing between the trio of rooms in Harpa, with the venue maintaining a captivating buzz and excitement all night. Sóley rounds off her quartet of sets with a huge, full band set in Norðurljós, before Ólafur Arnalds' minimal techno project Kiasmos put in potentially the set of the festival in the bigger Silfurberg hall. It's barely 9pm, but the show sees Arnalds swapping his usual quiet reflectiveness on the piano for dipping, swerving electronics that rise and fall and bring the crowd alive like nothing that came before, and nothing that follows manages to reach these heights either.

Beach House's following set could have easily felt reserved and anti-climactic in comparison, but after mere seconds the crowd is theirs, with highlights from 'Depression Cherry' and 'Thank Your Lucky Stars' rolled through with gusto. Afterwards, Låpsley's set in the Art Museum gives her more than a few new admirers, and Kero Kero Bonito start a party at Húrra that's fun beyond belief. The Nasa venue then holds an evening schedule that feels closest to a curated line-up at the festival, and is all the better and more well-attended for it. East India Youth is sandwiched in between inquisitively watched sets from QT and Sophie, and continues his evolution from figure-behind-a-desk to world-conquering performer, egging the crowd on during 'Hinterland' and receiving adulation in return.

The palpable excitement flowing through the centre of town for the whole weekend (venues are never more than five minutes' walk from each other) is diluted more than slightly at Sunday's sole closing concert at the Vodafone Hall, half an hour out of town. It's not helped by troubles on the stage which cut native acts Vök, Agent Fresco and Úlfur Úlfur's sets in half. A British one-two then ends the night, and the festival. Sleaford Mods' fiercely British storytelling fails to translate somewhat, but Hot Chip's following headline set, conversely, couldn't be any more universal.

The final night is another example of setting being paramount in the success of certain sets at the festival. More often than not it serves to enhance the experience though, with the centre of Reykjavik maintaining a buzz and excitement that sweeps up all. It's the off-venue program and late night sets in cramped sweatboxes that show Airwaves at its finest, with the festival giving international acts placings that shows them at their best, while also looking after their own and giving the newest, most exciting Icelandic acts the platform they need.

Iceland Airwaves completely dominates the whole feel of Reykjavik for these five days, and its all-encompassing draw for the city allows the whole event to feel like an amalgamation of everything the city and country has to offer musically, while also reflecting on and celebrating what it's achieved so far. The festival wants to bring the best in new Icelandic music to the world, and the best new music from the world to Iceland. On both counts, it succeeds magnificently.

Photos: Alexander Matukhno, Erik Luyten, Birta Rán

Tags: John Grant, Iceland Airwaves, Festivals, Reviews, Live Reviews

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