Stretching throughout the centre of Reykjavik, in established venues and gallery spaces, churches, retail shops and even, on occasion, people’s living rooms, the communal spirit of Iceland Airwaves holds an accurate mirror up to a city whose music scene feels equally enmeshed.
With a population of only 400,000 in the whole country, there’s a higher than average amount of camaraderie between artists - both in terms of helping out and playing in multiple projects, and proudly showing off the city’s homegrown talents. More, perhaps, than any other city festival, Airwaves genuinely aims to showcase what Iceland has to offer rather than just shipping in a conveyor belt of touring artists; those that do make the trip are nestled within a thriving line-up that gives them a run for their money.
If there’s one moment that encapsulates the specialness of the festival - where mountains and freezing lakes border a town centre that’s jolly and fairy-lit enough to put us fully in festive mode - it’s when Reykjavik singer Salóme Katrín takes to the piano for an impromptu set as part of a low-key residential showcase. Blessed with jaw-droppingly perfect pitch, which she uses to hit glacial falsetto notes and harmonise with a french horn player, she’s like an Icelandic Kate Bush; a bright and spirited presence with an air of magic to every note she plays.
In the calm surrounds of the waterside Fríkirkjan church, Elín Hall is a more modern type of story-spinner, bookending her folk-tinged tales with humorous explanations of the loves and losses that spurred them on (one particular song, she notes, has led her to sell promotional toothbrushes - as you do). Meanwhile, Nanna - lead singer of Icelandic behemoths Of Monsters and Men - arrives in her solo guise, finger-picking her way through an intimate catalogue including recent single ‘Godzilla’ that displays a smaller, softer side than her original outfit’s rousing oeuvre.
If that all presents a fairly understated picture, then the flipside of the country’s musical coin is one where eccentricity is embraced with open arms. Following a Thursday night set from Yard Act, who bring a selection of new wares from forthcoming second album ‘Where’s My Utopia?’ - including the swaggering psych of newie ‘Petroleum’ and the tongue-in-cheek bounce of recent single ‘Dream Job’ (alongside a deadpan shout out to Reykjavik’s “ten pound pints”) - the lights turn red and we’re introduced to 2019 Eurovision entrants Hatari. Dressed like if the Terminator went for a sexy night in Berghain, replete with harness-clad dancers, a spaceship-like light show and a saucy style of industrial rave, they might have lost a key ingredient to their success with the departure of original vocalist Matthías Haraldsson, but you can’t fault the commitment to the bit.
Likewise it seems the whole of the festival has come out for another local Eurovision hero, Daði Freyr, who has a ludicrous queue stretching down the street on Saturday night; the biggest of the festival by far. Clearly he’s aware of the moment too, and has brought a giant inflatable rendering of his own face and hands to crown the stage with for the occasion. Campy, high energy and replete with his cover of Atomic Kitten’s ‘Whole Again’, it would take the prize for the most surreal moment of the weekend had we not just watched primarily-coloured pop outfit Celebs crowdsurf on a ‘00s inflatable sofa before bringing out a dancer in a head-to-toe pink tinsel monster suit.
It’s enough high jinx to make the overseas contingent seem relatively tame in comparison, however LA’s Blondshell needs no trickery to make the grunge-tinged catharsis of this year’s self-titled debut sing. Highlight ‘Olympus’ hits hard, Sabrina Teitelbaum’s vocals raw and melodic, while a cover of Le Tigre’s dancefloor staple ‘Deceptacon’ is a welcome, cheeky addition. Later that evening, the breadth of Bombay Bicycle Club’s explorations are distilled into a relatively tight 60 minutes, moving from the easy warmth of new album ‘My Big Day’’s title track through the whomping beats of ‘Carry Me’ via some solid gold indie hits (‘Always Like This’, ‘Lights Out, Words Gone’).
It’s left to Dublin’s Sprints to close out the festival with a late night set at the suitably low-ceilinged Gaukurinn punk club. Weeks away from debut LP ‘Letter to Self’, the quartet cut a ferocious figure, frontwoman Karla Chubb leading a wall of cathartic noise that’s as empathetic as it is furious. They might not be residents, but their ethos of being true to yourself and creating pockets of community around you is one that nonetheless rings out amongst a festival, and a music scene, built on exactly these kinds of values.