Island Getaway: Iceland Airwaves, 2012

IcelandAirwaves_Headerby Taylor Saldarriaga
February 1, 2013


I’ve been “picked up,” as they say. By a kindly Viking-metal-head type sitting at the bar while I order a drink. He opened with a line in English, spoken to his friends but meant for me: “There’s a woman standing next to me … just be cool, be cool.” I laughed, thankful for the open-endedness of the invitation, for the illusion of power this gave me, and frankly for the company, as I am travelling solo and sitting alone in bars still makes me a bit queasy. Yes, okay, I’ll sit thankyouverymuch. And I’ll take a beer, Mr. Bartender. A Bjór. Jólabjór, actually. Because that’s the seasonal Christmas brew. Takk!

The Viking asks if I’m here for Airwaves.


“To play or to watch?” he says.

I actually need him to repeat himself twice more before really understanding the question. I’m totally flattered that he would even consider whether I’m something other than the music-freak groupie / festival-junkie / Iceland-fetishist that I am. But the question’s not about respect or appearances or equality or anything like that; it’s about numbers. Right, everyone here is a musician it seems, often playing in several groups. Wikipedia entries for many of the local bands sometimes have Associated-Acts lists that reach double digits. Not that my Viking has mistaken me for an Icelander — but, you know, context and norms and expectations and such. He himself is in two bands, with members of other bands, some that I’ve heard of, some that I haven’t. I meet his friends, other musicians, the bartenders, an Icelandic surfer (they have those?), some Americans, some Danes. Point being, this is a friendly place where conversation is easy — even for a shy, slightly feral, native-New Yorker like myself. And this is only Airwaves-eve. The fun hasn’t even begun yet.

A few scene-setting facts: Iceland Airwaves is the most awesome music festival on the face of the planet ever. Yes, that’s a fact. Errm, other things to know: this is the festival’s fourteenth year running. It takes place over five days in central Reykjavík in a handful of venues — bars, museums, proper concert halls, churches. The exact roster changes every year as beloved establishments are shuttered and new ones are welcomed into the family. In addition to the nighttime “main stages,” if I may, there are dozens of daytime off-venue shows in less conventional venues, like hostels and hotel lobbies, cafes, tents, and, this year, Eldhús — an impossibly small house erected for the occasion, large enough to fit a featured band and a couple of spectators while the rest of us listen from outside in the open square. (Yes, it’s gimmicky; no, I don’t care. It’s super cute.)

This is my second Airwaves. Last year, the first thing people wanted to know about after discovering my place of origin was Occupy Wall Street. This year, it’s Sandy. Indeed, I got out of New York a mere two days before that shit-storm broke the city in half. But RVK is feeling it in a different way — headline bands are cancelling, (including Swans … why, god, why!?), would-be festivalgoers are giving up hope at JFK, and on the third day of the festival, scornful Sandy’s whip-tail delivers unto us the craziest windstorm the area has seen in over ten years. 85 mph winds. Gusts over 100.

I’m walking (trying to walk — clawing and clinging and being pushed around the sidewalk, grateful for every step that makes landfall — is more accurate. Seriously, i n s a n e. Look up some YouTube videos). Anyway, I’m epically journeying to one of the off-venue shows: the sonorous, six-piece Icelandic band Árstíðir. The adjective I can’t seem to shake for their sound is pastoral. I crash through the front door of Mánabar just as they begin. The bar is stuffed to the gills with other brave souls. It is a big, sunken lounge full of velvety reds and purples, plush sofas, low-profile coffee tables. It’s that contrast that is my favorite thing about winter: cold violence beating at the fogged windows; the band’s wind instruments and mournful harmonies making me warm and cozy.

“How about that wind?” the guitar-slung singer says, breaking between songs. He makes a crack about Sandy and then asks the crowd, “What should we name this storm, ey?” Someone yells out, “Airwaves!”

I am pulsing with the crowd upstairs at Faktorý, closing out the early morning with the DJ and electronic acts I like. It’s the kind of dance party impossible not to enjoy, the kind that makes you wish you were tripping on ecstasy, like, right now. We heat up, sweat collectively, orgiastic, feeding on the tension-building crescendos and satisfying beat-drops, swaddled in a smoke-machine haze shot through with blue and purple strobes.

Halfway through Elektro Guzzi’s set, I pick up on a subtle, but omnipresent … scent. One I know well. The sulfurous odor that characterizes Iceland’s natural hot springs. A quick word about that: Iceland sits at the crux of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates (if you want a visual, watch Björk’s music video for “Mutual Core”). Among all the crazy-cool geologic science-y stuff associated with this, is the country’s access to geothermal energy. A majority of Iceland’s electricity and heat come from this, the earth’s volcanic bounty. Green energy! Or greenish, as a tour guide once quibbled with me. And therein lies the rub — just because something comes from the earth doesn’t mean it’s categorically benevolent. Along with the zillion-degree heat burbling up from the underworld, certain toxic gases are also released, including hydrogen sulfide. To offset the environmental consequences of this pollutant, power plants inject trace amounts of the H2S back into the system, distributing it in negligible doses among the hot-water pipes of the country’s residents. The result is that smell. Sulfurous, egg-y, some say. The smell of hot springs in your shower. It’s an acquired taste.

And it’s in our sweat, I realize now. In our pores and follicles. I mean, you don’t smell after you shower, but we are at critical mass right now. Part of the landscape, subsumed by it. Much like the music that comes from this place. That latter point hits me like a pot-headed epiphany. The venerable Sigur Rós epitomizes this confluence, of course, with their vast lonesome soundscapes. Sure, there is a diversity of genres in Icelandic Music — indie-rock, metal, EDM, folk. But all of these bands seem to be tied in some inextricable way to their origins. Ghostigital (associated acts include The Sugarcubes [Björk fans? Anyone?]) shrieks about northern lights and black-sand beaches through chaotic synths. In a song titled “Island,” Muck screams their hardcore hearts out, “I have / nowhere to go!” Ha. (I should also note that Ísland is the Icelandic word for Iceland. Fucking genius.) Of Monsters and Men, Múm, Seabear, Sóley — they all seem umbilically attached to this collective unconscious, willingly or unwillingly.

Speaking of Björk, she’s sitting five feet away from me in the audience as Ben Frost and Daníel Bjarnason perform their Music for Sólaris. I shit you not. Just hangin’ out. Like she’s not a total goddess. This is almost as good as the surprise northern lights sighting after dancing myself ragged at the a-rhythmic Doldrum’s concert two nights ago. The crowd, bottle-necked just outside the ballroom-like venue, stopped dead. The aurora borealis hung in the black sky above us, florescent green and serpentine, stretching wing-like across Lake Tjörnin. Magic. Miraculous, too, since the phenomenon isn’t supposed to be visible amid city lights and a big bright moon. Life equals complete, basically.

Right right, pay attention to the music. Sólaris, the piece before me, is a kind of alternate score for the 1972 film (based on Stanisław Lem’s 1961 sci-fi novel … in my top-ten favorite books of all time, btw). It’s a classical composition that manages to be utterly modern in its minimalism and creepy-factor. I can’t take my eyes off Bjarnason, who is conducting the modified orchestra … and us, really. He lulls us into hyper-focus with the micro-gestures of his fingers, drawing the players downward into silence; then he unwinds slowly upward into wild-armed frenzy and bombast, and we breathe again. It’s enchanting.

Alas, it’s the final day. Suddenly. I can already feel the beginnings of the pendulant emotional swing that usually accompanies the end of a really good time. There’s a “special performance” every last day of Airwaves. Usually a big name. Costs an extra twenty bucks or so. Last year it was Björk (which … I missed all but her last song because I was being detained by the Icelandic police for [a] speeding, and [b] aiding and abetting a Norwegian street artist, driving a car stuffed with tires, a ladder, large paper stencils, and aerosol paint cans. Worth it). This year, it’s Sigur Rós, and I manage to stay out of trouble long enough to make the twenty-minute trek to this airplane-hangar of a venue. The experience is really unpleasant at first, actually. I line up with thousands of others outside, waiting for the doors to open. Once inside, we wait for a second set of doors to open. Once inside inside, we wait an hour for the concert to begin. Correction: we expect to wait an hour (y’know, doors at 7, show at 8). But 8:15 rolls around. Then 8:30. Oh, and it’s really hot in here. And not just because everyone is wearing three layers. The crowd is getting desperate at 8:45. I try to tune out the neighbors’ grumbling and go to my happy Zen place, because there’s nothing worse when you’re frustrated and annoyed than hearing other people’s frustration and annoyance. To boot, there’s a guy canoodling with his girlfriend right in front of me, so I know I’ll have to peer around a two-headed obstruction, rather than the usual one.

One whole hour and five minutes after they are scheduled to go on, the band finally appears. I am seething. But they seem so oblivious that I almost want to give them the benefit of the doubt and say some jerk gave them the wrong start time. The crowd continues to be angry with them for approximately a song and a half, until we remember how awesome they are, and how cool it is to see them in their homeland, and, by the way, this show is beautiful. They’ve gone all out with the visuals. A translucent screen cleaves the space between us and the stage. On one side, whorls of smoke pour out around the band; a projector casts creepy diffuse scenes onto the other. The two halves interact — the smoke making three-dimensions of the images. Kaleidoscopic, monstrous.

Before we get bored of this effect, the divider drops, and Sigur Rós present themselves to us clearly. Behind them is a second screen. A huge, fish-eyed panorama upon which dreamlike, experimental short films play. The band performs passionately as ever. Jónsi hunches deeply over his guitar like a surgeon, torturing the thing with a violin bow as he brings each song to climax. By the end, we are undyingly theirs. We cheer and clap until our palms are sore, begging for an encore.

Of course they oblige. Jónsi speaks at length in Icelandic, to my dismay. All I understand is, “Thank you for coming.” But as the first quiet chord sounds, that man with the girlfriend turns to me. Having deduced somehow that I’m not from these parts, he kindly translates: “He says this is a new song. They’ve never played it before.” Sweet, an exclusive! In my head, I apologize profusely for thinking ill of him. This is a friendly place.

The laser show that accompanies the song, “Brennisteinn,” is quite possibly the coolest and most elaborate I’ve ever seen (rivaling Tool’s performance of “Lateralus” at Madison Square Garden), electrifying the residual smoke and slicing it into cross-sections of crawling green rivulets. A bit like an over-saturated aurora, come to think of it. And then it’s over. Abruptly. All of it: the song, the concert, the festival. Sigh.

There are dirty-dirty-hippie types that proudly display ten years’ worth of Airwaves wristbands they’ve never removed. I’d probably be among them if I didn’t keep a white-collar day job. (To remove them, you need to cut them off, which, I admit, is sort of a heart-wrenching ceremony.) Instead, I keep my meager two in a box along with the rumpled, abused programs, ticket stubs, a couple of weird-looking volcanic rocks. Yes, I’ll be back next year. And the year after that. Because this is more than a music festival, after all. This is love.

Photo from Iceland Airwaves