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PREVIEW: Iceland Airwaves
Karl Smith , October 30th, 2015 14:00

Before heading out to Reykjavik next week, Karl Smith suggests a selection of the finest Icelandic talent and festival must-sees – from hip hop to literature – on offer at this year's Airwaves

To my mind, there are three reasons why Iceland Airwaves continues, year after year, to be one of the best festivals the international music scene has to offer.

Reason the first: while, in the grand scheme of things, and – really – even in the less grand scheme of things, Reykjavik isn’t a big place, watching any city embrace a festival so entirely, without reservation, is incredible. Hostels, art galleries, record shops, coffee houses, cold-weather clothing stores, laundromats, and everything in between are re-purposed alongside dedicated, out-and-out venues to transform a city of circa 120,000 people into the throbbing heart of independent music culture.

Secondly, perhaps symptomatic of Airwaves subsuming of Reykjavik, even if it is only for five days of the year, the focus on homegrown talent far outstrips anything I’ve seen elsewhere: while the impetus to book Big Draw Bands from Europe and the US is still necessarily present, it is reliably leveled-off by not only the oceanic volume of Icelandic bands on the bill, but also the encouragement of the festival organisers to actually watch those bands.

Third on the list – and though it sounds like opinion it’s actually, definitely, verifiable fact – Reykjavik is one of the best cities in the world to find yourself distributed to, both during the festival and on any of the other 360 days of the year.

With all these facts in mind – and an acknowledgement that they’re kind of all tributaries of the final point, really – we round up the must-see Icelandic acts of Airwaves 2015, from hip hop to psychedelic odysseys, via the festival’s lesser-known literary conjoined twin.

M-Band

We’ve talked about M-Band on these pages before. But, for those who haven’t had the benefit, we’ll talk about him again: Hörður Már Bjarnason’s solo project is one of those most rare entities – an act where the experience of watching the scene unravel for the first (or second) time isn’t a result of visual theatre, of on-stage spectacle, but of talent in its rawest form. Amalgamating Eurodance, trance and dark, Gregorian vocals, what you get is a little like Haddaway meets Imatem meets Matthew Lewis’ 1796 gothic horror novel The Monk. If you can’t imagine that for yourself, well, you know what to do.

Reykjavíkurdætur

Hip hop in Iceland is in the rudest of health; literally and figuratively speaking. In 2015, the scene is both burgeoning – our friends at the Grapevine having subsequently been compelled to highlight no less than seven of the best acts falling under the genre header – and aggressive in the political and braggadocio senses of the term. And it’s in that vein that we come to The Daughters of Reykjavik: a 19-woman rap collective with an open door policy, born of open mic nights and forged in the heat of authentic, anti-patriarchal fire. Fire indeed.

Good Moon Deer

Merging the glitchier, more intricate sonic elements of FKA twigs circa EP2 – having some shared ground in visual aesthetic where videos are concerned, too – with a more focal, driving sense of rhythm, Good Moon Deer aren’t so much breaking new ground as they are re-claiming patches of disused land and converting them, ‘Grand Designs’-style, into something more than the sum of its parts.

Vök

Before even getting into the act of describing Vök linguistically, we're pleased to be able to premier a live video of the 'Talk Show Host'-recalling, clarinet-infused 'Adrift', recorded at Dalston's Blue Studios for Cavalcade. If you still need a helping hand from your boy, well, here we go.

Falling – or, perhaps it’s truer of their sound to say “cascading” – somewhere between Simple Things-era Zero 7 and any album by The xx (who fell victim to Fleet Foxes syndrome, having made two stellar but, unfortunately, near enough identical records), Vök are Reykjavik’s premier purveyors of wistful slowjams: music that is, at once, of the moment – a soundtrack to youthful imminence – and haunted by the spectre of a Platonic shadow life, live simultaneously elsewhere.

Airwords

This isn’t the first Airwords, but it might well be the first time you’ve heard of Airwords. Less the little brother or sister of the music festival and more like the tortured older sibling, living under a self-imposed vow of silence, reading Camus and pondering just what it all means – only more accessible and considerably less pretentious.

Where Airwaves offers the best the island has to offer in music, Airwords does the same for literature. Performances celebrate not only the slew of contemporary Icelandic talent – this year also playing host to a performance by novelist and Guardian journalist Laura Barton – but also an expansive literary tradition that continues to inform the national culture.

dj. flugvél og geimskip

dj. flugvél og geimskip somehow bridges the gap – and it’s worth noting that the “gap” in question is essentially a chasm, something akin to rewriting history and having Homer successfully jump Springfield Gorge – between psychedelia and the PC Music crowd. Categorically not a dj at all, geimskip takes in the best of both worlds: her music effectively eliminates psych’s tooth-grindingly cliché wah wah and the monotony of fuzz in favour of a more kaleidoscopic all-round experience, while simultaneously embracing the minimalism and “fun at everyone’s expense including my own” mentality of QT et al.

Gangly

Whether Gangly means something else in Icelandic, I’m not sure – update: I’ve checked, it doesn’t seem to – but as misleading monikers go, it’s definitely right up there. While it’s beyond cliché, beyond parody even, to suggest that an Icelandic artist has a glacial sound (fucking hell, I’m doing it) that’s really the closest you’re going to get to an accurate description of gangly: this is staggeringly beautiful music with no trace of the awkwardness the name suggests. It’s sprawling and balletic in its movements, both seemingly effortless and choreographed to within a human inch of perfection.

Lord Pusswhip

This is hip hop stripped back to its barest bones and rebuilt with its nerves re-wired: defined not by strong vocal takes or quality lyrics, but by a flair for sonic intricacy, for off-kilter beats and for the kind of high-energy ticks you’d associate more with the Holly Herndons of this world than anything in mainstream rap. But, while definitely in possession of an intellectual bent, there’s also brazenness to Pusswhip – a kind of jittering, hyperactive “fuck you for listening” quality that punishes even as it rewards, forbidding his audience from taking the trajectory of the music for granted.

To buy tickets, read the full line-up and schedule, and find any other information on Airwaves 2015, click through

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