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Things Learned At: Iceland Airwaves
Karl Smith , November 27th, 2015 11:43

Karl Smith journeys to Reykjavík reporting on sets from QT, Reykjavíkurdætur, Vök, Perfume Genius and more

Photo by Runar Sigurdur Sigurjonsson

"What kind of festival is Airwaves?"

Beyond "Hey, how are you?" it's more or less the first question I'm asked at the small-ish gathering on the first night of the Icelandic festival. By this point I've had an hour's respite – and when I say respite I mean charging my phone and laying on the bed – between a solid twelve hours of traveling and this sudden obligation to get my drink on (an injustice I deal with gracefully as ever) and to talk to people whose company I genuinely enjoy (I'll live): essentially, it's not a question I'm prepared – either in the sense of what I'm expecting, or in terms of having the full power of my mental faculties about me – to hear or to answer.

"I've always thought of it as kind of a showcase festival… but Mercury Rev, Beach House again? I don't know."

I didn't have an answer at the time, but – thinking about it now – Airwaves is a festival in the truest sense of the word: a celebration of homegrown talent and of home itself – an introduction to Icelandic music and to Iceland – augmented, not eclipsed, by the addition of American and British bands to the line-up, with outstanding performances from Perfume Genius and Skepta serving as ornament to – as a heavy-penciled underline of – what Iceland has provided. And it has provided.

Reykjavíkurdætur are a musical force to be reckoned with and a painful cultural necessity

It's rare – incredibly so, actually, particularly when you're operating under the structure of your average British music festival – that one of the first things you clap your weary eyes and your half-popped ears on is one of the best things you see all week (and one of the best you've seen in a long time). But such is Airwaves: it has no truck with conventional festival paradigms – the idea of putting the "best" acts on last and using, in the interests of diplomacy shall we say, the "untested artists" as a proverbial red carpet can go fuck its self. And so, aglow with the fire of several Brennevin cocktails (because tourism) and one or two things less exotic, I'm standing in NASA(1), among friends old and new, about to watch Reykjavíkurdætur for what will end up being the first of three times in five days.

The 19-woman feminist rap collective are everything they promise on paper, on screen – on record – and more. There are questions, of course; questions about cultural appropriation – about whether 19 white women from Iceland (which is, undeniably, a predominantly white country in a sense beyond most other examples) can harness with any legitimacy the socio-cultural fundamentals of hip hop to their feminist cause; questions of who exactly this is for – of who is getting the most enjoyment, who is having the most rewarding experience, watching 19 women in (variously) nude underwear and nude body stockings move on stage like pneumatic human gyroscopes. Is it empowering for the women in the audience or is it engaging the lizard brain of the ubiquitous UniLad? Maybe the honest answer is "both", but – unequivocally – this shit is fire.

You'd think it borderline impossible with a roster barely below twenty for a group to exhibit anything other than tedious ramshackle-ness, but Reykjavíkurdætur are imbued with righteous purpose, delivering verse after verse – chorus after chorus – with an assuredness that not only says "we're good at what we do", but also that what they do is something worth doing. Powerful as the set is in Icelandic, seemingly in response to the dichotomy an English-language anthem on the subject of the universal pleasure of anal sex forces the men in the audience to question the reality of their machismo and their perceptions of exactly what constitutes heterosexuality.

Some fifteen minutes later, walking between venues, we are approached apropos of nothing and asked – without irony – whether we saw any of "that Spice Girls shit". This is the gender gap manifest; a reminder that – while lower pay, fewer rights and the threat of sexual violence are very real issues – it's the casual prevalence of off-hand sexism from Some Guy on the Street that reinforces all of that. It's a confirmation – perhaps even more than the blistering set itself and the palpable unification of the crowd – that we need groups like Reyjavíkurdætur.

As festivals go, Airwaves is full on – but Vök are anything but hard work

Airwaves, in a sense, is something of a concentrated musical shot to the arm – a full-on flu booster when you've only really got the sniffles. There's so much good stuff packed in to such a small space – over such a short amount of time – that it can be kind of overwhelming; a mild sense of fatigue can encroach as you realise that the band that you desperately wanted to see are playing five times this weekend, in venues within walking distance of one another, and you still might not actually get to see them. But, for those same reasons, it's also a completely invigorating experience as festivals go: walking 15 minutes from venue to venue, lung-deep in brisk sea and mountain air (rather than up to your knees in mud, impossibly thick and already smelling suspiciously like shit on the first day) is energising rather than demoralising, confirming for sure that city festivals are the superior model and subsequently solidifying Airwaves' right to rule.

And so, still kind of stunned, we move on to Harpa – Reykjavík's concert hall, and an odd beast of a building: just the right side of showy – designed by Olafur Eliasson, the honeycomb glass façade is impressive inside and out, and the shimmering light effect sits neatly below Vegas levels of gaudy – but also a bit vibeless as venues go. I guess the equivalent would be if Ai Weiwei had put together the plans for the ExCel Centre; it'd look great, but would still be perpetually haunted – its atmosphere forever deadened – by the spectre of corporate conferences. But we're not here to survey the architecture – not primarily, anyway – we're here to work, work it, work it out, and to watch Vök. (They're pronounced kind of the same but so far as I can tell that's where the similarities end.)

Cascading slow jams are the M.O. (not to be confused with MØ) of the evening, a saxophone – bizarrely the first of many on offer at this year's festival – recalling Vangelis' melancholy futurism and providing a noir-ish ornamentation to Vök's xx-infused spatial quality: bridging but taking care never to fill the negative space that so defines their sound. An emptiness notable not for its quality of absence but for its palpable energy – its promise.

The internet is as much a vehicle for the British national character as anything

Among its many other achievements, Twitter has undoubtedly revolutionised the medium of self-deprecation and, as such, to cap off an incredible first night in the closest thing I'm comfortable expressing as national character, I'm able to tweet the image of my own sad face – a pixelated Turin Shroud of disappointment – having bought chips and immediately come face to face with The Lobster Hut.

QT is a Metamodern experience

A few days after QT plays in Iceland, Shia LaBeouf begins ALLMYMOVIES in New York. It's a kind of living installation in which the actor watches his entire filmography in a public cinema, broadcasting not the films themselves but his own reactions while watching them. Another collaboration with Luke Turner and Nastja Rönkkö, the project is sincere, humbling and – despite essentially focusing on the face and life's work to date of one person – a beautiful, universally human thing. And, with the benefit of hindsight, one can't help but compare the two. QT the performer, the CEO of drinkQT the energy drink, is both fictitious and entirely real. The music exists, the drink exists, but they do so as part of a sort of human Wide Area Network connection designed to bring people together in their isolation – to encourage the acknowledgement of the fiction and the exclusionary quality of the world (the "life") that they've built for themselves and simply embrace the universal quality of the human emotional spectrum.

Does it matter whether QT is playing live when she twists dials on the array of gear that stands in front of her? No. Does it matter that QT DJ's mixes of songs by other artists – including Charli XCX and Rihanna – and doesn't even play ‘Hey QT'? Absolutely not. What you're watching when you're watching QT is the interplay between QT and QT, an intrapersonal dialogue augmented by the presence of an audience which – like ALLMYMOVIES – is notable for both its championing and auto-destruction of the Self.


Everything is better in the water

Press trips can be tedious, and more often than not they're tantamount to tourism; an effort to sell whatever city you're visiting by forcing upon you the very thing that you'd have selected yourself from TripAdvisor if you had no prior knowledge or local insight whatsoever of wherever it is in the world you are.

It's refreshing – and thoroughly anxiety inducing – then, to find myself half-naked, with a group of people I've known for about five minutes (since being completely naked in the changing room), floating in the neither-warm-nor-cold water of Sundhöllin swimming pool as Tonik Ensemble explore the full range of the electronic spectrum in the echoing hollow of the cavernous space above the water line. It's a bizarre experience, thoroughly awkward at first but ultimately one of the more engaging all-round sensory experiences I've had – by turns relaxing and requiring, it's a far cry from a Northern Lights tour but not without its own majesty.


Hip hop is thriving in Iceland

You'd be forgiven for assuming that the aforementioned Reykjavíkurdætur are something of an oddity; that hip-hop in Iceland has its sole, admirable function in aiding the cause of feminism on the island and in a wider context. But, forgivable as it may be, you'd still be wrong: the genre is ubiquitous – entirely more prevalent than the sprawling post-rock so readily associated with the country.

Sturla Atlas brings a quasi-90s East 17 meets Drake energy to a crowd who – seemingly inexplicably – simultaneously crouch to the floor of the venue on (what I presume is) command; the unfortunately-named Vaginaboys deliver far more than their moniker suggests, something like a hip-hop Nicolas Winding Refn soundtrack, sonically louche and vibrantly neon; and Lord Pusswhip veers frequently, intelligently in to Oneohtrix territory without bastardising the genre with intellectualism for its own sake. And then, of course, there's Skepta and JME. Over an almost innumerable amount of shows across several festivals, I'm not sure I remember seeing anything quite like the storm that's whipped up in Reykjavík's modern art museum – the crowd undulating, unified, murmurating like starlings – sweat dripping from the ceiling. At a very base level it's pretty safe to say everyone's into it. But the truth is something more like everyone's part of it.

Sigur Rós and Björk, after all, do not an entire country's musical taste and export make.

Perfume Genius is catharsis incarnate

Perhaps it's indicative of a certain state of mind – of days and nights where sleep is a distant relative whose presence, once welcome, has become such an oddity that it seems somehow uncanny – but Perfume Genius' set is little short of emotionally crippling. While friends provide different accounts of the evening – of a set that could have done with some more up-tempo songs to boost and foster the energy – but Mike Hadreas provides exactly what I didn't know I needed at that very moment in time: a pure catharsis of nothing in particular. Gripes about the energy of the show, though understandable to a point, seem to be entirely misplaced – or based, at least, on a misconception of what this set is: not a baroque indie lightning storm or a hurricane-level wind of guitar-led sentiment, but something more like a steam valve – a slow release of unfathomable pressure through the keys of a piano and a freefalling voice cushioned with the longing for something just out of reach.

All good things come to an end

The Northern Lights have been simmering, gently pulsating over the city since the daylight sportingly called it quits and I've been out for a walk with no hat and no coat because, as I've suspected for some time, I'm a very real kind of moron.   The festival is technically over; probably there are more English people here now – with flight and hotel prices significantly lower than the last week – than there were when the city seemed flooded with people; I hear their voices passing, mercurial in the evening, but absent in the day – the problem of tourism manifest in the invisibility of thousands of tourists, their hotel rooms in Reykjavík but their interest in the city seemingly nowhere to be found.

It's their fucking loss.

  1. Mentioning a venue that few people outside of Iceland will have heard of might seem like kind of an in-joke – a  "dick move", if you will – but until very recently NASA was subject to the same not-so-existential threat as so many of the venues and artist spaces in London: that it would be closed, knocked down, and replaced with a hotel. Tourism, after all, is big in Iceland and only getting bigger; dams and smelting plants threaten the near-unparalleled natural beauty of the country's highlands, but the unstoppable flow of nature-seeking tourists is equally accountable for disturbing and destroying the equilibrium of life in Reykjavík).