The organisers of Iceland Airwaves don’t need to cordon off a couple of hundred metres of land or impose a theme for their festival – the theme is all around you, and it’s Reykjavík. For around three days every year, the world’s northernmost capital city plays host to countless musicians – from up-and-comers to headliners, via hobbyists and experimentalists – and opens up a number of its venues, museums, civic halls and churches, with occasional additional mood lighting from the aurora borealis.
Returning for the first time since 2019, Iceland Airwaves’ 2022 edition really gets going inside the cavernous Art Museum where Melbourne’s Amyl and The Sniffers deliver a typically throbbing, chaotic and riotous set, much to the delight of the crowd. The genuine joy, however, is in observing how the local audience have turned up for their fellow countrymen.
As Daughters of Reykjavík take to the stage, the crowd swells and whoops – and that’s before the eight-piece have even played a single note. After a 40-minute tour de force, which includes an impassioned tribute to the women of Iran – “We stand with the women in Iran, fighting for a better world,” Steiney Skúladóttir declares from the stage – and a healthy dose of dry Icelandic wit and fun, the crowd are left exhausted, satisfied and elated.
Over in Gamla Bió (the Old Cinema), Brooklyn’s much-talked-about trio Nation Of Language pack out and enchant the room with a set that casually mashes together influences from the likes of Kraftwerk, Editors and Interpol, all strung together with Peter Hook basslines and frontman Ian Richard Devaney’s charming charisma. Palette cleanser and Airwaves regular JFDR follows next, before the night is then rounded off with an all-encompassing, anthemic set from Vancouver’s Crack Cloud, with drummer and frontman Zach Choy controlling a willing throng from behind his kit.
Iceland’s Sucks To Be You, Nigel – a cataclysmic, passive-aggressive Nordic volcanic punk blow-out – kick off the following day, a Friday which really chooses to embrace a very Nordic brand of riotous hedonism. Metronomy sing the praises of the host city – albeit through slightly stilted ‘banter’ about lobster soup and the Northern Lights – during a strong set that’s filled with their pop-driven bangers, with the sweaty crowd becoming particularly enthusiastic during ‘Salted Caramel Ice Cream’ and ‘The Look’.
NME’s highlight of the day, though, can be found at Galma Bió, where local favourites FLOTT come onto the stage wearing silk pyjamas and robes and proceed to play a buzzy, entertaining and accomplished set. A funky little ensemble made up of a comedian, a programmer, a physiotherapist, a former prom queen nominee and a professional drummer, there are several sonic nods to – without wanting to sound too Nordic-generalising – ABBA. Lead singer Vigdís Hafliðadóttir turns out to be NME’s guide at The Blue Lagoon geothermal pool the following day, where she reveals that a possible Eurovision foray has been discussed; this, honestly, would guarantee an Iceland win in 2023.
Iceland Airwaves 2022’s final day somehow feels more ethereal. After an up-tempo start from Reykjavík’s Ólafur Kram at spit-and-sawdust venue Húrra (which includes a well-observed song about mansplaining), we shuffle into the pews of Lutheran church Fríkirkjan, which is moodily lit with an aurora-inspired theme, to catch the end of what appears to be an uplifting and immersive show from Canada’s Alysha Brilla. Iceland’s Arny Margret takes to the stage shortly afterwards, and suddenly the room becomes smaller: Margret proceeds to deliver an intimate, haunting, harmony-drenched acoustic performance which rings out in the rafters well after she leaves the stage. NME then dashes through the freezing streets to catch Brighton’s Porridge Radio, who put on a reliably dream-like, shoegazey set that features eye-catching projections on a giant screen which really enhance the overall experience.
It feels only right to end the festival back at the Art Museum, where Arlo Parks gleefully takes to the stage to close proceedings with a groove and soul-filled set that owns the space. She mentions that it’s her final gig of the year, meaning that the set takes on the feel of a victory lap. Overlooking the convulsing crowd from the balcony, NME witnesses numerous hands fly into the air during ‘Hurt’ as Parks’ lyrics “it won’t hurt so much forever” are screamed back at her.
There had been a question mark over how and whether Iceland Airwaves would return post-pandemic, and this year’s line-up has been purposefully concentrated, meaning punters can more easily catch their favourite acts and stumble on some as-yet undiscovered brilliance. The truly impressive thing about Airwaves, however, is how the organisers have managed to inject some of the magic of Reykjavík and the surrounding country into every facet of proceedings. It is still one of the most idiosyncratic festivals in the world, and one which will keep calling you back.