There’s an exhilaration in being part of a crowd that has seen something that most of the world doesn’t know about – yet. It’s a feeling that burns bright inside the 300-capacity Gaukurinn, a dive bar-like venue in Reykjavík, as Fókus perform on the opening night of Iceland Airwaves 2023. Having formed less than a year ago, the teenage band’s youthful garage rock-inspired sound is appealingly rough around the edges: sprawling, triumphant and lightly unhinged, they close their 30 minute set with a jam session-like rendition of a currently-unnamed, yet joyous and shouting pop song. Complete strangers leave the room beaming at each other, in awe of what they’ve just seen.
It’s this element of surprise that has kept new music fans returning to Iceland Airwaves time and time again throughout the festival’s 24-year history. A fresher’s week fizz of excitement and unpredictability courses through the dozen-odd venues that make up the event, while surprise off-programme gigs regularly occur at the eleventh hour. While Fókus’ may invite punters on stage, Palace Muses take things to another extreme; the vocal trio host an audience of two dozen for a surprise “rehearsal party” at their downtown apartment, where they roadtest new material by singing entirety a capella in the most intimate of settings.
Homegrown artists continue to wield heaviness – songs of heartbreak and unrest – with an often playful touch. In between attempts to flog her unconventional merch items, which include toothbrushes and eye masks, Elín Hall’s scintillating songs find a dramatic backdrop in the candlelit Frikirkjan Church. On the eve of her second LP ‘Heyrist í Mér?’ (‘Can You Hear Me?’), she gives a speech on the importance of the Icelandic Music Export, which helps artists like Hall, who was born and raised in the capital, forge a path into the country’s live scene. Supersport, who make neo psych-inspired pop in the vein of Superorganism or Kero Kero Bonito, share this sentiment, as frontman Bjarni Daníel shouts out the government-funded music initiative while performing in the round at Hotel Borg.
There is a sense of devotion, then, at the heart of Iceland Airwaves; evident in its attendees and performers, who seem delighted that such a festival even exists in their country. Yet you sense that acts from elsewhere across the globe feel similarly, too. With three summers-worth of touring under their belt since the end of lockdown, Leeds’ Yard Act may be a well-oiled festival act by now, but frontman James Smith’s jagged dance moves and David Byrne-like awkwardness still delight. Recent NME Cover star Blondshell and her West Coast grunge-rock anthems make for another hour of pure feeling: her set’s most powerful moment comes when she quietly screams into the mic during ‘Dangerous’, a release of fury, anxiety and ennui all at once.
An icy-cold Friday night is enlivened by Monikaze, who increases the BPM with real abandon. In the shadows of purposefully low, murky stage lights, the Lithuanian DJ and producer headbangs as she attacks a series of pounding bass loops with the hyperactive enthusiasm of Danny L Harle. It’s both relentless and giddily entertaining. Lime Garden are a bright blast of indie joy, airing the funky and danceable material of their forthcoming debut ‘One More Thing’ (due February 2024) in Gaukurinn. They will hopefully get the opportunity to scale up to bigger stages next festival season, as should Jazzygold, a Faroe Islands-raised vocalist whose smouldering R&B is embellished with moments of arresting choreography.
The energy unfortunately doesn’t carry over for some of the more palatable acoustic pop acts that dominate a portion of the lineup. Returning to the festival for a second consecutive year, Una Torfa gets off to a punchy start at Reykjavík Art Museum, only for the tempo to sag in the middle to noticeable disinterest from the crowd. Moments like this may be few and far between, but they further highlight the real MVPs of the weekend: the innovative and often pulverising artists who arrive with a point to prove.
One such name is Kneecap, whose guttural intensity incites chucked pints galore: an experience that pulls you into the moshpit and doesn’t let go until the final throb of bass ebbs out of the speakers. Here, the Belfast trio rightly affirm their current stature as an unmissable live act, and speak on what it means to be rapping in Irish, a minority language, in a country as geographically isolated as Iceland.
Iceland Airwaves succeeds by tapping into the culture and heritage of Reykjavík and expanding on it by booking some of the most exploratory new names worldwide. Elisapie sums this up brilliantly on Saturday evening: born and raised in Salluit, a small village in Nunavik, Canada that is only accessible by plane, the singer is evidently over the moon to be sharing her Inuktitut rendition of Blondie’s ‘Heart Of Glass’. It makes for a glorious, emotional set that illuminates this festival’s wide-ranging remit.
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