Rarity in Rock II: Iceland Airwaves Part I
For my second foray into Rock Rarity, I boarded a plane bound for Iceland, a country most (Indie) Americans are only familiar with through their collection of Sigur Ros, Bjork, and Mum albums (none of these bands played the festival, by the way.) I'm well aware that attending a Rock festival in and of itself is not exactly a rare outing, particularly living in the Greater New York area, where every promoter with dollar signs in his eyes makes a (generally) lame attempt at Fest organizing. On a broader scale, the US itself is actually quite enamored with the festival aesthetic, ranging from the more DIY fests that a lot of college towns host every year (Harrisonburg, VA's Macrock, Purchase, NY's Culture Shock, etc.) all the way up to our crack at the grand European festival (Coachella, or the botched NY version, Field Day Festival) and every size between. We have Death Metal fests, Experimental Ambient fests, Grind-core fests, Underground hip-hop fests; you name a style of music with any more than three dedicated fans and there is probably an American festival dedicated to it. I myself have a few great Fest memories, one in particular being Macrock 2002, where I got to witness Fugazi triumphantly close an amazing weekend of music which also featured the likes of the Dismemberment Plan, Avail, Engine Down, Rainer Maria, and Ted Leo.
I provide this background only to illustrate the fact that I am hyper-aware of what it would take for a music festival to qualify itself into my annals of Rock Rarity. It was my hypothesis that any music festival alone could scarcely be called rare, and that it would have to meet some other set of rarity requirements to make the cut. My personal rarity requirements being filtered through my nationality, race, etc., insured to me that simply boarding a plane to go to a festival wouldn't quite make the cut either. There had to be something special about the place I was going, some amount of inter-related (with music) or extra-curricular (sans music) activity involved with the trip, while still allowing a healthy dose of the Rock. Further, it couldn't hurt my rarity quotient for a major percentage of the musical acts involved with the festival to be of local origin.
Reykjavik's seventh annual Iceland Airwaves festival met, indeed surpassed, these requirements. Mixing a healthy dose of sightseeing, meeting other Rarity seekers from around the globe, an introduction to the startlingly-friendly locals, and a nice chunk of live music, Airwaves cemented itself as a totally unique event.
It is important to note at this point that this article will not even attempt to describe the many sightseeing wonders of Iceland that I partook in during my time there (with the exception of the one music-related excursion to the Blue Lagoon). For one, it would take an additional feature length piece to adequately describe the wonders on display; and two, I'll leave that type of writing for the folks at Fodor's to handle, as you came to Indieworkshop for the Rock, didn't you? So let's get to it.
On Wednesday (the opening night), only four of the six Festival venues hosted shows, which made choosing bands ultra easy and allowed some extra leeway to learn the ins and outs of Reykjavik's 101 area. I decided to spend a majority of the night at a pub called Grand Rokk, where I was pleasantly surprised by most of what I saw from an almost all-Icelandic lineup. The opening act had a killer name, Vaginas, but their sloppy Rock and Roll sound didn't do the name justice. The next act up was a group of young Icelanders by the name of Benny Crespo's Gang that had the tight sound and drumming of Demure-era Engine Down and combined that quite nicely with a dancy keyboard riff or two and male/female trade-off vocals.
The Foghorns followed up next with an equally impressive set, although the musical differences between the two acts couldn't have been greater. Where the Gang went for noisy rock and aggression, the Foghorns were a Dylan-esque singer/songwriter by the name of Bart Cameron being backed up by a percussionist playing a steel bucket. The members of the Foghorns are Americans that live in Reykjavik, and just happen to run the alternative English weekly, Grapevine, but I didn't know these facts while watching them and they were listed in the Airwaves magazine as an Icelandic band so the singer's American accent was more than a little jarring.
The Foghorns were quickly followed by Vax, a terrible band that mixed (if you can believe it) sounds from Smashmouth, Tom Waits, and Nirvana into one horrendous cacophony. One of the bands I had been looking forward to seeing at the Festival, Benni Hemm Hemm, were up next and they did not disappoint. They filled the stage with at least ten people, bringing to mind Architecture in Helsinki, a band that would be gracing the Festival on Friday night. Benni Hemm Hemm's sound and aesthetic is very similar to many of the Elephant Six bands, quirky singer with tasteful backing, but where they differ is in their predominantly Brass Band backing. They have been described as Big Band Folk and that description says it all. Their set was a highlight for me, and I was feeling so pleased by Benni Hemm Hemm, that I could care less about Norwegian pop superstar Annie's bubblegum dance-rock as I watched her close Wednesday night's festivities at cross-town venue, Nasa.
By Thursday night I was already more familiar with downtown Reykjavik, so I spent the evening navigating my way between three venues, starting at the Reykjavik Art Museum, Hafnarhusidth, by catching the end of Skatar's set. I didn't catch much of Skatar, but what I did see kind of reminded me of a more experimental and noisy Clinic, although that perception was probably influenced by the fact that the band was dressed in white jumpsuits. Apparat Organ Quartet were up next, and their instrumental synth-fusion was just the perfect fit for such a stellar venue as the grand hall of an Art museum. Apparat's sound is a little hard to classify, but it would be safe to say that fans of Kraftwerk, Stereolab, and Medeski, Martin, and Wood could all enjoy what Apparat was putting down.
After Apparat finished up, I hightailed it over to Club Gaukurinn (probably the lamest of all the Airwaves venues, it had a real American Frat/Sports bar aesthetic) to catch some of the only all hip-hop show on the festival schedule, eager to get an earful of Icelandic hip-hop culture. I walked in at the very end of Twisted Minds Crew's set, and apparently I missed out on something great as people described them to me as being on par with any of America's finest underground hip-hop acts. I would get to see two Icelandic hip-hop acts, though, before the stage was taken over by Def Jux's The Perceptionists (the only non-Icelandic hip-hop group on the bill.) First up was Cell 7, a female MC who rapped entirely in English and had a penchant for every old school hip-hop cliché. She may of course be the only female MC in Iceland performing that style of hip-hop, so no disrespect was due, and in fact it was nice to see the positive side of hip-hop being embraced in a foreign land.
After Cell 7 came the duo Dori DNA and Daniel Deluxe, who looked respectively, like Houston "rapper" Paul Wall and a drunk Frat guy, and rapped entirely in Icelandic over heavy beats. I watched their set and tried to base my judgments solely on their delivery, style, and beat selection, since I couldn't understand their lyrics, although I had a sneaking suspicion I was witnessing the Icelandic version of Gangsta/Crunk hip-hop, based on their crowd interaction, shouting and gestures. When I had the chance to ask numerous locals with good music taste about the duo, my suspicions were confirmed, when one Icelander told me that "they rhyme only about their penises. They suck." I stuck around to see a couple Perceptionists tracks, mainly because I was curious to see how Mr. Lif and Akrobatik would go over with a predominantly Icelandic crowd. Suffice to say, they rocked it as hard as they ever do at home, and it was nice to see people recognizing a couple of America's best lyricists overseas, despite the language barrier (although Akro did learn how to count to four in Icelandic and proceeded to pump the crowd up by doing so at the beginning of a track.)
I finished off my night at the Reykjavik National Theatre (Thjodthleikhuskjallarin-that's a mouthful, huh?) with a surprising set by an Icelandic expat, now located in London, by the name of Eberg. He played both a traditional guitar and an instrument he invented called an eHarp, which is a wooden coat hanger outfitted with the strings and hardware from a guitar. The eHarp produces a tinny, eerie, sound, which blended perfectly with the Cello accompaniment one of his two British band members played. His vocals were mostly intense, combining mostly heartfelt lyrics with a couple jokey songs, as in his ode to toilet paper, "Love Your Bum."
Between my discovery of soon-to-be new favorites Benni Hemm Hemm, Apparat Organ Quartet and Eberg, and my witnessing Icelandic Gangsta rap firsthand, I can safely say that the first two days of Airwaves were clearly living up to my Rarity expectations.
In part two of my Iceland Airwaves experience, you will hear about Iceland's infamous Blue Lagoon, plus reviews of shows by Ampop, Thorir, The Zutons, Jeff Who?, Hjalmar, Architecture in Helsinki and the triumphant Airwaves closing set by Reykjavik weirdo dance legends Gus Gus.
- J Com | 2005-11-06