Iceland Airwaves is rightly known as one of the premier indie music festivals in Europe (the world?). So I’m not sure how I managed to spend two days at such a kick-ass metal festival. But I did. Thursday and Friday of my festival consisted mostly of metal bands, with some very notable exceptions.
After Sólstafir’s performance at KEX changed my life, I moved on to Svartidauði at Amsterdam. There I ran into Guðmundur, Sólstafir’s drummer. He described the KEX set as, “Kind of cool. It was different.” A profound experience for one person can be experienced as a short performance in a small space with too-bright lights and a lukewarm audience by another. It is one of the great mysteries of life.
The only Airwaves band with their own display at the National Museum
Svartidauði is one of the few Icelandic black metal bands that still play black metal. Even they follow the Icelandic custom of drawing heavily from other genres, which might explain why I find them interesting when so much black metal bores me. Another reason, I think, may be that Svartidauði’s version of black metal theatrics is much more palatable than many bands. Lots of smoke and black head-coverings are about the extent of it.
Photo of Svartidaudi by Guðmundur Óli Pálmason
I really wanted to just plant myself at Amsterdam for metal night, but Valgeir Sigurðsson was playing at Iðno, and missing his show was not an option. So with a twinge of regret, I walked away from Atrum to the Bedroom Community showcase.
Either I had read the schedule wrong, or they were running behind, because I arrived just in time for Paul Corley’s performance. Corley is the newest addition to the Bedroom Community label, and that’s just about all I knew about him before the show. His music was very consistent with the Bedroom Community aesthetic, and like so much of the art I found in Iceland, it really got me thinking. I have no idea what the music was actually about, but this performance had me thinking about geology. In particular, the geology of Iceland, and how it rest on the spot where the earth is growing; how that runs so counter to our usual perception of the earth as solid, stable, and permanent. I also pondered the way that Iceland is such a small, finite space, yet has a great expansive feeling because of its mostly flat, barren landscape. It seemed like a lot Icelandic music reflects that instability and expansiveness in different ways, as well as celebrating the beauty in ugliness/dissonance. But I don’t know, maybe they were love songs.
Valgeir Sigurðsson performed Architecture of Loss with Nadia Sirota and Shahzad Ismaily and someone else who was hidden almost off-stage. I won’t talk about the piece here, because Valgeir himself does that in an interview that will be posted on Three Imaginary Girls soon. I was surprised to see that beside the piano, viola, keyboards and electronics, something like looked like a propane gas tank was also part of the score. Who writes a few bars of music for viola and then thinks, “What this piece needs is a propane tank?” I am constantly in awe of people whose minds can process sound in such an unlimited way. Like Paul Corley before him, Valgeir never acknowledged the audience during the performance, concentrating on the music like a surgeon until the very end. With the last notes, he looked up at Nadia, and a smile passed between them. Valgeir’s posture softened, and the four of them lined up to bow together like a theater troupe.
After dinner at the Laundromat Café, I returned to Amsterdam for Angist. I knew I liked their album, but in an interview a week earlier, Gyða herself had mentioned that hard work in the studio could mask a poor performance; and I had read that “confidence” was an issue for the band in the past. Their new drummer Tumi was credited with correcting that problem, but I was still unsure what to expect. That was dumb. Angist was solid, stick-to-your-ribs death metal on stage. Gyða and Edda owned the stage like old-fashioned rock stars. They never flinched, even when a “fan” too drunk to stand without the assistance of the rail flicked beer at them. Heads banging and hair flying, the two of them exchanged grins that showed they were having as much fun as the audience. Haraldur played bass with steazy nonchalance while Tumi held it all together in the back.
Determined to listen to something indie at Airwaves, I raced down to the waterfront to catch Exit Music. Their show got off to a late start, so I couldn’t stay to the end, but I saw enough to know that Aleksa Palladino’s voice is really as amazing as it sounds on the recording. It was a shame to leave in the middle of that lush set, but Beneath was playing their only set back at Amsterdam, and I had sworn to catch a show by every band that I interviewed.
After all the experimentation, the straightforward death metal of Beneath was refreshing. Gísli prowled the stage with classic metal moves while the rest of the band served up blistering death metal with just enough impurities to keep it interesting. Even when they are purists, Icelandic musicians can’t help but do things with a twist, and Beneath were no exception, standing out from the pack with strong songwriting and relentless drums.
Watching them on video, you would never have known that Angist and Beneath were playing to a half-full bar where most of the crowd stood with arms crossed and heads nodding, and a few drunks tried to mosh without putting down their pint glasses first. Both brought their A game and put on arena-worthy shows.
After Beneath, I popped across the street to the Deutsche Bar for Reykjavík! I had no idea what I was in for. This indie-rock outfit writes pop songs, but in their hearts they are punks. Iceland’s metalheads should go to a few Reykjavík! shows to learn how a real pit works. In my many years, I have seen very few pits as frenzied and joyous as this one. Standing on the barrier, hanging from the rafters, crowd surfing while the tech fed microphone cord into the pit, Reykjavík!’s lead singer didn’t need lasers or a light show to work the crowd.
I’ve often wondered why punk music and punk people seem so different from each other. All of my punk friends have been gentle souls who profess and practice a nonviolent lifestyle of love for all (with a healthy dose of fuck you attitude, but they are just not haters). Meanwhile, punk music is usually aggressive and angry. Maybe it’s because they’re not really punks, but Reykjavík!’s show was all love. Their mosh pit was an orgy without the sordid connotations, and ended with hugs and kisses for all. Sweaty and bruised, I returned to Amsterdam with a smile on my face, a song in my heart, and tinnitus in my ears.
The final show for the night was Gone Postal, an atmospheric stoner/doom band with the twist of black metal vocals. Like Svartidauði, they want to give their audience a show, but do it in an understated, Icelandic way. A tiki mask on the stage held burning sticks of incense that actually went a long way to changing the energy of the venue. After Angist and Beneath, one couldn’t help but notice that their fingers didn’t move much on the necks of their guitars, but the band was quite effective in creating atmosphere. It was kind of shocking to see such carefully crafted, vile music coming from such youthful musicians. In another time, and on another web page, I will write about the interview that followed their performance.