I’ve never quite understood why photos of set lists are so popular. But any time I get close enough to the stage or soundboard to get a shot of one, I feel compelled to take a photo. Maybe the urge is universal?
When the Sigur Rós show ended, I drifted like a dust mote, following the crowd of thousands walking back to the 101. Outside, everyone stopped to stare at the sky. The Northern lights danced as a meteor shower sent dozens of shining white falling stars through the green waves.
No. That didn’t really happen. But it should have. It would have been more fitting and less incongruent than the stream of pedestrians flowing down Laugavegur, chatting inanely. Walking alone with a mind like a blown transformer, I picked up bits of conversations that clusters of people dropped as they passed by me.
“Excuse me, are you from Iceland? What did he say that one time when he talked?”
“Oh, he said, ‘This is a new song. So don’t be surprised if we fuck it up.”
“Do you think we should stop at the Blue Lagoon on the way back to the airport tomorrow?”
“I don’t know, what time would we need to catch a shuttle? Do you think the hotel can arrange it for us?”
“Yeah, but we’ll probably have to go ahead. The rest of the guys don’t seem to be willing to get up early for anything.”
“Did you hear that one time when his voice went up really high, and then it changed and almost disappeared and went even higher? Was that on purpose?”
“Oh look, Chinese food. Do you want to stop? I’m starving.”
“No, let’s hold out for hot dogs. There’s got to be a stand somewhere on the way back. I want one more Icelandic hot dog before I go home.”
“Yeah, I heard them mess up that one time. But I don’t care, man. It’s fucking Sigur Rós. They’re still awesome.”
Although Sigur Rós were the festival headliners, there were still more shows on the schedule, and two of them were bands I really liked: Skálmöld and Momentum. Before the concert, I couldn’t decide if I would go to the post-Sigur Rós shows. Sigur Rós was the kind show that you want to end on, and I had already seen both bands. But they were both so good, and who knew when I’d get another chance. I never really made the decision; I just kept walking past the hostel.
With my blistered feet and aggravated ankle, it took me almost an hour to walk from the stadium to the bar where Skálmöld were playing, and when I got there they were already on stage. This little pub show was quite a contrast from the big stage show at Harpa, but if anything, Skálmöld seemed to be even more at home here. Their show at Harpa could have roused the Viking hordes to battle, but tonight it was drinking beer among brothers along the benches in the great hall, and it was perfect for evaporating the lonesome feeling.
I got right up front because I could, took a few photos, and lost my lens cap. Pretty soon my feet gave out, and with a slight sense of shame, I took a seat at a table in the back, and put my swollen foot up on another chair. The off-venue set was shorter than the one at Harpa, and I had missed the beginning, so it ended all too soon.
I struck up a conversation with the woman next to me, who, it turned out, had bailed on the Sigur Rós concert at 8:00. I found myself walking a fine line as I tried to express sympathy for her view that bands shouldn’t leave fans waiting an hour after showtime without so much as a roadie saying, “Sorry folks, we’re a bit delayed,” (an opinion I do share) while still impressing upon her the magnitude of her mistake in giving up on one of the best shows I’d ever seen.
While the guys from Skálmöld hung out in the crowd, another band took the stage. I recognized the bass player from Agent Fresco on keys. They were nothing like Momentum, and not much like Agent Fresco, but they were as fun as Skálmöld, in an indie, punk kind of way. They would have made a great double bill with Reykjavík!. It was a bummer to have to sit through a show that really demanded jumping around, but I enjoyed being able to see above the roiling crowd. When they finished, I looked them up while waiting for Momentum. The band was Ultra Mega Technobandið Stefán, and they were the last show on the schedule. Staff began cleaning up the bar just as I saw on the schedule that Momentum had just finished their show across the street at Amsterdam. I reminded myself of my promise not to regret missing a show when the one I did see was good. Tired, sore and From Finner happy, I hobbled down the stairs to the street.
Airwaves 12 was over. Without even realizing it, I had watched the last show of the festival, accidentally missing a band that I loved, but discovering another cool one in the process. Somehow, that seemed fitting.
Standing by myself on a freezing street corner in downtown Reykjavík at 1 o’clock on a Monday morning felt pretty lonely. And I felt something else I hadn’t really felt in a while – hungry. For most of the trip, I’d loaded up on skyr for breakfast and, between excitement and busy schedule, usually forgotten to eat the rest of the day. But now I was starving and remembered that I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast Sunday except a piece of apple cake at the coffee shop at the Ylja show twelve hours earlier.
I looked up. Across the street, a hot dog stand was bustling. Tired, hungry, and slightly nihilistic, I thought, “What the fuck,” and joined the queue.
“One with everything, please.”
As the man behind the window spread mayonnaise, mustard, and crispy onion bits on my dog, I asked, “So what kind of animal is an Icelandic hot dog?”
“Beef, lamb, and pork.”
“Oh. Well, I guess if you’re going to break 20 years as a vegetarian, you might as well eat all the animals.”
A chorus of approval from the line behind me assured me the Icelandic hot dog was the meat to fall off the wagon for.
Eating as I walked, I tried to figure out what the big deal was. It tasted just like the Oscar Mayer hot dogs I remembered from childhood. Feeling a little queasy, I crawled into my bunk at the hostel and dreamed of shooting stars.
*Note: I found this photo of the actual hot dog stand where I fell off the wagon here, where I also discovered that the hot dog I ate was a meal called brinner.
After listening to far too many wonderful sets while staring at walls or other people’s backs, I determined to stake out a venue for the evening. I would have to pass on some of the shows I really wanted to see, but was certain to discover a couple of new things in return. And besides, it was physically difficult to walk outside in winds so fierce that (foreign) people were starting to whisper the word “hurricane” doubtfully to each other.
I settled on Harpa, the exquisite glass sculpture of a building on the waterfront that houses at least three different performance spaces, and hosted the greatest number of acts I wanted to catch on Thursday night.
First up: The Heavy Experience. These guys were not originally on my list, but I’m so glad we bumped into each other. Mesmerizing stoner without the rock; doom without the metal; as promised by their name, an adulterated heavy experience. Such pure heaviness could easily have become gimmicky and unoriginal. Replacing vocals with saxophone was an effective choice that made this heavy experience (see what I did there?) unique.
Next on the lineup was Skálmöld. Strictly speaking, I was not in love with their music. Their first album was an enjoyable listen, but the primary interest for me was their approach to the concept of folk-metal. Where other bands use folksy melodies or assorted traditional instruments to evoke tradition, Skálmöld actually follows tradition. They produce concept albums according to the traditional rules of Icelandic poetry, resulting in new sagas set to heavy music. Falling short of Korpiklaani’s costumery, they’re not afraid to show their Viking pride, and work that angle pretty heavily in the music and performance. Like The Heavy Experience, it’s an idea that could go pretty badly in the wrong hands, but Skálmöld was made for the job.
Shamelessly strutting their power-metal stage moves, Skálmöld brought the famously reserved Icelandic crowd to a fever pitch of Viking solidarity with only the tiniest wink to reassure us that it’s all just in good fun. I came in curious, and came out convinced. Skálmöld put on one of the most fun shows I’ve ever seen.
Sólstafir, Of Monsters and Men, and Sigur Rós; these three bands are the reason I’m here. But when the time came for Sólstafir’s show, I was a little concerned that their slower pace and more mental compositions wouldn’t hold up after the drinking horn-waving Viking fraternity party of Skálmöld.
They did. Sólstafir sauntered onstage like a band of Spaghetti Western outlaws. Aðalbjörn Tryggvason (Addi) addressed the crowd with a gravel-throated growl that had people raising their hands in the air and dropping their wallets on the ground, but he sang with an anguished cry that transformed the bandido into an anti-hero worthy of The Man With No Name. Live music really doesn’t get any better than this.
HAM! The Icelandic version of Swans, HAM is the old guard of abrasive, experimental music. Unless you’re from Iceland, you probably haven’t heard of them, but every single band from Iceland today, regardless of musical style, is copying HAM in some way. Especially since Swans had to cancel (thanks Sandy), I was looking forward to HAM, and they didn’t disappoint. Watching them was like a music history lesson, as I began to see where Addi got his showmanship, where Kontinuumgot a lot of things, and where the Icelandic tradition of mixing musical metaphors got its start. Unfortunately, after Skálmöld and Sólstafir, I was all emotioned out, and couldn’t really get into HAM as much as the performance deserved. I might have been alone in that though, as all around me teenage boys sang along and an amateur mosh-pit broke out behind me. Clearly these guys are the granddaddies of Icelandic rock.
I was wiped out. My camera battery was dead, my cell phone battery was dead, and so were my backup batteries. There was an hour to kill before Of Monsters and Men, and I almost just called it a night. But I knew that after a good night’s sleep I would forget how tired I had been, and spend the rest of my life kicking myself for going all the way to Iceland and skipping OMAM. So I stuck it out, and I’m glad I did.
OMAM have come a long way since I saw them in Seattle a week before their full-length debut album came out. In all honesty, the Seattle show was better, and not just because I was so tired that night in Reykjavík. I think that they were tired too. After more than six months of nonstop touring, both Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and co-singer/guitarist Ragnar “Raggi” Þórhallsson sounded on the verge of losing their voices. There was less energy on the stage than when I saw them at the outset of their first world tour, but the audience was more than willing to make up the difference. When the first big musical swell was joined by an explosion of lights and glitter, the cheer that went up from every throat was involuntary. No matter how commercially palatable OMAM’s songs are, they are still emotionally powerful, and I found myself near tears several times during the set.
Thursday night was going to be hard to beat.