Iceland Airwaves 2013

As a returning Airwaves attendee, I had some idea of what to expect from the festival: late nights spent bar hopping between venues, stumbling upon countless new bands, meeting and making friends from all over the world and of course, taking a shot of Brennivin (or two) along the way.

But then again, that could really apply to any music festival. What sets Airwaves apart from other festivals is that the entire event is a citywide – and to some extent a countywide – affair. Coffee shops, retail stores and even the city bus station transform into venues. Even the smallest spaces, such as a tiny record store on Hverfisgata or a cluttered café of Skólavörðustígur, host small acts, lending a personal, intimate vibe to the festival overall.

The impromptu headliner of this year’s festival was German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk, setting the tone for the rest of the festival. Electronic and experimental artists from across the globe were represented, and notable names including Danish artist MØ, UK DJ Gold Panda and English duo Aluna George.

The festival began with a bang on Wednesday night in Harpa Norðurljós. Three Icelandic powerhouse acts performed one after another, which made for a raucous dance party all night long. First up was Icelandic music scene veterans MAMMÚT. Band front woman Kata is a mesmerizing performer, and threw herself around the stage. Part of the reason the band was so engaging to watch was because her behaviour was so unpredictable – she would clench her fists, whip her hair and then shoot her hands into the air, grasping at some unseen object. The band performed with fierce passion and a fiery intensity, and prepped the crowd for yet another favourite in the Icelandic music scene, Retro Stefson. Always the charismatic frontman, Logi Pedro Stefánsson strutted around on stage, encouraging the crowd to dance, sing along and otherwise get in on all the action. The band describes their sound simply as ‘dance music,’ and their entire set was loud, infectious and pure fun.

The night ended with FM Belfast, local favourites who have reached international stardom. The band truly performed as much as they actually sang, and they punctuated their songs by throwing streamers and shooting confetti into the crowd. Band members (and some festival-goers!) even took the opportunity to strip down during their song ‘Underwear,’ and pranced proudly around on stage, singing in no more than their boxers. 

Other standout acts included Omar Souleyman, a Syrian pop artist. Festival-goers packed the Harpa Silfurberg room for an explosion of Syrian folk songs with a poppy, electronica twist. Needless to say, the set turned into one giant dance party as people moved to the pounding, rhythmic beats. After the set ended and the crowd began to disperse, there was a general air of pleasant surprise and delightful curiosity – people weren’t totally sure what to think, but they liked what they heard.  Syria is a long way from Iceland culturally, musically and geographically, but based on Souleyman’s show, it wouldn’t be surprising if Icelanders develop a sudden, intense craving for Middle Eastern music. 

Far from the pounding beats and flashing lights of Souleyman’s set, Icelandic band múm put on a quaint and intimate show at Frikirkijan. People began lining up more than hour before the band was slated to begin, and the line quickly snaked around the building despite the bitter, whipping wind. The 200-year-old church could not have been a more perfect backdrop for the band’s, glitchy, abstract sound. Incense and candles burned as the band played, and the entire show felt more like a soothing meditative experience rather than a concert.

After five days of music, drinking and overall debauchery, Airwaves was as exhausting as it is exhilarating. With so much music happening all at once, the festival is a sensory-overload of sights, sounds and experiences. It’s a wholly addicting and enthralling experience, and 2014 promises to be even better.  

Words: Kirsten O'Brien
Photography: Paula Prats