Conveniently located just 1300km from the UK, Iceland is about as remote as you can get without running into people en route to the North Pole.
With this geographic isolation, it’s impressive that Iceland Airwaves, a multi-location festival held every November in the capital Reykjavik, manages to be so international. This is not an event organized to help locals get through the cold and dark winter months, although we can confirm that it is both cold and dark (therefore very cold and therefore very dark). Bands from around the world play in venues and bars to audiences of a mix of curious locals and engaged tourists, and the surly punk of Amyl & The Sniffers is as well received as the hip-hop influenced by the trap of an 18 year old. Faroese rapper Marius DC.
Speaking of Amyl & The Sniffers, they headline Thursdays at the city’s main art gallery like they were born for it. Singer Amy Taylor tramples the stage, hit after hit, pausing between songs to compliment the quality of Icelandic tap water and the energy of the crowd. Two albums later, the band went from mule-clad punk debutants to something more nuanced. “I Got You” and “Balaclava” always make you want to take a brick to the head, but it’s on the new album “Guided By Angels” that everything really starts.
Hot on their heels are Icelandic hip-hop group Daughters of Reykjavik, a change seemingly made just to highlight just how eclectic the festival can be. Lyrical themes include feminism and motherhood, best summed up by the track “Hot Milf Summer” and the mimed ritual sacrifice of a man being pulled from the front of the crowd. Powerful and never entertaining, their set is easily one of the best of the whole weekend.
Location number two is in a converted old movie theater down the street, just past the hot dog stand Bill Clinton once visited (yes, really). Inside, Canadian collective Crack Cloud do their best to see how many people and instruments can fit on a stage. The harpist, in particular, must have struggled to get through customs, but the result was well worth the effort.
Kicking off day two with a bang, the Kóboykex are the Faroese cowboys you never knew you needed in your life. Lone Rangers of the Faroese Meadow (a place we’re guessing is just south of the Salmon Fishery), they’re exactly the kind of side-booking every festival should do, based on their colorful cowboy costumes alone assorted pastels.
From eclectic to massive, Metronomy draws by far the biggest crowd at the festival, with a line that winds its way so far it’s a wonder people don’t give up and opt for a hot dog instead. Inside, the crowd is a mass of jumping members, especially as the band tap into their catalog for the timeless megahit “The Look.” It’s not all nostalgia though, with outtakes from the new album ‘Small World’ causing nearly as much movement as the classics.
Lo-fi alternative pop from America’s Deep South greets the weary on the final day of the festival, with certified online sensation Yot Club masterfully translating internet fame into riveting live music.
The main room doesn’t stay quiet for very long though, with Ukrainian quasi-Eurovisioners Go_A whipping up a frenzy as soon as they take the stage. Booked to perform at Eurovision in 2020 before it was cancelled, their set is exactly the kind of over-the-top bombshell that thrives in the song contest. Luckily, that energy carries over to Iceland as well, and the crowd alternates between sweaty mosh-pits during the songs and heartfelt cheers in between as Go_A mocks Russia as a “terrorist state.” True to their message, information on how to donate to Ukrainian humanitarian causes is prominently displayed on every outing.
Friends of Porridge Radio magazine, Mercury Prize nominees, are as follows. Cuts from the new album “Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder to the Sky” jostle against well-worn favorites from their debut, but the mood is soulful, expressive and at times incredibly poignant.
In a similar vein, headliner Arlo Parks’ final set, especially as she stops to tell the crowd that tonight is her last show of the year. The sentiment is more of a wistful farewell than a celebratory celebration, but it’s no small feat to make a cavernous show on the main stage feel as beautifully intimate as Arlo does throughout.
Instead of chilling out after the headliner wraps up, it feels like the whole of Iceland is cramming into Húrra, a ramshackle bar hosting Icelandic pop/dance band Inspector Spacetime. There’s no light show and barely a stage, but the whole venue is dancing like it’s 3 a.m. at Fabric on a Friday night. Their track “Dansa og Bánsa” in particular is so catchy that we’re pretty sure people were still humming it on the flight home.
Iceland Airwaves takes place in a land with geothermal springs, active volcanoes and the Northern Lights. Despite this, it’s the music that’s the real draw of a showcase festival that’s as fun as it is genre-defying. Sure, booze is more expensive than most townhouses, but the lineup is great, the people are friendly, and the hot dogs are really, really, really good.
Dates for Iceland Airwaves 2023 have been announced, with the festival returning to Reykjavik from November 2-4. Limited Super Early Bird tickets for 2023 are also available here.