Keeping a finger on the pulse

Iceland Airwaves 2018 by Jeff Obermeyer

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I still remember our first Iceland Airwaves like it was yesterday. My wife and I landed at Keflavík in darkness after an overnight flight from Seattle, and when we stepped outside to board the bus to Reykjavík, we were greeted with rain attacking us at a 45-degree angle as the wind blew in off the Atlantic, half-soaking us before we could scramble on board. Welcome to Iceland in October!

That was in 2009, and we’ve been back for every Airwaves since.

Over the years, we’ve approached Airwaves in many different ways. We’ve rented cars so we could go do touristy stuff; we’ve done enough record shopping to get us on a first-name basis with more than one shop owner; and we’ve made a tradition of soaking at the Blue Lagoon on Sundays. But at the end of the day, Airwaves is about the music, and one of the things we’ve learned is that the festival is a lot more fun if we do some homework beforehand and develop a list of artists we want to see. Catching all the performances in a given year is pretty much an impossibility, so you can keep a certain amount of focus by looking over the schedule. Five days may seem like a lot of time, but you shouldn’t take it for granted, because you may find yourself staring at the schedule at the last minute and realizing that the two bands you absolutely have to see are each only playing one more set at the exact same time on separate ends of town! Trust me, it’s a real bummer when this happens.

With that in mind, it’s never too early to start looking over the line-up of artists. As of early June, 122 bands have been named for Airwaves 2018, and it is a great mix of scene veterans and newcomers. So, to help you get started on planning your festival, here are 10 acts that should be on your list.

The Veterans

A surprising number of artists have been playing at Airwaves for a decade or more. Some may have skipped a year here or there, but they’ve been on the roster frequently enough that seeing them is like going to see a long-time friend – someone with whom you share a lot and remain close to even though you don’t talk all that often. All but one of the performers below played at our first Airwaves in 2009, and they’re all still going strong.

Agent Fresco at Kex Hostel (Iceland Airwaves 2015) by Jeff Obermeyer
Agent Fresco at Kex Hostel (Iceland Airwaves 2015) by Jeff Obermeyer

Agent Fresco: It wouldn’t be Airwaves without Agent Fresco. Although they have released only two full-length albums over the last decade, everything that they’ve recorded is powerful. Few bands have the ability to emotionally control a venue that these four do, pouring out their passion and emotionally exposing themselves completely and unapologetically. They are supremely talented – vocalist Arnór Dan Arnarson is in high demand, seemingly appearing on a new project every month or two, and none other than Dave Grohl called drummer Hrafnkell ‘Kelli’ Örn Guðjónsson the ‘best drummer in the f*cking world’ (it’s on YouTube! – you can look it up). No matter what kind of music you like, you need to see Agent Fresco.

Berndsen at Hressó (Iceland Airwaves 2011) by Jeff Obermeyer
Berndsen at Hressó (Iceland Airwaves 2011) by Jeff Obermeyer

Berndsen: If you’ve never seen the video for Berndsen’s ‘Lover in the Dark’, I want you to put down this magazine and go watch it right now. It’s okay; I’ll wait.

That was amazing, right? Berndsen has been serving up his brand of dark and dreamy synth-pop for a decade, and he just keeps getting better and better. Whether you see him in a small club or in a larger venue, I promise, you’ll get caught up in his world and feel compelled to sing along even if you don’t know the words. Watch out, though, because the big redhead has been known to take off his shirt occasionally, so keep that in mind if you’re in the front row. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Mammút: Mammút’s latest album, Kinder Versions, won Rock Album of the Year at the most recent Icelandic Music Awards, and its predecessor, Komdu til mín svarta systir, won Album of the Year for 2013. That is some pretty high – and well-deserved – praise. I fell in love with Kata Mogensen’s voice the first time I saw the band perform in 2010, and the intervening years have seen her singing evolve; she is no longer reliant on pure power alone. Mammút’s live performances have a certain tension and an infectious and barely tamed energy that make them mesmerizing.

Sykur at Slippbarinn (Iceland Airwaves 2014) by Jeff Obermeyer
Sykur at Slippbarinn (Iceland Airwaves 2014) by Jeff Obermeyer

: Sykur hasn’t put out an album since 2011, but earlier this year, they did drop a new single called ‘Loving None’, and it’s a synth-driven burner! Whether on stage or down in the crowd with the fans, vocalist Agnes Björt Andradóttir is a captivating force of nature. Their songs run the gamut from old-school crooning to chiptune to hip-hop. You never know what you’re going to get from one tune to the next. Their diversity keeps their performances fresh, especially in the more intimate setting of a smaller venue.

Vök: The first time we saw Vök perform wasn’t at Airwaves but at an anti-bullying fundraiser show at Faktorý in April 2013 – the same year they won Músíktilraunir, the prestigious annual battle of the bands. Back then, opening for Prins Póló and FM Belfast, they were incredibly shy on stage, but today their stage presence is tremendous. Vök’s brand of downtempo simmers from the stage with a blend of icy cold synths and warm, soulful vocals that are guaranteed to give you goosebumps.

The Up-and-Comers

There is a ton of young talent in Iceland, and Airwaves provides an opportunity for them to showcase their music. For many, it will be their first chance to play in front of an international audience, including members of the music media. It is exciting and inspiring to see the energy they bring to these shows.

Floni: Not yet 20 years old, Floni already has some hits on his hands in his home country. With heavily modulated vocals over electro trap-style hi hats, his club-centric sound is intriguing and guaranteed to get you swaying.

Hatari at Gamla Bíó (Iceland Airwaves 2017)  by Jeff Obermeyer
Hatari at Gamla Bíó (Iceland Airwaves 2017) by Jeff Obermeyer

Hatari: I classify Hatari as up-and-comers with some hesitation, as 2018 will be their third Airwaves. But with only one EP to their credit (2017’s Neysluvara), they are still relatively new and obscure outside of Iceland. Their live performances are real productions, where the members dress in fascist bondage gear as they pump out dark and forceful IDM. Regardless of what you think of their music (and I, for one, love it), the live show is worth checking out for the pure spectacle of it alone. Hatari is definitely a can’t-miss.

Hórmónar: We first encountered Hórmónar at Airwaves 2016 – the same year they won Músíktilraunir. The band we saw that night at Húrra was a bit self-conscious, but the amount of fun they were having rocking out was infectious. We saw them again last year, and what a difference a year made! These women hit the stage like a heavy metal gang intent on blowing the back wall out of the Reykjavík Art Museum, and they almost succeeded. Hórmónar is the best pure hard rock band in Iceland.

Une Misere at Gamla Bíó (Iceland Airwaves 2017) by Jeff Obermeyer
Une Misere at Gamla Bíó (Iceland Airwaves 2017) by Jeff Obermeyer

Une Misère: Their brand of in-your-face power-violence needs to be experienced live – that is, if you’re up to the challenge of their sonic assault! Their live show is like ramming your head into a wall over and over again… and loving the feeling of it!

Warmland: Individually, neither Arnar Guðjónsson nor Hrafn Thoroddsen are new to the Icelandic music scene, but their recent pairing has yielded some pretty fantastic electro-lounge-pop tunes. I definitely want to hear more from this duo.

The schedule is already filling up with amazing Icelandic talent, so you’ll be sure to find a lot to like, and probably even some things to love, come November.

Words by Jeff Obermeyer

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