Back on the Airwaves: Icelandic hip hop and Irish interest in Reykjavik

Explosive sets by John Hopkins and Villagers stand out at Iceland’s Airwaves


For those given to flying to music festivals, Airwaves is fast becoming an essential destination. It’s easy to see why. On the main festival front, 11 venues offer top Icelandic and international acts from 7pm to 4am, starting on a Wednesday and wrapping up on Sunday.

The waterfront Harpa concert hall is the shining jewel in Iceland’s cultural crown, a €170 million centre designed by artist Olafur Eliasson. Inside it’s an outstanding, overwhelming space, and the exterior is clad in geometric glass panels that flicker and shimmer from colour to colour.

Several dozen smaller spaces offer a sprawling off-venue roster that becomes an exercise in strategic musical planning. Missed John Grant in Harpa on Friday? Not to worry: he’ll pop up in a hostel on Saturday. Couldn’t get into Mum’s gig in a church? Scan the lists and see if there are a few solo shows in one of the city’s bars.

Icelandic hip hop is as good a place to start as any. Cell7 sounds like she has rolled up fresh from a 1990s NYC block party. Her debut solo album is imminent, and should be worth the wait.

Original Melody are among the hip-hop highlights of Airwaves. It’s hard to believe they aren’t from Brooklyn or Detroit: their flow and delivery is whip tight, the intelligence of the hooks and the beats is matched by lyrics that are savvy to the genre’s cliches. A cracking set.

Vök are getting plenty of local attention, and it’s easy to appreciate the appeal of their xx-style shimmering soundscapes. Here, though, it sounds a too close for comfort to the wealth of acts that have made that London sound their own.

Much more challenging is AMFJ, who builds up walls of noise and distorted vocal loops with a furious energy and purpose. At times, this feels less like a gig than a piece of performance art, and what it lacks in agility and dynamics, it makes up for in volume and violence. AMFJ is certainly niche, and impenetrable in places, but it leaves no prisoners.

Jagwar Ma come from Australia, but live they sound like the logical conclusion and development of the Manchester scene, all swaggering wide-boy beats and Hacienda-style singalongs. Their Thursday set night turns the Reykjavik Art Museum into something approaching an old-school warehouse rave.

Any record companies looking for lucrative Icelandic musical exports will have been intrigued by Valdimar. The six-piece are critically acclaimed and commercially successful in their home country, and it’s easy to see why. At an off-festival gig at the Kex hostel, Valdimar Guðmundsson’s terrific vocals are brought to the fore, honey-toned but with rough edges. Bolstered by a brass section for a later gig in the Reykjavik Art Museum, the band step things up in scale and stagecraft. These are well written, hummable tracks from a band with potential.

On Friday night, most of the talk of the town is about Mum’s show in the beautiful Frikirkjan church. Those who manage to squeeze in the doors and into the packed pews are treated to a lush, lengthy show, which fills the sacred space with lush vocals and elegant electronica.

Over in Harpa, another local hero is showing his calibre. John Grant has adopted Iceland as his home, and here he does full dramatic justice to his talents as a songwriter and performer. Repeating his Other Voices trick of bringing Conor O’Brien on stage for a stirring version of Glaciar is a classy move in a set filled with sublime moments.

Irish contingent
The Irish representation at Airwaves is largely down to the Young Hearts Run Free collective, who present two off-venue showcases of Irish music. On Friday, Lucky Records hosts The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock, Adrian Crowley, Dónal Lunny, and Katie Kim for a strong show in an Icelandic musical institution. On Saturday, the action moves to Volcano café, with Conor O’Brien and John Grant joining the line-up.

These exquisite sets are capped by most of the musicians taking to the stage for Brown Eyes and a terrific Raglan Road with Young Hearts’ Siobhán Kane. This is an embarrassment of vocal riches, and a pleasure to witness.

Villagers are the only Irish act with a slot on the main roster, and have prime real estate on Friday night in Gamla Bíó. The all-seated theatre’s muddy sound doesn’t smother the energy and the attack in the band’s set-up. They go at the set like it’s a summer festival. The Waves is an explosive highlight, and they get a rousing reception from an enthusiastic crowd.

The art of electro
The festival reaches fever pitch on Saturday night, with the Art Museum turning into something of an electro stage. Ghostigital hone their dark, sharp set of dub and electro to intense effect, before Mykki Blanco rips in with a brilliant set of chaotic dance music that threatens to rip the roof off – setting things up nicely for Gold Panda and Savages to see out the night. There is a queue around the block for these two; even Björk pops along.

Back in the calmer Gamla Bíó, Sóley is charming a crowd with her distinctive, crafted music. It’s elegant, cinematic and cultured. Midlake’s polished Americana takes advantage of the excellent sound in Harpa’s Silfurberg hall.

Shortly afterwards comes perhaps the most anticipated set of the weekend, and it doesn’t disappoint. At this year’s Body and Soul, Jon Hopkins delivered one of finest performances of the Irish festival season. Here he kicks it up another level. Opening up with tracks from his latest album, Immunity, he uses his intricate samples and sounds as a template for a stunning, cutting-edge electro exploration. There are no longueurs in this set, which builds throughout, and just when the crowd thinks Hopkins has reached a peak, he flicks a wrist, pops a fader and unleashes another flood of bass and beats. Right now, Hopkins is the best live solo electro act out there. This gig alone would be worth the trip.

Closing the Saturday night set are local heroes FM Belfast. The music might be on the cheesy side of electro pop, but they know how to put on a show, and the packed hall is rolling from the opening notes, powered by the energy being pumped from the stage.

From there it’s a short stroll back into the packed bars and clubs seeing out the last of Airwaves, while trying to save a little energy for Kraftwerk’s closing concert on Sunday, and the last outpost of Irish music in Airwaves – a Drop Everything party headlined by Daithí.

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