Unlike many of the other venues – including Deutsche Bar across the road – there is no queue at Amsterdam for the first night of Airwaves, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the place to be. An extremely mixed, inclusive line-up is this reviewer’s first ever experience of the festival.
Þoka provide a smooth, jazzy start to Airwaves at Amsterdam, incongruous in a venue with metal guitar battle imagery on the wall behind the stage. The band is a vehicle for dusky voiced singer Agnes Björgvinsdóttir, backed by two seated musicians. It’s an extremely emotional performance and although this reviewer cannot understand the Icelandic words, it’s clear they have strong personal meaning. “This is an emotional jerkoff – enjoy” says Agnes before one song, showing self awareness of the overwrought nature of some of the material. The performance moves uncertainly between sultry and powerful, her voice between breathy and pure – and is at its best during the latter. Some of the songs sound very similar to each other – so it’s lucky that it’s a good song.
It’s a night of confounded expectations. Funk That Shit! are three clean cut lads that you’d expect to be playing something more limp and introspective than what they bring: taut and funky goodtimes. The exclamation mark is important – they are full of confidence and humour, with a charismatic bassist and a contained and equally skilled lead guitarist. Some of the songs (all instrumentals, none of them particularly memorable but all deeply funky) are like theme tunes to lost 70s TV Shows. If you had this music accompanying your life at all times you would be able to perform dexterous moves in your car and seduce effortlessly.
Who let their Dad onstage? Hinir Guðdómlegu Neanderdalsmenn (The Divine Neanderthals) are what would happen if stone age man discovered the Marshall Amp. The guys are from Keflavík, playing country-tinged rock like it’s like a stonking night in a rural bar and they’re the particularly good house band. One track begins worryingly slow and chugging but a strong vocal and some surprising harmonies lift it into something special. They have a rousing maleness (in fact, out of six bands and around 25 performers onstage tonight, only one is female) – when food and shelter is provided, the hunter gatherers look for something to clatter.
Heflarnir make the previous band look like children, agewise. “Straight out of bad-ass Akureyri town”: these are hardy men from the north, come to show the kids how it’s done. They are refreshingly uncool. The majestic singer is in his 50s, wearing a leather waistcoat and sings in a style that can almost be described as operatic. Even a song beginning with an ’80s style electronic keyboard riff is soon overpowered by these rock-opera vocals. It’s a monumental slab of weird and in the end I’m left feeling steamrollered.
In complete contrast to some of the more traditional set-ups preceding, come Hollow Veins. Their line up is two guys – one with steel drum (and a drum machine), the other with bass guitar – like some nutso analogue drum ‘n’ bass. The vocals are not so much singing as filtered mumbles, utterances and pleas. Whereas a steel drum often brings warmth, here the echo seems empty and weird. With downcast eyes, they are stuttery and introverted like they’ve only ever played under a kitchen table before. And the encouraging thing is that people are really into it. Contrasted with the previous act’s extroverted entertainment, this offers something else: some faltering attempt at expression that swerves from the obvious, and is all the more interesting for it. Welcome to the autistic disco (autisco?).
Stafrænn Hákon “start off quiet” with their “trance metal”. “This song is about hydraulic liquids,” gives an intriguing context to one layered track. Playing the guitar with a spanner, their atmospheric rock slowly builds, and is proficient and efficiently evocative – but I feel like I’ve heard a lot of this kind of thing before. A friend just told me about a fictional identikit post-rock band (called ‘Tractor’) she had invented for a story she wrote. These guys could play them in the movie adaptation. Advertisers take note: some of these songs (particularly the ones with vocals, in English) would make the perfect soundtrack for a promotional film about romantic holidays in Iceland. But it’s a bit too commercial-ready for me.