Harpa Kaldalón may be one of the best venues Airwaves has to offer. There are chairs to sit in, no one feels the need to invade your personal space and the floor isn’t covered in broken glass and sticky beer. More importantly, it’s set up as a concert hall, which comes with the quietness and tameness of an orchestra performance. The Airwaves staff seems to schedule bands with that in mind, and the first three bands, at least, were geared towards the contemplative listener.
Ghost Town Jenny started off with the night with what I would call prairie rock. It’s country, but more midwest America than southern. Less twang, more almost classical style violin.
Their music is folksy in the literal sense—stories about the people. It’s one of the band’s strengths. Also, Kim Kylland has a wonderful voice, the kind that sounds just as good in person as it does on the record. She’s also an accomplished saw player, a skill she demonstrated about halfway through the set. I was skeptical, but it was a welcome addition to the song, even when it was out of tune (how one tunes a saw remains a mystery).
The only misstep of the set was a new song, a love song with lyrics like “there are constellations in your eyes.” Kim got into singer songwriter mode, the violin took a back seat to her vocal flourishes and vintage, old timey mood was broken. Thankfully, it wasn’t their last song. They closed with an eerie, gypsy-rock song and Kim meekly thanked us for listening. No, Kim, thank you.
Vigri took the stage next and opened with war drums, dramatic guitars and not one, but two french horns. TWO! Full disclosure: I spent about ten years in and out of concert bands—I’m a band nerd, and nothing on this earth is more majestic, more earth shakingly epic than a french horn. As a singer it’s probably hard to compete with a french horn, which is maybe why the two vocalists came off as either a) a bit nasally or b) as if they were reaching a bit for the higher notes. They weren’t bad, but if this were a numerical review they’d bring the band’s score down.
During half the songs there wasn’t enough for all the band members to do. At one point the bass player handed his instrument over to another band member and then proceeded to stand in the middle of the stage with his hands in his pockets. Technically this didn’t detract from the music, but feeling bad for a guy in an awkward situation is distracting. Meanwhile, the main french horn player didn’t play much either.
Probably the only two guys who had enough to do were the lead guitarist, who, in addition to playing some amazing solos, also played french horn and the keyboard) and the drummer. I’ve never seen anyone look so cheerful for so long. I got the sense that he was someone’s younger brother and they’d asked him to fill in for the Airwaves gig last minutes.
Eldar is fronted by the charmingly awkward Valdimar Guðmundsson. He started off introducing the band with “Um. Hello,” and at one point introduced a song as “this song is… a song,” when he forgot what he meant to say and the audience fell in love with him.
Just before Eldar went on stage the woman sitting next to me leaned over and told me Valdimar, would make me cry because his voice is so beautiful. “Bring out your tissues, baby.” I thought, okay, how sweet, his mom is in the audience. Little did I know Valdimar Guðmundsson (the same Valdimar his other band is named after) has a voice like an angel. A raspy voiced angel backed by country rhythms—except for one sort of smooth jazz song that reminded me of ‘Smooth Operator’—and a wonderful female vocalist. No tears were shed, I left determined to make it to Valdimar’s gig on Saturday.
(From here John Rogers took over the reviewing duties)
Ladies and gentleman, come on in. We have quite a spectacle here at Kaldalon this evening. On drums, we have the polar opposite of Keith Moon! This man hits the drums like no other: he’s never bruised a skin. He is indisputably the most gentle percussionist in Iceland! And on bass, we have a true master of steady rhythm. If you have a heart condition, or if you just really hate surprises, you have come to right place! Ladies and germs, presenting: the band least likely to break a string at Airwaves 2012! Give it up for… Eliza Newman!
If Reality Bites had been set in Iceland, maybe one of Newman’s tracks would have gotten a spot on the soundtrack: it’s rooted firmly in the ’90s, with breezy melodies that waft by gently. Several of her songs reach further back in time via lyrics based on ‘old poems’, for which Newman seems apologetic. But with a sound located so far from the zeitgeist, poem-based lyrics aren’t going to do any harm. In fact, some saga-style blood, magic, fire and brimstone might be just the thing to shake up Newman’s rather tentative, polite performance.
I’m not saying you have to be cool to be good, but a contemporary sound can go a long way towards an interesting set. As if to make the point comes Norway’s Hanne Kolstø, who bounces into the stage sporting a sparkly acoustic guitar and some kind of hipster bob/mullet hybrid, and cradling a small keyboard in her arms like a Casio baby. Along with two backing musicians, she employs a range of reedy synth sounds and drum pads to create electronica with a distinctly handmade feel, her voice reminiscent of Karin Dreijer Andersson in it’s range and texture. Some songs stalk along with heavy bassy rhythms that vibrate like a tectonic heartbeat; others are sparsely arranged dancefloor numbers with fuzzed-up guitar and misty synths. This is seriously good stuff that’s full of surprises, be it the octave-acrobatics of Kolstø’s singing voice, or a sudden soft-focus prog-style keyboard solo, or a deftly looped live glitch-sample. Kolstø plays to a rapt capacity crowd here, and mentions a few off-venues happening over the weekend – catch her if you can.
Next up – Biggi Hilmars, a talented musical elf-prince dude in a pair of shiny golden trousers. Hilmars was formerly in Ampop, who I think were a kind of pop project that achieved some mainstream success before disbanding (correct me in the comments if I’m wrong, thank you friends!). Hilmars now fronts a highly professional big-band setup, with a strings section that swoops in and out occasionally to pleasing effect. Biggi’s music makes me think of TV adverts for luxury things like shiny silver cars or brushed-steel fridge-freezers. Maybe this is what people mean when they say “lifestyle music”. Some of Biggi’s songs have a more melancholic edge, but Nina Simone this ain’t: he seems pretty satisfied with things, you know? And when the songs talk about non-specific “why can’t we all just get along” type stuff, it seems forced somehow, like that Michael Jackson song about saving the elephants. Biggi can arrange a tune very well, but when it comes to lyrical poetry – that other musical artistry of a less technical kind – there’s something important missing here.
The diminutive Baltic state of Estonia has been pouring forth talented bands in recent years, including a phenomenal performance here at Kaldalón last year by electronic noisenik improv-techno collective Kreatiivmootor. This year, the Baltic torch is carried by Ewert & Two Dragons, who have reportedly been making trans-Atlantic waves with their mellow, soft-focus pop sound. It’s easy to see why: the masses who like Coldplay and Keane will lap this up. At their most interesting moments, Ewert & Two Dragons evoke the alt-country sensibility of Ryan Adams’ old band Whiskeytown, or maybe indie-folk pretenders Gomez; at their worst they sound like the stadium-filling “landfill indie” bands mentioned above. I watch them from the back of the packed auditorium, and ponder if being a stadium indie band is a valid musical aim. I wonder if my lack of connection to this music is my own issue, and if what Ewert & Two Dragons are doing is, you know, just fine or whatever. You see, I look for real inspiration in the music I love – for bright sparks of genius, swells of sonic creativity, bolts of excitement or moments of empathy and communication. Inoffensiveness is, to me, in itself offensive. At this show, my heart is unmoved – but from the loud and enthusiastic crowd response, I don’t think that’ll hinder this Estonian troupe in their ascent to the mainstream consciousness.