In Las Vegas these days, the biggest money makers are the nightclubs, not the casinos. DJs get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a night to perform in front of huge crowds who drop tens of thousands of dollars on bottle service and VIP tables without blinking an eye. Gambling still brings in revenue, but partiers are the new cash cow in Sin City. DJs are the new rock stars, living the good life in penthouse suites and flying around on private jets. It’s probably safe to assume no Icelandic DJ or electronic artist performing at Iceland Airwaves this year will hit that jackpot, but they are certainly deserving of it. The eclectic and engaging performances at Harlem on Friday night proved this and gave this tiny venue a club-like atmosphere.
Lord Pusswhip´s set began against a background of slow-motion horror movie images and other oddities. It’s a good thing, too, because there wasn’t much to look at initially – a lone producer manning his laptop, shrouded in darkness on the side of the stage. There seems to be varying opinions about the state of Icelandic hip-hop, but Lord Pusswhip’s version is an interesting one. The beats he raps over are rolling waves of ambient sound and codeine-coated darkwave boom-bap. If El-P had a mutant kid brother, this is what his music might sound like. This was fine until the MC himself and his female cohort took the stage, looking like they were barely a day over 16, and started rapping over these apocalyptic beats. They rhymed in Icelandic, so I can’t tell for sure, but I’m hoping there was some irony involved when they chanted “Money, money, money!” and made it rain with Pusswhip promotional material, before popping open a bottle of bubbly and attempting to spray the crowd at the end of the set. They also made some vague political statement about burning your cash and dissed other bands at the festival by thanking them for making them look good by being so shitty. Chalk it up to the language barrier, but all of this felt like a distraction for what might have otherwise been a pretty good show.
Magnoose took the stage next, composing an excellent 40 minutes of crisply clapping techno and house music. His partner manned a separate laptop to create video images on a screen behind them, tweaking the visuals to the beats as Magnoose layered overlapping sounds and audio textures. Thankfully, there were no euphoric trancey risers tarnishing the mix, but there were just enough satisfying breakdowns and uplifting vocal house moments. These were deep, precise beats with soul, not always an easy task for your average electronic artist. Some in the crowd began to dance, an infection that spread quickly through the affable onlookers.
Next up was the wonderful M-Band, who actually brought some equipment besides a laptop to the stage. He stood behind a melange of vintage and analog synths, pedals, and drum machines, and began to slowly layer his ethereal vocals into a slow, Boards of Canada-style soundscape. These were almost proper songs, such as they were, and M-Band was probably the most interesting act to watch during this first half of the night. Something about him and his singing style reminded me of Bon Iver – a Bon Raver, if you will. Though his music was created entirely with electronics, M-Band’s sound was warm and one could almost imagine him writing it in the confines of a small cabin in the woods. Kanye, give this dude a call next time you want to collaborate with an indie artist.
Finally, Berndsen took the stage and brought out even more instruments – a guitar now made an appearance along side a bank of synths and drum machines. His imposing, giant red beard belies the romantic within, as he sang his torch songs over a soundtrack that at various times recalled M83 synth-rock, ’80s new wave, and occasionally the soundtrack for an old Dario Argento horror movie. When Berndsen wasn’t emoting romantically, he was ferociously and frenetically sing-shouting over his partner Hermigervill’s man-machine beats. Both styles worked and both seemed to please the crowd immensely, no doubt in part due to Berndsen’s intense stage presence. Taken together, all of these artists offered proof of the immense variety to be found within the genre of electronic music in Iceland. Vegas, take heed.