First impressions: the venue is really slick. Extremely open, good viewing angles, clean, consistent, clear sound. If we had to lose NASA to get this, well, it still sucks but we got a damn nice venue out of it. This was my first time at Harpa, and I must say it even puts quite a few of my native New York venues to shame
Snorri Helgason kicked off the night! He and his band kind of sound like Neil Young. There’s a bit of country twang to the guitars, soft drums and acoustic feel. It’s very heartfelt, intimate stuff, with a good back and forth between the two main vocalists, who carried each other well. Sounds like the type of music you’d hear in a middle of nowhere country bar after just having resolved to make big changes to your life; a middle of nowhere country bar with suspiciously highbrow tastes that serves hot cider and doles out blankets.
Vök were my big surprise of the night. They are to my understanding completely new to the scene. I’ll cut to the chase: they’re a damn fine band, and the beauty of Airwaves is that upstarts like this get a chance to play to a really big crowd full of foreigners, get reviewed, try out their live show and get some much-deserved exposure.
Their set contained some frustrating shortcomings and head-scratching decisions, but ultimately Vök are a solid act. Being so new, it’s understandable that they seemed kind of dwarfed by the stage at times, but I think they missed an opportunity by not engaging the crowd more. Their sound is kind of like The XX meets Wareika, somewhat dark in spite of its semi-poppiness, replete with echo-y guitars, saxophone, synths and slow bass lines. The saxophone was a bit discordant at times but that, along with their Icelandic lyrics, helps give them a much more unique, wide-ranging sound with a really interesting edge.
I wasn’t feeling it at first, but it came up on me in a big way with the music starting off simple, sparse and barren and then building up into a deep and complex layered sound, using only a few core components. Vök are at once endearing, creative and danceable. The single was probably the poppiest song they played, and hence, the one I enjoyed the least. I simply found it far less interesting than the rest of their music, with way too much chorus, but not enough actual music. I’m somewhat bewildered that they didn’t choose “Blame To Others,” the last song they played, as their single.
I encourage you to stop reading this very sentence in whatever format it may reach you and find a way to listen to it. It’s damn good. I hope to hear and see more of these kids in the future. If I had to impart any advice to them it’d be to put more of their fine music on the internet, engage the crowd a bit more, and to perhaps consider a more easily-Google’d name.
Lay Low: Ever so slightly grungy at times. Only one or two songs in Icelandic. She looked very comfortable on stage, performing and interacting with the crowd, relating charming anecdotes et al. Extremely catchy tunes. Just the right amount of new and old material. Frankly, while nice, I find myself with a dearth of words to offer about her performance. I don’t want to say I think that she phoned it in, but to me it was simply the most forgettable show of the night, and that pains me to say as I do enjoy her music, and clearly she’s put some time and effort into her live show, but I just think that what she was offering tonight was just “nice,” nothing exceptional.
Ojba Rasta: Let’s call a spade a spade: It’s all too easy to dismiss the notion of a nine (and sometimes ten) piece Icelandic reggae band as a gimmick, but Ojba Rasta really “get” it. They’re about as catchy and head-noddy as you can get while still legally being able to call yourself “reggae”-they brought the riddim. Deep, echo-y, dub inspired beats with a lazy gypsy pop veneer. Sounds like if Gogol Bordello had actual musical talent and just came back from a nature retreat. It’s really encouraging to know that such a chill band can still be so serious about their musician-ship. Tubas, saxophones, trumpets, guitars, drums all find a very natural home in the warm and nestling bosom of Ojba Rasta’s music. They demonstrated their range a little later in the set by upping the tempo with the ska-ish ditty, “Einhvern Veginn Svona” , which got the crowd moving. Tough to review such a very short set, but they kept it very tight and well curated, and also their new album art is fabulous.
Mammút: most straight up rock act of the night, and hence the one I am least likely to enjoy. It is perhaps a cliché’d comparison for an Icelandic band to suffer, but I got struck by a somewhat Sugarcubes-ish vibe in their musical stylings. This is in no small part thanks to front-woman Katla’s extreme vocal range. She manages to go from whispering to howling like a banshee in but a few moments. Pair that with completely Icelandic lyrics, a fair amount of humming and vocalizing as well, and some righteous guitars, and you’ve got Mammút. The lead singer did the entire set in a cloak, barefoot, with what appeared to be blood stained hands, feet, and forehead. And their logo somewhat looks like a pentagram. This all speaks to the narrative they’re trying to establish with their music, their brand, if you will. At times they struck a drone-ish chord, noise rock-ish, Blood On The Wall kinda vibe. They brought out some synths for their last song which lent a really unsettling ‘80s vibe.
The performance itself, while admittedly not my cup of tea from a genre perspective, was solid. Katla is a dream to photograph, and has an extremely fierce presence on stage. Her range of gestures, facial expressions, and postures was absolutely magnetic. It sort of looked like she was playing an invisible theremin at times, or perhaps parting the Red Sea. At any rate, this was a tight and dynamic set and would leave nothing to be desired, or so I imagine.
It’s hard to not gush over Retro Stefson. Golden voices paired with jazzy, funky, soul-y and afrobeat inspired tunes. Unnstein has all the electric stage presence and swagger of a charismatic hip-hop MC and got the crowd engaged and moving with ease and charm to spare. If anything, he made the stage seem too small at times. It’s been a real pleasure to see these guys evolve their live show over the years, and they’ve managed to top themselves yet again. To see such a young act (albeit one who has been playing Airwaves since 2006) with already such good control of the crowd and refinement of their craft is actually kind of scary. It was hard to find someone in the building, even in the press pit, not dancing or singing along in some fashion. To be honest, I fucking hate dancing, and I was at this show to photograph and write words about it, 100% sober, and even with all this in mind, I could not help but do a bit of a jig as I took some shots and jotted down my notes on the performance.
Retro Stefson are a prime example of the richness of the Icelandic music scene, the future it may hold and even if the festival ended tomorrow, I’m sure tonight’s crowd at Harpa would have agreed that they got their money’s worth out of this show alone. Shows this good run the risk of compromising one’s objectivity as a journalist. It’s pretty fabulous that such a well done and refined live act can still feel like a bunch of kids having fun making music for the first time. It’s just so goddamn earnest, charming, energetic, danceable, catchy and fun it makes you want to rip your heart out. I don’t think there are many bands in Iceland that would give FM Belfast worry about having to follow up, but here they are. I’ve seen Retro Stefson a handful of times, and I find myself being more and more charmed with them each time I see them perform. Just about the only thing I can think to complain about is that they’ve not yet toured the US and currently have no plans to.
It’s really hard to review/describe FM Belfast without using the word “infectious,” so I’ll try my best to refrain. At this point they whip the crowd up into frenzy so easily, it’s almost as if all they had to do was show up and flip a switch. Coming down from the high of the Retro Stefson show, FM Belfast took the crowd by storm! The entire set was a high note, from beginning to last, and the perfect choice to cap off an interesting, semi-alt-poppy night at Harpa. Even if you were deaf, the pure visual spectacle of the live show would have been endlessly engaging; streamers, pom-poms, glitter, confetti cannons, and no less than four (4) bowties found their way onto the stage and even into the crowd at points.
FM Belfast embodies the purpose of a live show: to entertain, as well as to play music. If people wanted to see your music replicated with perfect studio-quality audio, they could listen to your album in the comfort of their homes. People want a performance, a memory, an experience. If they’re going to manage to throw some clothing on their disgusting bodies and shut off Netflix long enough to make it out of the house, they’re probably doing so in the hopes of having an enjoyable time with friends and strangers, as well as listening to some good music.
The ever evolving, constantly disrobing, confetti-vomiting display that FM Belfast put on tonight at Harpa was surely one for the record books. And dare I say, I reckon I even heard some new material! I’ve seen FM Belfast more than probably every other performer at Iceland Airwaves combined, and like a great restaurant, they are always consistent, and unlike a great restaurant (ugh) infectiously fun. For the love of god, though, please just give us a new album already.