The Bro Jackson Jukebox Club: Playlists for people.
When people think of Iceland, three things most often come to mind: Björk, Sigur Rós, and “Mighty Ducks 2.” Pop culture hasn’t convinced much beyond “Greenland is covered in ice, and Iceland is very nice.” When my good friend Adam convinced me to travel to the northern country for the annual Iceland Airwaves music festival, I didn’t really know what to expect. It is hard to imagine a country with a population just over 300,000 having a big music scene. After spending 10 days in the country, five of those at the festival itself, I can confirm without hesitation–Iceland is full of amazing musical talent.
The festival books over 100 bands to play in dozens of spaces to a few thousand attendees wandering the streets of Reykjavik. Airwaves has been going on since 1999, and has remained focused on showcasing Icelandic talent, peppering in acts from Sweden, Canada, Denmark, United States, and others. Bands come prepared to rock 10 individual shows throughout the week, and give it their all to grab the attention of music fans traveling from across the globe. It has a South By Southwest feel to it, with a city that transforms for a few days, only much more intimate, with an absence of industry snobs, and more expensive booze. After the first day, it quickly became clear that the Icelanders were serious about their music. This isn’t a festival with a bunch of Sigur Rós clones or watered down New York wannabes. These people are pushing limits across genres, instruments, vocal techniques, and performance skill. It deserves to be paid attention to. And if you’re lucky enough to have the opportunity to attend Airwaves yourself, I can’t recommend it enough.
I put this playlist together to showcase songs from some of my favorite Airwaves artists based in Iceland. I’ve also included a few bonus tracks at the end from artists who performed, but are not from Iceland, starting with the mysterious Swedish group known as Goat. Before I go into detail on a handful of the most impressive acts, I’ll say that if you are still on the fence about attending Airwaves next year, watch this film. You’ll be checking plane ticket prices before you know it.
Seeing an FM Belfast show is pure magic. They are a staple act at Airwaves, and for good reason. There music is quirky and catchy, with hooks that will have you humming along by the second spin. It is unfortunate that their recordings can’t capture the full energy of their live show, but you can hear the potential on the songs. Bedroom dance moves are required when listening.
A newer band, with musicians from previous popular Icelandic acts, Grísalappalísa’s two singers sing in their native language over Can-like grooves. There’s an intensity to their songs that has me digging for translations to discover what kind meaning lies beneath the tight musicianship. These guys tore up world famous record store 12 Tónar and grabbed my attention as a favorite act in the festival. The saxophone makes for a nice dynamic in their Krautrock inspired jams.
The frontman for Retro Stefson was as good of a frontman as I have ever seen. Somehow he managed to rock black denim overalls and still look incredibly cool as he led the crowd in songs many probably weren’t familiar with. His brother locks down the bass and seems to anchor the rest of the band, all of whom are incredible musicians playing music that can’t be pigeonholed into any one genre. “Qween” is an incredibly catchy tune, and a behemoth of a live performance.
Some music is meant to played in a certain place, and this was very much the case when I saw múm perform inside a church right off the water in Reykjavik. Fronted by two beautiful voiced Icelandic women who switch between guitar, violin, and piano, this music will give you goosebumps. A perfect marriage of acoustic, amplified, and electronic music, their music is difficult to describe due to the wide variety of sounds they produce. There’s an extensive catalog here that’s worth checking out.
Ólafur is a former heavy metal drummer turned epic composer, touring the world and soundtracking films. He performed his new album front to back with the Icelandic symphony. Ólafur manages to demonstrate his prodigy-like classical talents while changing the rule book and incorporating delicate samples and epic transitions that can keep a room full of a couple thousand people engaged. The best is yet to come here.