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Iceland Airwaves 2019: Recap

Iceland Airwaves and Reykjavík (photos by Eric Holland, WFUV)

Iceland Airwaves and Reykjavík (photos by Eric Holland, WFUV)


Iceland’s reputation for sublime beauty and natural wonders is well established as is Reykjavík’s status as a cosmopolitan city with its own unique culture and flavor. The country, with a mere 360,000 people—which is about 20,000 fewer folks than live in Lower Manhattan—has also increasingly become known for its talented musicians who run the stylistic gamut.

Iceland’s ability to export bands is thanks in no small part to the Iceland Airwaves music festival. Founded in 1999, a decade after beer became legal in Iceland (if you want to research that oddity), the four-day hootenanny happens annually in early November and features homegrown talent as well as acts from around the world.

Out of the fifteen or so groups that I heard, The Holy, a five piece rock band from Helsinki, struck me most as being destined to be huge. In their best moments, they were thrilling and with two drummers, they maintained a rhythmic sense of propulsion throughout the set. I was a little skeptical at first, eyeing their painfully earnest expressions of intensity in their slow-to-unfold opening number, but I was soon won over by their dynamic, dramatic songs. Their two guitarists served up airy, swirling tones with one generally being drone-based and the other laying down slashing lines atop a bedrock of keyboards.

The four women of Pillow Queens got together only three years ago and, if I had to choose just one band, were my favorite discovery of Airwaves. They have the spirit of punk running through everything they do, which can be tough, lean pop, or even sweet, with four-part harmonies, but never for too long. Their grit and the attitude of vocalist Sarah Corcoran, who peppers her lyrics with inscrutable Dublin slang, don’t straddle a line between rock and pop. They land squarely in the former camp. Highlights of the set included "Gay Girls," a single that earned them some buzz last year, and their new single, "Brothers,"which is earning them some more. The Pillow Queens were happily one of many female-fronted bands at the festival: This was the second year in a row that Airwaves has met gender parity in its booking of artists.

Hatari offered songs built on simple synth beats that scanned techno and sounded as if they’ve heard Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, and Sisters Of Mercy records. The music though, seemed largely beside the point. They are all about spectacle. The three guys who are the full-time members were dressed in full-on bondage attire: dog collars, a Hannibal Lecter-style restraint, and a lot of shiny PVC. The two female dancers and their choreographed moves were distracting in the best sense. The group, who also hail from Iceland, have gained attention with their anti-capitalist stance and provocative statements to the press.

A rock band that strike an appealing balance between darkness and light and one of Iceland’s most popular groups, Mammút is a quintet starring three women who have been playing together since 2003, when they were aged between 13 and 15. They play with the kind of chemistry and intuition that comes only with such long associations. Singer Katrína Kata Mogensen, who goes by Kata, exudes a genuine and undeniable charisma whose unique stage moves appeared more singular, especially as she is well along in a pregnancy. She’s a powerhouse whose voice propels the group’s songs whose hooks aren’t generally super wide, but are accessible through a vaguely psychedelic haze. Initially they resisted singing in English as they felt it didn’t suit their songs, but they’ve embraced it on recent work. Mammút visited the Bronx for an FUV Live session in 2017.

Finally, if you’re a fan of say, Helmet, track down Foreign Monkeys who were playing so loudly in my hotel lobby on Thursday afternoon that I could hear how delightfully heavy they were from my room. They were even better on the first floor than the fifth! At Iceland Airwaves, sometimes all you have to do is keep your ears open.