Iceland Airwaves, coolest music fest in the world, returns

Like virtually every other music festival on the planet, Iceland Airwaves was deeply affected by COVID-19. The event went virtual in 2020 and last year under the banner “Live from Reykjavík” with the latter a socially distanced hybrid across just four venues on a single night that ended with the country going back into lockdown days later.

Last week though, the multi-day showcase of Icelandic and international artists was back in full swing with long lines, sweaty crowds and an endless supply of music.

Held annually the first week in November in the capital city on the southwestern coast of the country, Iceland Airwaves has gone through many iterations since it was a one-off event in an airplane hangar on the grounds of Keflavík International Airport in 1999. It hasn’t grown so much as morphed, adapting to the economy, influx of tourism and mixed musical identity of the past two decades.

The fest was acquired by event management company Sena Live in 2018 with the immediate goal was to get Airwaves back to its roots. That meant past headliners like Mumford & Sons, Flaming Lips, Fleet Foxes and Kraftwerk – so-called “big names” – were off the table. The idea was keeping the focus primarily on the local talent, of which there is a plethora. It also scaled back from four days to just three, kicking off Thursday and running through Saturday and utilizing the smaller venues around town instead of the imposing, oversized concert hall Harpa.

All of it worked out better than expected as this year’s edition was the first Airwaves to sell out in a decade, with some 8,000 attendees descending upon Reykjavík with an estimated half of them coming in from other countries, including Rock Music Menu.

Below are some highlights, advice and what should equal a major endorsement for adding the festival to your bucket list.

Day One

There’s a joke Icelanders love to tell foreigners which goes, “If you don´t like the weather just wait five minutes.”

It’s also one of those, it’s-funny-because-it’s-true knee slappers as the cold arctic air mashes against the mild Atlantic Ocean air for an often-volatile mix of wind, rain and inconsistency. Yet the Viking gods were smiling down on Airwaves this year for what was unusually calm, dry and clear for the most part.

Bathing culture is huge in Iceland, so to prep for three days of standing, jostling and all sorts of aural assaults, I headed to the new oceanside geothermal wonder Sky Lagoon. While it might not be as popular as the iconic Blue Lagoon, it’s cheaper, only 15 minutes from downtown Reykjavík and has a breathtaking view of the ocean.

You can simply relax in the warm waters of the lagoon itself or pay extra for the Seven-Step Ritual, which includes a cold-pool plunge, followed by a sauna, cold mist, body scrub, steam room, shower and then return to the lagoon where there’s a swim-up bar for drinks.

And if all that doesn’t chill you out, it’s time to seek help elsewhere.

Sycamore Tree at Frikirkjan

Fully invigorated and probably glowing, the first stop was at the historic Gamla Bio, which translates to “old cinema,” to see local favorites CeaseTone, who mix electronic and acoustic elements in a way that shouldn’t work on paper but explodes in the live setting.

Then it was deeper into the downtown to the culture house Idno, where hard rockers the Vintage Caravan tore it down.

The Icelandic outfit in the vein of Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple has been making a name for themselves outside of the country and still brought it even though it was their 40th show in just seven weeks.

Reykjavík Art Museum, as the highest-capacity venue, played home to the biggest bands of Airwaves, so it also saw the longest lines wrapping around the building as attendees queued up in hopes of seeing the female hip-hop collective Daughters of Reykjavík and Australia punk rockers Amyl and the Sniffers. Though their music was wildly different, both had a crammed audience at its most raucous.

Day Two

Weekends in Reykjavík are akin to a werewolf being out on a full moon. All the locals are out to blow off steam and a bunch of bars are open until 4 in the morning with afterparties well into the sunrise if you know where to look. That said, pacing is key, so the best way to begin the night was with the local lo-fi indie pop duo BSI at Gamla Bio.

BSI at Gamla Bio

A repeat of the night prior followed as it was back to Idno for what was truly one of the most bizarre but pleasant surprises in Koboykex, a western/electronic outfit who dub themselves as “two hillbillies from the Faroe Islands.”

Led by Sigmund Zachariassen and Heiorik a Heygum, their pink and baby blue cowboy outfits – replete with flowing white tassels – were amazing to say the least. Keeping with the western motif, Iceland’s Sycamore Tree looked like they should be playing the Grand Ole Opry, but instead were at the magnificent Frikirkjan i Reykjavík, a Lutheran church illuminated by candlelight.

A scant few blocks away at Hurra, the earnest alt-pop of Grey Skies – the moniker of Steinar Baldursson – had the audience buzzing. But the most energy that evening was to be found back at the art museum, where England’s Metronomy dished out unavoidably catchy dance pop for everyone shoehorned into the venue.

Day Three

To hear Airwaves vets tell it, the festival is at its most enjoyable when you don’t have a set schedule – or a loose one at best – and just go with the flow, open to discovering new artists based on how they look on paper, what their name is or just by the recommendation of someone you just met.

This was the case on Friday, the final day, when Ukrainian electro-folk band Go_A was who seemingly everyone wanted to see, with added interest coming from those who want to support anything coming out of the country during the ongoing Russian invasion. It turned out the one-time Eurovision contestant had the chops to deliver an enrapturing set that saw the venue at its most packed.

Porridge Radio at Gamla Bio

Like Sycamore Tree the night before, Pakistani singer Arooj Aftab dazzled at Frikirkjan following a quick stop in to see British indie rockers Porridge Radio at Gamla Bio. The tiny pub Gaukurinn played host to complete chaos with the punk/noise pop of Dublin, Ireland’s Thumper, which saw every member of the band – save for the two drummers – wander into the crowd or crowd surf their way through the set.

Finally, it was the Norwegian electronic duo Royksopp who were tapped to close out the night back at art museum under the banner of a DJ set. The throbbing bass and pulsing lights may have worn out some, but others were left energized and headed out into the wild Reykjavík night to celebrate the end of Airwaves 2022 and begin plotting next year’s return.

A version of this article appears in this week’s print and online editions of my syndicated Rock Music Menu column under the title “Iceland Airwaves, coolest music fest in the world, returns.”

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