Of all the reasons to visit Iceland, I bet a music festival wouldn’t be at the top of your list. I know it wasn’t at the top of mine. But when my husband found a package deal from Edmonton to Reykjavik (including accommodation and passes to the Iceland Airwaves Music Festival), we decided to grab the opportunity.

The more we travel, the less we seem to focus on the touristy, “check box” attractions. We’ve been finding more enjoyment stumbling on local events, markets and festivals. So a music festival was a good excuse to visit Reykjavik again, but to experience it in a new way.

Iceland Airwaves music festival poster

The Iceland Airwaves Music Festival began in 1999. It was originally held in a Reykjavik domestic airport airplane hangar as a one-night event. Only seven bands performed, including three international groups.

The spirit of the music festival quickly took off, and the format changed considerably over the years. Now a five-day event held in October/November, the number of musical acts has ballooned since the festival’s inception. At this years’ festival, there were 216 bands and solo artists! The festival attracts some pretty internationally-well-known acts too. This year, two of the big names included Billy Bragg and Mumford & Sons.

The festival is no longer held in an airplane hangar either. Bands perform in all manner of venues, mostly in the Old Town section of Reykjavik. This is a twist that makes the festival even more fun. Venues range from standard bars, pubs and theatres, to the unusual and unexpected – churches, bookstores, hostels, breweries, and even a clothing store. This gave us an excuse to pop into various buildings that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen as regular tourists.

Wristbands gave us access to the official venues, which tended to be the more typical settings – theatres, bars, etc. The so-called “off-venues”  – shops and stores, for example, were accessible by the general public as well as wristband holders. Since the wristbands are pre-paid, you don’t feel any obligation to stay for a performer’s full set if you decide you don’t like the music. You can just hop from venue to venue until you find something you like.

We were only in Reykjavik for 4 days of the 5-day festival, but we managed to average 5 acts a night. Not bad! Although with most performances only lasting 30 minutes, fitting in several acts wasn’t as much of a challenge as one might think.

The festival plays host to bands from all over the world, and genres ranged from death metal to soul and everything in between, so there was something for everyone. Our musical tastes lean toward rock, pop, blues and alternative, so those were the acts we focused on finding. With 216 bands to chose from and limited time, we shortlisted the acts that we thought sounded interesting, then tried to see as many as we could.

Here are a few of the highlights from those performances.

One of the local hard rock bands we went to see was 200.000 Naglbítar (200,000 Nailbiters – Reykjavik has a population of 200,000, so interpret their name as you will). You could almost say they’re veterans in their industry – they got their start in 1993. Their music was straight-ahead rock, and we both enjoyed their show immensely. They have three albums out, so they’re much more established than many of the bands performing at the Airwaves.

200.000 Naglbítar iceland airwaves 2017

One unexpected, but pleasant surprise came in the form of a band from Hong Kong – A New World If You Can Take It. We really didn’t know what a rock band from Hong Kong would sound like. But they quickly became one of our favourite acts of the festival.

A New World If You Can Take It

Their music was fun, catchy, and they knew how to rock out. Too bad we made the mistake of being so close to the stage. Our ears were still ringing two days later! But they had great stage presence and the audience loved them! (Some venues actually had earplugs available, as did our hotel. We made sure to bring them for the following nights to protect our hearing.)

A New World If You Can Take It - iceland airwaves 2017

Another band we instantly fell in love with was Hórmónar. They’re an up-and-coming Icelandic punk group, and wow, they just blew us away. They performed at the Reykjavik Art Museum, which was a great venue for a band that exudes so much energy. Even though Brynhildur, the lead vocalist apologized for being hoarse from previous performances, you wouldn’t have known it. Her powerhouse vocals and occasional heart-felt screams dominated the venue. It’s hard to believe they’ve only been performing together since 2015! They released their debut EP in late 2016. Two of their stand-out songs for me are Kynsvelt and Ekki Sleppa.

Hormonar - Iceland airwaves 2017

One band that stood out as being particularly….memorable? – was Grúska Babúska, an all-female Icelandic group. They got their start in 2012 and have even toured the United Kingdom, including performing at Glastonbury. Their music is sort of…eclectic? A sort of hippy-ish, alternative pop, if you will. Their music was fun, quirky and lighthearted.

Grúska Babúska - iceland airwaves music festival 2017

They incorporate pretty much any instruments available to get the sounds they want for each song. They used maracas, toy pianos and even a damasas spin drum, just as examples. But they had standard instruments too:

Grúska Babúska - iceland airwaves music festival 2017

As the Introduction to one song, they said they wanted people to get up and dance. The best dancers would win a prize. Two people got up to the front of the stage and started swinging each other around and shimmying for all they were worth. Everyone else in the crowd realized there was no competition so no one even tried to out-dance them.

For their next song, the lead singer said that the title translated to “take your clothes off”. She said that during this song, anything could happen! And so it did, as the same couple who won the dance competition proceeded to slowly strip to the song. First their shirts, then their shoes, followed by their pants.

As they got down to their underwear, there was a mutual nod between the two that was visible to the audience. “Are we doing this?” “Oh yes, we are doing this!”

And off came the underwear.

The crowd went wild. And it was only then, that I realized that the couple who’d been stealing the show for the last ten minutes were two guys. It was awesome, and one of the most fun nights we had.

Admittedly, some acts we chose to see had little to do with their music, and everything to do with the venue they were performing in. I was curious to see if the musical acts were appropriately paired to some of the more unconventional venues. For example, having a thrash metal band performing in a porcelain shop seemed like a bad idea.

This thinking was what brought us to the Frikirkjan Church – an active, independent Lutheran Free church consecrated in 1903. Surely they would have classical music, or maybe soul music at an austere, historical venue such as this.

Not quite.

The performer we saw that night was Bára Gísladóttir. She’s an Icelandic composer and double bassist whose music has been performed by numerous European ensembles and symphony orchestras.

Bára Gísladóttir - Icleand Airwaves 2017

She combines electronic sounds with voice and double bass to create music that…well, to put it bluntly, could be the stuff of nightmares. Electronic crackling, screeches, maniacal laughter and demonic voices were the backdrop to her skillful maneuvering of the double bass. It was not the sort of music one would play while carpooling or at a dinner party. But it was complex, deep and probably the most unusual music we heard during the entire festival. It was the kind of music that makes your mind wander to dark places, and conjures images of jagged moonlit cliffs, Victorian mansions with creaky twisted staircases and gnarled tree branches scraping against window sills.

I didn’t even bother to straighten out this shot, because the tilted view seemed to compliment the surrealness of the music somehow:

Bára Gísladóttir - iceland airwaves 2017

Another unusual off-venue I wanted to check out was Cintamani – an outdoor clothing store. I really wanted to see how they handled putting a stage in a retail shop. As it turned out, they had the space for it, and the acoustics were fine. The only awkwardness came from the unsuspecting shoppers who had to walk between the band and the audience to get to the clothing racks.

Omotrack at Cintamani - Iceland Airwaves 201

The band performing was Omotrack, an Icelandic electro-indie band. We only stayed for a few songs, but their music was upbeat and lively.

Omotrack - Cintamani Iceland airwaves 2017

But our favourite group from the entire festival ended up being the very first group that we saw. They’re a rock band by the name of Gróa. It’s a group of three girls – two sisters and one best friend. And I do mean girls – they don’t look a day over 17, and might be even younger than that! We first saw them perform at a pub called Hverfisbarinn. We enjoyed them so much that we marked down their next performances so we could hear them again.

The next day, they were playing at the Aurora Reykjavik near our hotel. As they were setting up though, they realized they forgot a cymbal and their drummer had to go home to get it. While we waited for her, people in the audience started asking the other girls questions. We found out that all three started out playing piano, but they’ve been playing their current instruments since August. Yeah, August. Of this year. Holy crap. They performed on Iceland’s Battle of the Bands earlier this year, which got them an invitation to perform at the Airwaves Music Festival.

Groa - Iceland airwaves music festival 2017

Karólína, the lead singer, has a huge, strikingly powerful voice. Her vocals remind me of a combination of Dolores O’Riordan from the Cranberries, Bjork, and maybe a little Adele mixed in.

Karolina - Groa, Iceland Airwaves Music Festival 2017

It was so hard to believe that they’ve all been playing these instruments for only four months, and still taking lessons.

drums- Hrafnhildur/ bass- Fríða - Groa

You can hear two of their songs, Onofos, and one of my personal favourites, EoEo, on the Battle of the Bands 2017 website. Or, try YouTube for their Lucky Records recording session. Thee links don’t really do them justice though – the sound quality was much better in person.

After this performance, Mark and I were convinced that they were our new favourite group. We decided to see them one more time during our stay, despite our fear of looking like 40-something groupies.

They were playing in a bookstore the next afternoon. We found that the acoustics at the bookstore were much better than at Aurora Reykjavik, and the stage was slightly bigger so they could move around more.

Groa - Iceland Airwaves Music Festival 2017

All of their songs are super catchy earworms – to the point that 3 days after coming home, Mark and I both still had their songs stuck in our heads. They don’t have an album yet, but it sounds like they’re working on it. We will certainly be the first in line to buy a CD from them. If they keep going on the road they’re on, they’re going to be amazing in a few years!

But the festival wasn’t just about music. One theatre venue hosted the introduction of a video game! A musical artist named dj. flugvél og geimskip (translated as DJ Airplane and Spaceship) wanted to build a video game incorporating elements of her music. She got together with a friend to build a psychedelic mind-trip of a game, which will be available for free on her Facebook page once completed. They introduced the game, talked a bit about the concept and the challenges in building it, before giving audience members the opportunity to play it first hand. This was a welcome change from only hearing musical acts, while still having a musical emphasis. I chose not to take any photos or video at her presentation, but you can explore her kaleidoscopic world on her Facebook page here: dj. flugvél og geimskip 

The Iceland Airwaves Music Festival also inspired another form of art seen around Reykjavik. The Airwaves called the project Wall Poetry – a collaboration pairing 10 performers at the festival with 10 international street artists. The project was held in 2015 and 2016 to create street art inspired by songs performed by local bands. I wrote about some of those murals here last year. It was great to finally experience the music festival that kicked off all of the mural art seen across the Old Town.

But how did we keep track of all of the bands performing during the Airwaves festival? They had a free phone app, which we found indispensable. It helped us plan each day around the bands that were playing, and we could sort our searches by artist or by venue. There was also a map to point you in the right direction of the desired venue from your current location.

When we came across an artist we wanted to see, we bookmarked them. Then the app would set off an alarm 15 minutes in advance to tell us when and where they were playing. You could also share your musical choices with others – a great way to meet up with friends throughout the festival! The app also warned us if a venue was at capacity, so we didn’t waste time standing outside freezing in a line-up if we had no chance of getting in.

I only had two issues with the app – not all of the musical acts had a genre associated with them, which made it hard for us to decide whether they would be to our taste or not. I also wish that the app could search by musical genre, as there were many rap and hip-hop bands that Mark and I weren’t particularly interested in seeing. In order to know what type of music each performer played, you had to click on each one individually. Otherwise, we found the app well-designed and crucial for planning.

Mark and I have already decided that we would definitely go back to Reykjavik during the Iceland Airwaves Music Festival, but next time we would stay for all five nights. And maybe have an afternoon nap or two, so we can stay out until the wee hours of the morning. 🙂

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