Iceland Airwaves Day 3 & 4: Snapped Ankles, Seabear, Grisalappalisa, Girl in Red, more
Like the aurora borealis, which I didn't manage to witness during my time in Iceland, the magic of live shows is a hard to predict mix of different factors, but sometimes you're in the right place at the right time. For me that was Friday night at 2 AM in Reykjavik where a bunch of British guys dressed as trees sent an entire room full of people from around the world into hysterics. With their heads covered in moss, and logs for mic stands that also served as percussion instruments, London's Snapped Ankles unleashed a high-energy mix of krautrock, psych and punk that falls somewhere between Devo, Neu!, LCD Soundsystem and the Oh Sees. Maybe it was the hour, maybe it was the beer and the Brennivín, but the whole crowd at Gaukurinn seemed to just decide to go for it from the opening moments and stayed bananas the whole show. Things got extra nutty when frontman Austin introduced an extra-long tape measure to the audience who passed it around, to string it all over the club. It was one of those shows where, when it was over, the crowd looked at each other with an expression that said "What just happened?"
Friday was my favorite day at Iceland Airwaves, musically. After appearing on a panel ("Re-inventing the wheel: the new media model") and getting some lunch, I visited Reykjavik's Lucky Records, which is a terrific record store that has a great mix of new and used vinyl, a nice Icelandic music section, and lots more. I managed to leave without buying anything but I did catch a live set from luchador-masked Revenge of Calculon who had the crowd in stitches with some great banter and laid down some cool low-fi electro / sampled beats that reminded me a little of Money Mark.
From there I caught one-man band Daði Freyr, who I had seen play in a Lighthouse the day before, and here was performing a hotel lobby just a few blocks away from the record store. If Snapped Ankles was the best set I saw, Daði Freyr was my favorite artist; a real charmer whose giddy, kistchy synthpop punk was entirely free of pretense.
Evening shows began with a set by long-running Icelandic art punk band Grísalappalísa at the KEX Hostel. The place, where KEXP was broadcasting from the whole fest, has a real DIY feel which really added to the immediacy of their music, which ranged from glammy (a la Iggy/Bowie) or skronky. The band's Iceland Airwaves shows also served as a goodbye; despite having just released new album Týnda rásin, they've said these were possibly their last shows ever. That too added a sense of urgency and you could tell they were putting it all into this show.
I then headed to Reykjavik Art Museum to catch HATARI, which was a spectacle of bondage-wear, pyrotechnics, dancers and dark, industrial pop. (They were Iceland's 2019 entry in the Eurovision song contest, which is strange and amazing.) I couldn't get close enough to really take it all in, and the songs were a little similar, so HATARI left me a little flat but I heard their Saturday, 2 AM set at Gaukurinn was amazing.
Friday night I also caught Norwegian bedroom pop artist Girl in Red at Gamla Bíó. While her undeniably catchy style of guitar pop (less synthy live than her recordings) is not the sort of thing I usually listen to, Marie Ulven Ringheim's unbridled enthusiasm -- she was bouncing around the stage the whole show -- and good humor was extremely infectious and I was won over pretty quick.
It was a long Friday -- Snapped Ankles wrapped up around 2:40 AM and I didn't get to bed till about 3:30 -- but I was up at 8 AM for a day trip into Iceland's interior, including a swim in another geothermal pool and a visit to the spectacular, vertigo-inducing Háifoss waterfall. It was a late start for shows when we got back, but I made to it to the Reykjavik Art Museum to see Icelandic vets Seabear, whose Iceland Airwaves shows were their first in nine years. "People love it when old bands play new songs," frontman Sindri Már Sigfússon joked to the crowd before playing new single "Waterphone" (watch it's video below), which might have actually been my favorite of their set. Welcome back!
I then went to Gaukurinn to catch UK-based Warmduscher who are led by the charismatic Clams Baker and include members of Fat White Family and Insecure Men. Ping-ponging between sleazy garage and funk, they were fun and single "Burner" worked even without its feature star, Kool Keith. Next up at Gaukurinn were Montreal's Pottery who have morphed a bit since I saw then back in March. Though they were still playing the manic, jangly songs from this year's EP, new material was muscular and soulful that seemed to be pulling influence from Paul Weller (both The Jam and Style Council). I liked them already but am digging this new direction and we'll see if that's borne out on their debut album which will be out next year.
I ended Iceland Airwaves 2019 at IÐNÓ, a lovely theatre, to catch Grísalappalísa's "last show ever." The sound and lighting were better than at KEX but the band's sweaty energy and DIY spirit was better suited to the gritty vibe of Friday's show. Still, they were great and I was glad to have seen them twice, whether it was really their final shows or not, and it was the perfect capper to a great festival and first visit to Iceland. I'll be back.