Iceland Airwaves is a triple threat, combining a city break with thrilling live music and dramatic scenery. Set within Iceland’s capital of Reykjavík against a backdrop of frigid waters and snow-capped mountains, it’s a great chance to catch new talent before it breaks through elsewhere. Like many showcase festivals, Airwaves is held across multiple venues, all within 20 minutes walk of one another. Any potential commuting hassle therefore gives way to unadulterated fun. The music doesn’t start until late evening, which leaves ample time to explore the stark countryside, or visit one of the picturesque lagoons. And, if you’re lucky enough to stumble between the bustling venues at the right moment, you might just catch a glimpse of the otherworldly Northern Lights.
By day, the immaculate streets of Reykjavík are laced with boldly coloured book shops, pointy jagged churches and dark green bars decorated with holly. Once the festival wakes up around 8pm, what was earlier a charming, quiet town is transformed into a spirited night-time playground. Now, the buildings vibrate from the rhythms stirred up within their walls.
Inside the Art Museum, the main festival venue, Australian rock band Amyl and The Sniffers roar at a tightly packed crowd with their fuzzy, ferocious bangers. Frontwoman Amy Taylor is mesmerising as she flexes her limbs around the stage, projecting her raspy yet raucous tone in a manner redolent of the X-Ray-Specs’ Poly Styrene. On Friday, it’s British band Metronomy’s turn to fill the venue, this time with 2010s bops such as the “The Look” and “The Bay”, with their nostalgia-fuelled arcade game beeps.
While it’s great to catch the bigger acts, discovery is the truly alluring aspect of Iceland Airwaves. Brooklyn pop trio Nation of Language combine Eighties-style synths and evocative drum machines with singer Ian Richard Devaney’s Robert Smith-inspired wail; Amsterdam-based Turkish psych-rockers Atlin Gün recall Khruangbin with their kaleidoscopic basslines. Iceland’s own Árný Margrét is found bathed under blue light in the Fríkirkjan chapel, as swans glide across the glacial waters outside. Her delicate Nordic folk offers some respite from the chaotic performances elsewhere.
But it’s Vancouver collective Crack Cloud who really stand out. They’re described as “contemporary indie jazz pop rock”, yet even that feels too constrictive in a show where nothing is off limits. They’re onstage inside the Gamla Bíó, where grateful gig-goers can hang up their coats and enjoy balmier temperatures. Seven musicians bounce around drummer and singer Zach Choy, the thumping heart of the band. In one moment, the harpist takes over vocal duties with a Bjork-like screech, while the bongo player drums up a frenzied rhythm. They’re an eclectic bunch, having met through various mental health and addiction programmes, and describe their music as a “healing mechanism”. Tonight, the audience gets to experience those restorative properties for themselves.
For those seeking a more traditional Icelandic experience, the lagoons are a short (but expensive) taxi journey out of town. If you’ve overindulged and underslept, this is the place to undo it all. Weary bodies are quickly submerged, soothed and scrubbed. If you’re feeling brave, you could try shocking your system with a dip in the freezing pool – but be warned, it’s not for the faint-hearted.
Back in Reykjavík, the weekend is drawing to a close. Saturday night headliner Arlo Parks soon has the sea of heads bobbing as she sways to her lo-fi indie. “Won’t hurt so much forever,” she promises on her 2020 anthem, “Hurt”. She spirals around the stage for the intimate narrative of “Caroline”, before thanking the crowd for the spirit they’ve brought in return. As Parks waves goodbye, it becomes clear that Airwaves still has a few more treats in store. Everything from DJs in fancy bars to rock’n’roll pubs with sticky floors are up for grabs. In fact, there’s so much on offer here, that sleep simply has to take a backseat. It’s bucket list stuff that will leave you feeling alive and inspired. Just don’t expect to feel well-rested.