I've just returned from my annual trip to Iceland, where things are not quite as bleak as the press would have us believe. I didn't see any shops that had gone out of business, or speak to any locals who had lost their jobs. The only real difference compared to previous visits was that the local currency has dropped in value, which meant that essential purchases such as food and CDs were quite a bit cheaper this year. At least one shop said they were benefiting from this, as tourists are now spending more. I noticed a distinct air of cynicism towards the UK government and media for the way they have portrayed Iceland recently, but not towards the UK public in general as our money is always welcome in local shops! The main purpose of my trip, for those of you who are not already aware, is to attend the Iceland Airwaves festival, which happens every October. The festival organisers had been forced to place an announcement on their website reassuring everyone that it was still going ahead, to counter scaremongering from the BBC (amongst others) who had suggested that it would be cancelled. With a diverse selection of local and international talent signed up to play and a huge number of tickets already sold to visitors from all across Europe and the US, a cancellation was never on the cards. I was interviewed by a German radio journalist who was reporting on the effect of the financial crisis on foreign visitors. So far I have failed to find the show on the radio station's website, so I don't know if German listeners ever got to hear my comments.
There's not enough space for a full review of all the bands that played, so I'll just give a quick summary of a few of the highlights. Firstly a handful of non-Icelandic acts that I particularly enjoyed: I've recently discovered El Perro Del Mar so it was a pleasure to see her melancholy folk-pop played live. Final Fantasy is the project of Canadian violinist Owen Pallett, who uses an
assortment of effect pedals to create what sounds like a whole string quartet from just one violin. Miracle Fortress, another Canadian act, are possibly my favourite new discovery of this year's festival. They produce droning keyboard sounds that could have come from MBV's "Loveless", but overlaid with vocal harmonies reminiscent of the Beach Boys.
There were other high-profile international acts that I didn't get to see, as it's always an effort to fit in all the bands you want to watch when there is usually something going on in at least five different venues, and I always aim to see as many Icelandic bands as possible. This year I was surprised that local favourites Mugison and My Summer as a Salvation Soldier were not on the bill, despite both of them having released new albums recently. I hope this doesn't mean they've become too big to play Airwaves. A highlight from previous festivals that I was pleased to see on the bill again this year was Mammút. Their energetic post-punk is always enjoyable and they've finally got round to releasing their second album. Lights On The Highway were slated by many of the reviews in the following day's press, but I enjoyed their '70s psychedelia. Just in case anyone hadn't realised which era they are stuck in, they included a cover of Pink Floyd's "Breathe in the Air". FM Belfast make quirky synthpop (not unlike US acts Yacht/Blow), including an almost unrecognisable cover of Rage Against The Machine's "Killing in the Name", which has become something of a club anthem locally. The band members were very friendly when I found myself having lunch next to them on the final day of the festival.
Seabear play a kind of rustic folk in the style of Sufjan Stevens or Iron & Wine. Their sound, in particular the vocalist, was so similar to the recent crop of great acts coming out of the US that I had to double-check that Seabear are in fact Icelandic. Their wonderful album "The Ghost That Carried Us Away" is released by Morr Music of Berlin, so it may actually be available to readers outside of Iceland who are tempted by the description. Hjaltalín were also compared to Sufjan Stevens in the festival literature, but the wide range of instruments they used put me more in mind of the Arcade Fire or even Birmingham's own Shady Bard.
Unfortunately, if you want to hear more of these bands then you may need to visit Iceland as most of their work is not released internationally. If you do find yourself in Reykjavík, then 12 Tónar is the place to visit. This has rapidly become my favourite shop anywhere in the world; they release most of the local acts through their own label, allow you to take anything you like from the shelves and listen to it on one of the shop's many CD players, and bring you endless cups of coffee while you're deciding what to buy. Their website doesn't feature a complete online shop at the moment, but if you are desperate for any of the music I've described here, just drop them a line and tell them that I sent you - I'm sure they will be happy to arrange international shipping.
This year the guys from 12 Tónar introduced me to the music of Kid Twist and kindly burned me a CD of a few demo tracks that were on the shop's laptop. The band were not performing on the main festival bill, but made a brief mid-afternoon appearance in the shop itself on the first day of the festival. They are obviously influenced by 1960s acts such as the Seeds and the 13th Floor Elevators, but I was reminded more of the noisy psychedelia that was briefly popular in the late '80s/early '90s (Dr. Phibes & the House of Wax Equations in particular) - perhaps because I was around to experience that era first-hand! I guess 12 Tónar may have plans to release something from them soon, although if they do, I think the band's choice of name could cause some confusion. While searching for the band's website, I came across a Scottish electro act and a US DJ, both of them also called Kid Twist.
Iceland Airwaves has now been running for 10 years, and it seems to be more popular each year so there is no reason why it shouldn't continue for many more years. I hope to see some of you there in 2009.