Words by Nate Abernethy
Photos by Skúli Pálmason
While all you cool kids were FunFunFun-ing it up, I skipped town and met up with our boys in Spray Paint to tackle the most Nordic of music festivals. After a night or two of camping out in the cold, I headed into the heart of Reykjavik to see what the friendly frigid isle had to offer.
Mugison is something like a national hero in Iceland. The singer-songwriter even conducts his own music festival in the small fishing village of Isafjordur, a town I’m all too familiar with after attending their swamp soccer tournament last year and being forcibly tongue kissed by a fifty year old woman. But I digress! Iceland’s forte seems to be folksy singer-songwriters, so I cozied up in a corner of KEX Hostel for KEXP’s showcase expecting very little outside the norm. I was fortunately wrong as Mugison immediately shrugs off any kind of pre-conceived notions you may have. As evident in his impressive catalogue as it is in his live performance, Mugison may be one of the most effortlessly varied musicians I have ever seen.
Mugison’s last album was his first to be recorded in Icelandic, and he made sure to slip in a performance of “Þjóðarsálin,” a bluesy track off the album that feels almost as if it should be woefully chanted by a chain gang before the electric guitar punctuation grows more pronounced and Mugison’s voice raises to a fierce roar. Icelandic may sound vaguely like The Sims when spoken, but when sung it seems to transcend language, becoming a gorgeous and harmonic expression. Mugison continued his guttural growls with a traditional Icelandic song that shook the roof as the entire crowd joined in with their own manly screams. As the eager audience stood expectantly awaiting more, Mugison performed his most well known song “Murr Murr” with an almost flamenco like guitar style and a tenacious energy that built to a frenzied, explosive conclusion as he nearly toppled off his pedestal. As I departed to catch the next show I could still hear the thunderous applause shaking the entire building, an impressive feat for a solo performance.
I stumbled into Vök entirely by accident. Blame it on jet lag or my American ineptness, but I wandered into the venue having no idea who or what had just taken the stage. With a saxophone slung around his neck, Vök member Andri Már was frustrating the hell out of me with all his knob twisting and button pushing. I was ready for some sexy sax god damn it. No sooner had the thought entered my mind when all of the sudden he busted out some smooth wailing with “Before.” Now I was onboard and started to see the full spectrum of Vök’s talent.
Vocalist Margrét Rán lures you in with husky whispers that abruptly punctuate with retreating gasps. Entrancing and seductive, Vök is far more than just another electronic band, with an engaging presence and an incredibly strong natural sense of the minimalist and the fiery. Their performance of “Við Vökum,” with its xx-esque intro, is ripe for the sampling and so downright sultry it made me want to show an Icelandic girl my hypothetical donation to Husavik’s notorious phallological museum. As Vök winded down their set with tribal wails and drum loops, I couldn’t help but wonder what the addition of a drum kit or electronic drums could add to this group as their sound continues to grow at a stunning rate.
For A Minor Reflection
Iceland’s most well known export Sigur Rós has been borrowing For A Minor Reflection member Kjartan Holm for their tour for nearly a year, but seems to have finally relinquished him just in time for Iceland Airwaves. It’s unfair to compare the two post-rock bands– while Sigur Rós has an almost orchestral quality to it, For A Minor Reflection shows an undeniable passion for a harder rock streak hiding behind a quiet moody instrumental presence. As the band filled the stage, their gently strummed intros and delicately tapped percussion went all too quiet and I knew something ominous was coming. It happens all too fast and all too quickly as a lone driving guitar is swallowed whole by a swirling sound wave and emerges on the other side unharmed.
The most intriguing aspect of For A Minor Reflection is it truly feels like you can never quite predict where the song will go even if you know the album by heart. It all feels organic and almost improvisational as the musicians seemingly read each other’s minds without breaking a sweat. In particular the shifting duets and duels of the guitars allow the band to capture the sound of a more harmonious Godspeed You! Black Emperor. As the lights went down on For A Minor Reflection I realized I had just seen my first true rock band of Iceland Airwaves.
After missing their off-venue show earlier in the week I was determined to catch punk band Börn. Falling in love with the riot grrrl scene in Austin was really the first time I’d been anything other than a causal distant observer of anything music-related, and I’ll always have a soft spot for female-driven punk rock. I was surprised and delighted when the band turned out to be more along the moody despair lines of Austin’s own Crooked Bangs than the aggressive intensity I had expected.
Built around driving basslines with jangly guitars that sneak in a nice pop riff every now and then, frontwoman Alexandra wails more than screams with a strangely melodic voice for such a dreary doomsday backing. Drummer Fannar picks his punches with a fairly minimalist drum setup that pairs nicely with delightful finger picking guitar riffs. Börn’s stage presence is truly an anomaly, it’s easy to meander as a punk band when you’re more moody than over the top in your face, but Börn creates an unnerving and raw atmosphere with their nonstop drive and silent intensity. One of my absolute favorites of the festival, it’s clear Börn demands the same attention onstage as they do on their fantastic self-titled debut keep a look out for this group.