When someone asks you to think of Iceland, you probably think of volcanoes ruining aviation, geysers, hot springs, the cold, Bjork. And all of those things are valid. But after visiting the North Atlantic isle for Iceland Airwaves 2014, we can attest to there being a whole lot more than that. In fact, we'd go as far as to say that Iceland and Airwaves is one of the best experiences you could ever have.
Renowned for its music as much as its cinematic and stunning landscapes, many people love Icelandic exports such as the aforementioned Bjork, Sigur Ros, Jonsi, Of Monsters and Men and more, but to reduce the music of the country to just those would be the same as reducing our own to that of U2 and The Dubliners. Over the course of five days in Reykjavik, we were treated to a variety of excellent homegrown talent as well as some exceptional imports of both big and small names and both wowed in expected and unexpected ways.
The line-up included festival crowd pleasers The Flaming Lips, The War On Drugs, Future Islands, Caribou, The Knife (in their 'last ever performance'), our very own Hozier, Reykjavik's own FM Belfast (who played to massive delighted crowds on several nights of the festival), Anna Calvi, Ásgeir, Kelela, Jessy Lanza, Kwabs, Zebra Katz, Roosevelt, Son Lux and many, many more. An eclectic mix yes, but then that's Iceland, and all these acts would easily be worthy of an evening slot at an Irish festival.
And that says nothing of the Icelandic people. They love their music, almost more than we do. That's why any of the performances that took place off-venue, and therefore were accessible to non-ticket holders, found themselves with massive queues trailing out of them, which should have been infuriating but thanks to the good vibes of the people and the festival it wasn't something that you minded. Reykjavik is such an visual feast for the eyes that you always have something pleasing to look at, be it the skyline, the surroundings or the people.
And we've yet to mention the official festival app. In previous experience, most music festival apps have just been bloated adverts with basic (and incorrect once there are changes) timetables and terrible maps with no offline functionality, rendering them pretty useless when you're rammed into an area with thousands of people trying to get mobile internet at the same time.
Not so with Iceland Airwaves. In fact, we'd go so far as to say it was the best festival app and genuinely one of the best all round apps we've ever used. Seriously, it's up their with Hailo. All the information you required was there, with built in maps and artist times, and an ability to very easier make your own custom timetable that would notify of a start time 15 minutes before an act was due to take to the stage. And all of this was available with zero internet access. Bands cancelling or changing times were live-updated and would change anytime you connected to the internet (which was very easy thanks to Reykjavik's plentiful free WiFi). It made the planning and traveling parts of the festival a breeze.
But back to the music. Over five days and nights, we bouncing between national concert halls, art museums, churches and tiny cafes sampling the best of the festival. We witnessed an entire crowd lose their mind to Caribou while priceless works of art was locked away in Reykjavik Art Museum, sweated to death in a tiny cafe while Son Lux served up his sounds to a hungry crowd, saw The Knife work their magic on thousands and discovered Icelandic talents Mr. Silla, Óbó, Kira Kira with Eskmo, Kiasmos and Mammút all delivering exceptionally talented performances. None of those five acts are in any way comparable, with their styles ranging from stripped back R'n'B Pop (Mr. Silla) to melancholy orchestral Post-Rock (Óbó) to some of the most beautiful and compelling-to-dance-to electronic music you're likely to hear in 2014 from Kiasmos.
We won't go into details about all the performances we took in because, to be honest, they were all exceptional and not one disappointed save for maybe The Knife. Not playing 'Heartbeats' at your 'last ever performance' when there are people who've flown in from the farthest reaches of the planet to see you and hear that song is a bit shit. Stand outs were Caribou, How To Dress Well, FM Belfast (on both occasions we saw them - as another attendee said, they are our Le Galaxie), Zhala, Kiasmos, Anna Calvi and Zebra Katz (but that's heavily influenced by the fact we got to dance and be onstage with him during the performance).
Recommendations for Airwaves? Well if you're going, be prepared to queue for or be early to any acts you want to see. The fact that the venues are all buildings with fire codes and set capacities means it's first come, first served for attendance. This isn't like any outdoor Irish festival where you know you'll be able to cram yourself into the back of the tent or field. Also, this means you may find yourself outdoors a lot, which in November in Iceland is as cold as you can imagine. Not Arctic by any means, similar to the colder winter days here, but by Zeus will you be grateful for a good coat and warm accessories.
Also, Iceland being as harsh a geographic environment as you can imagine, doesn't have access to alcohol ingredients such as grapes and wheat like we do. Not that alcohol is essential for this festival in the slightest, but just being real, you're going to want to have a drink. So we recommend you get used to drinking beer as everything else is quite expensive. There's a duty free in the airport next to the baggage claim that is your last chance to stock up on booze tax free, and we recommend you use it.
And if you want a taste of what the festival sounded like, the good folk behind Iceland Airwaves even threw together a Spotify playlist to give you a sample of the great music that was on offer.
We're already planning our trip next year. Iceland Airwaves: Two giant thumbs way, way up.
Header image via Iceland Airwaves/Flickr