There’s no giant fence circling Iceland Airwaves in Reykjavic. It’s not that kind of festival. Sure, this could be said of any fest that takes over a city’s music venues, rather than posting up for the weekend in a park (or, often these days, a parking lot). But it feels even more significant in Iceland, where November brings just eight hours of sunlight a day and fierce winds that dare everyone to spend all of those hours outside.
The ethos of Iceland Airwaves is not to keep its attendees locked into a specific performance or a particular setting. It wants you to get out there and roam. It wants you to discover, even if that discovery is a public swimming hole, a secluded waterfall, and one of their many, excellent homegrown bands.
Very few other festivals offer links to things like Northern Lights sightseeing tours or Game Of Thrones filming location adventures right there on their festival website like Iceland Airwaves, but a major theme running across their programming is that their festival isn’t just working as an ambassador to their incredible local music scene, it’s also to their locale. For the music fans from the area, they populate the bill with a fair share of international acts to accompany the many Icelandic commodities. The result is a festival that feels geared towards both residents and tourists, and really, has something for just about anyone. For a Gen X couple I met traveling in from Washington D.C., it meant trying to discern the appeal of Mac DeMarco while they also discovered Icelandic acts they’d never heard of. For me, it was easier to focus on the latter, taking in the opportunity to see artists that don’t often make it to the US.
The most obvious takeaway is that there isn’t a specific Iceland sound. Of course, anyone that’s even paid attention to the Icelandic acts that have broken out over the last couple few decades — Bjork, Sigur Ros, Of Monsters And Men — could tell you the same thing. But, at the same time, certain artists portrayed a certain singularity that begged the question as to whether they could exist anywhere else in the world. Chief among these was Hatari, a trio that balanced futuristic industrial evocations about technology and politics with guttural, metal-leaning vocals. It’s the kind of performance that needs to be seen more than read about and borderlines on performance art, which is especially wild considering they were Iceland’s entry to Eurovision in 2010. They finished 10th.
But while things like this were certainly feasts for the eyes (and endurance tests for the ears), it was some of the more traditional music that stood out to me. Long-dormant indie-folk band Seabear came out of hibernation and proved that their distinctly aughts take on indie still sounds brilliant a decade later, remaining as timeless as an early Belle & Sebastian record. The band joked about being unsure if anyone besides their family cared about their return, but Seabear makes music so inviting that caring is a natural byproduct.
On the other end of the spectrum was Briet, a 19-year-old rising pop star who could entrance with just her energy and optimism. Fortunately, her music stands up to her magnetic stage presence, creating something of an ideal pop concoction, where the live show can easily hold a candle to the recorded output.
Of course, much of the great music that was heard at Iceland Airwaves came from outside the island, with acts like Norway’s Anna Of The North, Canada’s Orville Peck, and the US’ Whitney all making their marks. And on the smaller end of things, I was particularly taken with Broen, a groovy Norwegian band with slight psych tendencies. Seeing them in a small sweaty club demanded the question as to whether the experience would translate to bigger venues, but regardless, the band’s chops and energy made for a captivating set.
The fun thing about Iceland Airwaves is how different of an experience its attendees can have from each other. With many venues’ programming running at the same time, fans are left with endless choices to create their own musical adventure. It may lose some of the shared experience that seeing a band with 80,000 other people allows, but it’s appropriate that in an isolated, remote place like Iceland, attendees can have equally personal experiences. In a lot of ways, this made the event feel like a palate cleanser in the festival world, less reliant on Instagram FOMO and unannounced guest appearances than it is on genuine musical interest. The festival, essentially, gives back what you put into it.
But anyone in Iceland would encourage visitors to venture outside the Reykjavic city limits. The country has waterfalls by the thousands, The Blue Lagoon’s unmatched combination of health spa and natural wonder, endless delicious soups, and landscapes that often feel like something out of fiction. The festival helps accommodate such adventures by largely running its music programming in the evenings, though there are panel discussions and other events during the daytime. As someone that’s written a lot about using music festivals as an entryway for seeing the world, no festival I’ve been to embraces this philosophy like Iceland Airwaves. The drawback is simply the constraints of time, where tough choices often have to be made due to the distance venues are from each other and the amount of time it takes to pack in all that the festival, and city, have to offer.
But as more and more festivals look like each other, Iceland Airwaves feels more than comfortable just being itself. Throughout the week that it ran, many of the locals would discuss “the next time” people would come to Iceland, almost assuming that visiting once would not be enough for most. And obviously, they are right, with both the festival and country breeding curiosity. The best jumping-off points are often the ones where you don’t know where you will land.
Uproxx was hosted by Iceland Airwaves for this story. However, they did not review or approve this story. You can read our press trip/hosting policy here.