Living just below the Arctic Circle, the Icelandic people are stubborn, determined survivors. Proud of their almost miraculous strength of purpose, they have an almost fanatical willingness to endure almost anything that nature hurls at them. They also possess an enviable sense of community that is reinforced by their proud history of self-sufficiency.
The Icelandic folk tend to flaunt their bullheaded isolation, and they often speak fondly about the remoteness of their existence. Yet they are fully integrated within the modern global society. Internet use in Iceland is the highest in the world. (86% of the population use the internet.) The country spends 2.75% of its G.D.P. on scientific research and development (more than Germany or the U.K.,) and according to INSEAD’s Global Innovation Index, Iceland is the 11th most-innovative country in the world. (A higher placing than Germany or France.) But it is the Icelandic work ethic, attention to detail, and commitment to efficiency and accuracy, that makes the country’s citizens such capable organizers, and therefore also superlative festival hosts.
And so the Iceland Airwaves Festival (held the first time in 1999) has emerged as one of the world’s premiere annual showcases for new music. This year, the festival offered visitors to Reykjavík almost 230 musical acts, over five evenings.
Iceland is famous for its lively and innovative pop music scene. The country is now closely associated with some excellent alternative/indie rock bands, and is fast becoming an important nutrient medium for the Nordic metal scene.
Traditional folk music is still strongly supported throughout the island, and the classical music of Iceland is famous all over the world. But it is not surprising that Icelanders have turned some of their attention toward the “viking heavy metal” genre and the darkest derivatives of heavy rock, for example, black metal.
At Cafe Amsterdam on Friday night we saw two bands from this more extreme side of things.
The band Angist played dark thrash death-metal. And then there was the technically skilled and overwhelmingly powerful magnificence of Atrum–the recent winners of the “Icelandic Wacken Metal Battle” award. Also playing at The Amsterdam was a non-native band, the brutally corrosive Heavy Medical from Brooklyn, New York. Their rich reverb snippets were outrageously loud. Their setup was intriguing too, comprised of two drummers and a bass guitar.
Earlier the same evening at the Celtic Cross bar and music venue, THE BOMBER JACKET met with members of Angist, the dark metal band. We asked why the people of Iceland seemed so musically focused.
“Well we cannot exactly spend time sunning ourselves on a beach,” said lead guitarist Gyða Hrund Þorvaldsdóttir. “We just lock ourselves in our cellars and we start to create something. Maybe it’s all this darkness. We have long working hours and lots of darkness…”
“We listen to music, we write, we paint … we think,” she explained. And when asked whether she thought that the fascinating and dramatic landscape played a part, she said, “We recorded our EP in the middle of winter and in the middle of a forest. So maybe.”
But for Angist, the music really stems from the band’s imagination. As the band says, in Iceland there isn’t much distraction–no noise, no interruption–so they can devote themselves toward their creativity.
On Saturday Benjamin Petersen also performed at Cafe Amsterdam. Petersen is from the nearby Faroe Islands. “Just 75 minutes away,” he told us. “And everyone on my island is a musician,” he added. Petersen’s extraordinary voice was lushly decorated by engagingly complex rock arrangements. Darkly edged at times, there were also moments of blinding majesty.
Among all this dark and heavy rock, we also found time to enjoy the somewhat lighter, but no less poignant, side of Iceland’s musical output. At the charming old theater the Idno (built in 1897) we enjoyed the jazzy bass-work of the Icelandic composer Skúli Sverrisson.
This was followed by the joy and lightness of Ólöf Arnalds‘ performance. Arnalds played delicate, sweet songs of purity and vision.
What better way to end the last evening in Iceland than with a hot dog from Bill Clinton’s favorite hot dog stand? Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur is situated on the harbor side, sheltered (just a little) from the bitter-cold wind. So before heading back to our hotel, we listened to the waves crashing under a blackened sky and reflected on our experiences on this land of ice and fire.
On a night like this, here in this land, Led Zeppelin was inspired to write the “Immigrant Song.” Celestial and magnificent.