(Above [L-R]: Brooklyn, N.Y.’s New Radio; Iceland’s own Lára Rúnarsdóttir. Photos by Kjersti Egerdahl.)
While fast-rising underground stars like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Annie have helped raise the profile of Iceland Airwaves and fill Reykjavik’s major venues, it’s the local talent and first-time travelers packing small clubs that made this trip to the world’s most northerly capital so worthwhile.
She may not be the new Björk, but Lára Rúnarsdóttir’s ethereal voice demonstrated why she was chosen to open for Damien Rice in Iceland last year. Backed by droning yet powerful waves of guitar and organ, Lára’s remote vocals and fragile gestures placed her on the border between Keren Ann’s cocktail-lounge smoothness and Beth [Portishead] Gibbons’ cool mystery.
Later the same night, Thorir, aka My Summer as a Salvation Soldier, offered a set of spare, heartfelt songs to a knot of young locals at the foot of the stage who all seemed to know the words. These lyrics, delivered in a cracked voice that recalled Conor Oberst, sounded like they were written during one of Iceland’s endless winter nights, but Thorir’s vows to make himself a better person felt even more hopeful in such brief daylight. His affecting honesty comes by way of Elliot Smith, and mixes with delicately crafted melodies that occasionally call Xiu Xiu to mind.
Introspection was a little less painful for Britain’s Rushes. The earnest tenor vocals and fluent piano make Coldplay comparisons inevitable for the trio, but that’s only half the story. Their lush songs gallop off into Americana territory at times, but are restrained by piano and yearning, beautifully arranged vocal harmonies. Airwaves marked the band’s first trip abroad, but keep an eye out for them; they’re recording their debut album this fall.
New Radio had also scarcely left its Brooklyn, N.Y, home base, before coming to Iceland. The shadow of gimmickry—which would follow any band composed of two cellos, an upright bass and drums—fell away during the first song, as distortion pedals lent a strange, better-than-guitar power to the lead vocalist’s cello. Alternating between artsy, angsty belting and slowly building drama, the charismatic quartet put together a genre-bending set.
Getting out of the main venues and into the city paid off during an unannounced performance at record store (and unofficial music-scene clubhouse) 12 Tónar. Local dancefloor favorite Trabant got some hips shaking to its punked-up R&B as the singer bared his chest and rubbed against the window for the overflow crowd outside. It seemed cramped with the five of them across one wall of the room—until all eight members of Architecture in Helsinki took over. There was barely room for the Aussies to set up keys, drums, guitar, melodica, triangle, tambourine and four or five microphones, let alone wield their two trombones. Still, the tangle suited Architecture in Helsinki’s quirky, upbeat tunes. The homemade, innovative feeling that infused the band’s performance is also what makes it fit so well with the festival. Six years in, Iceland Airwaves has proved once again that it has the insight, daring and focus to draw a crowd and show it something new.