(We welcome our guest Jeff from the Life In the Vinyl Lane blog, who sent us this report on the Iceland Airwaves festival plus a few of his photos.)
“We are going to play a few songs about friendship and love… and hate! And the first song is about trucking.”
So began the set of Iceland’s heavy metal grandfathers, HAM. We are HAM!
It’s hard to believe that just yesterday I was in Reykjavik, Iceland, still in the afterglow of Iceland Airwaves 2014, and today I’m back in Seattle. Doing laundry and paying the bills that piled up while we were gone. How quickly things change.
If you’re not familiar with Airwaves, it’s a five-day music festival held in Reykjavik, a festival that covers just about the entire gamut of musical styles and genres, all seemingly, except country and jazz. It started in 1999 with a handful of bands playing in an airplane hanger and has morphed into a sprawling celebration of music spread out throughout downtown Reykjavik, featuring over 200 bands playing in every conceivable location – dedicated music venues, bars, clothing stores, hair salons, and a tent located outside a hot dog stand. You can’t walk a block without hearing live music. And it’s awesome.
Iceland, like its Scandinavian cousins, has a deep relationship with metal. While you have to hunt around a bit to find it during Airwaves, it’s there. You just need to let the wind carry the guitars and sounds of Viking funeral pyres to your ears and let it lead the way. While we didn’t gorge ourselves on metal during the festival, we did manage to catch a handful of great shows by some bands that are worth checking out.
On Thursday night we headed to the city’s rock/metal club, Gaukurinn, to check out a pair of bands. We’ve seen shows in this venue in each of the last six years, and if there’s one thing that’s consistent it’s that the volume is LOUD. Last year it was so loud we almost left. This may, in fact, mean I’m too old. I’m not sure. But either way, I was hoping not to experience a repeat this year, and in fact we didn’t – the venue moved the stage location and the sound guys had the volume dialed in perfectly for both bands we saw.
The first was Tremoro Tarantura from Norway, a band the festival website described as “loud, distorted, and repetitive.” They were certainly loud, but if I were to use one word to describe their sound it would be relentless. If I could use two words they would be fucking relentless. They absolutely pounded the audience with slowly building progressions, generating a deep sound that made my ribs vibrate. To me the emphasis here was on sound, not vocals – the music was the driving element, and the vocals served to act as another instrument, not terribly distinct but audible with an almost musical quality of their own.
Following Tremoro Taratura was the band we’d actually gone to see, Iceland’s own DIMMA. Now to be fair, DIMMA’s style might be a bit tame for the No Clean Singing reader because, well, the singing is very clean. DIMMA plays an epic, grandiose style of heavy metal, reminiscent of some of the more technically proficient acts of the 1980s. The guitar work alternates between intricate and shredding, and the bass comes at you like an 18-wheeler with no breaks. But what truly defines the band’s sound, at least to me, is the voice of Stefán Jakobsson. The mix was set just right to allow Jakobsson’s voice to soar – he knows exactly how to handle his front-man duties and shows great range. DIMMA are metal veterans, and it shows in everything they do on stage.
When the official “on venue” schedule came out, there were a number of great Icelandic metal bands missing, most notably Skálmöld and Sólstafir, both of whom had brand new releases out and were touring outside of Iceland. I was disappointed to be missing both of these bands, but perhaps even more so that the band who may very well be the ground zero of Icelandic metal was not slated to play. We would not be seeing HAM (rhymes with “Dom”) this year.
But wait! KEXP radio was doing live broadcast from KEX Hostel (yes, a hostel), and when they found they had one last slot to fill, someone asked out loud, “what about HAM?” It seemed unlikely given that one of their singers is actually a member of the Icelandic parliament. But an email was sent, and the reply can back just a day later – “yes”. HAM would be in the house.
We got there early, and it was clear the scene was going to be a madhouse. Since this was “off venue,” anyone could attend, including those who didn’t have a festival pass, so it was a heavy local crowd. KEX was packed to capacity and then some, best guess about 300 people crammed into the small space, even standing on all available chairs and tables.
HAM came out and played a warm-up that was two full songs long, a nice sampler for the full deal, a roughly 25-minute blistering set of doom metal, with the vocals alternating between the gravely rasp of Óttarr Proppé and the deep baritone of Sigurjón Kjartansson. The crowd ate it up – the front row was relentlessly headbanging, so much so that one of the photographers told me he kept having hair come over the top of his head and into the frame of his shots. The crowd refused to leave following the set, clapping, chanting “HAM,” and stomping on the floor until the band came out for a very rare Airwaves encore which included what I feel is their best song, “Dauð Hóra” (“Dead Whore”). The fans ate it up.
Needless to say, I did some record shopping while in Reykjavik. I picked up the previously mentioned new releases by Skálmöld (Með vættum) and Sólstafir (Ótta), but also a handful of cassettes thanks to the recommendation of my buddy Gestur at Lucky Records. There’s a new black metal label in Iceland called Vánagandr issuing stuff on tape, and I was able to pick up four of their releases including the bands 0, Mannveira, Carpe Noctem, and Naðra. Some insane stuff – you can check out the label and get links to the various band’s Bandcamp pages through the label’s website at:
We had a great time at the festival, and I highly recommend it, especially if your tastes range outside of metal. The punk scene in Iceland is plowing ahead full speed with veterans like hardcore Muck and some new kids on the block such as Börn and Pink Street Boys, and if you’re into pure noise there are some great electronic performers like AMFJ, KRAKKKBOT, and DÖPUR. There’s pretty much something for almost everyone at the festival, so mark it on your calendar for next year, November 4-8.