Iceland Airwaves festival day two – the rappers come out in force, but rock steals the day

Iceland’s hip-hop and electronica scenes are thriving, but it’s more traditional fare from Hannah Lou Clark and the mighty Sonics that has the greatest impact

For Iceland, 2016 is the year that rap broke. Noting that one of the themes dominating this year’s Iceland Airwaves festival is Icelandic hip-hop, an article in the Reykjavik Grapevine, amusingly titled Get Rich or Freeze Tryin, lists some of the acts worth looking out for. It has also coined the acronym Nwoihh, for the New Wave of Icelandic Hip-Hop.

Day two kicks off with a variety of intriguing new rap acts, starting with Auður, who is said to perform “smudged R&B”. He’s the Icelandic Weeknd, basically, only blond, offering a slight spin on the genre by strumming an electric guitar as he croons sadly about the sorrowful travails of the high life, like Ed Sheeran shambling uninvited into The Party & the After Party. Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite have the charisma to pull off quiet depravity in the way Abel Tesfaye does, and he’s too keen to telegraph his moral dissolution by saying “fuck” every other word over his slow, torturous soul. “I wanna be alone tonight,” he sings, and he probably will be.

Lord Pu$$whip keeps things dark and brooding, with his take on eerie, codeine-groggy, grinding hip-hop. Through the stoned fog you can just about make out the phrase “motherfucking króna”, and the success of this music beyond these shores is likely to depend on listeners’ preparedness to accept such parochial twists on rap’s established vernacular.

Úlfur Úlfur, starring Arnar and Helgi, are the most highly touted of Iceland’s rappers. They make a smooth virtue out of the consonant-heavy language, helped by some catchy beats and slipping into English only for their between-song crowd interactions (“Make some noise!” etc). For all the buzz around them, there is a lot of chatter as they play: maybe people are wondering aloud what the current plethora of rising rappers says about Iceland today.

Raising more questions, and inviting a perfect storm of amazement and ridicule, are Krakk & Spaghetti, two pink-haired female rappers and a laptop operator, who apparently started out by competing in a contest to write and perform the worst song. In a brightly lit skiwear store, the hyperactive pair perform their set of fun-size novelty ditties, one of them wearing red trousers, the other in a purple parka so tacky you’d swear she was subversively trying to reclaim Icelandic white trash or something. In fact, they have a song called Hóra Kapítalismans (Capitalist’s Whore). Then again, they have another entitled Spenfrelsi, which means Nipple Freedom, so it’s anyone’s guess. With their comically fast flow and squeaky cartoon voices, they’re pinky and perky, punky and quirky. “We’re all total buffoons,” they declared recently. “And we want to add more silliness to the Icelandic music scene.” Job done.

As well as rap, there are a lot of polished, atmospheric electronic acts with powerful warbling female voices at this year’s Airwaves. Probably too many. It used to be a scarce resource, now there is the opposite problem: how to rise above this morass of accomplished “politetronicists”? Still, the venue down by the sea is rammed for Vök, with their male/female configuration and pleasantly pallid xx/Poliça-style pop. Downstairs in a bar along the same road, Iris gives good bewitching over glitchy post-dubstep beats and goth-tinged melodies; aural dry ice suffused with Icelandic mythos.

Over at the Harpa concert hall and conference centre, Iceland’s Bedroom Community record label has been joined by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra for an evening of neo-classical music based on versions of the indie collective’s output. To these untrained ears, it just sounds like a glorious amalgam of Gregorian chants and strings of panoramic, cinematic sweep worthy of a Spielberg movie, all watched over by BC founder members Ben Frost, Nico Muhly and Valgeir Sigurðsson. Good sound, too – hardly surprising given the environs, a four-tiered building that makes the Royal Albert Hall look like CBGBs.

Another auspicious venue is Reykjavik’s art museum, where Julia Holter is playing. Here, however, the high ceilings conspire against the generally excellent Holter in terms of acoustics. But her music is also let down by her supposed allies: the double bass and violin work, but the drums are plodding and the saxophone drowns out her light ululations. And her material, seemingly designed to take flight, is frustratingly tethered.

Where Holter is experimental, Hannah Lou Clark is a husky alt-rocking throwback, in the nicest possible way: it’s actually something of a relief to hear a musician and a band without any electronics. With a mainly female outfit (save for the token bloke drummer), she plays a set that flits between 80s AOR and the Breeders/Belly/Throwing Muses 90s college-rock axis.

The penultimate place I visit tonight is like Heaven – the London club, not the abstract paradise. Here, Belgium-based Congolese rapper Baloji – a tall, charismatic fellow in a wide-brimmed hat that makes him vaguely resemble a wild west preacher – does his thing, fusing ragga and funk. Grinning, pogoing and grabbing his crotch, he puts in a high-energy performance, eliciting some risque dancing from the crowd.

After midnight, the Sonics – the godfathers of all that White Stripes-type pseudo-primitive rock action, and the only act name-checked more than once in the classic hipster mantra Losing My Edge by LCD Soundsystem – put on a great garage rock show. Their guitar menace is enhanced by their matching dark suits, white shirts and black ties: they look like the Hives’ cool granddads. Against a backdrop of 50s and 60s cult arcana – Russ Meyer movies, greasers on ton-up motorcycles assailing “the squares” – they play a heady mixture of proto-punk and crude, minimalist R&B that’s so good it makes you realise they deserved that double mention in Losing My Edge.

  • Paul Lester’s trip to Iceland was paid for by Iceland Airwaves.
Paul Lester

The GuardianTramp

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