Icelandic music still rules the Airwaves

The economic crash of 2008 nearly put a stop to Iceland Airwaves. But two years on, the festival has bounced back

A few years ago, Iceland was known for Björk, Sigur Ros and a namesake chain of frozen food stores. In October 2008, its fragile banking system collapsed leading to, among other things, a major headache for the annual four-day festival Iceland Airwaves.

Grimur Atlason, the festival manager, recalls the uncertainty: "There haven't been many bands coming to Iceland since 2008. When Airwaves was here that year the banks were closed so we couldn't pay fees." Last year's festival was nearly scrapped, but organisers refused to give up. "Our goal was to be bigger than ever," explains Atlason.

Perhaps the only sign of the recession at this year's festival has been a greater reliance on homegrown talent, with bigger bands from outside Iceland scaled back due to cost. With more than 250 bands playing across a vast array of venues – including bookshops and hairdressers as well as boring old bars and clubs – and a lineup featuring chillwave practitioner Toro Y Moi, dubstep duo Mount Kimbie and 80s electro-pop act, Bernsden, it's a festival that thrives on variety and a genuine passion for music.

It's a shame, then, that this year's festival starts with a bit of a whimper. While local favourites Amiina make pretty, multi-layered folk, their sound is lost in the cavernous main hall of Reykjavik's Art Museum. You sense the young crowd is itching for something more and sure enough there's barely space to breathe in the tiny club that hosts 18-year-old Tampa rapper, Dominique Young Unique. Over grinding, bass-heavy soundbeds, she manages to make the heaving mass of bodies dance, regularly interrupting her flow to scream "Iceland!" as if she can't quite get over how incongruous it all is.

It seems that when the tempo is increased the festival comes alive. Walls manage to create spectacular sounds from what looks like a bank of iPods, while Silver Columns' brand of squelchy, disco-tinged electro is less mannered and more fun live than on record. A DJ set from London's dubstep pioneer James Blake is the real highlight, seamlessly mixing his own piano-driven, vocal-heavy tracks with R&B classics by Destiny's Child and OutKast. A remix of his own Limit to Your Love is dropped mid-set and creates beauty in a dank, sweaty club.

If Blake aims to please, then Factory Floor's raison d'être is to confuse and beguile. The trio open with an ear-piercing squall of feedback, before walking around the stage unplugging and unpacking their instruments. No one's sure if it's part of the set or a soundcheck, but just after a round of sarcastic applause, the band launch into a brilliant, rib-rattling set that manages to inspire illicit dancing and fear in equal measure. Swedish duo jj, who are forced to follow, appear lacklustre in comparison, singer Elin Kastlander's weedy vocals barely evoking anything other than boredom.

By comparison, Saturday's headliner, Robyn, can barely contain her excitement. Having never played Iceland before, she draws a huge crowd, despite taking to the stage at 1am, nearly an hour late. Dressed like Neneh Cherry and imploring the crowd to dance, she's a ball of kinetic energy. At one point she chows down on a banana mid-dance, moving from sad-pop classics such as Be Mine and Dancing On My Own to darker, techno-driven tracks such as We Dance to the Beat and Love Kills. Despite the huge crowd for Robyn, there's an equally fervent turn-out for local youngsters Retro Stefson whose kaleidoscopic mix of genres shouldn't really work as well as it does.

Home to 60% of Iceland's population, Reykjavik is the centre of the country's music industry. It's supported largely by its independent record stores, many of which are run by labels (including Bad Taste, home to the Sugarcubes). In Britain, the economic downturn and the rise of download culture has led to the demise of many indie stores, whereas in Reykjavik the only shop to have shut in recent months was the sole chain store. With a genuine desire to promote local talent, it's an industry that is flourishing. Iceland Airwaves definitely helps, with 2,300 visitors coming into the city and buying relatively cheap CDs. As Atlason says: "[Brighton's] Great Escape [festival] is in a small city, but it's close to London. Here there's nothing else. You have Reykjavik, the big city, but it's about the music, it's about the bands."


Michael Cragg

The GuardianTramp

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