Inside Iceland Airwaves 2022 as the coolest music festival on the planet returns in spectacular fashion

Daughters of Reykjavik, Iceland Airwaves 2022 (Image credit: Florian Trykowski)

There aren’t many music festivals which afford ticket holders the opportunity to start their evening's entertainment sitting on the altar of one of the most beautiful churches in Europe watching a classically-trained composer playing Daft Punk’s debut album Discovery on a 15-metres-tall pipe organ, and then take a ten-minute stroll down the main street of the host country's capital in order to witness a teenager from Luxembourg play the sort of fabulously gritty melodic alt.rock that could have landed her a Lollapalooza main stage slot in 1992.

But then not every music festival is Iceland Airwaves.

Launched in 1999 as a one-off gig in an empty airplane hangar at Reykjavík Airport, the event has grown into an internationally-renowned showcase for grass roots talent. And while the festival has been graced by a number of UK and American bands who've developed into arena-fillers - Biffy Clyro, Florence and the Machine and Kaiser Chiefs among them - its primary focus has always been on promoting homegrown artists, thereby giving a platform, across the past two decades, to Louder-friendly acts such as Sigur Rós, We Made God, Sign, Gavin Portland, Agent Fresco, Vicky, Sólstafir, Reykjavik!, Mínus and many more.

Tour guides in Iceland will tell you that, due to its central volcanic plateau, the country is constantly evolving, always 'alive', forever in a state of flux, and the same can be said of its fecund music scene, which makes Airwaves, back in physical form for the first time since 2019, and sold out for the first time in a decade, such a pleasingly unpredictable festival to attend.

In truth, save for local psych/stoner heroes The Vintage Caravan, heavy rock isn't exactly over-represented on the Airwaves 2022 line-up, but that's not to say there isn't a wealth of incredible music to discover.

Here's our highlights from an action-packed weekend in Europe's most northern capital city.

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Post-hardcore heroes Mínus, signed to The Sugarcubes' independent record label Smekkleysa, were the first Icelandic band this writer ever saw live, when they toured their still-frighteningly-awesome Jesus Christ Bobby album in the UK alongside Charger and Matter in 2002, and proceeded to 'treat' London's Camden Underworld to what was surely the loudest gig in its history.

Five years later in Reykjavik, I saw charismatic lead vocalist Krummi Björgvinsson give an equally mesmerising performance as er, Jesus Christ Krummi in an Icelandic production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, and in 2022, the singer has mutated once again, and can be found fronting a black-clad and laidback Americana/outlaw country quartet at the IA Center on the evening of November 3, and at Jörgensen Kitchen & Bar on the afternoon of November 4.

"He's from Höfuðborgarsvæðið, like you," a man seated at the bar in Jörgensen informs the woman sipping a 'happy hour' beer alongside him. "Ah, no wonder he's good," comes the instant reply.

Krummi at IA Center, Iceland Airwaves, November 3, 2022

Krummi at IA Center, Iceland Airwaves, November 3, 2022 (Image credit: Yael BC)

The real joy of Airwaves, however, is stumbling upon artists you've never previously heard of, such as 18-year-old Icelandic alt.pop prodigy/producer Gugusar (aka Guðlaug Sóley Höskuldsdóttir) and the aforementioned Francis of Delirium from Luxembourg, fronted by 19-year-old Vancouver-born vocalist/guitarist Jana Bahrich.

Compared, unhelpfully, to Billie Eilish when she started releasing music at age 15, Gugusar now sounds like no-one but herself, and her captivating Thursday evening performance, solo onstage in front of a huge audience at the cavernous Art Museum, is remarkable for its self-assurance. Bewitchingly ethereal new single *traust is a teaser for an imminent follow-up to 2020's Listen To This Twice, we're told: Iceland's best-kept secret might not be kept secret from the world too much longer.

Gugusar at Reykjavik Art Museum

Gugusar at Reykjavik Art Museum (Image credit: Alexander Matukhno)

Performing at Gamla Bió the following evening, Francis of Delirium impress too. Louder elected to check out the trio after hearing 2021 single Quit Fucking Around on the festival's smartly-curated Spotify playlist, and it's a highlight, alongside 2020 single Circles, in a charmingly ragged set which calls to mind '90s indie rockers Pavement, Belly and Arlington, Virginia's Tsunami. When TikTok discovers Bahrich's perfectly-pitched adolescent angst anthems, she'll be flying.

Back to Thursday, and following brief stop-offs to catch Finnish techno Siberian throat singing accordionist Antti Paalanen at Iðnó - if Rammstein playing woozy Gypsy-Folk tunes is a sound you've always wanted to hear, look no further - and the engaging Kaktus Einarsson, son of Sugarcubes singer/trumpet player Einar Örn, at Gamla Bió - fans of Damon Albarn's post-Blur work will find much to like - it's back to the Art Museum for the always-entertaining Amyl and The Sniffers.

Not everyone present is immediately swept up by Amy Taylor's band's yob-rock bludgeon - at one point guitarist Dec Mehrtens calls out three men in the front row for looking "bored as fuck" - but by the time the quartet roll out Knifey, a breakneck Don't Need a Cunt (Like You to Love Me) and a ferocious Some Mutts (Can't Be Muzzled), the effervescent, chainmail bikini-sporting Taylor has the room eating from the palms of her hands, and Hertz brings a raucous set to a thrilling conclusion. 

Somehow, Daughters of Reykjavik manage to turn the heat up even further, which takes some doing. The eight-piece feminist hip-hop collective are an absolute riot, blending choreographed dance moves with punk rock energy, diving into the crowd, showering audience members with beer, onstage lactating during Hot MILF Summer and - a first, surely - inviting a young man from the audience to offer himself up for a ritualistic sacrifice which ends with his 'guts' spilling out.

More seriously, the group express solidarity with "the women in Iran, fighting for a better world", cutting off locks of hair as they stand before a screen reading 'We, the Iranian people, are the victims of the Islamic Republic regime and we shall never forget, nor shall we ever forgive those who appeased and co-operated with our oppressors.' It's a powerful moment which seems to stop time and suck the air from the room. 

Amyl and the Sniffers

Amyl and the Sniffers at Reykjavik Art Museum (Image credit: Julie Van Den Bergh)

Night one of the festival concludes in intense, mind-melting fashion with Vancouver's Crack Cloud, perhaps the world's only avant-garde post-punk multi-media collective to feature a shrieking harpist and a lead vocalist drummer, though don't quote us on that. At the risk of upsetting the wholesome group dynamic, we're giving the MVP award here to the blanket-clad Mohammad Sharar, whose energetic leaps from bongo battering to keyboard jabbing - stop us if we're getting too technical here, non-musos - are a joy to behold. He'll sleep well tonight.

The undisputed star of Friday night's programme is classically-trained pianist and post-classical composer Eydís Evensen, who performs with a string section at Fríkirkjan, a beautiful Lutheran church, consecrated in 1903, on the edge of Tjörnin ('The Pond'). Evensen's Live at Home session for KEXP was the influential Seattle radio station's most watched session during the pandemic, racking up over 3.2 million views since being posted in the June 2021, and her performance at Fríkirkjan, only her second ever Reykjavik concert, is nothing short of spellbinding.

Eydis Evensen

Eydís Evensen at Fríkirkjan, November 4, 2022 (Image credit: Sabrina Smith)

Works by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, Hildur Guðnadóttir and Biggi Hilmars have positioned Icelandic composers at the forefront of the global film/TV scoring community, and as she shares themes from her 2021 album Bylur ('Snowstorm') and 2022 EP Frost, it's easy to imagine Evensen's stunningly beautiful compositions on future Oscars shortlists.

As she opens her ten-song set with Dagdraumur ('Daydream'), a respectful, breathless hush falls upon the congregation inside Fríkirkjan, as if the simple act of exhaling might break the magic of the moment. In a set composed of nothing but highlights, special mention must go to the jaw-droppingly gorgeous Midnight Moon, featuring vocals from jazz-pop vocalist Guðrún Ýr Eyfjörð Jóhannesdóttir aka GDRN, and the set-closing The Light I from Frost, which seems to evoke the pure joy of a born-again world tentatively reawakening from the stasis caused by the pandemic.

It's a composition which also transmits the impression that Evensen's own journey is only just beginning. On the following afternoon, at Greenhouse Studios, a high-end but charmingly homely facility located in a quiet Reykjavik suburb, Evensen and her producer Valgeir Sigurðsson offer a world preview of a transcendent recently-recorded track from the pianist's forthcoming second album, causing a room full of experienced international music journalists, including legendary Rolling Stone writer David Fricke, to fall into awed silence. An exceptional, enchanting, world class talent.

Louder's plan, following on from this festival highpoint, was to round off the weekend on Saturday night by embracing the opposite end of Airwaves' sonic spectrum, in the form of four guitars/two drummers Irish noise-punks Thumper at the storied rock venue Gaukurinn where, local legend has it, Iceland's first legal draft beer was sold, in 1989.

Unfortunately, and somewhat ironically, having earlier recommended the band as a 'must see' attraction to Icelandic friends, this writer finds himself unable to get into the venue, which is packed beyond capacity with a queue right around the building long before the Dubliners' scheduled 11:20pm stage time.

By all accounts, or more specifically according to the account of our good friend Karlotta Laufey, guitarist with Vicky and Ottoman, who arrives at the Ölstofa bar in the wee small hours clutching a vinyl copy of the sextet's excellent Delusions Of Grandeur album, the band absolutely killed it, so we can't even be mad at missing out since we've previously seen Thumper twice in London. 

As it transpires, in the end, the final musical act this writer sees in Reykjavik is a local busker wearing chainmail and a helmet, performing Lynyrd Skynyrd's Freebird outside a Vietnamese restaurant. If I leave here tomorrow Reykjavik, would you still remember me? Probably not, in all honesty, but we won't forget you, or Iceland Airwaves 2022, any time soon.


Horns ornament

Iceland rocks! (Image credit: Sabrina Smith)

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.