Last week saw the kickoff of the 2011 Iceland Airwaves festival, Reykjavík’s answer to SXSW. Each year, the event draws thousands of attendees from around the world, who come for its unique combination of cutting-edge music and exotic environs. Highlights this time around included performances from SUBTRKT, Tune-Yards, Beach House, Sinead O’Connor, Yoko Ono, and our favorite new Swedes, Niki & The Dove. James Murphy did a DJ set, Jónsi bounced from show to show, and Björk premiered her stunning Biophilia spectacle/concert at equally stunning new concert hall and conference center Harpa. However, beyond all the superstars and international acts, there was something else exciting to discover: Iceland’s own wealth of homegrown talent, which makes up a major percentage of the five-day, citywide festival’s lineup. Here are five of our local favorites.
Of Monsters and Men
If there was one band no one could stop talking about in Reykjavík this year, it was the ever-expanding Of Monsters and Men. With their kitchen-sink approach to rousing folk pop, the collective falls somewhere between Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros and Arcade Fire, mashing up horns, keys, and acoustic and electric guitars to create the kind of sing-along songs you won’t be able to get out of your head for weeks. The band’s debut album, My Head Is an Animal, was released in Iceland this year, with an international release in the works for the near future. If surefire hits like “Little Talks” and their phenomenal live show are any indication, these guys could easily be headline material worldwide by next summer.
If the love of the locals is anything to go by, Sóley is certainly one to watch. The line for her first show at Airwaves stretched down the hall, with people still hoping for a chance to get in even as she neared the final song of her set. A member of Icelandic favorites Seabear, she offered up her first solo EP, Theater Island, last year, followed by this year’s release of her full-length debut, We Sink. Like many of her contemporaries, her music is haunting, introspective, and soulful; her voice remains strikingly unique, though, while her sparse arrangements and visual aesthetic perfectly suit her quietly affecting compositions.
The youngest of this bunch, Samaris are a trio of teenagers who blend woozy synths and electronics with live clarinet and vocals to create a dreamy mix of shoegaze, trip-hop, and indie dance. With its dark undertones, their music often comes across as an Icelandic answer to witch house, while also referencing of-the-moment touchstones like James Blake and Austra. Singer Jófríður Ákadóttir is also known for her role in Pascal Pinon, the decidedly more folksy act she formed with her twin sister Ásthildur, but from a live-performance perspective at least, she seems far more in her element in the electronic haze she’s creating here.
Lay Low, aka Lovísa Elísabet Sigrúnardóttir, released her first album back in 2006, and her spin on country, blues, and roots music caught the attention of everyone from KCRW to Loretta Lynn. Perhaps the only Icelandic artist bold enough to tackle a series of Dolly Parton covers, she took a significant leap forward with her new LP, Brostin Strengur. Recorded entirely in Icelandic, the album takes poetry written by the country’s women over the last 200 years and sets it to captivating acoustic-guitar based compositions. Stream her sophomore release, Farewell Good Night’s Sleep, in full below, then head to her online store to get a copy of the new one.
Rock quintet Mammút got an early start, winning a national band competition while still in their teens. The group’s first album, 2008′s Karkari, was full of potential, skewering hard rock and downtuned guitars with artful twists and impressive vocal theatrics from singer Kata. With its newer material, the still-young band is really on to something though, reining in the angst in favor of something more complex and tempering the bombast with a delicate sense of restraint. Check out “Bakkus” below for a hint of what’s to come on their new album in 2012.