As I was paying for my purchases as the charmingly cramped Geisladiskabúð Valda record shop, the owner asked (as most every local did) if I was here for Iceland Airwaves. Once that was established, I asked him if he had any designs on seeing any concerts that week. “No,” he answered, “I’m more of a metal guy and they never have any shows like that.”
I came close to correcting him, but restrained myself lest we get into a debate about what constitutes “metal” in our fractured musical times. And because, his larger point about how heavy rock is treated in Reykjavik was loud and clear. There were metal shows at the festival, but there were only two of them: both set in tiny clubs where the diehards piled in to get their long hair blown back by high octane, high volume rock. The rest of the festival was devoted to much more easy-to-swallow musical fare. A sensible decision if you want to sell a lot of wristbands to a lot of people from all over the world.
In the other record shops in the city, the picture came even clearer. While a spot like Lucky Records carries a wealth of used metal LPs, they, like 12 Tónar and Smekkleysa (“Bad Taste”), stock the bare minimum of new material. The only band they seem to endorse is Sólstafir, a psychedelically-leaning group that one clerk referred to as the “Sigur Ros of metal” and who are respected enough to be able to book a show at Harpa. In a region of the world known for its thriving heavy rock scene, it was a little disappointing to find it treated as an afterthought.
Beyond simply selling tickets to a festival, the folks behind Iceland Airwaves also likely recognize that there already is an annual metal event that draws in heavier acts from around the world: the marvelous Eistnaflug fest that takes place in Neskaupstaður, a village that just fifty years ago was accessible only by sea. Between that and the other festivals that go down during the summer months in the rest of the Nordic nations, Reykjavik metalheads should be pleased that Iceland Airwaves is willing to acknowledge the heavy stuff at all. It also helps that the two metal-themed events that did happen this past week were pretty glorious.
The first night, which was organized by the fledgling label Vánagandr and took place in the perfectly dark and slightly dingy confines of Gaukurinn, had a slightly epic feel to it. Even on the tiny stage, the half-dozen groups that performed felt bonded by a shared goal to both crush the eardrums of anyone in attendance and to plant their dark, tattered flag into the Iceland Airwaves landscape.
No band did that with more force and authority than Misþyrming (seen above), the black metal project led by the enigmatic D.G. The quartet, faces and bodies smeared with dark paint (or ashes?), were as unrelenting and terrifying as you’d want a band like this to be. The group played with an abandon and fierceness that at times threatened to completely collapse in on itself due to some slightly wobbly drumming. By sheer will and the urging of the crowd, they stayed their course and left a smoldering wasteland in their wake. That had to have inspired the two bands that followed—Severed and Svartidauði—as both unleashed positively feral performances that felt like the tectonic plates shifting under our feet.
The following day, the music moved to the even smaller confines of Dillon, a whisky bar that sits on one of the main tourist drags in Reykjavik above a Chuck Norris-themed restaurant. The performance space was tucked into the attic space, making for an intimate and humid few hours of music. Dubbed “Extreme Music Night,” the off-venue day party was a mixture of heavy sounds, including another ground rattling performance by Svartidauði, a particularly stunning and unhinged set from fellow black metallers Mannveira (above), and some snarling hardcore punk by Grit Teeth.
What gives a metal fan like myself hope about seeing more events like these two in the future at Iceland Airwaves was the sheer number of people that piled into both venues for the shows, and the fact that the majority didn’t fit the profile of your typical heavy rock enthusiast. There were plenty of leather jackets, lots of long hair, and attitude to spare, but by and large, the rest of the audience was sweater-clad music lovers that happily enjoy a mix of sounds from all over the sonic spectrum. The volume and heat in the room wasn’t going to dissuade them for one moment.
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