Iceland Airwaves 2017 Festival Review: The 15 Most Exciting Acts

Another week in Iceland proves there's always a new and beautiful world to experience


    “Að leggja höfuðið í bleyti.”

    This classic Icelandic saying suggests that when you need to really think through something, you must lay your head in water. Considering the island setting, there’s no wonder everything in the Icelandic artistic sensibility seems so immaculately designed and considered. At the opening ceremony to this year’s Iceland Airwaves, Reykjavik mayor Dagur Bergþóruson Eggertsson had his own advice regarding H20: “If you want to talk to people, just surround yourself with water: it’s either alcohol or swimming pools,” he smiled. In every facet, the people are empowered, inspired, and immersed in fluidity and life, always moving on to some new beautiful moment.

    Beyond the usual Icelandic water, this year the rains conspired in an attempt to keep visitors from leaving. While there’d been plenty of icy drizzle in previous years, the weather stayed clear and not excessively cold for the extent of Iceland Airwaves 2017. And then, once the days of live music and excitement had ended, suddenly the storm clouds pushed their way in, canceling and delaying dozens of flights and keeping others planted firmly in Iceland for the foreseeable future.

    But goddamit there are far worse fates. Even a momentary delay would offer some time to reflect on the week’s worth of remarkable festival experiences. For one, the festival has grown exponentially, expanding to a second Icelandic city, Akureyri, and did so primarily through adding even more Icelandic artists. Now the abundance of unpredictable local talent knots into one entangled totality of incongruous parts that co-exist magnificently together despite their dissimilarity.


    Just because your dripping desire for something wild and potent is loud doesn’t mean you know where you’re going. Often the challenge is to search for something new using different tools than the ones you usually reach for — for thinking different thoughts from the ones that spring to your mind, for using different words, for listening to different sounds that you typically would avoid. Iceland Airwaves teaches you that it’s not about needing to abandon what you already know, just that there is a beautiful new world beyond.

    Takk, góða nótt, so long, and thanks for all the fish! See you same place, same time next year.

    Aron Can

    A rising talent in Iceland’s vast and brightly burning rap scene, Aron Can seems worlds away from other heavies in the scene like Ulfur Ulfur and Sturla Atlas. Can’s syrupy, hypnotic, minimalist electro-trap stands tall against the bombast of many of his compatriots. His tracks have a subtle stickiness, and his flow recalls Kweku Collins or even a slightly sedated Drake. Backed by images of spooky mansions and Gorillaz-esque scenery, Can lit Reykjavik Art Museum up, the massive crowd hitting every word along with him. While rappers can have a particularly hard time transcending national borders, Can has all the ingredients to make the leap to the international stage.


    “I wrote a lullaby for grownups, and it’s called ‘Sleep Rhythm’,” DíSA smiled from the lip of the stage at Iðnó. The black clad vocalist proceeded to weave keys, synth bass, violin tones, and heavily reverberated vocals around weighty percussion, a slinky siren call to join her in the farthest reaches of the subconscious. The synth tones pulsed and prodded like a surround-sound didgeridoo, ringing out over the consistently driving beats. DíSA recently participated in a peace meditation project in which children across Iceland spent three minutes meditating, and her compositions are the perfect, soothing compliment to those quiet moments — especially the ones that come naturally from the surreally beautiful landscapes that she calls home. But above all else, DíSA’s clarion vocals produced a spine-tingling shiver, whether effortlessly reaching for mystic highs or cruising along like a low-flying bird, swooping and soaring in the sunlight.

    Emmsjé Gauti

    “I fucking love this festival!” smiled Gauti Þeyr Másson, aka Emmsjé Gauti. The 15-year Icelandic rap veteran has now played Iceland Airwaves 11 times, he explained, and the huge following he’s amassed proves that the fans are just as excited he’s back. Gauti controls the beat with the lithe, tiger-like confidence of El-P, his flow just as precisely punctuated and organic. Also like the Run the Jewels rhymer, Gauti is as quick with a joke as he is a verse. “I’m wearing pleather pants, and I regret it so much,” he laughed, quickly transitioning into the sweltering “Strákarnir”. The only thing as charming as Gauti’s smile was his performance, proof that even though he’s been doing this for a while, he’s not ready to phone it in. “I’m not doing this for music. I hate fucking music, but I love the applause,” he smiled. And the cheers that peppered his set must have made him pretty happy.



    Icelandic winter nights are notorious for their wet, gray cold, but that just makes the idea of heading into a venue and taking off a jacket all the more appealing. Hildur’s set at the gorgeous Gamla Bíó theater provided the energy boost needed, and it felt as if we could all dance all the way through to next summer. “Give your friend a high-five,” the singer/songwriter/producer urged. “And if you didn’t bring a friend, then give it to the person next to you.” Hildur’s burnished indie pop is the perfect outlet for friend-making and toe-tapping, a mixture between Sia and Chairlift. The ribboned edges of her shirt twisted and spun with every little movement, catching the light in a dazzling display. When the music dropped out, Hildur’s voice felt astonishingly big, filling every inch of the room; when the track built back up, it felt even bigger. Once the last cooed notes of “I’ll Walk with You” flitted over the crowd, the gray night was pushed so far away that the prospect of walking back into the damp darkness was made that much easier.


    Since being absolutely floored by her pop star potential just last year, Glowie signed a massive deal with Columbia Records/RCA that should show exactly how ready she is for the spotlight. And, as always, her latest set at Gamla Bíó felt arena-ready; the young vocalist standing in front of a rather ’80s video game screen of her name on a laser-field, her red print shirt glowing in the low-light. “I’m good, so good you got to see me to believe it,” she crooned, a lone guitar laying out only the most necessary base underneath, letting her silky voice shine. While there’s absolutely no need for Glowie to remind the crowd how good she is, it’s true: you’ll come away from having seen her live convinced that she’s ready to make a splash on the biggest pop stage.