Perhaps the single most exciting thing about Iceland Airwaves—which made its triumphant return last week for the first time since 2019—is the feeling that you can find your new favorite band around any corner. The Arctic Circle-adjacent music discovery festival, spread across various downtown Reykjavík venues, is most easily understood as a smaller, chillier South by Southwest, but at the same time, there’s nothing else quite like it. The whole city, home to nearly two-thirds of Iceland’s population, vibrates with possibility throughout Airwaves, all in celebration of the artistry that animates it. With dozens of shows, culled from a lineup split almost evenly between international and Icelandic acts, Airwaves 2022 made for a whirlwind of old favorites and new finds, elegant stage productions and DIY ragers, Krombachers and hot dogs. “Inspiring” is an inescapable Airwaves descriptor, and for good reason.
Paste prefaced this year’s slightly scaled-back, sold-out festival with our picks for 15 acts to see, and caught as many of them as we could. No music festival experience is complete without numerous difficult decisions, though fortunately, Airwaves—between its highly walkable environs, reliable organization and low (though not oppressively so) temperatures—at least makes scrambling between sets relatively painless. I saw musicians play clothing and record stores, a church, a museum, a hostel, an opera house, a recording studio, a basement and a street corner. I missed acts I’d been anticipating for weeks, and saw others I’d had no plans to. I could’ve done a million things differently, yet I wouldn’t change a thing. Here are the 10 best sets I saw at Iceland Airwaves 2022.
Photo by Mummi Lu
Arooj Aftab’s Saturday night set at Frikirkjan, a quick, cold walk along the lake away from Reykjavík’s center, was one of the festival’s most entrancing and meditative oases. The narrow church was packed, and Aftab’s otherworldly vocals, accompanied by Gyan Riley’s virtuosic guitar playing, emanated throughout the hushed space. The warmly charismatic artist told tour stories and performed five songs from her breakthrough album Vulture Prince, including her Grammy-winning “Mohabbat” (“This is the banger,” Aftab noted in its intro). Riley proved himself “rudely good at music” (as Aftab described him) throughout, using a loop pedal to add layers to his flurries of nylon-string guitar (and, at one point, what looked like an electric mini-sitar). The pair’s give and take made for a mesmeric, wandering series of serenades that had audience members leaning back in Frikirkjan’s pews, eyes closed, their senses of wonder unleashed.
Photo by Aníta Eldjárn
I went into Brimheim’s Friday night set at Iðnó knowing precisely nothing about them, and left impressed. Led by Danish/Faroese singer/songwriter Helena Heinesen Rebensdorff, the Copenhagen/Malmö-based five-piece’s dynamic art rock never stopped shapeshifting long enough to lose its momentum, evoking the bold guitars of the War on Drugs one moment, and the operatic vocals and arrangements of Zola Jesus the next. Rebensdorff’s songwriting is rife with emotion, and live, Brimheim (which translates to “home of the breaking waves,” a reference to Rebensdorff’s native Faroe Islands) render the rise and fall of those feelings with full, atmospheric force, matching explosive musicianship to their cathartic choruses. The band performed songs from their 2022 debut album can’t hate myself into a different shape, as well as their 2020 debut EP Myself Misspelled, closing with a powerful rendition of the latter’s title track.
Photo by Mummi Lu
BSÍ were one of three “Best New Acts” honored at Friday’s Airwaves Plus Awards (alongside Árný Margrét and superserious), but you never would have known it from their Thursday set at the cozy Kex Hostel—the tight-knit duo of Silla Thorarensen and Julius Rothlaender were quite unassuming onstage, almost shy. While highlighting BSÍ for our festival preview, I’d been puzzled by Rothlaender being credited with “toe synths”—sure enough, he played Kex in his socks, controlling the band’s electronic sounds by toeing a couple of MIDI controllers at his feet. BSÍ’s energetic dream-pop reminded me of Alvvays, no small praise, and I was glad to have caught them in a more intimate setting (rather than at the relatively expansive Gamla Bíó, at which they’re pictured above), where I also spied their post-dreifing ally Bjarni Daníel (of Supersport!) front row. Their Sometimes depressed … but always antifascist standout “Vesturbæjar Beach” was stuck in my head for the rest of the festival.
Photo by Alexander Matukhno
Vancouver’s Crack Cloud closed out a stacked first night of Airwaves at Gamla Bíó, and did so in kick-ass fashion. Drummer and vocalist Zach Choy, his kit pushed to the very front of the stage, sat at the center of a seven-piece band featuring harp, saxophone and dual guitars, as well as bass and keys. They opened with a few tracks (“The Politician,” “Please Yourself”) from their latest album, this year’s acclaimed Tough Baby, but also incorporated songs from their 2020 debut Pain Olympics (“Tunnel Vision”), as well as even earlier material—of their “Philosopher’s Calling” performance, with its spiky guitars and snotty vocals, I wrote in my notes, “This shit just rocks.” Choy may be the nucleus of Crack Cloud, but the band’s true madman is keyboardist Mohammed Ali Sharar, who gave a frenzied, keyboard-blurring, bongo-blasting performance. Though Crack Cloud burned through their time before they could deliver their planned last track (Choy got the crowd fired up for one more, but the powers that be weren’t having it), I can’t imagine anyone in the audience was left dissatisfied.
Daughters of Reykjavík
Photo by Keira Lindgren
Daughters of Reykjavík’s (aka Reykjavíkurdætur) main stage-equivalent set at the Reykjavik Art Museum was a blockbuster festival performance if ever I’ve seen one. The all-women rap collective put on an undeniably fun posse show from moment one, complete with colorful costumes and group choreography—they posed like the Icelandic Avengers at the end of their opener. Daughters of Reykjavík’s womanhood is key to their artistry, and they make sure you know it: One member lactated onstage during “Hot MILF Summer,” while later on, the Daughters brought up a male-identifying audience volunteer, only to mock-eviscerate him during the following song. “We go to therapy, they go to space,” they rapped during the next track, high-energy 2022 crowdpleaser “Turn This Around,” landing a gut punch amid the spectacle. The globally conscious Daughters dedicated a significant chunk of their set time to calling attention to the ongoing women’s rights protests in Iran, dedicating their subsequent performance of “Drusla” to those fighting for bodily autonomy. And they put an exclamation point on their set with sex-positive trap banger “Thirsty Hoes,” crowd-surfing through the climactic track.
Photo by Mummi Lu
Young, post dreifing-affiliated punks GRÓA hammered the final nail into Friday night’s coffin, exuding confidence and skill beyond their years while playing to a packed house at Gaukurinn. Theirs was one of the wildest sets I saw, yet they were in constant control—their music is full of sudden tempo changes, those moments where an exciting song becomes doubly so, and their blue-wigged, badass drummer Hrafnhildur Einarsdóttir executed these shifts in particularly skillful fashion. Meanwhile, GRÓA ripped through a set spanning weirdo art-punk, snotty pop, skewed synths, noise-rock riffs, motorik grooves and a recorder solo—not to mention one stretch where two of their members played two recorders each, and multiple bits where members leapt into the audience and went bonkers. GRÓA’s set was as deliriously fun as it was impressive.
Photo by Alexander Matukhno
This was another set I went into blind, and boy, did ignorance turn out to be bliss. The first act to take the 2022 festival’s main Art Museum stage, Gugusar—aka 18-year-old electro-pop prodigy Guðlaug Sóley Höskuldsdóttir—was in near-constant motion throughout, delivering an exhilarating performance that played out like one continuous dramatic movement. Alone onstage with only a microphone, Gugusar traced her music’s topography with unerring focus and purpose, whether whirling and windmilling around the stage in time to a big beat drop, or dancing with balletic intensity against a racing breakbeat. Live, you can see she’s locked in and knows each instrumental intimately, her movements completely in sync with each beat—she produces those, as well, and is a striking singer when she brings it, delivering some sustained and airy, yet forceful vocals. Gugusar started Airwaves off on a high note, and, for me, was perhaps the festival’s single most pleasant surprise.
Photo by Alexander Matukhno
The final set of Airwaves 2022 was also one of its finest—and absolutely its most fun. Reykjavík trio Inspector Spacetime—Egill Gauti Sigurjónsson, Vaka Agnarsdóttir and Elías Geir Óskarsson—pushed through some early, upsettingly persistent technical difficulties (Agnarsdóttir’s mic was cursed, apparently) to throw an absolutely uproarious Saturday night dance party at Húrra. The fun-loving trio walked out wearing crowns, and at one point Óskarsson removed his jeans to reveal … jean shorts. They reeled off bouncy, bassy, hooky jams including “Under My Underwear,” “Hvað sem er,” “Hitta mig,” “Bára,” “Inspector Spacetime” (which involved some raucous crowd participation) and their killer closer, “Dansa og bánsa.” My notes from this set are a fraction of what they were for every other—I couldn’t have taken many more if I’d wanted to, amid the most tightly packed, delighted audience I saw at Airwaves. After all the isolation and anxiety of the Covid era, going full “No thoughts, only Inspector Spacetime” was nothing short of transcendent.
Nation of Language
Photo by Florian Trykowski
Brooklyn synth-pop trio Nation of Language’s Thursday night set at Gamla Bíó marked their first time in Iceland, but based on the rapturous response they received (by which even frontman Ian Devaney seemed taken aback), it won’t be the last by a longshot. The band’s setlist pulled evenly from their 2020 debut Introduction, Presence and 2021 follow-up A Way Forward, also incorporating their thumper of a September 2022 single “From the Hill.” Devaney leaned into every vocal note, stalking the stage, lunging and boogying while delivering the band’s anthemic melodies. He and Aidan Noell, the band’s keyboard player (and Devaney’s wife), were a bit out of sync, but no one seemed to mind in the least amid the trio’s massive renditions of “Automobile,” “Wounds of Love,” “This Fractured Mind” and “Across That Fine Line” (during which the crowd started a clap completely unprompted), to name a few. There weren’t all that many American bands at this year’s Airwaves, but it’s safe to say Nation of Language represented us well.
Photo by Mummi Lu
It was during Ólafur Kram’s Saturday evening set at Húrra that I started feeling the festival equivalent of the “Sunday scaries”—preemptively missing the music in the last hours before its end. The band (whose name I recommend you read backwards) was a reminder of all the things that make the Icelandic scene special, all rolled into one: The quintet’s sound is equal parts eclectic and tongue-in-cheek, the band bursting with youthful creativity as they gleefully color outside the lines. “The next song is a bit weird,” said keyboardist and vocalist Iðunn Gígja Kristjánsdóttir, underselling “Gullinsnið,” which opens with Sleater-Kinney swagger, only to branch out into lute (or something similar) and trumpet interludes, then a climactic singalong. Mansplainer kiss-off “Hótun” melds fluttering bossa nova with rock force and girl-group backing harmonies, while “Listasaga” (about “that feeling when you’re not sure if you’re in love or just really horny”) is ska-like rock, complete with synths and a long, cathartic crescendo. Their set’s joyous singalong conclusion, party rocker “Aumingja Þuríður,” cemented Ólafur Kram as an Airwaves standout.
Iceland Airwaves will return to Reykjavík Nov. 2-4, 2023. Limited Super Early Bird tickets are available now.
Scott Russell is Paste’s music editor and he’ll come up with something clever later. He’s on Twitter, if you’re into tweets: @pscottrussell.