With unique venues, community and sheer ridiculousness, Iceland Airwaves 2023 is genuinely special

If you don’t want festival season to end in September, next year’s Iceland Airwaves may be the place for you.

Words: Jake Hawkes.
Photos: Florian Trykowski, Joana Fontinha, Cat Gundry-Beck.

In a crowded field of European festivals, Iceland Airwaves is both an outlier and an institution. Taking place in November in a country that’s not exactly renowned for tropical heat at the best of times, it’s necessarily an indoor affair. Straddling venues, bars and even an art gallery in Reykjavik, it can feel a bit like a Scandinavian version of Brighton’s Great Escape – they even have the same massive seabirds prowling the harbour.

Despite the incongruous location, Iceland Airwaves always manages to book an eclectic lineup which takes in everything from chart-topping indie bands to BDSM-inspired Eurovision entrants (we’re looking at you, Hatari). The best bit of all? Local swimming pools cost about £5 to access and come complete with full sauna facilities, just in case you need to sweat out a hangover or two.

On day one, Yard Act are safely tucked away in the North Atlantic and debuting new album cuts in the cavernous hall of Reykjavik’s art museum. A band who have grown massively from the scrappy upstarts they were just a year or two ago, tonight feels like a real victory lap. ‘Dead Horse’ and ‘Dark Days’ sound absolutely huge, but also serve to show just how different album two is set to be, with new cuts delving far deeper into dance and rave music than anything they’ve done before.

It’s a tight 40-minute set, but the band still find time to lean into the sprawling ‘Trenchcoat Museum’, and to give a surprisingly heartfelt speech about the beauty of life before playing ‘100% Endurance’. 

Of course, it’s not all deep musings on the nature of the world, with time found for a rousing cry of “let’s hear it for £10 pints” from frontman James Smith before they end on ‘Land of the Blind’. “It smells like eggs, we’ve had a great time, we’ll be back,” he says with a grin as they saunter off stage. 

The same stage plays host to both Blondshell and Bombay Bicycle Club on day two. The former is fresh off the back of a busy summer, with shows crisscrossing Europe, the UK and the USA. This intense touring has paid off, with her and her band putting on an incredibly tight set, which soon wins the crowd over. By the time a cover of Le Tigre’s ‘Deceptacon’ gets an airing, even the people right at the back are dancing.

With a well-warmed-up crowd, Bombay Bicycle Club show that six albums in, they’re still at the top of their game. It’s a set of old favourites coupled with cuts from brand new project ‘My Big Day’, with both received with equal joy. The hall is packed throughout, and the energy never flags, even as it hits one in the morning. At one point, the festival’s official hot dog vendor (UK festivals take note – more hot dog vendors at shows, please)  is singing along – the ultimate seal of Icelandic approval.

Across the road from the art museum, Lime Garden are tearing the roof off of a tiny punk bar, a feat made even more impressive by the fact that they’d spent most of the day wandering around near a glacier outside Reykjavik. A band gaining more momentum every time we see them play, tonight’s setlist is even more incredible when you realise they’re not even one album into their career yet. ‘Like Clockwork’ and closer ‘Pulp’ are the already-released highlights, but the real treat is the sprinkling of new songs they play throughout. 

What we said earlier about this being an eclectic festival? We weren’t kidding – on the same stage after Lime Garden is Kneecap, a Belfast-based rap trio who spend as much time rapping in Irish as they do in English. Lyrics about Republicanism are juxtaposed with asides about fermented whale meat between songs, in what has to be the most chaotic show of the weekend. It’s also one of the busiest, with a queue for entry stretching around the venue, no mean feat when it’s 1am and absolutely freezing.

“How much are you lot paying for ecstasy over here? Do you have to defrost it once it arrives, or is it just fermented?” the group joke at one point, before talking about Iceland and Ireland’s shared love of mythical stories about faeries. Initially, the crowd don’t seem to quite know how to react, but by the third or fourth track, the whole venue is one big mosh pit. We’re not sure whether the citizens of Reykjavik have been practising before the gig, but the resounding singalong to ‘Get Your Brits Out’ suggests Kneecap have quite a few more fans in the city than they anticipated.

Iceland Airwaves may have an incredible roster of international names, but that doesn’t come at the expense of homegrown talent. All genres of Icelandic talent are represented across the weekend, from the beautifully understated music of Elen Hall to the ludicrous Eurodance of late-night party duo ClubDub. A particularly special moment is when Nanna from Of Monsters and Men brings out multi-instrumentalist Ólafur Arnalds during her set in Fríkirkjan, a church by a lake in the centre of town.

Arguably the biggest Icelandic act of the weekend, though, at least judging by the endless queue outside the venue before he plays, is Daði Freyr. Known for his Eurovision performances, Daði’s set steps out of the song contest’s shadow with electronic bangers from his latest LP ‘I Made an Album’, backed by a stage set up consisting of a huge inflatable of his own head. Don’t worry; he hasn’t disavowed the catalyst for his fame completely – both ‘Think About Things’ and his cover of Atomic Kitten’s ‘Whole Again’ get an airing. It’s great fun from an artist who clearly knows that putting on a good show should be the number one priority – especially when there are thousands of people packed into a venue to see you play.

Across the city, a Faroese music showcase is proving that a country even smaller than Iceland can still hold its own. Aggrasoppar, a self-proclaimed ‘flower-punk / axekiller-pop band’ are the highlight here, deftly mixing catchy hooks with Faroese-language rap music. Think De La Soul if they swapped New York for Tórshavn.

The final hurrah for Iceland Airwaves 2023 are Sprints, who take to the stage at 1am, a full hour after Daði has finished. Playing after the headliner could be a death knell for some bands, but they soon have the crowd leaping about so much it feels like the floor might cave in. Lead singer Karla Chubb dives into the seething mass of people, grabbing the mic on her return to the stage to apologise for anyone she “may have kicked in the face just then”. Judging by the deafening response, nobody is too upset about taking a boot to the head. 

Flying a load of bands to a country just South of the Arctic Circle in November sounds like a recipe for festival disaster, especially when a pint can easily set you back a tenner. Iceland Airwaves manages to make a virtue of this isolation, though, with each show feeling genuinely special, either because of the uniqueness of the venue, the feeling of community, or just the sheer ridiculousness of watching someone rap about the DUP’s Arlene Foster in a punk bar one night, then bumping into the same person gingerly stepping into an ice bath in the local sauna the next afternoon. If you don’t want festival season to end in September, next year’s Iceland Airwaves may be the place for you.