Once again, KEXP returns to the land of fire and ice.
Our station has been coming to the Iceland Airwaves festival for over a decade now, seeking out new artist and broadcasting performances. In this time, we’ve been able to discover a wealth of talent from the Icelandic music scene and finding out firsthand how vast it really is. Iceland has been far from stagnant throughout this time, constantly evolving and creating new sounds. This year is already proving to that Iceland has more to say and share.
While this article is listed as a “day one” recap, our crew has actually been here for several days at this point. After landing and coping with the severe jetlag, we got ourselves adjusted and immediately getting to work. We’ve long had a commitment to exploring Iceland’s underground music. But this is the first year we’ve quite literally gone underground.
Before we’d get set up at Kex, we’d first venture out – way out. Our crew of 11 packed into a van and sojourned out to Borgarfjörður in West Iceland. The trek led us through scenic landscapes of frost-capped mountains and flocks of sheep and horses, all while snow darted at our windshield. The further we got away from Reykjavik, the more expansive the areas surrounding us became and the less houses and buildings we saw.
After two hours of these wondrous views, we arrived to an even bigger treat as we approached Víðgelmir, also known simply as “The Cave.” At first, the cave didn’t reveal itself to us immediately. We drove our van down a rocky, frosty off-road path with only endless ice and mountains surrounding us. Once we all stepped out, we quickly spotted the gaping hole in the ground that was the entrance.
Víðgelmir is the largest lava cave in Iceland and that fact is immediately recognizable when you stare down into its majestic abyss. Wooden stairs guide you down the basalt rocks and into the black. But before we could go exploring, we had a job to do and quickly started to unload our hefty boxes of camera, lighting, and audio equipment to take down into the cave with us. Adorned with helmets and headlamps, we made our way down.
The deep, rust colored walls of the cave surrounded us as we descended deeper. Lights were installed periodically in the walls to help guide our way, but there were still tight corners to squeeze through and icicles to avoid. After one last meandering path, we finally reached the end of the cave and approached the large opening area that would become our workspace for the day.
Our guide explained to us how Viking era outlaws used to hide out in these caves, steeling sheep from nearby farms for food and warmth. In the modern cave, you can almost see the appeal until you remember how dark it must have been without modern technology like, uh, headlamps and how the constant dampness and dripping from the rock ceiling would squelch any fire. With this context still ringing in our heads, the crew got to work setting up lighting rigs and microphones to prepare for our shoot. When we’d climb back out of the cave to take a quick break, we were greeted to the sight of snow gracefully falling through the heart-shaped entrance in the soft daylight. It was a dreamy, movie-like scene to behold.
After a few hours of setup, the stars of the show arrived. Kliður is a 25-piece Icelandic choir who perform all original material. In their ranks are some familiar faces from the Icelandic music and arts scenes, like songwriter Pétur Ben, composer Snorri Hallgrímsson, illustrator Elín Elísabet Einarsdóttir, writer Ragnar Helgi Olafsson, and conductor Jelena Ciric. The acoustics of the cave meant the choral group needed no sort of amplification – the microphones were placed strictly for recording. After getting arranged and doing some jumping exercises to warm themselves up in the cold cave (not to be confused with Cold Cave), the group finally began to sing. Their voices resounded and echoed throughout our mineral chamber.
Their pristine harmonies in this natural marvel was truly an otherworldly experience. The choir would perform primarily a capella, with the exception of two songs accompanied with acoustic guitar. I took a moment during one of the takes to walk back into down the path of the cave and I could still hear their voices ringing out, even when they were out of view. I imagined what it would be like to wander into the cave and hear their stirring voices waving through the tunnel. It’s probably the closest we’ll ever get to living in The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild.
The moisture proved to be the biggest challenge, with our crew working diligently to protect our gear from the dripping water. Our engineer Kevin Suggs said he could even hear the water pinging against the microphones while they were recording. We’d spend nearly six hour in the cave, ascending back out into the stark black night sky.
Warmed up and rested after the cave, KEXP made our formal return to Kex Hostel on Tuesday night with two live video streams to preempt our broadcast. It’s become tradition to have a soft start to the our Icelandic residency. But “soft” doesn’t mean it’s for lack of compelling art. In fact, quite the opposite.
Our first act of the week came with Kristofer Rodriguez Svönuson. Svönuson is no stranger to our broadcast. Like many Icelandic artists, Svönuson performs with a number of different bands and artists. Most recently we saw him drumming for Junius Meyvant at the THING Festival in Port Townsend, Wash. His band Hymnalaya also played our Iceland Airwaves broadcast back in 2014. This was our first time seeing him as a solo act, but he was far from alone with an expansive band of horn players, keyboardsists, guitars, and more all overflowing from the stage.
Svönuson is a percussionist at heart and that’s at the root of his music. As one of the few latin-jazz artists in Iceland and being of both Colombian and Icelandic heritage, his music suggests a changing landscape of the Icelandic music scene. His latest album, PRIMO, just saw release through local record store turned record label Lucky Records. His performance brought a feeling of warmth and comfort into the room, with the soothing tones emanating and resounding throughout the space. The smiling faces of the crowd reflected the serenity his music brings. While Svönuson sat in the center, it didn’t feel like he was ever elevating himself above the rest of his band. It was a performance devoid of ego. You could feel each musician approaching their instrument with grace and respect to the others around them, never trying to stand out from the rest and instead built to a whole and complete picture.
Up next was Icelandic prog-rock band Lucy In Blue. It was a major sonic shift from the previous performance, but just as immersive and spellbinding. When I caught up with the group after their set, they didn’t shy away from their love to classic acts like Pink Floyd and King Crimson. Even their luscious locks of hair and silk shirts suggested an affinity for the 1970s. But they’re far from just a nostalgic act. With vintage instruments in hand, they’d build up mind-bending arrangements that reverberated on the knick-knack adorned walls of Kex.
Face melters abounded throughout. Their guitars screeched and wailed like feral banshees. The keyboards glowed and hypnotized to enraptured crowd. And who could forget the powerful boom of the drums and the supreme bass face that came with their sensational rhythm section. It was the perfect soundtrack for the icy terrain that Iceland conjures up in many people’s minds. If I ever get another chance to venture out into the depths of this country’s scenic countryside, Lucy In Blue is 100 percent going to be the soundtrack.
DJ Kevin Cole chats with the father of the late Icelandic composer in Reykjavik