If the second day of our broadcast from Kex Hostel at Iceland Airwaves was all about showcasing talent from around the globe, day three was all about the beauty of contrast.
Our day began in the most blissful of ways with Gabríel Ólafs. The 19-year-old composer first began playing the piano when he was five-years-old, but quickly found himself veering away from his classical education. He’s an experimentalist at heart, utilizing a method of felt piano in which he places pieces of fabric between the hammers and strings. The results are a soft, dreamlike timbre that creates the core of his imaginative compositions.
A true prodigy, Ólafs first began composing material for his debut album when he was 14-years-old. After working on material over the next five years, he finally released Absent Minded earlier this year. It was well worth the wait. The 10 songs on the record offer a glimpse into the world of Ólafs’ imagination. Growing up in a small Icelandic town with his mother as his primary company, he’s expressed feelings of isolation but sought out escape through the fantasy scenarios in his head. A film buff, he loves to write themes for fictional characters of his own design – like “Cyclist Waltz,” which was inspired by a poster of a French bicyclist that hangs on the wall of his home.
With an extensive backing band of string musicians and bassist Skuli Sverrison, Ólafs was able to bring his compositions to life with grace and warmth. The Kex Hostel is already a cozy space with its warm lighting and knick-knacks hanging on the walls, but Ólafs’ work took it to the next level as he blanketed the room with serene melodies. There was no chatter to be heard as he performed, no one would dare break the spell of the moment. Iceland has produced many notable composers over the years and Ólafs represents a new generation emerging.
But I did say this was a day full of contrast, didn’t I? Taking things to the other end of the spectrum was GDRN, one of the most buzzworthy pop stars coming out of Iceland right now. GDRN recently swept the Iceland Music Awards with her debut album Hvað ef, which translates in English to “What If.”
This is one case where you can believe the hype. Backed with a full live band, GDRN was able to bring her mix of pop, jazz, and R&B to life on the Kex stage. You rarely get to experience a bona fide pop icon in the making working an intimate space. In the crowded and cozy room, you could close your eyes and imagine her center stage in an arena. Her voice was pitch-perfect, rising and falling in dramatic intervals with hook after hook. If you weren’t dancing during this set, you might want to check yourself. GDRN has serious jams.
At the end of her set GDRN brought on fellow Icelander Floni, a rising star of Iceland’s hip-hop scene. The set was a testament to a new direction in Icelandic music, embracing pop music to its fullest and reimagining in their own vision. And despite all the star power in the room, the set always felt grounded in the moment and appreciative of the uproarious applause to followed every track.
As the grooves and dancing ended, local heroes Seabear made their own triumphant return to the Kex stage. It’s been 12 years since the band’s last record and nine years since their last single, just recently returning with a gorgeous, hazy new song “Waterphone.” The anticipation was high. The Kex was at max capacity, as was the live stream viewing in the Kex basement, and a line around the block outside.
You’d never guess that the band had been away in this incarnation given their performance. In talking with lead vocalist Sindri after the set, he told me that they still have regular “band meetings” – getting dinner and drinks, visiting with one another, and maintaining the friendship bonds that brought them together in the first place. But while Seabear was on pause, its members have kept going with projects like Sin Fang and Soley’s solo work. It makes it hard not to be charmed with the playful banter they’d share between their folk-pop arrangements.
Watching Seabear felt like connecting with an old friend and picking up right where you left off. The band has never sounded so attune to their work, only getting better as the years go on. It was maybe the most comforting set of the week so far; a familiar bond to the music that first brought KEXP to Iceland 11 years ago.
While we were in the afterglow of Seabear’s set, feeling warm and fuzzy, Belgium band SONS came on the stage to rip our fucking faces off. Holy shit. Expletives really are the only way to express what this set felt like (sorry FCC, you can censor the radio but not our blog!). From the moment they first played their guttural notes, it felt like a shockwave hit the room with some of the loudest, most bombastic, unfuckwithable rock music I’ve personally heard in years. By the looks of the crowd, I wasn’t alone in this feeling.
The band has been on an insane trajectory after winning the Studio Brussels music competition last year. They’ve been touring nonstop the past year around Europe and as such their live show is a fine-tuned, vivacious beast. Fans of King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard and Ty Segall are sure to fall in love with this band. Riff begets another riff that smacks against your eardrum. The band sweat profusely, downing beers as they ripped on their instruments and let out mangled howls.
The band’s latest album Family Dinner is itself a contrast – they picked the name knowing that most families aren’t going to play these ferocious tracks while dining at home. The palpable energy of the record is only magnified higher in their live performance. SONS haven’t come to the states yet, but hopefully that happens soon. This is one of the must-see live acts performing right now. The second you get a chance to see SONS, drop everything.
Our second day at Kex Hostel represented the diverse array of music and nations represented at the festival – from American feminist hip-hop and Finnish post-punk to teenage Icelandic punk and a fiery slowcore act with members from all around the world.
Once again, KEXP returns to the land of fire and ice. Read about the underground music and the actual underground we've experienced in Reykjavik thus far.