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SOUND ESCAPES: Return to Iceland

By Mike Bell; Photos by Connie Tsang on December 2, 2011


SOUND ESCAPES: Return to Iceland

The déjà vu vibes were high as I boarded my Icelandair flight and readied for another sub-arctic expedition to attend the 2011 edition of Iceland Airwaves.  It seemed like I had just done this a few months earlier despite the fact an entire year had somehow passed by.  While en route, I watched some Icelandic tv on my personal screen while planning on revisiting some highlights from last year as well as catching some of the things I missed out on.  Five hours later, we arrived at the airport in Keflavik where my winter coat and other cold weather gear was immediately unpacked to fight off a blast of shivers this New Yorker hadn't felt since March.  Seriously, no matter how much you try to psych yourself up for an extreme change in weather, it's always a bit tough to adjust.  Luckily I'm tough as nails and handled the wintery weather like a pro for the rest of the journey.

After checking into the hotel conveniently located in the center of Reykjavik, Connie and I decided to explore a bit of the city.  First stop was a cafe to pick up a coffee/hand warmer.  From there we hit up KEXP's live broadcast at the coincidentally named venue KXP.  Giant beers in hand, we checked out Icelandic buzz band and Culture Collide Festival 2011 alums For a Minor Reflection.  The space was so crowded, we really couldn't see them, but they sounded awesome as always.  They had a few other shows during the festival so we figured we'd check them out again.  Afterwards, there was still a few hours to kill before going check out Bjork perform Biophilia at a super intimate show at Harpa, the brand new concert hall along the water.  This venue was still under construction last year, so it was quite a treat to see how it all came together.  Needless to say, it's beautiful and the sound was amazing!  Plus, getting to see Bjork play in her home country was not a bad first day. Not to mention there was still a few more days filled with great music ahead.  

The best part of Iceland Airwaves (and main reason I went back) was for the opportunity to check out Iceland's music scene which is largely an untapped trove of artistic greatness.  Many of the bands don't seem to make it out to the US which is a real shame. Therefore, attending this festival is a "must do" for anyone interested in broadening their Icelandic music knowledge beyond Bjork and Sigur Ros.  At Aiwaves, it's super easy to take a chance on a band you've never heard of and be pleasantly surprised…or move on to the next venue. In addition to the music, our hosts took a group of us on a few trips which rounded out the whole experience and made the trip truly memorable.

Of the varying levels of crazy, it is safe to say I've experienced a fairly broad range.  As we left the warmth of our tour bus and headed toward the locker rooms with swimsuits in hand, I knew I was headed for something completely insane.  Everyone who knows a thing or two about Iceland, knows it is possible to swim any time of the year in geo thermal heated pools.  They're legendary and an essential stop for any traveler to the country.  The place we visited however was not thermal.  It was the Atlantic Ocean!  Panic raced through my mind.  I was freezing already and couldn't imagine shedding the 4 layers of winter gear I had on for a dip in waters just shy of the Arctic Circle.  Our host offered us a swig of Brennivin (Icelandic schnapps) from the bottle and off we dashed for the water.  I made it just above my knees and just couldn't bring myself to go all the way in.  A string of curse words flowed from my chattering jaws as I high-tailed out of there and rushed to a small geo-thermal pool to defrost.  

The next and final full day in Iceland day we went to the Blue Lagoon which was much more my speed.  Warm water, beautiful scenery, blue cocktails, and mud masks all the way.  Later that night and before the FILTER showcase at Gaukur á Stöng, we were full relaxed and treated to a very special dinner at Sjavarkjallarinn for some fancy Icelandic cuisine featuring lamb, arctic char, halibut, carpaccio and more.  The most famous food in the entire country however is a hot dog.  We loved them so much we made multiple visits to the Bæjarins beztu pylsur stand.  

Because there was so much awesomeness to be had at Iceland Airwaves, below are some top 5 lists.

TOP 5 Bands:
1. Bjork @ Harpa
2. Of Monsters & Men @ Nasa
3. For A Minor Reflection @ KXP
4. De Staat @ Reykjavik Art Museum
5. Other Lives @ Reykjavik Art Museum

TOP 5 Venues:
1. Harpa
3. Reykjavik Art Museum
4. Fríkirkjan
5. Gaukur á Stöng

TOP 5 Eats
1. Bæjarins beztu pylsur
2. Minke Whale
3. Dried Fish
4. Lamb
5. Skyr

TOP 5 Non-Music Things to Do:
Iceland may be a small country, but there are so many things one must do.  We didn't have too much time outside of seeing bands, but here's a few things we did do along the way.  
1. Go swimming in the Blue Lagoon
2. Visit top of The Hallgrímskirkja
3. Drink Brennivin
4. See the northern lights
5. Take a walk around Árbæjarsafn

Big thanks to our hosts from Iceland Airwaves and the folks at Icelandair: Anna, Kamilla, Osk, Lene, Grimmur, Tomas, Robert, Michael, Hylnur and everyone else!

Blue Lagoon

Iceland's most famous cuisine


Arctic char

De Staat live

Minke whale steak



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