Before heading out to Iceland Airwaves, I encountered a throng of people who had never heard of it. For these people I contextualized the music festival as “Iceland’s SXSW.” Never having been to the festival before, I had no idea how ignorant that comparison was. After actually attending both I can now say that Iceland Airwaves is not SXSW.
While the Austin, Texas, and Reykjavík music festivals share an emphasis on discovery and an intention of breaking new bands with shows taking place at diverse venues across the city, that's where the similarities end. SXSW is massive, with a huge swath of bands often playing upwards of six, even 10 shows over the course of a few days.
Iceland Airwaves is much smaller and more focused. With only 14 official venues and a handful of free “Off” venues, most bands only perform two or three sets. As a result, the bands seem a little less rushed, a little less exhausted and the shows themselves feel more like a custom experience. Lighting appeared tailored to the individual performance, all the sound I encountered was exceptional and every show started on time without sacrificing a sound check.
While both are international festivals, attracting musicians and audiences from across the world, the biggest difference between SXSW and Iceland Airwaves is the latter’s focus and celebration of homegrown Icelandic and Nordic talent. When welcoming attendees to the opening show, Reykjavík mayor Dagur Bergþóruson Eggertsson said what made Icelandic bands special is that they are all searching for the thing that makes them truly unique. This emphasis on uniqueness didn’t end at local bookings, the international lineup included some of the most innovative projects of the moment like Orville Peck and Shame.
The result was one of the most effortlessly diverse sound palates I’ve ever experienced at a music festival. From the festival in the land of fire and ice, here are the bands I caught that brought the fire.