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Sónar Reykjavik was an Exercise in Subarctic Singularity

Harpa, Reykjavik

Music festivals at their best, and equally, at their worst, are about providing a measure of escape. From the sludge of your everyday, workday life. From the ever narrower parameters of your weekends. From the sharp realization that increasing age equates to decreasing interest in contemporary trends. Ready made, neatly packaged three-to-four day islands of escape perched each summer to remind you that, hay, bumbags, cling film, and Tame Impala are probably as good and as wild as the hedonism is ever going to get. And you're fine with that. After all, they take very little effort. And anything that takes very effort can only be a very good thing. You're pretty sure of that.


And yet. Well. There's the not entirely unfair accusation that so many of the triple-A watt festivals lack something in diversity. Not just diversity of acts and artists—although find us a lineup without Ben Klock and we'll show you a pyramid scheme you've sunk 180 quid into—but a diversity of spirit and of setting. So when a festival like Sonar Reykjavik presents itself it arrives as both a jolt and a reminder of a divergent route. A tiny avenue into something different, fresh, and in all truth, faintly odd.

Firstly, it's in February. Secondly, it's in Iceland. Thirdly, it carries a brand name that is most keenly associated with sweltering, techno saturated, crispy eared weekends in Barcelona. It's housed in a multi-angled, light hoarding arts centre, Harpa—which juts out of the city's sprawling harbour, hunkered in by vast amounts of live industrial stuff. Spatially, it's as far removed from the horror show, Somme-in-Somerset UK roster as possible. As for the lineup; a mixture of the cosily familiar, the Klocks, the Hauffs, and the Giggs's collide with the resolutely, well, unfamiliar. One of the things Sonar does well, perhaps even does best, is its commitment to showcasing the contemporary cultural currents of the cities they find themselves in. Just like T In The Park!

Now, if you were to play a weak little game of Icelandic cultural stereotype bingo, what would you scrawl on the cards? Hot springs? Dour pragmatism? Understated national pride? 20 quid limes? 100% proof moonshine to ward off the days of 100% darkness? Strong men with hearts of black pudding? World leading—by demographic necessity—genetic scientists? A population exclusively peopled by stone-chiseled, ageless beauties? Package holiday ruining volcanic eruptions? If you were inclined to such a trite, boring little game then yes, these would all be glittering and factually accurate answers.


You didn't think to put down "burgeoning, magpie-ish, irony couched rap scene," which is fine. Who would? Unless you'd read or watched the sterling work i-D have done in documenting one of the oddest, most richly allusive and borderline self-parodic of splinter genres to have started knocking about in the slipstream of Euro youth culture in the last half decade. Part turf house Chief Keef, part North Sea Bieber, multi-part Yung Lean, it's a collision that makes artists like Sturla Atlas possible, with his call outs to the "phony politicians," his love of "smoking (the) loud" and penchant for shin-length Camden market hoodies. It's all good, if exhaustingly ironised fun. But the thought lingers that if you're reference point for gritty urban authenticity is Yung Lean, then it might not be a scene resting on the most sturdy of foundations. And it might be that a joke with such a bubblegum punchline gets old in the retelling. Time will tell.

16-year-old Aron Can provokes a similar response. Being impressed by the slickness of a performance and isn't quite the same thing as finding it interesting. Some of the tunes are deeply impressive in their auto-tuned splendour. Yet despite all the humour, there's a quality to all the shallowly worn influence that feels a bit, well, shallow. It comes into jarring conflict during Giggs' performance later on in the festival, when he has to patiently explain what a wheel-up is. It's even more difficult after watching Shades of Reykjavik who manage to combine "illusive Godlike creature Prins Puffin with the elfin Elli Grill and their very own tattooing dinosaur." Here, you feel, is something that manages to cram influence into something self-contained and self-starting. Something that makes something genuinely mad, new (they don't, unfortunately, perform their customary live crucifixion on this occasion) and exciting without resorting to weakly mined parody as a creative shorthand or filler. They are, genuinely, batshit. And all the better for it.

Then you have the carpark venue, stuffed with festival middleweights and reliables. Helena Hauff is predictably excellent, as are the rest of the DJ cohort. So excellent that I lose myself in reverie and get turfed out by a mountain-wide bouncer for chuffing on a SuperKing Mayfair on the dance floor. Who said Sonar wasn't the natural home of wild-child hedonism, eh?

If festivals really are about providing a measure of escape from the bleached and boring innards of our daily existence, with its minor key frustrations and even more minor points of departure, it makes sense that they should provide something as unlike it as possible. In one sense Sonar Reykjavik does just that. It puts you into a world that spans the European, Scandinavian and American, on an island famed for its extremes, which feels in almost every conceivable way like a place apart, a place defiantly facing outward against the Atlantic ocean.

Yet, it's also a country with a burgeoning youth subculture that encapsulates and liberally cannibalises elements of the aforementioned three countries in a way that feels at once both sincere, and utterly insincere. It's a paradox that Sonar Reykjavik manages to acknowledge and forces you to engage with. And there's not an awful lot of festivals for which you can say the same.