Icelanders are, for want of a better word, a bit eccentric. You might have seen the news recently where Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, Iceland’s president, announced that if he were able to make policy he would ban pineapple as a pizza topping. It’s a land that respects the existence of elves, that dines out on rotting shark and raw puffin heart. During an excursion to the outskirts of Reykjavík, our tour guide fondly describes her people as “pretty weird”.
Iceland is also the best geography lesson you’ve ever had. Packed with lava fields, active volcanoes and glaciers, pockets of geothermal steam rise out of the mossy land for the ultimate Jurassic Park meets Interstellar feel. It’d be hard to ask for more from a festival location, but luckily the Nordic edition of Sónar delivers sonically as much as with its daytime activities (the sundlaugar, public thermal baths, are a miracle hangover cure).
The festival, best known for its Barcelona event in June as well as a presence in Istanbul and Hong Kong, is on its fifth run this year. Held in the striking Harpa concert hall on the city harbour, the three-dayer is shielded from the cruel elements and is a far cry from your typical muddy festival tent experience. In fact, most people here look like they’ve just stepped off a runway. Reykjavík’s cool kids are out in full force.
Our main intrigue is captured by the scene that’s been exploding harder than Eyjafjallajökull: Icelandic rap. Sturla Atlas is one of the leading lights of this movement — he’s toured with Bieber, raps about “smoking loud” and sounds like a cross between Chief Keef and Machine Gun Kelly. Performing with his crew, the 101 Boys, Sturla calls out “phony ass politicians” while his boys bleat Travis Scott ad-libs in knee-length hoodies. It might feel more problematic if it wasn’t so strangely captivating.
Another of the sub-arctic rap élite with an ice cold flow is 16-year-old Aron Can. It’s kind of unnerving to see someone who’s barely a teenager ooze autotuned lyrics in front of imagery that features naked girls, making it rain, and 3D rotating joints, but there’s still something very earnest about the whole thing.
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Cotton candy trap star Alvia Islandia is another individual satiating the island’s massive appetite for rap. The neon pink MC, who’s genuinely sponsored by Hubba Bubba (and throws out packs of the gum into the crowd) is flanked by two hype girls, bigging up “all my hoes” as she works the stage.
The line between parody and authenticity starts to blur when we catch Shades of Reykjavik, a chaotic crew comprising ‘illusive godlike creature’ Prins Puffin, the ‘elf-like’ Elli Grill, and their very own ‘tattooing dinosaur’. While they don’t perform a crucifixion (as they’ve been known to) this time round, their performance is suitably bonkers — bird noise ad-libs and all — and it’s great.
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UK rap gets a look in, too. Giggs bounds around in an impressive chain, not managing to draw the biggest crowd considering he’d been brought onstage by Drake a few days earlier. He’s fully aware that his audience isn’t his usual crowd, explaining what a wheel-up is (before ‘3 Wheel-ups’), and does the classic Giggs grin, proclaiming: “Man loves girls, so…” before going into ‘Lock Doh’. Nadia Rose would have repped the female grime contingent, had her plane not been unable to land after getting stuck in the Icelandic fog. Meanwhile Canadian underground rap prodigy Tommy Genesis, signed to Awful Records, doesn’t quite land all of her notes live, but her feminist speeches in-between cuts like ‘Execute’ are powerful and important.
RBMA seem to have drawn the short straw with their venue allocation; they’re holed up in a lecture theatre-type room, where Vatican Shadow AKA Prurient is a force to behold. The lure of his performance (he goes and sits cross-legged on the floor at one point) is matched by visuals of gun-building tutorials and aircraft layouts. Trying to get a seated, chin stroking audience to stand up and rave is no mean feat, but the noise veteran manages the impossible by drawing out a seriously dark array of dub techno. Our highlight of the entire festival, however, is a performance by Marie Davidson. Firing off live analogue loops, she reels off ultra-stylish tracks like ‘Planet Ego’ from 2016’s excellent ‘Adieux Au Dancefloor’ on Cititrax, with spoken word live vocals - turning the seated hall into a full-on party in the process.
Harpa’s car park gets transformed into an underground electronic bunker, where we catch Ben Klock playing some muscular acid and techno and Helena Hauff employing some spacious sounds that rumble effortlessly through the concrete. It’s also there that Blawan goes b2b with local legend Exos to deploy some devastating techno weaponry, as well as Icelandic DJ collective Plútó who close the festival by spinning Mumdance and a heavy helping of UK bass/footwork, before we bid adieu at 3am by doing a Bill Clinton and sampling the world’s most famous hot dog stand.
Sónar Reykjavík really is an exceptional festival. Its bleeding edge bookings, dramatic scenery and the eclectic crowd it attracts makes for an unbeatable three days. We can’t wait to return to this magical land of elf houses, geysers and boiling hot rocks to uncover more of their musical offerings.
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Words: Felicity Martin
Images courtesy of Sónar.
Find out more about Sónar’s movements over here: https://sonar.es/