At 64.1265° N, 21.8174° W, Reykjavik sits just below the cusp of the Arctic Circle – which means at this time of year, the sun never fully sets.
It’s these extended sunlight hours that Secret Solstice aims to capitalise on, with the idea being that the party never need end (though whether you’d really want to see what someone looks like in the light of day after 72 hours’ partying remains up for debate).
It’s a festival founded and run by Icelanders, which feels important in a time in which UK (or other) promoters have simply been re-deploying their home efforts to cheaper and/or warmer climes.
There’s plenty of local talent on show here too, as well as the batch of big name international headliners to draw punters in from abroad. And plenty do come from overseas: the organisers estimate that the majority of attendees are from the US, with a slightly smaller chunk coming from the UK and the rest of Europe, and the remainder being Iceland natives.
This reliance on foreign partygoers isn’t much of a surprise, given Croydon has more residents than the whole of Iceland put together and more people attended Glastonbury last year than live in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, where Secret Solstice takes place.
Attendance this year was expected to be around 18,500 including walk-ins, which the organisers say represents a slight drop off from last year. Brexit, they told us, is largely to blame: despite ticket prices remaining at around the 25,000 mark in Icelandic krona, the falling value of the pound means UK revellers would this year be spending around £50 more on a standard three-day ticket. And that’s before you factor in flights and accommodation in an already-pricey country.
Regardless, confidence among the organisers is up, and the festival expanded its site for 2017 by around 5,000 square metres and added a new, bigger main stage.
The biggest of act to grace this fresh main stage is Foo Fighters, who close out the main stage on Friday.
After a couple of tunes Dave Grohl introduces lead guitarist Chris Shiflett, describing him as "good and clean.” This, it turns out, would be a pretty apt description for the rest of the band's performance: consummate professionals, they run through the anthems (‘My Hero’, ‘Best Of You’ etcetera) to an extensive late evening crowd.
At one point, sticksman Taylor Hawkins brings on Harper Grohl, Dave’s daughter, to play the drums for a rendition of ‘We Will Rock You’. It’s a sweet moment, and probably proof that Dave’s reputation for being the nicest man in rock is more fitting than that of a full-blown rockstar.
Before all of that, though, there’s a whole host of Icelandic rap to get through. It’s a thread that runs throughout the festival, and a reflection of the recent boom in rap music in the nation’s capital. GKR, a nerdy SoundCloud rapper dressed head to toe in his own-branded yellow skate gear (he even tosses out mini GKR-branded cereal boxes at one point), bounces through a mid-afternoon set on the de facto second stage. Glacier Mafia, meanwhile, are a sort of EDM-cum-trap outfit who draw a sizeable (and young) early evening crowd. Frontman Gisli Palmi has a mullet, which along with the language barrier makes it difficult to work out whether this is a comedy act or just something that’s been lost in translation.
South London’s Dave, however, puts the language barrier aside entirely as he gets a mid-evening crowd of Icelanders singing along to his chorus of “I ain’t working ‘til 71 | Trying to retire at 40 | I ain’t working ‘til 71” in a set that also sees him pull a volunteer from the crowd on stage to do AJ Tracey’s verses from ‘Thiago Silva’. It’s impressive stuff from the youngster (though we wouldn’t say the same about his volunteer). Roots Manuva is also out to rep the UK; dressed in trackies, shades and a bowler hat, he puts a sunny, Caribbean-tinged twist on a chilly dusk performance. It’s not obvious how well it lands with the slightly tepid Icelandic crowd, though, and not dropping in ‘Witness (One Hope)’ as a mid-set surprise feels like a missed opportunity.
Pharoahe Monch had his own stage visitors too. From the crowd of hip hop disciples, one youngster bounds on stage before being thrown off by some over-zealous security. Monche responds by pulling the kid back up onto the stage, along with his mate, before taking a selfie and launching into a singalong of ‘Oh No’. “This is hip hop,” he declares defiantly.
Elsewhere, there’s plenty for the Foo fans to feast on while they wait for Grohl et al. Arnos Dan’s Agent Fresco howl through a set of emotive post rock on the main stage to a baying early evening crowd, who throw back full bridges and choruses a capella. Earlier, The Vintage Caravan had strutted their borderline hair metal on the same stage, packing a bigger sound than most four pieces would muster.
But Secret Solstice – like plenty of destination festivals – isn’t all about what goes on in the main arena. Side events – including a midnight sunset boat party, a gig inside a lava tunnel, and parties deep within Europe’s second largest glacier – are a real draw and accessible either by purchasing additional separate tickets or as part of a VIP package.
Saturday’s lava tunnel gig takes place in a magma tube that’s a cool 5200 years old and around a kilometre and a half in length. With temperatures barely rising above five degrees, it’s a chilly experience, but stripped-back sets from a purely Icelandic lineup – and some amazing natural acoustics – are plenty distraction from cold toes. Helgi Bjornsson’s breathy crooning vocals are the highlight, while Snorri Helga’s a capella rendition of an old Scottish folk ballad sends a shiver up the spine – though that might easily have come from the occasional drips from the tunnel ceiling landing on the back of your neck.
FBack at the festival, consecutive appearances from Princess Nokia and Novelist end up being two of the must-sees of the weekend.
Nokia oozes energy and attitude, collecting roses from some particularly devoted fans in the front row, and coaxing a pre-rolled joint from the crowd before sparking it up onstage to whoops and cheers – she even throws in a couple of stage dives for good measure. Novelist, meanwhile, bounds onto the stage asking “where’s all my Viking mandem in the place?” before running through his set like a radio session: instrumentals mixed in quick succession and graced with rapid-fire, call-and-response bars. It’s inspiring to see him command this arena with such confidence, and there are plenty of UK MCs who could learn from his approach rather than just running through individual tunes with backing tracks.
Over on the main stage, The Prodigy rattle through the likes of ‘Firestarter’ and ‘Voodoo People’ to a rapturous crowd. It runs pretty much as a greatest hits set, and circle pits form as far as a 50 yards back in the crowd. The main stage sound system, however, doesn’t feel quite up to the job, and an epilepsy-inducing lightshow largely fades in the face of the never-setting sun.
Pretty much the only place you’ll find darkness at the festival is Hel: a separate, indoor arena that’s essentially a huge, rigged-up sports hall. For the most part it’s inhabited by overseas techno DJs, but Icelandic duo Kiasmos’ live show on the Saturday night proves the worth of this late-hours space. The pair’s explorative approach to techno, with organic instrumentation and scattered rhythmic arrangements, are a welcome break from the straight 4x4 of most of Hel’s other dwellers.
Sunday’s ‘Into The Glacier’ side event suffered an early hitch with billed performer Anderson.Paak pulling out a couple of days before, saying that he didn’t want to jeopardise his voice for his performance on the main stage that same evening. It’s a shame, and one which presumably might have been avoided by not booking him for two appearances so close together (particularly given the glacier is a couple of hours’ drive away, and Paak was scheduled to be on the main stage less than an hour after arriving back on site at the festival).
He’s replaced for the event by Pharaohe Monch, however a series of power cuts for which no fix is found means that the performance is cancelled entirely and the audience bundled back into snow trucks to trundle back down the mountain largely unsated. Speaking to Monch in the glacier, he sounds disappointed and says he wouldn’t take the opportunity were he given it again. Technical issues are perhaps an occupational hazard when you’re putting on shows in such inventive locations, but at around £300 a ticket for just this side event there’s arguably little excuse for such a lack of contingency plan.
After this, it’s something of a saving grace that Anderson.Paak’s turn on the main stage is a real standout for the weekend.
Any hip-hop artist putting together a stage show should watch this before deciding whether to use a full band or just a DJ. The Free Nationals, as Paak’s troupe are known, segue between album tracks and slip in classic hip hop and R&B instrumentals from the likes of Dr Dre and R Kelly, and hold a crowd better than any solo mic man and his DJ could. Of course it helps that Paak can play along himself: he jumps behind the previously-vacant drum kit and sings through ‘The Season/Carry Me’, beating the skins for all they’re worth. He’s a true performer, and eventually tosses his sticks into the crowd – showing that rappers can be rockstars too.
Big Sean hasn’t read this review yet, so can perhaps be forgiven for opting for the one-man-and-his-microphone approach. It lacks the impact of Paak’s stageshow, but hits like ‘I Don’t Like’, ‘Blessings’, ‘Jump Out The Window’, ‘Bounce Back’ and ‘I Don’t Fuck With You’ are lapped up by an expansive final evening crowd. He drops the mic before dipping off the stage.
It’s a mic Rick Ross will pick up to close out the festival, though he doesn’t appear to have drawn a particularly big crowd. He’s got hits for days, but playing ‘Hustlin’’ three tunes in feels slightly reckless and, despite drawing for a host of Maybach hits and club favourites like ‘Bugatti’, ‘Dead Presidents’ and his ‘Hard In The Paint’ freestyle, the crowd dwindles noticeably as he plows through his set.
Unlike the crowd, the sun is of course still there: hanging low against the horizon, always threatening to sink away entirely but never quite making it.
You’ll never really get used to leaving a festival in the early hours of the morning and it still being daylight. It does make stumbling back to bed that bit easier, though.
Flights for this trip were provided by WOW air
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Words: Will Pritchard