There is some sort of unspoken competition among those who go to Iceland Airwaves, and for that matter among Icelandic bands, that someone needs to be "signed" or "discovered". Everyone is looking to find the next unknown band, and every band is looking to make David Fricke's magic list of bands that matter in order to have the coveted Rolling Stone press clip. While certainly understandable, it adds a sort of unnatural pressure to a situation that is quite sufficient on its own artistic merits.
Forgetting for a moment the economics of the music business, here is an admittedly (and necessarily) abridged list of artists that provided some of the more moving moments that I was lucky enough to catch at Airwaves 2006.
Mugison This was no surprise to me, after I picked up his record at last year's festival. "Mugimama, This Is Monkey Music" is one of the better albums I heard last year, all the more surprising due to the fact that no one has any idea who this guy is. I not only got to catch his somewhat "secret" show on Wednesday at the tiny pub Prikid, I also got to cover the blowout at the Reykjavik Art Museum the next night, which featured his newly assembled full band setup playing to a capacity crowd of a few thousand. Epic stuff.
Hjaltalin OK, fine. I can't pronounce their name either, but if you had the pleasure of seeing the show i saw, it wouldn't matter a bit. Clicking on the link and listening to their tracks will only give you the faintest idea of how good these guys are. They pack a crowd on stage that includes horns, strings, and a even goddamn bassoon, but the tracks on myspace are relatively sparse demos. They've only been playing together in the current form for a few weeks, and have no CD to speak of. Give these guys a proper recording studio and you'll have an Icelandic version of Broken Social Scene on your hands. Highly recommended.
Mr. Silla and Mongoose If I am forced to call a stunningly beautiful woman "Mister", than I choose to retaliate by stating that the Mongoose in the equation is largely irrelevant. It's not that the laptop guru in this duo isn't talented....he most certainly is. But when Mr. Silla is gracing the stage, there is precisely one person that the audience is fixated on, and it isn't the guy tapping the keyboard. Refreshingly it isn't Mr. Silla's looks that provide the primary focus, though I admit to considering a move to Iceland based solely on that premise seven or eight times during the set. Beyond her overwhelming stage charisma......that voice....that voice. Silla's old-school jazz classicism is the perfect partner to the new-school edginess that is the coin of the realm in Iceland. Again we run into the same problem....the myspace songs don't hold a candle to the songs that she roared through at the National Theater Basement, but check them out anyway. You'll hear the raw material of what will doubtless be a talent to reckon with.
Johann Johannsson In many parts of the world this wouldn't qualify as a discovery, but i don't happen to live in one of those parts. This was an artist I was fortunate enough to check out before I headed over to Reykjavik, and I was positively blown away. In Iceland he's probably better known for his work with Apparat Organ Quartet, but internationally he is known for his haunting electro-chamber soundtrack works which are utterly breathtaking. I only got to catch about half of it, but the set he played in a small church at dusk was one of the more moving sets of music I've been lucky enough to witness in quite some time. The overflow crowd filled the pews with a reverent silence, and Johannsson delivered a worthy sermon, complete with string quartet, grand piano, and the requisite electronics setup. When the composer played the sweeping, emotional third movement of his new album "IBM 1401: A User's Manual", there were a few people in the building that looked damn close to tears. At a festival that wasn't short on beauty, this was perhaps it's most perfect moment.