Iceland Airwaves Showcase at the Kennedy Center

Icelandic pop acts Soley, Retro Stefson, and FM Belfast at the Kennedy Center for the Iceland Airwaves Showcase. Photo: Soley

WASHINGTON, March, 13, 2013 —Iceland is a rather remote country that nonetheless has a fairly extensive history of involvement with pop music. But, outside of Björk and Sigur Ros, it’s hard to really name or get a handle on any of the Icelandic bands, at least stateside. It’s not that these bands don’t have appeal outside of their native country. It’s just hard for them to get any sort of traction outside their local sphere of influence unless they happen to catch a break.

There’s nothing about the majority of Iceland’s bands that screams niche market. In fact, they happen to be hyper-modern in terms of pop music, possessing a certain freedom to explore numerous genres to their full extent, unencumbered as they are by global expectations.

The Iceland Airwaves showcase on the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage—unified with the Center’s ongoing “Nordic Cool” celebration this year—is designed specifically to shine a light on some of Iceland’s premier bands.

Iceland Airwaves is an event that’s actually been held annually since 1999 that features music acts from all over the world. Three bands included in this year’s showcase at the Kennedy Center – Sóley, Retro Stefson, and FM Belfast – are some of the best examples of what Iceland has to offer the world of pop music, providing just an inkling as to the wide range of eclectic music that comes from this far-northern country. Of course, the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage was set up specifically to spotlight bands just like the three that took the stage so the two have made a great match.

It would be simple to define any of these bands in the showcase through the prism of what’s already known about Icelandic music. Sóley was the first performer in the showcase, and on the surface her music gives a Björk-y vibe for the uninitiated. She just recently started her solo career, having already found some success as a member of bands like Seabear and Sin Fang, both of which have trekked the world a good amount. 

Despite having this kind of experience under her belt, there’s still noticeable nervousness about her stage presence, as if she’s still feeling out what her identity as a solo artist should be. This is most noticeable in the way she interacts with the audience. On the other hand, she’s quite up front with letting people know that she’s going back and forth as she grapples with being a solo performer. 

Sóley’s attitude succeeds in enhancing her sound that much more. Her brand of mellow and brooding electro pop has a kind of darkness around its edges, although her music isn’t dark in and of itself. Everything about her is contemplative, and her slow burn on each song helps build emotion and, on occasion, tension as well.

The kind of natural introspection Sóley brings to the showcase is contradicted almost immediately when Retro Stefson takes the stage. The idea that Iceland Airwaves is covering as much ground in Icelandic music as possible is nowhere more obvious than in the dramatic difference between these two acts. 

The first thing Retro Stefson asked the audience to do, even before they were seated, was to move into the open area that had been clearly designated for dancing, or at least form of audience movement.

It was clear from the start that Retro Stefson is about as pure a pop band as anyone is going to find these days. The seven-piece ensemble is all over the place both musically and with their stage presence, but it’s all with the intent of getting people to move. The band’s bass lines are thick, the keys are upbeat, and guitar effects range from airy to driving depending on what suits the mood. Retro Stefson is all about surface appeal, since there doesn’t seem to be a driving metaphor beneath the band. For that reason, everything they have to show the audience is pushed to the forefront. Any details they can’t make explicit with their music would likely be a wasted effort, with all the intensity and energy they put forth during their set. In other words, with Retro Stefson, what you see is what you get.

FM Belfast was the last band to perform in the Iceland Airwaves showcase and thematically they’re the perfect band to cap of the night. In the press release, FM Belfast is described as a community.  This might make more sense from an Icelandic point of view, but from a pragmatic and literal angle of a Washington audience, they’re still just a band on stage. That said, with the use of three singers and ever present percussion and synth during their set, the group comes across as a lot bigger than they actually are. The three singers are different enough from one another as well, to make an impression, not just vocal styles but in their ability to project themselves on stage. 

They cover so much ground and are so sonically overwhelming that they seem to be coming at you from everywhere. Top that off with their selection immediately catchy songs – some of which they feel inclined to teach the audience – and it’s hard not to feed off their infectious energy. It’s hard as well to imagine FM Belfast existing in any other country than Iceland. They have a quirky appeal that makes it impossible to envision them coming from any place that wouldn’t be free from musical restrictions.

The primary goal of the Iceland Airwaves showcase was to give a spotlight to some the premier bands that will be playing during the festival proper. It’s also done the job of giving exposure to a musical culture that someone from outside that country would be unfamiliar with. Sóley, Retro Stefson, and FM Belfast covered that turf well, doing as well as any musicians possibly could to cover the eccentric musical terrain that is Iceland.


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Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer.  He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years.  Currently he lives in Vienna, VA.   He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.

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