Live Review: Eistnaflug 2014

HAM at Eistnaflug // view more photos below

Words and photos by Gemma Alexander

Eistnaflug.

Thank you, but I didn’t sneeze. Eistnaflug is Icelandic for “flying testicles,” and it’s the name of one of the world’s most unusual music festivals. Housed in the remote Eastfjords, the festival is four days under the midnight sun of punk, heavy metal, post-rock, industrial, and a few things too unusual to classify. Regulars describe it as a family reunion with one exception – tickets are printed with the warning, “It is forbidden to be an asshole at Eistnaflug.”

Iceland is already known for its eclectic and innovative indie rock, and the extreme music on display at Eistnaflug is no less exciting. According to festival co-organizer Guðný Lára Thorarensen, the music is aggressive, but the feeling is peaceful. Everyone who attends the festival likes to quote the festival founder’s golden rule - “No bullshit at Eistnaflug.” Despite heavy drinking, fights are rare and instantly broken up. From the very beginning, Eistnaflug has openly addressed the issue of violence and insists that festival-goers take care of each other. In the ten years of the festival, there has never been a rape, something that is less a point of pride than of principal. Guðny says, “It shouldn’t ever happen. It should never be tolerated anywhere.” The feeling of safety gives the festival a genuinely more relaxed atmosphere than any other large gathering of people I’ve attended.

Also, the locals don’t seem to mind their strangely plumed guests. According to the local cafe owner’s husband, they never have time to check out the music themselves; the festival brings so much business into town they are working overtime all week. Although he says there is a lot of drunkenness and littering, the event brings no violence or vandalism, and the festival cleans up after itself.

This year marked the 10th iteration of Eistnaflug, humorously named by changing a single syllable from the town’s only other festival, “Flying Sparks.” For the past four years, the festival has sold out, more than doubling the town’s population of 1500 and packing it’s only proper venue, Egilsbúð, as well as a semi-official abandoned factory venue called the Mayhemisphere.

The festival was created by Stefán (Stebbi) Mágnússon, who missed Reykjavík’s lively music scene when he moved to the remote village of Neskaupstaður. He brought a few bands up from the city for a showcase that was such a big hit it became an annual tradition, even after Stebbi moved back to Reykjavík.

Stebbi presides over the festival like everyone’s cool older brother, introducing the younger kids to the best new bands and keeping everyone in line. As the local paper reported the following week, even the flowerpots on main street were intact when the festival ended. Guðný adds that he puts a face on the festival that makes people want to be part of the Eistnaflug family – they know that this is a labor of love and not the project of an anonymous group of investors.

A foreigner arriving at Eistnaflug can feel like an in-law at the family reunion. It’s full of insider traditions like Saktmóðigur‘s guest-filled festival theme song, Sólstafir’s drummer jumping into the fjord, and the banter in Icelandic between bands and the audience. But everyone in the family is quick to translate Stebbi’s annual speech in which he tells people how to behave at Eistnaflug - even more than the music, it is the thing that keeps people coming back year after year.

48 bands performed on the official bill this year. Many of them played second shows off-venue, and sets were littered with guest appearances. Performers included four international acts: At the Gates, Bölzer, Zatokrev, and Havok. But the real draw is the chance to see the cutting edge of Iceland’s underground music scene sharing a stage with its top heavy metal, punk, and indie rock acts like Sólstafir, Skálmöld, Agent Fresco, and Mammùt.

The Wednesday night pre-show is for the local kids, a kind of thank you to the town for supporting the festival. But many festival-goers opt for the one hour flight from Reykjavík to the nearby town of Egilstaðir rather than miss it. This year the pre-show was headlined by Iceland’s cowboy heroes Sólstafir, whose set consisted almost completely of songs off their new album Ótta, scheduled for release next month.

The festival proper begins on Thursday with an emphasis on the heaviest sounds of the Icelandic underground. Highlights this year included the elegant black metal of Carpe Noctem, and pummeling death metal from Angist, whose front woman Edda’s unearthly howls never fail to impress. Momentum‘s brand of Neurosis-inspired post-metal is a local favorite. Sign (pronounced seeg) was entertaining with a throw-back style echoing early Skid Row. The local headliners were Brain Police, loved in Iceland for their bluesy hard rock. The international headliners were At the Gates, loved worldwide for developing the Gothenburg melodic death metal sound.

The eclectic line-up on Friday included more “mainstream” attractions – a relative term. Feminist hip-hop collective Reykjavikurdætur, was an unexpected hit. Benedikt Bjarnason, the new vocalist for Beneath, updated the technical death metal band’s performance without sacrificing old-school growling. Agent Fresco, a band KEXP has tracked since 2009, increased the distortion and brought the drums forward for Eistnaflug, making hard rock power ballads from songs that brought people to tears in an acoustic set at Iceland Airwaves. Swiss acts Bölzer and Zatokrev put on great shows, but the crowd response was more enthusiastic for local favorites Dimma and Vintage Caravan. Sólstafir‘s performance was intensified by nearly a thousand voices singing along. They were followed by Skálmöld, whose use of folk melodies and traditional poetry unexpectedly dragged heavy metal into the Icelandic mainstream in 2010.

After intense partying Friday night, Saturday started slowly. Fewer than two dozen people showed up for the industrial noise of AMFJ. Grísalappalísa [KEXP Song of the Day] finally brought the crowds with the funky chaos of saxophone layered over punk. Kontinuum‘s gothic-flavored ambient metal bewitched listeners before the mood changed again. Ophidian I played noodling leads and groovy riffs whose fun belied their technical death metal tag. Jónas Sig og Ritvélar, with a three-piece horn section, superficially resembled Of Monsters and Men. But they drew more from the blues than from folk, and their loud, infectious rock instantly won over the metalhead crowd.

Saturday night saw the dark and hypnotic Mammút [KEXP Song of the Day, live in studio], American thrash band Havok, and The Monolith Deathcult from Netherlands. Meanwhile, at the Mayhemisphere, a group of underground Icelandic bands in corpse-paint and hoods undermined their traditional trappings by using trumpet and electric violin.

Back at the main stage, HAM, the godfathers of Icelandic rock and roll, performed a ritual of their own. Every Icelandic musician cites HAM as an influence. Watching them is like meeting your friends’ parents; suddenly you can see where they got their distinctive characteristics. HAM’s beloved, cheesy performances are a distinctly Icelandic tradition where everyone sings along to every song, and stage divers stack themselves on top of the mosh pit.

Icelandic wunderkinds Retro Stefson, who have often been featured on KEXP, closed the festival. Their disco gloss was roughened by face paint and distortion, but the energy was pure party. Stage divers held hands above dancers in the pit while Stebbi surfed the crowd in an inflatable swimming pool. Front man Uni Stefánsson also joined the audience, both above the crowd and in it. It was a lot of spectacle for a small venue.

Although it was 3 o’clock in the morning, no one could sleep after such a climax. Fortunately, there was one more festival tradition to fulfill. Stebbi, in the persona of DJ Töfri, proceeded to spin some of the worst music of the 1980s. After four days of extreme, aggressive music, hundreds of people shouted the lyrics to Bon Jovi and Debbie Gibson in a dance party that lasted until morning. It’s safe to be silly when it’s all in the family.

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