text and photos by Autumn Andel
Secret Solstice music festival is timed to celebrate the midnight sun, where darkness shy away from Iceland for 96 hours. But its timing also coincides with Iceland's Independence Day (June 17), and the Euro 2016 football games, in which the native team steadily rose in the ranks. Along with an ever growing tourism, Reykjavík seemed like the place to be for the summer solstice. The perpetual daylight, the unique charms of Iceland, and with Radiohead as their headliner, Secret Solstice drew in over 15,000 attendees (by another account, up to 17,000). Unfortunately, the event that took place at and around Laugardalshöll sports complex in Reykjavík, may have proved to be too much for the three-year-old festival. Some attendees as well as the volunteers complained about the poor organization, enough to cause the festival to issue an apology: “We apologize to all of our guests who were inconvenienced.” There were people who came all the way from the west coast North America just to see the English band, but the indoor venue could only accommodate about half of the pass holders. While not being able to catch Radiohead is a big let down, Secret Solstice provided many opportunities to learn about Iceland's culture which was invaluable in itself.
It had been almost four years since I last visited Iceland. In the fall of 2012, during the Airwaves, it was cold, dark, and frustrating to get into venues, but I still had a blast and was thrilled to return to the land of delectable water, invigorating air, and amiable inhabitants. Since then, the tourism has exploded to the point where the natives are having trouble accommodating them. In my case, I found the lodging prices had almost doubled. As a budget traveler, I ended up settling for a private room with a shared bath via Airbnb an hour walk way (or 12 minutes of walking and 10 minutes on the bus) from the festival grounds. I was fortunate to have found Bjorn Agust Jonsson's residence, not only for the comfort but also for the interaction I had with my host. He had been working in a metal recycling facility until injuries left him physically unfit for work. So Bjorn and his family opened up their whole house three weeks before the Secret Solstice. I stayed in one of three rooms available for guests and was surprised that Jonssons let the guests have access to the kitchen and pretty much their whole house. Their Icelandic sheepdog, Þula (pronounced Thula), who is super friendly and docile was an added bonus. They also have a cat, Elvis who was less social. I would see him out from my window, licking water off the hot tub in the mornings. All this made me feel very much like visiting a friend or family.
But even before I arrived at my lodging, I gained some insight into the island nation on the flight from Budapest, where I was seated next to an Icelander. Oskar is a medical student attending university in eastern Hungary. From our conversation, I learned that Iceland does not have enough higher learning opportunities so many of natives seek degrees outside of their country. He also told me that the natives have a dark sense of humor and nothing really offends them – maybe except if you don't laugh at their almost macabre jokes! Once we landed at KEF airport, Oskar saved me from my transportation woes to my lodging when he talked his parents into giving me a ride. Ah – this is why I love Icelandic people – so welcoming and willing to help.
The first impression of the carbon neutral event's layout was that it seemed relatively small compared to other prominent music festivals, which was a relief for someone who has experienced the exhausting trek back and forth at Primavera in Barcelona. The Viking hot tub and a drop tower elevated you, while a cardboard-looking chapel satiated the impulsion for matrimony. Otherwise, it was the usual fair of some shopping and food carts. The festival offered quality edibles with vegan and vegetarian options, if your wallet was on the thinner side, the best deal was at Pullan, where you could nosh on the nation's famous hotdog for $3.25.
Not being familiar with many of the acts scheduled, focusing on the main stage, Valhalla, seemed like the best strategy. Oskar had told me that hip hop was big in Iceland. From the first act I caught, Shades of Reykjavík, to Flatbush Zombies and Gísli Pálmi, the crowd proved that my new friend was right.
For a change of pace, “secret guest” Sister Sledge, provided R&B disco to the audience whose parents were probably just kids when the three-sister group formed in 1971. Yet they cheered on as if the American group were the latest hot boy band. I decided to catch one more before walking back to my base under the midnight sun: an intimate show with Bang Gang on Gimli stage – while their melodic pop conjured pensiveness, frontman Barði Jóhannsson would smile frequently in between songs, engaging the audience in native tongue. Guess he figured most of the foreigners would be somewhere else.
Day 2 was all about Radiohead. As the day went on, the line to Jötunheim venue grew longer and longer until it stretched way beyond the main gate. The sun showered instead of the rain for a change, allowing the visitors to see our star just hover at the horizon. So on the most beautiful day of the fest, it was a pity that the headliner played inside a dark, stifling stadium. But before the big show, I caught couple of Brits - an enthralling performance from rapper Lady Leshurr, who knew how to engage the crowd, and Goldie. The multi-disciplined artist mainly mixed music behind the stand, but maybe because of his fame, the Englishman held my attention longer than any other DJ did at the festival.
Those who waited in line for hours to see Radiohead were rewarded with what some claimed to be the best Radiohead show ever. It was a constant tip-toeing to catch a glimpse of Thom Yorke & Co. The Brits captivated the audience with songs from their latest album, A Moon Shaped Pool, before diving into the hits. Eventually the lack of ventilation got the best of me, and I ventured out to catch Action Bronson. The former chef turned rapper was like a smiley teddy bear - a strange combination of cuddly and foul-mouthed charm.
Saturday night at Secret Solstice was bit of a breather between Friday and Sunday. Deftones were promoted as the headliner of the night, but the Californian band were not in the same league as Radiohead nor Die Antwoord. Day 3 also brought consistent rain, making all the photographers a bit less adventurous. The drizzle certainly didn't affect the natives who came out to watch the spectacle that was Reykjavíkurdætur (Daughters of Reykjavik) – an all-female rap collective currently with sixteen members (according to the festival page). With so many colorful personas on stage, it was difficult to focus on sights and sounds at times, but one member stood out – a pregnant woman proudly showcasing her swollen belly, wearing just a nude bra under an opened jacket. But that was hardly a sight of shock for those who witnessed the controversial group telling their prime minister to "suck my pussy" on live TV. And through them, my rosy-view of Iceland started to crack - with their themes protesting against half of their nation who they claim to be racist, anti-feminist, and narrow-minded.
After the mega dose of femme-power, males dominated the stage rest of the night. I tagged along a fellow photographer and spent a little time backstage as he took some portraits of a hip-hop artist, Emmsjé Gauti, and the rock quartet, Agent Fresco. Gauti's confidence gleamed as much as his light hair and skin, claiming he is the best rapper in Iceland. While the men of Agent Fresco displayed more humility yet also playfulness as they wrestled around the converted gym.
I finished the night with Deftones. Frontman Chino Moreno was chosen to perform inside a volcano for an off-site event limited to 20 people with $2,000 ticket price. Not sure how much room he had inside to oscillate around, but there would not have been enough bodies for crowd surfing as he attempted to do so at Valhalla. After almost 30 years in the biz, Deftones sounded very much into blasting their alternative metal.
If you were not in the Cinderella curse like me, you could party on until 4am with one of several DJs on the program, including the daughter of Keith Richards and Patti Hansen, Alexandra Richards. The gates would open again in eight hours; those who opted for camping, the festivities didn't end until the sun had set after the weekend.
On the final day of Secret Solstice, the frustration resulted from an occurrence 30 miles away. Traffic controllers at Keflavík airport went on a strike, causing the night's main attraction, Die Antwoord, to delay their arrival for hours. From a local press member I learned that the workers were protesting against the lack of health benefits, and that Iceland suffers from an insufficient healthcare system. This unanticipated incident forced the festival organizers to push back the South African duo's slot, which meant moving the show inside to comply with the noise curfew.
Die Antwoord were originally schedule to play after the Icelandic rock quintet, Mammút, on Valhalla stage. The almost albino singer, Kata Mogensen, swayed around like as if she was in a trance at times with a banshee-like vocals that pierced through the chasms. While trying to capture this, I slipped and my left foot got caught and banged around the metal platform I was standing on. The pain was pretty unbearable, but my pride was even more bruised when agility failed me.
The Irish experimental pop songstress, Róisín Murphy, followed Mammút's fervent performance. Though Murphy's name caught my eyes on several European festival banners in the past, I never bothered to research about her. Much to my surprise, she provided the most hypnotic visual display by a single performer, transmuting through myriad costumes, which often looked rather ridiculous when taken out of context. By the time one of Iceland's famous exports, Of Monsters And Men, took the stage, the rain returned and twilight darkness descended. Following Murphy's colorful magician-like show, OMAM's folk rock extravaganza provided a darker yet triumphant performance.
After the 23rd hour, it was finally time for Die Antwoord. The balcony view proved to be much more enjoyable than elbowing on the floor. Ninja, Yolandi Visser, and DJ Hi-Tek closed out the performance-based part of the fest with a giant explosion of dizzying array of visuals and sonic assaults.
Like with any events, there are bound to be unexpected issues and room for improvements. And the country I considered closest to utopia is not without its deficiencies. But if you want to experience one of the most unique landscapes and peaceful cultures on the planet, Secret Solstice is a good excuse to book a flight for next year’s daylight marathon to Iceland.
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