Sunday, 27 September 2015

Airwaves Is Coming To Town Again

November the 4th this year represents a little milestone for me. It will mark the beginning of my fifth Iceland Airwaves festival. The musical journey began for me in October 2011 when I came to Reykjavík to attend Airwaves for the first time. I wasn’t living here at the time but was beginning to ‘commute’ every year to visit the place. Like a lot of the really cool stuff that happens to you in life I stumbled upon the festival quite by chance. I wasn’t able to visit Reykjavík until October in 2011 so I was looking for something to do that would keep me entertained. Having misspent six years of my youth on the road with all manner of rock bands back when I was living in New Zealand and Australia I’ve always had a bit of a thing for music especially when it’s of the loud, fast and heavy variety.
Airwaves differs a lot from of other festivals in that it does not all take place at the one venue. Given that it is held at the beginning of November it would be almost impossible to do this outdoors in Iceland due to the weather (that sort of carry on is saved for the very middle of summer) so they have come up with the most cunning and imaginative of alternatives. This year the festivals is spread over ten primary venues: Harpa (a world class concert centre that incorporates four venues including the Icelandic Symphony’s concert chamber), NASA (a once defunct and now reopened venue of much fame and legend), Gamla Bíó (an old theatre converted into a music venue), Húrra (a friendly and cosy bar with a stage at one end), Gaukurinn (the bar next door and upstairs from Húrra that is the definitive rock venue in Reykjavík), Iðnó (a restaurant with a stage at one end that also acts as a live venue), Tjarnabíó (a working theatre that also serves as a music venue, cafe and arts centre), the Reykjavík Art Museum (no prizes for guessing what this one does on its days off), Fríkirkjan (a church) and Vodafone Hall (a large multi-purpose sports and concert venue).
On top of these official venues there is also a huge off-venue programme where anyone in the city can pop along to a vast variety of shops, hotels, cafes, and bookshops who open their doors to the public and host concerts during the afternoon before the real action takes place later on in the evening. You can see nearly all the bands performing on any given year at these off-venue performances in what can sometimes be tiny and very intimate settings. The off-venue system gives the festival a decidedly inclusive feeling as if the whole city is taking part and to a large extent that is true. During the daytime you can walk down Laugavegur and Austurstræti and it feels and sounds as if every shop, coffee house and backpacker’s hostel is in on it. There are bands playing in shop windows, in record stores and hotel bars and foyers. It is a cornucopia of noise, rhythm and beats. And fun. The whole city centre feels as if it’s having a good time.
The main attractions for me this year include the more prominent members of the local rock scene: Agent Fresco, Endless Dark, kimono, Muck and perhaps a little more surprisingly the opportunity to see John Grant perform with an orchestra. Over the last four years I have seen some wonderful contemporary performances when the Icelandic Symphony have teamed up with some of the local composers. This year John Grant will join the elite ranks of Valgeir Sigurðsson, Ólafur Arnalds and Jóhann Jóhannsson all of whom I’ve seen and been thrilled by in the magnificent Eldborg concert chamber.
Agent Fresco have just released their second album ‘Destrier’ to universal acclaim and praise and will be playing songs both old and new to loyal local fans as well as a bunch of new foreign converts. These guys have an intensity about them that very few other bands can match. Not in volume or speed but simple raw emotion and honesty. Last year they were responsible for the best night I’ve ever had at Gaukurinn with their incredibly emotive performance and I’ve had some pretty good nights there over the last four years. Arnór Dan has a no holds barred approach to his lyric writing and the themes of loss, love and regret are always to the fore in their songs. They are not a band that will make you want to bounce or scream, they are a band designed to make you feel and that’s exactly what they do.
Endless Dark were one of the first bands I saw at my first Airwaves and have remained a serious favourite of mine ever since. They have been threatening to release their debut album for some time now but there are signs that this year might actually be the one when it hits the shelves. They have gone through some line-up changes of late but have just released a pretty damn cool video for their single ‘Warriors’. They are definitely a band to keep your eye on.
Kimono are another band threatening to release another album sometime in the not too distant future. Their performance at Airwaves will be only their third this year having played recently with Ari Russo at Húrra and once before that at a recording for local radio downstairs at Bar 11. I was lucky enough to be at that show and can happily say that if the upcoming recordings match the quality of ‘Specters’ and ‘Less Than Zero’ then we are in for a real treat when the album does come out. #thisisgoingtohurt #kimonoiceland

Last but very definitely not least is the Icelandic powerhouse that is Muck. They get described as grindcore but for me they’re just punk rock with long hair. I have seen these guys three times in the last few months and their shows just keep getting better and better. They are a serious force to be reckoned with live and have earned my stamp of approval in a big way. I would have to say that they are undoubtedly the best live act in the country at the moment. That’s a big call given that there are much more popular bands out there who can draw much bigger crowds than the Muck boys do but they have repeatedly shown that their ability to whip a crowd (especially a late-night crowd of drunk guys with shaved heads and big beards) into a complete frenzy is unparalleled. I have seen slam-dancing at their shows that would have put gigs by GBH to shame. Muck play as fast as any band you will ever see but do so with an incredible tightness and clarity that sets them well apart from their peers. Their album ‘Your Joyous Future’ is indeed a joy to behold and despite the recent departure of their long-time drummer I can see these guys going a long way in the business of rocking you till your socks fall off. As far as they want to is what I’m guessing. 

Sunday, 13 September 2015

'THE DEFENCELESS' by Kati Hiekkapelto

It was only four short months ago that I was reading Kati’s first novel while attending CrimeFest in Bristol. My subsequent review of ‘The Hummingbird’ enthralled, titillated and amused discerning readers all over Finland while leaving the rest of the world scratching their collective heads in bewilderment at what the hell I was talking about. So I’m back for a second bite at the cherry and this time it’s ‘The Defenceless’ and this time I’m determined to get anyone I might have missed the first time around. I may very well be a little twisted and possibly unhinged in one way or other but I am very thorough if nothing else.
Anna Fekete has been launched through my Icelandic postal aperture and back into my life and I’ve got to say I’m pretty happy she’s back. There’s something about Anna that I’ve come to admire. I like the way she struggles to get on with those around her, whether it be Esko, the obnoxious, self-aggrandising drunk she is forced to work with or Ákos, her troubled and equally hard-drinking brother. Esko has dreams of making a fresh start elsewhere but seems myopically unaware that his problems will simply follow him wherever he goes. While Ákos seems to be the epitome of the lost soul. He is a stranger in a strange land. Uprooted and transplanted to a new life in a new country he self-medicates his disconnection with as much booze as he can afford on any given day.
Neither relationship is as black and white as you might possibly expect from a less intuitive writer and Anna’s sympathy for each deeply-flawed male swings first one way and then the other. She is torn between loathing her colleague and tolerating him and detesting her brother’s wasted life and blaming herself for his long list of poor decisions. In fact there aren’t too many truly likable characters in her life and for me that’s what makes her existence ring true. Books full of nice people bore me.
An old man is run over while lying down in the street by Hungarian rally driver Gabriella who is investigated for dangerous driving but later exonerated of impersonating Ari Vatanen and released. For Anna this is only the beginning of their relationship as the obviously lonely yet irritatingly arrogant Gabriella seeks Anna’s attention, advice and company like a newly acquired puppy. The dead man then becomes the centre of an investigation that involves a turf war between rival biker gangs, heroin dealers, a jealous ex-lover and an asylum seeker so desperate not to be returned to his homeland that he is willing to admit to a crime he didn’t commit in order to remain in Finland albeit it in a prison cell. For him Finland has indeed become the land of endless opportunity.
Piece by piece Anna puts together the puzzle of what Sammy the Christian Pakistani asylum seeker has or hasn’t done since his application for leave to remain was turned down. The worries he deals with every day are not just limited to arrest and deportation but to where he can find his next hit of heroin or dose of Subutex. Meanwhile Esko struggles with himself as much as the criminals he’s after while trying to stop the expansion of a foreign gang who seem hell-bent on moving their narcotics business to the chilly northern-Finnish idyll. A blood-covered knife found in the woods and a corpse in a room full of narcotics complicate matters for them as the story builds towards its climax.
I found ‘The Defenceless’ to be an impressive step-up from ‘The Hummingbird’ which is not to say that her first book wasn’t good. It was. Really good. It’s just that the writing here feels more comfortable and assured and the relationships between the characters that appear in both books have grown and provide subplots that give insight and depth to the controlling idea of the story.
Anna Fekete will continue to be a favourite leading lady of mine simply because of the way she deals with the slings and arrows of her everyday existence. She hates getting her period, she likes hooking up with men but rarely wants anything to do with them once she’s slept with them and struggles with the demands of many of the other people in her life even when all they’re trying to do is be nice to her. I think that possibly says as much about me as anything else though.  

As a foreigner Anna views Finland as only an outsider can and that is a great way to create empathy for an international audience. John Irving says that all writers are outsiders and I think they need to be in order to do their job properly. If you want others to understand what you trying to say you have to be able to put yourself in their shoes for a while in order to do your job properly and that is one thing Kati is particularly skilled at doing. She is able to see her country from the outside looking in and wants us all to take a good look before turning our attention back to our own and doing the very same thing there.


It wasn’t long after I had finished reading ‘The Defenceless’ that I had a dream. A strange and troubling vision that seemed to want to tell me something although I am still not sure exactly what it was it was trying to say. The next morning I couldn’t tell if it had simply been one of the many nightmares I am prone to having, such is the dark and twisted nature of my mind, or possibly some kind of premonition.
In the dream my trusted Samoan attorney and I were driving very fast along an old and worn moose track somewhere in the north-eastern corner of the Gulf of Bothnia. I surmise it was in fact on Hailuoto although I have yet to set foot there. Now I feel I must go. That I in fact have no choice in the matter such was the clarity of the dream. We were somewhere on the edge of the island, because I could smell the salt in the air, when the drugs began to take hold. The huge red car began to swerve from one side of the narrow track to the other as if it was suddenly beyond my control. I vaguely remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive....”
And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge puffins, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down so we would make it in time to the last ferry back to Oulu. And a voice was screaming “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”
Then it was quiet again. My attorney had taken off his bright red Hawaiian shirt and was pouring Saku Originaal on his chest to facilitate the Finnish tanning process.
“What the hell are you yelling about?” he muttered, staring up at the midnight sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses.
“Never mind,” I said. “It's your turn to drive.” I hit the brakes and aimed the Great Red Shark toward the shoulder of the moose track. No point mentioning those puffins, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough. I was right. It didn’t take long at all before I could hear him making strange and incomprehensible sounds.
“Haista vittu lunnit!” I heard him mumble to himself as I climbed into the back of the car to get some much needed rest. I couldn’t remember what we had done to necessitate such a speedy exit from the island but whatever it was it must have been serious. There was a moose’s head lying in the footwell directly behind the driver’s seat. Its antlers had been hacked off in a crooked and frenzied fashion and its eyes had been pecked out by a hundred or more razor sharp beaks. The wounds were too numerous to count and the damage the moose had sustained before having its head cut off had been horrible in the extreme. “Haista vittu lunnit” indeed I thought to myself.
“To the ferry, my friend, this is no time to take it easy you drunken bastard,” I screamed up at the sky as I waved my arms as menacingly as I could in front of my face to keep the belligerent puffins away. “There’s not a moment to lose,’ I continued briefly before passing out on the moose’s head.
After the dream I woke not knowing if we had made it to the boat or not. I didn’t know if the puffins had got the better of us or even if the moose had been a friend, an enemy or a lover. Without the proper information from my attorney it’s hard to guess at exactly what goes on in the middle of the night on those strange Finnish islands.


Now, after much contemplation I have decided that the dream was merely a sign and not a warning so I have decided that during the spring of 2016 I will be taking a break from writing and my Samoan attorney and I will be relocating to Hailuoto to manage Kati’s band Parrakas nainen (The Bearded Women) and record and produce their debut album, ‘Smell the Moose’.
My trusted Samoan companion is also a very talented artist and will therefore be responsible for producing the artwork for the album. The cover of ‘Smell The Moose’ will feature a heavily greased naked man on all fours with a dog collar and leash around his neck. There will be one moose’s front leg extended holding onto the leash while the other front leg pushes a black glove in his face forcing him to sniff it. The question we want listeners to ask themselves when they first experience this Finnish sonic assault is “How much more moose could this album be?” And the answer of course has to be, none. None more moose.  
The first single to be lifted from the album will be ‘Lick My Love Moose’ which we fully anticipate will be banned in at least twenty moose-intolerant areas in North America alone before it even goes on sale. Hopefully this will only be the case in small moose-hating communities so sales of the single and subsequent album will not be affected worldwide. The idea is that the publicity generated internationally by the bans will completely outweigh any loss in sales in places such as Moose Jaw, Moose City, Moose Creek or Moose Mountain.
‘Fear Of A Moose Planet’ is already being talked about as the follow up album to ‘Smell The Moose’ where we will see the band take a decidedly sideways move into the world of hip hop. Parrakas nainen have said repeatedly that they do not want to be confined to just the one musical genre so they can reach as many people as possible about their support of universal moose domination.
I can’t do nuttin’ for ya man
You better moose kiss my butt
I can’t do nuttin’ for ya man
I'm busy tryin’ to do it for my moose
I can't do nuttin’ for ya man
That’s the way the moose bounces gee

Bass for your face, kick that moose shit boyyyy!

As soon as ‘Lick My Love Moose’ is released the band, myself and my Samoan attorney will be setting out on a comprehensive world tour. The first gig on the tour will be a show in Iceland shortly after the Around Iceland in 66.6 Days puffin charity walk that Kati will be doing to raise money for Puffins Without Borders. The charity walk gets its name from the number of days it has been calculated that it will take Kati to circumambulate Iceland’s Ring Road at the rate of 20km per day. A pace that she has selected herself as being the most suitable and attainable for the conditions. The concert will also be the headlining attraction at Iceland Noir 2016. The support act for the show will be Yrsa and Lilja Sigurðardóttir covering the hit made famous by The Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin ‘Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves’.
On the charity walk around Iceland Kati will be accompanied by both myself and my Samoan attorney in a convertible red Cadillac as well as by her favourite Icelandic pack horse, Peachfuzz Bumblefuck III. We want to assure people that under no circumstances will Peachfuzz be carrying Kati for any of the walk, as this would breach the conditions of the charity event, and that he will merely be there to provide a little specialised advice, introduce her to some of the locals along the way, encourage her when she gets tired and to carry ‘a few things’. As yet my attorney has not decided exactly how many things constitute ‘a few’.
While Kati is completing the Around Iceland in 66.6 Days walk work on the third book in the Anna Fekete series will continue unabated. The remaining text will be ghost written by my Samoan attorney in the backseat of the Cadillac while I drive and keep a very keen eye out for puffins. The subsequent novel will be entitled, ‘The Girl in the Moose’s Lair’ and will be published to worldwide acclaim by Orenda Books sometime in late 2016.
In conjunction with the charity walk Parrakas nainen will be releasing a live version of the UK Subs song ‘Down on the Farm’ with something of a Finnish twist to it to raise even more money for Puffins Without Borders. How these crazy little birds survived before she came along I honestly don’t know. As far as the puffins are concerned she is a gift from heaven. ‘Down on the Farm’ will be recorded at the Iceland Noir concert in Reykjavík complete with backing vocals from the Sigurðardóttir sisters. We will celebrate this great one-off punk event with a couple of Saku Originaals and my attorney will be jotting down a short review of the show for Puffinblaðið, Iceland’s number one puffin-related newspaper.
Nobody comes to see me
Nobody here to turn me on
I ain't even got a moose lover
Down here on the farm

I can't fall in love with a wheat field
I can't fall in love with a barn
Well everything smells like moose shit
Down here on the farm
Time and time again my mind is drawn back to that terrifying dream.
“Haista vittu lunnit,” he had said to me.
“Vittu hirvi,” I should have replied.
“Vittu hirvi” is right. What had we done to cause us to be in such a hurry? Is there any chance we would make it off that goddamn island alive? What did the moose do to deserve to die in such a way and were we going to be next?
I hope I wasn’t wrong about that dream. I hope it wasn’t meant as some kind of terrible warning and that once my Samoan attorney and I get to Hailuoto next year we will make it off the island again in one piece once we have recorded the album. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s that there’s no such thing as a sure thing in this life. And if you’ve ever found yourself having to get the hell out of a moose-friendly nation like Finland in a big hurry with a moose’s head stuck in the footwell of a large red convertible and a drunk sunburnt Samoan attorney at the wheel you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.