Review by Charlotte Cox
Cool. It's a word we chuck around a lot. Cool dress. Cool club. Cool Runnings (hi, '90s kids). In fact, in the days either side of ELLE's trip to Sònar Reykjavik, our conversations exclusively ran like this: 'I'm going to/have just been to Sònar Reykjavik.' 'COOL!'
But what IS cool? We'd argue that if you look up the dictionary definition, you ought to find a flier for Iceland's three-day, five-stage electronic festival – an offshoot from the original Sònar Barcelona, now in its fourth year and bringing together big international DJs (Hudson Mohawke, Squarepusher) and marvellously named local acts (you try saying Vaginaboys with a straight face). But what you DO find is the following, somewhat more expansive list of definitions. And they all go to explain why yes, Sònar Reykjavik is indeed the coolest festival you've never been to.
Cool (adj) 1. 'Of or at a fairly low temperature'
Photo: Palloskar by Florian Trykowski
Do we really need to tell you why a festival held in Iceland could be described in this way? The clue is in the country's name, after all.
All lunar landscapes, TV-static blizzards and dramatic, snow-streaked cliffs, it's a pretty uncompromising setting for a music festival. They wouldn't shift many weekend camping tickets, put it that way.
However, held entirely inside at the modernist Harpa concert hall right on Reykjavik's harbour front, here Sònar takes on a unique, party-on-the-edge-of-the-world feeling.
And by turns, the line-up either chimes with the otherworldliness of the locale (see: swirling wibbliness from Floating Points; conceptual electronica from Holly Herndon) or provides a sweaty contrast to the sub-zero temperatures.
It's hard to feel chilly after an hour of pounding techno in a basement, courtesy of Bjarki. Heads down.
Cool (adj) 1.1 'Soothing or refreshing'
Let us consider the average daytime at most festivals.
It is either spent A) semi-comatose in your tent; B) semi-comatose and unable to move further than whichever stage you flopped in front of first; or c) self-medicating with pear cider in an attempt to avoid situations A and B.
Not so at Sònar Reykjavik. Being a purely night-time affair (8pm-3am) gives you the daytime to explore the beautiful country – and explore you'll definitely want to.
Any hangovers will be swiftly dealt with by the arctic breeze, nature's equivalent of a bucket of cold water over the head.
And once you're past that, the sightseeing options are countless – from the Blue Lagoon to the waterfalls of Gulfoss (above). But, in Sònar's spirit of experimentation, we recommend hiring a car to drive to the less-visited falls at Skogafoss.
The surer of foot can actually walk right behind them – while those more like Bambi on ice (that's us) can still get right up close to admire the water's 200ft tumble.
More surreal still is the 'secret swimming pool' of Seljavellir – a deserted 1920s, thermally heated municipal pool that looks as though it's been cut-and-pasted into a remote mountainside.
A dip here makes 'soothing and refreshing' seem quite the understatement.
Cool (adj) 2. '(Of a colour) containing pale blue, green, or grey tones'
There's no missing Harpa concert hall, above. They make sure of it. Because at night, the huge, honeycomb glass complex is completely illuminated by dancing lights; a kind of Crystal Maze-meets-disco-light effect that's certainly standout – and most definitely contains pale blue, green or grey tones. And red, and yellow, and pink…
Go inside, though, and it provides a downright unusual – and user-friendly – venue for a festival.
Each of the five rooms has a very different feel, which suits the scope of the acts involved, and the fact that they're metres rather than miles apart makes flitting between sets entirely possible.
From main room mass-market dance at Annie Mac to intellectual techno at Ben UFO in the basement car park, to !!!'s indie party in their (lamé) pants in SonarHall – all in the space of half an hour? Sure. It'll mash your brain, but sure.
Special mention must also go to the wonderfully odd experience of watching a set of get-up grime by Mumdance from the reclining seats of SonarComplex. Comfy clubbing: now a Thing.
Cool (adj) 3. 'Fashionably attractive or impressive'
Photo: Florian Trykowski
Icelanders, we salute you. For truly you have taken the seemingly impossible task of dressing stylishly for -2C temperatures and made it an art form.
You see, the Sònar Reykjavik crowd is uniformly awesome to look at. Impishly eclectic and colourful ensembles abound (who said 'Björk'?), combining knits and tutus and print clashing at will.
The men, meanwhile, sport regulation topknots and the kind of burly Nordic physiques that makes you think they really should be carrying a very large hammer at all times. And HOW do these people make hiking boots look so good?
But we digress. Icelanders also, it must be noted, love a party.
So despite the clean concert hall surrounds and (for a dance festival) early finishing time, the vibe may be polite, but it's never sterile.
Local acts are greeted like returning heroes – the aforementioned Vaginaboys (go on, once more with a straight face) entertained with autotuned wackiness, while the fabulously named President Bongo and the Emotional Carpenters triumphed with their tribal wig-out. Again: Iceland, we salute you.
Cool (adj) 4. 'Excellent'
We rather like that, for all the fripperies, being cool simply comes down to being – well, excellent.
And with it's unfussy, inclusive vibe, wide-ranging musical oeuvre and huge potential for just getting down to it and having a whole load of fun, Sònar Reykjavik is just that.
Get booking for 2017. Now.
Sònar Reykjavik 2017 takes place on 16-18 February. A limited number of early bird tickets are now available for the special price of £110 for a three-day festival pass. Icelandair flies from UK airports to Reykjavik from around £270 return.