Review: Secret Solstice 2016

Art & Culture

To divert away from the pure jealousy of not going to Glastonbury, it was time to take a look at a festival away from the norm. With the UK mainstream festival scene in desperate need of a jolt of energy, alongside the cycle of Muse, Kasabian and Mumford & Sons taking turns to headline every British festival ever, more and more people are looking to festivals further away from home.

The Secret Solstice festival in Iceland is a curiosity. This third installment came on the back of an impressive list of acts appearing at their previous two events. The likes of Massive Attack, Disclosure, Miss Kittin, The Wailers, Wu Tang, GusGus and Busta Rhymes has resulted in the festival falling onto people’s radar in a relatively short period of time.

Originally planned for three days, the organisers decided to extend it to include a fourth day and include a secret headliner. Ooh, Underworld maybe, I hear LCD Soundsystem are in need of a bit of cash….no, it was none of them. Held in Laugardalur Park in central Reykjavik, the festivals consists of several things that make Londoners avoid similar events like the ones held each summer in Hyde Park. The location means lots of raving on concrete, a couple of outdoor stages, a few marquees and two massive indoor arenas, it’s pretty intimate.

The first night's highlights included ear splitting drum n bass from local collective Viking Junglist Takeover, jittery acid slammers from Paranoid London, emotive soundscapes from local act Hjaltalin, and techno glitch from the legendary Stacey Pullen. But day one belonged to a local act. St Germain were a no show, no major loss because electro legends Gusgus stepped in and performed a set heavy on their brilliant 2014 album Mexico, seeing them in the 11.30pm daylight is a little disconcerting, especially when most festivals benefit from the cloak of darkness meaning you can either lurk in the shadows, or at least not have your state there for all to see but fuck it, "Obnoxiously Sexual"and "Crossfade" are ecstatic gurnathons that deserve to be embraced as such, as they were.

Earlier on in the evening, Sister Sledge were unveiled as the secret headliners and despite Kathy Sledge, the sweet sounding lead vocalist on ALL of the hits not being allowed in the band (the damage caused by her wanting to record solo material still unfixed after over two decades), they played a tight set. The issue with Sister Sledge is that aside from those hits, “Lost In Music, “We Are Family”, “Thinking Of You”, “The Greatest Dancer” and “Frankie”, the back catalogue isn't crammed with many other hits so there’s lots of filler. Getting people up to see who is the ‘greatest dancer’, or to see who’s ‘lost in music’, or introducing the band including the respective extended solos etc. It's all a bit Radio One show with Gary Davies, but the high camp silliness worked well, well enough to get the 6 foot plus Viking types bellowing “I’ve got all my sisters with me”.

A surprising thing about young Icelandic people (the average age at the fest seemed to be about 24) is that they LOVE hip hop. In the UK we only really hear about the esoteric atmospheric music of Björk, Sigur Rós and Múm. Homegrown hip hop acts such as Shades of Reykjavik, Gísli Pálmi, Emmsjé Gauti all drew crowds just as large as those for more established acts such as the legendary M.O.P but this stage was owned by UK artist Lady Lesshur who whipped up the crowd to the point of combustion with electro-grime bangers such as ‘Brush your teeth", the early evening sun haze resulted in her totally taking the crowd.

The coup for the festival was hosting Radiohead’s first ever gig in the country. Despite the festival capacity being around the 17’000 mark, Radiohead performed in one of the indoor arenas. This immediately causes huge problems. Although playing inside the arena was due to the band’s insistence to play indoors, a huge queue begins to form three hours before they played, this resulted in a massive bottleneck of people as they are all sucked out of the other areas to join the queue. There are no plans to make the wait any less arduous, things such as staff handing out water or selling beer/food as their wait hits the two hour mark, nor much policing of the queue as people sneak their way into it. It also means that Goldie, dropping some killer hardcore drum n’bass is pretty much playing to a queue. Once inside, the queue naturally heads towards either bar, or toilet, the former with another hour long wait, the latter around half that. Once in the cavernous arena, plans to see local indie act Fufanu well and truly trumped by the delay to get in so there’s nothing. The atmosphere in the audience after such a massive wait resulted in a weird mix of annoyance, frustration, or expectation, as people look round for their friends to get in.

Radiohead of course play an electrifying set but it takes a while to get to that point. Although recently released ninth album A Moon Shaped Pool reaches the usual level of quality, there’s a big dip amongst the first bunch of tracks. Playing the first five tracks of the album here means that dip is replicated. After being captivated by the violin-horror of “Burn The Witch” and the ambient beauty of “Daydreaming”, they lose swathes of the audience as to be expected when you’re showcasing a recently released album. This is soon addressed as they delve into the back catalogue “Weird Fishes”, “My Iron Lung”, “No Surprises”, “Reckoner”, “Idioteque” and “Everything In Its Right Place” are delivered to an increasingly rapturous audience. Two encores stretch the set to beyond the two hour mark and is crammed with faves, “Paranoid Android, “Nude”, “There There” and “Karma Police” which send the arena into delirium, especially when after numerous crowd chants for it, they drop the ‘Creep’ bomb and the audience go ape. Despite the pain to get into the arena, and subsequent exit, their first appearance in the Country is one to remember.

Over the rest of the weekend Saturday’s headliners Deftones get one of the biggest audiences as they crank out their teenage angst by middle aged men thing, but there are more interesting things on offer away from the main stage, which at one point shows the Iceland match instead of having any bands on which wouldn’t have been such an issue if when it ended, the other stages had anything happening on them. Agent Fresco and Högni Egilsson, prove to be homeland heroes, Jamie Jones and Skream go back to back dropping fierce funk filled techno, Visionquest’s cranky house brings out some of the best ‘jack’ moves of the weekend, and a crazed mask wearing act called Slow Magic bashes a cheap drum to a thrilling mixture of Sbtrkt-esque beats, Crystal Castles mayhem with a dash of middle eastern house mysticism, all prove to be highlights.  

Secret Solstice does have the potential to grow, and if not compete with, at least provide a reputable alternative to some of the bigger festivals in Europe, but there are things to address. The aforementioned queuing, which was repeated as South African hip hop act Die Antwoord, originally due to play an outdoor stage but due to a severe delay in arriving in the country caused by an a staff strike at Keflavik airport, ended up with them playing in an indoor arena smaller than the one Radiohead played in, causing just as much mayhem. 

There aren’t enough toilets which also results in queues, there’s nowhere to wash your hands afterwards, it’s promoted as a midnight sun festival, which although lighter than the average midnight shouldn’t be classed as such, plus at times, the dance music marquee which pumps to Kompakt-esque maximal tech is the only place to hear music as the main stages are in between acts, a massive no no.

Secret Solstice is a young festival and has the potential to take that step up to be recognized in the somewhat crowded festival market, but with the aforementioned issues, that isn't right now. This year's difficulties show that they are running before they can walk, nothing wrong with lofty ideas and aspirations to be the European Coachella or whatever, but for now it's time to reflect, to learn from these mistakes, and look to see how they can improve with future installments, one for the future.


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