Iceland’s Secret Solstice is often called by numerous outlets the world’s most unique festival experience due in large part to the country’s perma sunlight over the course of the summer months.
Naturally, I can’t recall if such a claim is warranted or not with so many destination style festivals around the world but, subjectively, the unique location and atmosphere of Secret Solstice does, in fact, live up its claim in my view. As you may know, Iceland sits directly underneath the Arctic Circle, which translates to periods of perma daylight or perma night. Think about it like this…at night, when you’re generally used to the dark, it basically feels like a constant dawn. I’m sure it’s the kind of thing that can knock many people out of their rhythm, but the night owl in me has is quite used to never ending nights and perpetual dawns that I actually felt comfortable (after realizing that 2am felt like 8am and your next day actually won’t be shot to hell without sleep).
The festival itself took place over four days in Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavik. Basically set on a large field adjacent to the city’s primary sports complex and football stadium, it hosted multiple stages, as well as the “afterhours” electronic music venue, HEL (which has always been a favorite nightclub name for me. I remember making a short film in high school about a guy who had to sell all his drugs to escape his local HELL nightclub experience, where Satan was the DJ. I think I got a D- on that project and a recommendation I be expelled from the school…oh well), across the street. As such, the festival setup was standard fare…a large main stage situated at the edge of the location’s largest field, which hosted headlining sets from the likes of Chaka Khan, Foo Fighters, The Prodigy, and Rick Ross. Elsewhere, the intimately tucked away Askur stage held the majority of the “daytime” electronic music acts, with standout performances coming from the likes of Soul Clap vs. Wolf & Lamb, Thugfucker, and Artwork, to name a few. Many of the other stages, including the Fenrir and Gimli locations, hosted a variety of eclectic Icelandic artists (and, seriously, I do mean eclectic. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen so many diverse instrumets used over the course of its four days), as well as some hidden musical gems coming in the form of Pharoahe Monch, Roots Manuva, Novelist, Princess Nokia, and the always fun Ata Kak.
For me, I spent much of the conventional festival days on the main stage, due to the fact that it featured acts outside of the electronic music realm to which I do try and stay up to date with, as well as some names I have been keen on checking out for some time, partly for their music and partly to see what their dynamics with the crowd would be. Here, I have to say that the festival’s best performance came from Miami’s Rick Ross. I’m sorry, I know we’re usually talking about dance music here, but his set featured an energy rarely felt anywhere (in my opinion), standing out even more due to the crowds relatively timid response to previous hip hop acts Big Sean, Anderson.Paak & The Free Nationals and Young MA. Situated at the front of the crowd and in the heart of the mosh pit (only comparable in intensity to an experience I had with the metal band Lamb of God one sunny afternoon in New Jersey years ago. Three words on that one: Braveheart Human Wall).
On previous main stage days, Foo Fighters delivered 22 years worth of hits and cemented their status as the world’s most friendly rock band when lead singer Dave Grohl brought out his young daughter to play Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’ (her first song learned) on the drums. The festival opened up with one of the preeminent Disco Queens, Chaka Khan, take the crowd on a journey from the 70s through to the present time, ultimately ending on her smash hit ‘Ain’t Nobody’ (but, for me, it was her rendition of ‘I’m Every Woman’ that truly stood out). Unfortunately, I had missed the undoubtedly high energy performance from The Prodigy, but I can imagine it held the potential to be on par with ick Ross’.
See also: Exos – Secret Solstice Podcast
Now, let’s talk about HEL for a bit. As I said, this was the venue which served as the festival’s nighttime electronic music location. A converted sports arena, turned massive nightclub hosting showcases from Circoloco, Anjunadeep, and Sci+Tec. On its first day (Circoloco), the lineup consisted (in order) of Tania Vulcano, The Black Madonna, Seth Troxler, and Kerri Chandler; second day: Cubicolor, Yotto, Lane 8, and Dusky; third day: Krysko & Greg Lord, Thugfucker, Nitin b2b Droog, Kiasmos, and Exos; fourth day: SHADED, John Acquaviva, and Dubfire. For me, two performances truly stood out here, and both came as the night’s final ones: Kerri Chandler and Dubfire. I highly doubt that each of these performers held the final sets of the night translating into its best was by coincidence. HEL was an odd dynamic due to its awkward opening hours, especially given that it was billed as an “afterparty”. Doors opened around 9 (while the festival would still be going on until 11:30) and then closed at 1:30am (Thursday, Sunday) or around 3am (Friday, Saturday). So, many quality DJs, The Black Madonna and John Acquaviva come particularly to mind, played to a minimal crowd, especially given the massive space. I can say that this was a strange feeling, especially given the potential of the space and the names on the bill. Also, for a hard partying city, the early closing times (I’m sure having to do with some kind of city ordinance) felt extremely anti-climactic. For me, in future editions, this afterparty dynamic and its hours of operation, would be the primary festival aspect I would change and I’m sure many of the performing artists would agree. Still though, HEL hosted some truly quality music and, once the main festival cleared out, a well up for it crowd, which somehow included the creepiest panda costume I’d ever seen roaming its halls (ask around, people will know what I’m talking about).
All in all, Secret Solstice is surely an experience to be had, and Iceland a country all should visit in their lifetimes. It’s undeniable atmosphere and sense of seclusion breeds a strong feeling of counter culture unrivalled by many other places I have experienced. The country’s quirks, as a result of location, terrain, and ecosystem, create a unique atmosphere of peace and quiet (for example, there is rarely a bird or land animal to be found), something I personally continue to search for around the world. It is a location that seems like the end of the earth, where humanity knows its inconsequence against the fury of nature (it IS called the land of ice and fire after all). The air is clean, people are beautiful, and scenery is unmatched, whether it be manmade like the massive Hallgrímskirkja Church or uber modern Harpa concert hall, or natural like…well, just about everything else. Even the rain soaked Midnight Sun Boat Party had me drawn to the elements and the feeling of nothingness at the edge of the boat whilst its 4 hour dance-a-thon occurred over two decks below. Another personal favorite Reykjavik location, the serene Hólavallagarður cemetery, dating back to the mid-19th century, the plot of some 10,000 tombs is widely considered one of Europe’s most beautiful resting places (and, one of the only places in the city that does feature multiple bird and flora species within its perimeter). On my last day in Reykjavik, I decided to beat the tourists (and there are many) at “dawn” with a coffee and my notebook, which resulted in a nearly two hour session, just me and the ghosts of Reykjavik without a single (visible) soul in sight!
PS: friendly word of advice…make sure you’re traveling to Iceland directly after payday because it is on the pricier side of things1
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Featured Image: SOLOV.be