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We returned to Iceland for the second Secret Solstice festival — and found they’ve upped the ante, big style...

“You have to have a proper rave once in a while,” says Biggi Viera of native act Gus Gus one bright, sunny night in Iceland. He’s right, you do. And if you concur, it’s probably the reason you’re reading this very magazine right now. But in Iceland? It’s not the place that springs to mind when picturing sweaty gurn-fests and scenes of giddy abandon.

To an extent, though, Secret Solstice — a festival now in its second year — is looking to change that. Along with a host of international live bands, hip-hop acts and electronic music stars, Secret Solstice puts on a bill of DJs the like of which are never seen on those northern shores. At this second edition, there are more DJs than ever, and most of the caliber you might see on a London or Glasgow line-up.

That, the spectacular, strange majesty of Iceland itself — and the weird juxtaposition the two seemingly incompatible things present — is why DJ Mag is here. It’s our second time in Reykjavik, for the festival that takes over part of the Laugardalur (Hot Spring Valley) leisure complex, and we’re keen to see how the fest has evolved from last year. With one of the organisers behind Croatia’s discerning Outlook and Dimensions festivals involved, you can be sure that it’s got the right credentials.

The trouble is, Iceland doesn’t have the same immediate appeal of festivals in hot countries, with the beach nearby and the promise of sun-soaked boat parties tantalizingly within reach. For outsiders, Iceland is seen as a cold place, and that’s with a lot of justification.

Even in summertime, it doesn’t often get much above 20 degrees. But Summer Solstice has a trump card in the form of when it takes place: over the summer solstice, of course. And being this far north (but still less than three hours’ flight from London), the sun doesn’t set at all during this weekend in late June, which immediately suggests all kinds of rave-mungous possibilities.

When we arrive at Keflavik airport, leaving a fairly warm and sunny London, the prognosis is bad. The wind is up, and it’s pretty damn cold. But the drive reminds us just what an awe-inspiring location it is. A huge, rocky, dramatic island, not far from the size of England, the population is tiny at only 329,100 people, but they’re very proud of the jaw-dropping elemental nature of the place.

Secret Solstice is set just on the outskirts of the capital Reykjavik, and after dropping off our stuff at the hotel we head over to the site. One the way, we’re bowled over by the scenery. Nature is all around you here, and even in the city immense mountains, still snowcapped, loom impossibly large in the distance.

Last time onsite, a huge stage dominated an even huger sports ground, with a smaller, more pleasant stretch of parkland on the other side given over to the other stages and stalls. This time, they’ve wisely swapped it around, making the main stage smaller, and in the green space, while several tents focusing on underground house and techno for the most part — plus another smaller outside stage — are scattered over the arena.

It’s also much, much busier than last year. Though the crowd is predominantly Icelandic, or seems to be from the voices we overhear, there’s definitely a far greater presence of Brits this time out, who’ve clearly cottoned on to the uniqueness of this festival setting. 

Later we talk to the aforementioned Biggi from Gus Gus, who’s suitably impressed with Secret Solstice and its reorganization, since attending as a guest last June. For him, the remix of the festival site is exactly what it needed, and it’s the proper dance music component that makes it stand out from other festivals that have attempted something similar in the country.

“I was attending Secret Solstice last year, and I agree with the changes out there this year, they’ve scaled it down. They turned the ice skating hall [the indoor rave cavern stage, called Hel] into a 3000, 4000-people club with proper lights, really good sound.

That is something you don’t see here in Iceland. Sonar Reykjavik doesn’t get the right vibe, but last year here was really the perfect vibe, it was a really good mixture — bringing proper DJ partying here to Iceland. We don’t have any clubs, really. That was positive about Secret Solstice, and I felt it would be good for them, to make them distinct from Airwaves and Sonar, to focus a little bit more on putting on a good party.”

The Hel stage where Ghost Culture and many others play is retina-and-cochlea-sizzling for certain, with its dark, ominous interior and impressive, futuristic lights onstage, most akin to Manchester's Warehouse Project in style. But the dance tents are equally, erm, intense.

Friday offers tattoo techno from Thugfucker in a showcase from Life & Death Records, and they fire out shards of suitably glacial tech to a growing crowd who seem far more up for dancing than last time. Mind Against are even better, with splurges of steel synth and moody industrial samples booming from the speakers.

We wander over to the hip-hop stage and are bowled over by Iceland’s electronic hip-hop marvel Marteinn, who bobs behind a laptop in a small tent full of fans, a dancer with a beatific grin strutting her stuff in front of him.

There’s a weird, creepy re-edit of ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’, slowed right down to tease out its sinister propensities, and Labi Siffre’s funky ‘I Got The’ is made even stranger, full of smacked-out sonics: trip-trap. Gus Gus play to a huge home crowd, plying their proggy, posh trance grooves and silky vocals, moving amid the smoke and lights with the kind of charisma and effortless style you get from years in the business — and just being cool. Or should that be ice cold?

Nightmares On Wax impress with an animated show in which an old hip-hop track of DJ EASE is premiered for the first time, and very good it is too. Tale Of Us sadly underwhelm to a thinning crowd. Despite being very cold, the sun still shines and we go on a surreal stroll around the surrounding parkland. Being sunny at midnight does weird things to your brain.

After treating ourselves to a bit of whale-watching on Saturday afternoon — and yes, we do see some, and it’s pretty incredible — it’s back to the festival. Droog, or just one of the trio, Justin Sloe, plays possibly one of the best sets of the weekend. He busts out the ubiquitous tones of Bicep’s ‘Just’, and it’s getting far busier.

The crowd here are very cool, and seem to be up for a breakbeat-laden escapade that includes a particularly bad-ass Reese-bass-laden jungle house caper. We wander over to check out Busta Rhymes, who keeps failing to show, so we return to hear Detroit Swindle — and are glad we did. They play some gorgeous Balearic house that rocks us to our core. Even if there are a couple of fluffed mixes (which appears to be a technical fault and not their own), it’s a barn stormer, and the tent is looking busy and feeling like a proper party.

Finally the sun is out properly, and it’s a gorgeous evening. Busta Rhymes eventually shows, but his set simply rattles through the hits in a mega-mix format, and when he makes to leave the stage early, he responds to the crowd’s chants of “more, more” with “pay me more!” — which is embarrassing, and not very cool at all.

Hip-hop is a big deal in Iceland, which explains the presence of Busta and Wu-Tang Clan on the bill. But it’s the native acts that are most interesting, with the Geimfarar collective holding a rapt crowd with their lush beats, trippy live flute and engaging (though unintelligible to this writer) rhymes.

Hercules & Love Affair though, on the main stage, take the biscuit, playing an excellent set. With vocalists Rouge Mary and Gustaph upfront, their alternating tones hyping the crowd, Andy Butler is a picture of energy, dressed in a mix of early ’90s rave gear and cycling attire. It’s a camp, dynamic, danceable and simply brilliant spectacle.

Sunday is a surprise — it’s blazing sunshine, blue skies and feels like summer. Perfect weather for soul man Charles Bradley then, and the Wailers (sans Bob Marley, obviously) who both beguile. FKA twigs, though she draws a big crowd, puzzles this writer: her dancing is mesmeric, Arca’s beats are weird and interesting, but we’re not hearing any, you know, songs — at all.

KiNK kills it, with arguably the best set of the whole weekend. Drawing a big, voracious crowd, his live performance is wild — holding up his pianos, samplers, acid gadgets and whatnot and playing in piano riffs, analogue basslines and pulsing riffs to the delight of our ears, and dancing feet. He looks like he’s having a whale of a time, if you’ll excuse the pun. We certainly did. And though it might not be ready to quite challenge the big dogs of the festival scene, you can be sure: Secret Solstice will grow and grow.