“HOLY GOD, IT’S FREEZING!” We aren’t sure who screams that line. Could be us. Most probably is. But regardless of whose mouth utters the words, one thing is certain: everyone shares the same sentiment.
Approximately 30 party-ready-people are freezing cold, stranded on what appears to be the dead center of Langjökull Glacier in the Icelandic Highlands, en route to Secret Solstice festival’s rave inside an ice cave.
Our bodies tell us the temperature is hovering in single digits and the wind is gusting at 60mph. Hardly a scientific assessment, but when your eight-wheel-drive military snow vehicle breaks down on one of the largest sheets of ice on the European continent, the effects of nature feel amplified.
Wind streaks across the barren, snowy landscape, whipping our hair violently in all directions. There’s nothing to stop it, nothing for miles; no structures, no trees, no rocks. We’re grateful for the snowsuit we picked up at the glacier’s base camp. Cumbersome and unfashionable, but protective.
Plenty of our fellow party-goers decided against covering up their festive costumes with mountain gear and they huddle together in thin jackets, beside our broken vehicle.
Ice stretches out infinitely in all directions, a flat white picture without a horizon. We warily eye the crevasses that dot the fragile surface around us, deep gashes that open up into strange, luminous hues of blue.
Are we in Game Of Thrones? Indeed, we must be.
“Where are the White Walkers?” we laugh, yelling over the howling wind. No one hears us.
Of course, this tale has a happy ending, or we wouldn’t be here to recount it for you. After a long, cold 15 minutes, another eight-wheeler lumbers up the glacier’s windswept surface to rescue our shivering, motley crew.
We are deposited at the entrance to Langjökull’s 2,000-footlong ice tunnel… and into the glacier we go, crampons crunching across an icy floor as we follow the sound of dance music emanating from deep within its chambers, courtesy of DJs Droog and Artwork.
It’s just another day in Iceland, the land of unfathomable extremes.
FIRE AND ICE
A rave inside an ice cave is exactly what you’d expect it to be: a fantasy set in a fragile, frozen world, brought to life by a makeshift DJ booth and a handful of glittery ravers wielding glow sticks and light-up gloves. There is a colorful dancer called Mamma Rage who blows giant bubbles from a wand into the zero-degree air, while someone else bounces up and down wearing a giant rubber unicorn head.
If there is a parallel universe, this is it and we never want to leave.
But the party is cut short when Arthur Smith, aka Artwork, pauses the CDJs to announce that we must evacuate immediately due to bad weather approaching – because, Iceland – and we wonder in awe, for the umpteenth time in four days, “How the hell did we get here?”
That’s exactly what makes Secret Solstice a must-do festival. Any dance music event worth its salt provides attendees with a delightful alternate reality, but Secret Solstice exists in a surreal world all its own, thanks to the magic of Iceland.
The country is a place of extremes; fire and ice, volcanoes, geysers and glaciers. A land where wild horses race across mountains while sheep graze along the edges of highways, and steam rises from rocky fields that look like our moon.
Fittingly, Secret Solstice serves up an experience that reflects the dichotomy of the land that hosts it: raves in ice caves, concerts in dormant volcanoes, disco parties in geothermal hot springs. Because why dance on a floor when you can boogie in a bubbling pool?
To top it all off, Iceland’s summer sun does not set for the festival’s 96-hour duration. The disorientation that accompanies constant daylight (trust us on this one) is enhanced by an otherworldly landscape and endless stream of music.
Not to be outdone by the earth, Secret Solstice’s line-up is a star-studded affair, featuring something to satisfy everyone’s palate, from Radiohead to Die Antwoord, Jamie Jones, Visionquest, Skream and Goldie to Icelandic sensations GusGus, Agent Fresco and Of Monsters And Men. But here’s the thing: rock stars are no match for the rocky island.
Even Thom Yorke can’t compete with Iceland’s majesty.
Radiohead plays a great show, replete with material off their new album that most of the world has yet to hear performed live. They pack an airplane hangar-style space in Reykjavík with 10,000 sweaty bodies that press towards the stage. People cheer and weep and wave their arms.
But Radiohead is not the highlight of our Secret Solstice experience – not even close. And that’s saying something.
A FEW OF OUR FAVORITE THINGS...
The problem with festival recaps is that like a good meal, it’s all relative; same dishes, different taste buds. Everyone’s favorite parts are informed by their own sensory experiences. To recount 96-hours of impressive musical programming is an exercise in futility, and let’s face it – no one reading this wants a stage-by-stage replay. Instead, we’ll share the moments that we found particularly delicious...
STACEY PULLEN IN HEL
Ever been to HEL? Turns out it’s actually a high school gymnasium. At least, so far as Secret Solstice is concerned. The naming convention for the festival’s myriad stages, rooms and tents follows Norse mythology – “Hel” is the name of the Norse goddess who rules over Helheim, the dark underworld where dead dwell and, one presumes, dance like devils.
So naturally, the HEL stage, located inside a giant gym, hosts the late-night techno and house heavyweights – from Jamie Jones to Skream and one of our favorite Detroit stalwarts, Stacey Pullen. We catch up with Stacey for a chat about the resurrection of his Blackflag Recordings label and to tell him how much we love his first solo EP in three years, ‘ROK’.
As we roam around the festival grounds just before he takes the stage, our conversation turns to the magic of playing in Iceland.
“Music is bringing us all here, together, in this incredible place, to forget about what’s going on in the world,” Stacey muses, smiling as he proceeds to quote A Tribe Called Quest. “Q-Tip said, ‘The world is kinda cold and the rhythm is my blanket.’ I always keep that close to heart when I do my job. You see the smiles on peoples’ faces... mission accomplished.”
It’s no wonder Stacey Pullen always brings the positive vibes, no matter the country or the stage, and his performance in HEL is no exception. What starts off as a thin crowd milling about the cavernous space ends up a packed, sweaty gym full of grinning shufflers from all corners of the world lost in the sounds of classic techno.
ICELANDIC TECHNO TAKEOVER OF ASKUR
Don’t forget the locals. The community that hosts Secret Solstice is as magical as the land itself. Icelanders are easy to love – open, welcoming and above all, resilient. Like their country, they too, embody a stark dichotomy: friendly, warm people with an appreciation for the arts who are also fierce survivors, having managed to thrive in a harsh natural environment since their Viking ancestors leapt ashore.
The first night of Secret Solstice sees a slew of Icelandic artists taking the various stages, and our favorite is a crew of house and techno DJs playing in the ASKUR tent. Benedikt Sölvi, aka BenSol, is a Reykjavík native whom we have been previously introduced to by his childhood friend Holmar Filipsson, one half of Life & Death techno duo Thugfucker. It really is a small world.
BenSol and his DJ partners in crime - Frímann, Rix, Hendrik and Casanova - are regulars on the Reykjavík scene who form a collective called Træangular. They light up ASKUR with upbeat, melodic tech house that’s laced with soul.
There’s something different but wonderful about their selection that we can’t quite put a finger on; it just feels good. Kind of like the way we feel about their country in general.
BenSol echoes our own sentiment about the set: “The vibes were good, happy and joyful and lots of our loyal followers were there, cheering alongside other happy party people,” he says. The ASKUR stage name is fitting – “Askr” is Norse mythology’s version of Judeo-Christiany’s “Adam”, the first man, created from the trunk of an ash tree.
It is in ASKUR that the vibe of the festival is born, ushered in by local DJs like BenSol and the Træangular crew.
INFINITY INK’S LIVE SET AT GIMLI
“Wait, who are these guys?!” we exclaim in confusion, as we pull up to GIMLI, the smaller of two main stages. It’s early evening on day two and the crowd is sparse, as most revelers have set off in search of food. We’re expecting to see UK drum and bass icon Goldie, but instead find Ali Love and Luca C, known together as Infinity Ink, playing a live set.
The festival’s official app often lists inaccurate set times, which is the source of some confusion, but in this case we’re not disappointed. Ali, wrapped in a giant paisley scarf and sunglasses, croons into the mic as Luca wields a pair of drumsticks that bang out a delicious groove on some pads. Their creative style of house music feels like a warm blanket in the chilly air; easy, sexy, and totally enjoyable.
It’s one of the best performances we’ve seen after a full two days at Secret Solstice. The performance is only about the tenth time the duo have offered up their live set onstage, but they promise us that there are many more to come. Fittingly, in Norse mythology “Gimli” is the highest palace in the heavenly kingdom of Asgard, a golden-roofed building where righteous men go after death.
We’re pretty sure that if there is an Asgard, Infinity Ink is pumping through its sound system.
KERRI CHANDLER’S DISCO THROW DOWN IN A SECRET LAGOON
What do you get when you place a house music legend at the helm of a party in a remote, geothermal hot spring? A damn fine time, that’s what; replete with disco tunes, champagne, conga lines and a dancing grandma.
Kerri Chandler is no stranger to Iceland or its wildly imaginative party locations – he tells us he’s been coming to the country to play for over a decade. He handles his DJ duties at the Secret Lagoon on the festival’s closing day with the grace of a seasoned master, bringing our little party of 100 people in a bubbling geothermal pool to life with old school house tunes.
Iceland’s Secret Lagoon is a (now-not-so-secret) steamy hot spring nestled amid rocks and lush green moss in the sleepy village of Flúðir, just over an hour’s drive from Reykjavík. The crisp summer air is far too cold to stand in without a jacket, but the lagoon’s water is piping hot and we dance in it for hours, all the while marveling at our bizarrely beautiful surroundings.
Contrast is the name of the game, once again: frigid air meets warm water, soil and leaves meet psychedelic swimsuits and blaring speakers.
As the party draws to a close, Kerri moves from the CDJs over to a keyboard, his fingers jamming out to the beat as everyone gathers around for one last, raucous dance. To borrow from Norse mythology, Kerri Chandler turns the Secret Lagoon into a glittering, disco-drenched Asgard – we're pretty sure we can even see the rainbow bridge.
ABOUT A LAND
There are many more memorable moments we could tell you about, from hot springs to glaciers and all the music in between. But more than anything, we want to tell you about Iceland.
We want to tell you about how the sky glows when the midnight sun hovers just above the horizon, and how the cold, wet air tastes like salt and moss.
How purple flowers blanket vast fields and how they bend in waves with the wind, ribbons of color rippling for miles.
We want to tell you about psychedelic revelations in secret lagoons and how a bassline sounds when it reverberates down a tunnel of ancient ice.
How we eat fermented shark and hate it but smile so as not to offend our gracious, local hosts. And how we drink an Icelandic liqueur made from the smoked shit of sheep that tastes like sweet mezcal and enjoy it more than the shark.
We want to tell you about how we make great new friends – Ross, Clara, Josh, Ali, Franks, Luke, Quinn, Will and two Michaels – and meet an awesome Icelandic woman named Sigrun who grew up on a farm in the country’s remote Western Fjords that looks like Middle Earth. Sigrun tells us how the sheep shit liqueur is made and dances with us until Secret Solstice ends on Sunday night.
If you want a mind-altering trip that’s legal, book yourself on the next flight to Reykjavík. If you want a transformative, unforgettable journey through, sight, smell, touch, taste and sound, pack some sturdy boots and thermals and get yourself to next year’s Secret Solstice soirée.
Forget bucket lists. If the mutable landscape of Iceland teaches us anything, it’s that nothing is permanent. Put this festival on your must-do-right-now list and thank us later.
Words: ERIN SHARONI
Pics: VLAD SOLOVOV, ROSS SILCOCKS, DAMIAN GILBERT, INGELIN BERG