The lead singer of the Deftones and I are in a souped-up military chopper. The Icelandic coast guard is emergency airlifting us off the top of a volcano.
It immediately seems like a hipper, quirkier version of Almost Famous. We’re not “flying high over Tupelo, Mississippi,” but a field of volcanic ash blanketing an area outside of Reykajavík. And, OK, we’re not “about to die,” as Patrick Fugit’s character writes in the film—though the wicked wind and hail storm that left us and about 30 other people stranded at the top of a 4,000-year-old volcano provided an adrenaline overdose that most music festival goers require far more illicit means to achieve.
But it’s the kind of story you can’t make up.
About two hours beforehand, Chino Moreno, lead singer for alternative rock band Deftones and one of Iceland’s most promising musicians, performed the world’s first concert inside that same volcano. At the satellite event that was part of Iceland’s Secret Solstice Music Festival last weekend, Moreno performed in front of 20 ticket holders who dropped around $2,000 each for the exclusive experience, plus a handful of photographers and camera crew.
It’s the marquee, most exclusive ticket in what’s become, in its third year, one of the most unusual—in every sense of that word as a selling-point endorsement—music festivals in the world. Parties inside glaciers, day trips to waterfalls, and an eclectic lineup headlined by Radiohead define the event as festival-meets-travel experience, as does the 24-hour sunshine that lights the sleepless four days.
(Full disclosure: Water company Icelandic Glacial, which sponsored the festival, covered the costs of The Daily Beast’s travel to Iceland.)
Even before we ended up running toward a coast guard plane through suffocating winds to be whisked back to Reykjavík, warmth, and safety, it goes without saying that this private concert inside a volcano was a once in a lifetime—albeit quite pricey—experience.
The journey into the Thrihnukagigur volcano (the Icelandic language rolls right off the tongue) was its own adventure. Festival guests were helicoptered to the staging shack, where they were greeted by whipping, borderline impenetrable winds as they darted from the chopper to the cabin.
Press? We were asked to hike the roughly 40 minutes up the volcano, the kind of surreal jaunt among craggy rock and ash landscape that can only be likened to hiking on the moon, if the moon was plagued by winds so strong that at several points they literally lifted you up and moved you off the path as you walked.
Once we were all assembled, it took upwards of three hours to transport us to the stage made of hardened lava. It turns out staging a concert 700 feet below a volcano crater’s opening takes a while.
As we waited we were assured that it has been 4,000 years since Thrihnukagigur’s last eruption, and that the guides were “pretty certain” we’d continue to be safe from any fiery deluge at least through Moreno’s final bow.
(The experience is actually very safe, provided you come sporting an adventurous spirit and some athleticism. The Inside the Volcano company regularly gives guided small-group tours.)
A treacherous final 200-meter hike, done in groups of eight, to the crater’s opening makes the sight of the cavernous hole you’re about to descend, implausibly, a calming relief.
By the time you reach the top of the volcano—with winds so strong by this point that you’ve linked arms with guides and are clinging to ropes as you climb to, uh, not blow off the cliff—it’s with a fair amount of joy that you greet the rickety plank leading to the makeshift window-cleaning lift, tricked out with a rope and pulley system, that’s going to lower you into the abyss.
It’s roughly six minutes down to the bottom of the cave, a tight squeeze that has your nose grazing the kaleidoscope of lava rock that tunnels the descent. The claustrophobic ride has barely enough space for its passengers to take spelunk-chic selfies (we were all sporting miner hardhats and raingear) with the ombré stone-colored backdrop. We all made do.
Perched on the rocks that had naturally arranged themselves into stadium seating for an acoustic show, the ticketholders, between gazing slack-jawed at their Saturday afternoon concert venue, chatted about what had brought them there.
“We were drunk and saw it posted on Facebook and said, ‘Whoa let’s do it!” one couple said, huddled together for warmth. At roughly 40 degrees Fahrenheit inside the volcano, it was tantamount to hanging out in a refrigerator waiting for a band to start a show.
Rachel Yokum had traveled solo to Iceland for the event from the San Francisco area.
“It’s one thing when you’re climbing up the side of the volcano and it’s loud, it’s windy, and you’re holding on to this rope for dear life,” she says. “It’s a very loud, visceral experience. Then you start coming down this lift inside and you’re just awestruck by how deep this is. It’s higher than the Statue of Liberty.”
She reflexively looks up to take in the sheer size of the cave once more.
“Then you get down here and it’s completely quiet except the sound of the dripping water,” she continues. “Acoustic music here is the best way to experience it. I had goosebumps the entire time.”
The experience becomes all the more unusual when the 20 audience members look up and watch as, over the course of the next six minutes, the artist they had gathered to see is slowly lowered down to them. Given the lunar aesthetic of the space we were in, it’s not totally absurd to liken the scenario to the the awe of the little green alien toys in Toy Story as they cooed with god-like worship as “The Claw” made its way towards them.
For the tizzy of excitement and coordination it took to get the audience and artist assembled for the world’s first concert inside the volcano, the actual event was remarkably casual.
The Icelandic singer-songwriter Moreno brought down to open for him, Snorri Helgason, stood regally on a stone, less in front of the crowd than amongst it, with the sulfuric rainbow on the stone wall behind him providing a stage backdrop most artists invests thousands in light shows to attain.
His nervous tuning of his guitar illustrated the scientific challenge of playing music in the cold, damp bowels of a volcano. He experimentally began singing, seemingly curious what his voice would sound like projected inside a 4,000 geological wonder.
Moreno, too, appeared skittish before performing.
He kicked off with a series of apologies—for his guitar being likely out of tune because of the elements; for his songs being less “heavy metal” than we’re used to because of the acoustic set; for his nervousness, even—before starting his ultimately disappointing four-song set.
He opened with a Morrissey cover, played two Deftones tracks, and closed with a David Bowie song from Blackstar, the last album the icon recorded before he died. Yes, after a three-hour trek up and then into a volcano for a concert, the concert lasted 15 minutes.
But when you’re at a music festival in Iceland—a dramatic battlefield of a country defined by its centuries-long scrimmage between fire and ice—maybe it’s the experience that’s supposed to trump the music anyway. Moreno was always going to be upstaged by the natural cathedral he was playing in. And if anything he was a warm-up for that grand finale: the rescue by the coast guard.
Lifted back up the shaft eight at a time, each group had its own “the fish was this big” story, building in exaggeration each time it was told, about the harrowing journey from the mouth of the volcano back to the staging cabin. Four members of one group, including a guide, got knocked over by the wind and had to be scooped up hastily by their fellow concert goers.
Everyone was slightly shorter of breath, slightly pinker of face, and slightly more wide-eyed when they finally burst into the cabin, expulsing variations of “Whoa!” and “Oh my god!” The news that the coast guard was going to be airlifting us out was met with head nods of “cool… great…” that masked the “is this real life?” side-eye glances everyone began to exchange.
Finally off the chopper and back in Reykavík, I noticed this deafening echo when I returned to the hotel. You know how after a concert you have the sound of speakers and loud music ringing in your ears? Following Moreno’s acoustic volcano set, I had the sound of loud winds ringing.
Welcome to a music festival in Iceland.
Stay tuned for more of Kevin’s coverage from Iceland’s Secret Solstice festival, where he raved in a glacier, saw Radiohead, and took roughly 250 pictures of ponies.