Vök – “In The Dark” (2019)

I’m not sure how many times we’ve seen Vök live over the years.  Four?  Five?  It’s something like that.  The first time was in April 2013 right after they’d won Músíktilraunir, Iceland’s annual Battle Of The Bands.  They seemed so young and shy on stage at Faktorý, but even then you could tell their sound was special.  It’s been fun watching them evolve into confident performers, particularly vocalist Margrét Rán who is able to walk that magical fine line between self-assurance and vulnerability.

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In The Dark is Vök’s second full-length release, coming on the heels of 2017s Figure and a pair of earlier EPs, Circles and Tension.  It finds the band very polished, every song near-perfect in composition and production.  Rán’s voice tends to stay in a lower register, husky and breathless, injecting a human element onto the primarily electronic musical canvas.  If anything In The Dark feels like a more toward a more adult contemporary space.  While that genre is oft-maligned and usually reserved to imply something less-than-favorable, those criticisms miss the point, the point that there is plenty of room for enjoyable music in that space.  These songs can find a home on the dance floor, but also in your car stereo when you’re out and about making life happen.  “No Direction” is my favorite track, one that breaks free a bit from the overall sound of In The Dark, its wave-like synths and Rán extending herself into a higher range making it a refreshing mid-point to the album.

Vök – “Figure” (2017)

I’m sort of infatuated with Facebook Messenger at times, because it basically allows me to text message with my friends in other countries more or less in real time.  The other day I was Messaging with my buddy Gestur in Reykjavik, commiserating about all the new music that seems to be flowing off that rock in the North Atlantic like a lava field made out of liquid vinyl, and he asked me what the word for Vök was in English.  Apparently in Icelandic in addition to being one of the hottest bands in the country right now, it’s also the word for the hole you cut in the ice when you’re ice fishing.

I had to confess that as far as I know, we don’t have a word for that in English.  It’s just a hole.  Now to be fair, we once had a band called Hole too.  But somehow it’s not quite the same thing at all.

Holly and I have been on the Vök bandwagon for some time, having first seen them open at a show at Faktorý back in April 2013 (below), shortly after they won the big music contest Músíktilraunir.  Even then, despite what felt like their almost painful shyness on stage, it was obvious that this band was something special, ethereally beautiful music upon which Margrét Rán’s voice floated, so fragile and serene.  A pair of EPs later and we finally got our first full-length from Vök, the 10-song Figure, and while I have a copy of the vinyl on hold for me over at Lucky Records, I had to break my own rule and buy the digital download now, because I just couldn’t wait to hear it.

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How does a young band follow up a song like “Waterfall”?  That was my big question going into Figure for the first time.  When I think of perfection in terms of music, it’s not about there being only one perfect song; any number of songs can achieve perfection.  The same can be said to be true of albums, though it’s much more difficult to achieve that lofty status with an entire collection of songs.  As for “Waterfall”… well… it’s a perfect song.  Period.  Sonically, structurally, vocally, lyrically… it’s a magical 5:20 that paralyzes you, forcing you to soak it all in completely and totally.  I could listen to it over and over again.  So what do you do when you hit such a lofty level so early in your career?  How do you follow it up??

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In Vök’s case you conjure up Figure, a lush canvas of sonic textures as thick as the paint on Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over The Rhone.  The songs are deep and layered, begging to be heard in your headphones so you can block out everything around you and just luxuriate in it like a hot bath.  And like so many beautiful things, you find yourself so relaxed and absorbed into the experience that it’s easy to lose track not only of where you are, but who you are,  riding the ebbs and flows of the sound waves as they carry you languidly along.  Vök found their sweet spot, and they went all in to give us something that’s more like a 40 minute song than it is an album.

Of course, that would potentially be the one criticism I’d lay on Figure – it reminds me so much of Circles and the brilliance of “Waterfall” that I’m left wondering what else they could bring to the table.  It has an internal consistency that is beautiful and gives it a strong sense of unity… but what if Rán unleashed her voice full-force, using it to power an uptempo number?  Man, that would be something.  I’d love to hear a bit more stylistic variety from them next time around.

Rán’s voice is more confident on Figure than on Vök’s prior two releases in a way that feels like a combination of her being more comfortable with her own capabilities, but at the same time making her as a person feel less vulnerable than the woman who gave us Circles and Tension.  Her performance on “Show Me” is ranging and well-balanced, whereas the title track “Figure” finds her experimenting in the studio with a healthy dose of vocal modulation, which works both in the song and as a means to expand the sonic palette of the album a bit.

The rest of the band sometimes gets shortchanged when people talk about Vök.  That’s both a natural reaction to the obvious beauty of Rán’s voice, but also a shame because it doesn’t give the music as much credit as it deserves.  If you stripped the songs of the vocals you’d still have an impressive electronic album, a bit too powerful to be ambient and perhaps a bit too structured to be house, but regardless of the label you tried to apply to it, you’d be hooked.  When you watch Vök live it’s clear that their songs are collaborative efforts and that they love playing together, an element that’s hard to fully capture on recorded tracks.

Figure is one of my favorite releases so far for 2017.  Sure, there’s still over half a year to go, but it won’t be easy to knock off the Top 5 list.