Kælan Mikla – “Nótt Eftir Nótt” (2018)

kaelanmiklanottKælan Mikla has been stacking up the accolades as of late.  There was a lot of great press about their performances at Iceland Airwaves 2018, they made the cover of Distorted Sound Magazine, and their latest album, the recently released Nótt Eftir Nótt, came in at #14 on Revolver‘s “30 Best Albums of 2018”.  And the praise is well-deserved.  The trio have developed from being a band that caught your attention because of their raw emotional power to very talented musicians, all the while still maintaining that air of mystery tinged with an undercurrent of anxiety.  Over the last 10 years of following the Icelandic scene we’ve seen lots of bands start up and develop over time, and Kælan Mikla are right up there with Fufanu in starting strong and  then just continuing to improve release after release.

Initially the most defining characteristic of Kælan Mikla’s sound, what truly separated them from the pack, was Laufey Soffía’s vocals, the insistence of her delivery and her soul-piercing screams.  But as the band matured and their musicianship evolved they no longer needed to rely on that vocal power, giving all of them more room to explore and maneuver – not only is the music denser and more layered, but the vocals don’t have to be so reliant on making that icicle-like stab into your amygdala.  That’s not to say that songs like “Skuggadans” won’t trigger your fight-or-flight responses, because they certainly will; but there’s plenty of dark beauty to be found on Nótt Eftir Nótt too.  The hauntingly beautiful “Næturblóm” could just as easily find a home on the club dance floor, and if you’re more of an old-school Kælan Mikla fan “Andvaka” will take you back to the very first time you heard them, sitting alone in the dark, afraid of what was lurking outside your bedroom window.

You can preview the album on Bandcamp HERE, as well as purchase physical copies.  If you haven’t heard Kælan Mikla before, you owe it to yourself to give them a listen; and if you think you know them from their prior albums, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much they continue to grow and improve as artists.

Sólveig Matthildur – “Unexplained Miseries & The Acceptance of Sorrow” (2018)

solveigmatthildurMusically speaking Sólveig Matthildur is best known as a member of the angst-ridden synthwave trio Kælan Mikla, a band that completely captivates me every single time I see them perform live.  Last year she, like so many Icelandic musicians, moved to Berlin to expand her musical career, and the result was her recent solo release Unexplained Miseries & The Acceptance of Sorrow.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the album, and what I got was a combination of familiar and surprising.  Musically it’s synth-electro, less dark than Kælan Mikla but still a bit somber… or perhaps serious is a better description.  You can definitely dance to it in a low key, mid-tempo kind of way.  But the big surprise is Sólveig’s vocals; she’s not the primary vocalist for Kælan Mikla and that band is known for an intense, passionate style; but on Unexplained Miseries & The Acceptance of Sorrow her voice has an otherworldly quality to it, a sort of beauty that gives a sense of longing and at times takes on an almost religious quality.  It’s a mature album, one that bottles up the raw emotion of her previous music and presents it in a more serious and deliberate manner.

Released digitally as well as on limited edition CD and cassette, Unexplained Miseries & The Acceptance of Sorrow is available via Matthildur’s Bandcamp page HERE.

Iceland Airwaves 2017 – Day 1

Norberto and I were up at the crack of not-dawn here in Reykjavik on Wednesday morning.  About 7AM, to be precise.  It wasn’t because we’re gluttons for punishment, but because we were meeting Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane and our friend J, who arrived from Seattle a few days after us.  That meant all of us were feeling a bit groggy today as Iceland Airwaves Day 1 officially began.

Much of the day was spent eating, getting our wristbands, and generally bouncing around town, and we didn’t see any off-venue shows.  Our plan for the on-venue evening was to post up at the Hard Rock Cafe, where a handful of bands we like were all scheduled to play.  This is the second time the Hard Rock has been in Reykjavik; the prior restaurant closed around 2005, literally a few weeks before Holly and I arrived in Iceland for our first ever visit.  But given the growing recognition of the country’s music scene it’s not surprising that the corporate juggernaut that is the Hard Rock was open to giving Reykjavik another chance.  As an added bonus the new location, which opened in 2016, includes a cozy basement venue that is an official on-venue this year.

The night opened with PHLEGM, the hardcore duo we saw play Lucky Records on Monday, and they gave us another high-energy, enjoyable set.  From there it was on to a band I was looking forward to seeing and one creating quite a buzz, Skelkur í Bringu.  They’re perhaps most notable for being a project of one Steinunn Eldflaug (below), better known by her nom-d’electronica dj. flugvél og geimskip, she of the trippy sonic soundscapes about cats in space.  Skelkur í Bringu is a three-piece, featuring Eldflaug on bass and accompanied by an impressive guitarist and an even more impressive drummer.  There were big noises, references to snakes, and some overall strangeness, but none of that took away from the obvious musical talent this trio brings to the stage.  I found them to be incredibly intriguing and impossible to ignore, enough so that I made a point of buying their new cassette Þrífðu Þetta Hland, each copy of which comes in a unique hand-made package (mine is a stencil cut cardboard box with zebra pattern fabric on one side).

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Next up was Benny Crespo’s Gang, a group we haven’t seen for years, and after the show tonight I’m kind of kicking myself that we’ve passed them up so often.  They played a solid modern rock set, sharing lead vocal duties across three of the four members in a well-received show.  We Made God packed the house for their intense post-rock/post-metal performance and didn’t disappoint – it sounded like a lot of folks were at the Hard Rock specifically to see these guys and their almost hardcore-style compositions.  DSCF4672 copyGuitarist Arnór waded into the crowd on multiple occasions while bassist Stúni (left) intrigued me with his three-string guitar.

For my money, though, the big winner was Kælan Mikla, which should come as no surprise to any regular Life in the Vinyl Lane reader.  Truly the one thing I can say about their performance tonight is “wow, what a difference a year makes”.  This was our third time seeing them in as many years, and tonight’s show was light years beyond what we saw before – they are incredibly poised on stage, thereby closing the loop between their sonic and visual  performances.  Someone needs to sign this band immediately, and given that Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke was in the house tonight, maybe they’ll get that piece of press that pushes them forward to the next step in their musical lives.  I certainly hope so, because they fully deserve it.

Day 1 of Iceland Airwaves 2017 is in the books.  I can’t wait to see what Day 2 has in store for us!

Kælan Mikla – “Mánadans” (2017)

kaelanmiklamanadansI first encountered (and fell in love with) Kælan Mikla during their Gamla Bíó show at Iceland Airwaves 2015.  The darkness of the music combined with the power and rage of the vocals blew me away and I’ve done my best to keep track of the band ever since.  They were the honorable mention for my “Best New-To-Me Band” of Airwaves ’15, and their debut LP Kælan Mikla made it into my Top 5 best new releases of 2016.  I knew there was some pre-Kælan Mikla material available digitally, though I hadn’t done much to track any of it down because I’m sort of addicted to physical media, which is dumb but true. (♠)  Fortunately for me the band decided to issue their shelved first recording Mánadans as a limited edition (of 200) cassette.  I pre-ordered mine yesterday via their Bandcamp page (HERE), and it came with a digital download to hold me over until the tape ships later this month.

The album opens with “Lítil Dýr”, which is frankly Kælan Mikla being their most Kælan Mikla-ish – all my favorite elements of their music packed into one song.  The opening is slow and heavy and moody, a calm almost detached flow of bass and drums and synths that then explodes with the righteous fury of Laufey Soffía’s vocals.  Hearing her cutting loose for the very first time during their show in 2015 was a startling experience for me, and I was hooked immediately; “Lítil Dýr” perfectly captures that feeling.

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“Umskiptingur” is one of the more intriguing cuts on Mánadans, musically more along the lines of a dark country or surf song than the band’s normal darkwave/post-punk feel, like something out of a David Lynch movie.  “Ástarljóð” is another highlight, its relentlessly driving bass propelling you forward into the darkness…

Ég vona að þú farir til helvítis, ástin mín,
svo ég fái kannski að hitta þig aftur.

(I hope you go to hell, my love,
So maybe I’ll meet you again.)

I’m impressed with he sonic variety on Mánadans. This isn’t a darkwave band playing the same gloomy synths over and over again; Kælan Mikla bring hints of different music styles to their sound, giving their songs subtly different flavors while still remaining consistent to their overall aesthetic.  It sounds like they have a new album in the works, and I for one can’t wait to hear it.

(♠)  Hi.  My name is Jeff.  And I can’t help but collect physical objects.  I’m like a goddamn squirrel sometimes, I swear.

The Best of 2016

It was another fine year for music and we tried to embrace as much of it as possible.  Besides lots of shopping at the stores in the greater Seattle area, I also bought vinyl in Los Angeles, Denver, and Oklahoma City, as well as on trips abroad in Hong Kong, Sweden, and Iceland.  We saw some great live shows, made some new friends, and discovered new bands.  It was a lot of fun, and we can’t wait to do more of it again next year.

So, without further ado, here’s the Life in the Vinyl Lane “Best of 2016” edition!

Top 5 New Releases in 2016

  1. Ash & Ice – The Kills
  2. EP01 – Dream Wife
  3. Hope – Iiris
  4. Kælan Mikla – Kælan Mikla
  5. Redemption & Ruin – The Devil Makes Three

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Sometimes I find myself thinking about how I’m going to write on certain topics, and that happened to me recently with respect to my Top 5 New Releases list.  I was super excited about Dream Wife and their EP01, enough so that I felt like it was deserving of the top spot on the list, which would also conveniently supply me with a narrative arc since lead singer Rakel was also the vocalist on my pick of the best album of 2015 as part of Halleluwah.  Man, this was going to be so easy to write!

But then I remembered Ash & Ice.  I’ve played the hell out of this album over the course of the year, and I love it more with each and every spin.  So while I certainly root for the little guy (and girl) and Dream Wife in the top position would have made for a great story, it simply wasn’t authentic.  The Kills killed it, and that’s that, putting out an album that is, to my years, light years ahead of everything else I heard in 2016.

There is another thread in this list, however, as all of the top four performers have female vocalists, and the fifth, The Devil Makes Three, has a female bassist who does backing vocals.  So every band/performer on the list has at least one woman involved.  I think we’re seeing more and more opportunity for women in rock and outside of the traditional singer/performer format, especially in rock and metal, which is outstanding.  We saw lots of women performing great music this year at Airwaves as part of outfits like Hórmónar, Singapore Sling, Samaris, aYia, Thunderpussy, and Let’s Eat Grandma, and I for one couldn’t be happier about it.

Top 5 “New to Me” Bands/Performers

  1. Prayers (US)
  2. Dream Wife (UK/Iceland)
  3. Andi (Iceland)
  4. Scorpion Violente (France)
  5. The Lyman Woodard Organization (US)

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All of these “New to Me” bands came to me in different ways.  I saw Prayers on an episode of Huang’s World and literally ordered some of their music as soon as the commercial break came on after their appearance; I’d never heard of Dream Wife until I saw them perform live at Airwaves this year; I picked up Andi’s self-titled release because it was on Lady Boy Records and I pretty much buy everything they put out; Scorpion Violente was a random purchase from the New Arrivals bin at Amoeba; and I read about They Lyman Woodard Organization in an online article.

Stylistically the five band have nothing in common, ranging from cholo goth to pop-punk to electronic to industrial to jazz-funk.  They varied in genres just as they did in the ways they came to my attention.  This makes me feel good – the wider the net I can cast in the search for the new and interesting, the more likely I am to have my horizons expanded and mind blown.

I can’t recommend Prayers enough.  If you’re into hip hop or even somewhat darker electronic music you need to give these guys a listen.  But really I could say the same about all five of these selections.  Even if you’re not into their style, you may very well find something you like and have your musical base broadened just a little.  But be careful – if you open that door, even just a crack, there’s a whole flood of awesome music on the other side that will blow it down and rush over you like a tidal wave.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Top 5 Vinyl Purchases

  1. U-Men – U-Men
  2. No New York Compilation
  3. Revolver – The Beatles
  4. The Decline of Western Civilization Parts I & II Soundtracks
  5. The Icelandic Punk Museum Cassettes

u-men

I think I felt a little less passionate about acquiring specific things in 2016 than I have in past years.  That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed playing tons and tons of new vinyl (and tapes, and CDs), but there hasn’t been a lot of the thrill of picking up a rarity or even new releases that I looked forward to with great anticipation (though there are a few items due in 2017 that I am excited about).

That being said, I did get my grubby paws on a few rarities and cool titles this year.  U-Men is a legitimately scarce pre-grunge Seattle punk record, and the original pressing of No New York was an exciting find in Oklahoma City.  Getting red vinyl Japanese first pressing of The Beatles’ Revolver in Hong Kong was my first foray into that collecting rabbit hole, and the record will always carry with it the great memory of listening to James Tang play us different versions of Beatles songs and break them down for us by their differences.  The two Decline records are soundtracks to a pair of great documentaries which also finally got released on DVD.  While the last item(s) on my list are actually tapes not vinyl, I was probably most excited to get my hands on those from a purely musical standpoint – there’s some great stuff on those comps, and they hold a proud spot on my tape rack.

I’ll be excited to see what 2017 brings!

Top 5 Live Shows

  1. Macklemore – Neumos, Seattle
  2. The Devil Makes Three – Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Colorado
  3. Dr. Spock – Húrra, Reykjavik
  4. Dream Wife – Harpa, Reykjavik
  5. The Ills – Húrra, Reykjavik

macklemorestagedive

When a good friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, called and said, “psst, I’ve got two spots on the guest list for the Macklemore album release party at Neumos, do you want to go?”, I couldn’t say yes fast enough.  The chance to see Seattle’s best known hip hop artist (sorry Mix-A-Lot, but he has the belt now) playing in an intimate venue like Neumos in front of the home town crowd was way to good to miss.  And it was great.  Including the part shown here when he climbed up onto the ledge of the balcony level (right) and then dove backwards into the awaiting crowd below.  I doubt I would have tried that, especially given that there seemed like a lot of 14-year-old girls down below waiting to catch him.  But catch him they did, and it was a hell of a show.

The Devil Makes Three are always great live, and getting to see them at Red Rocks was just icing on the cake.  An amazing venue, and once the show started I hardly noticed the wind and the cold.  The other three shows rounding out my Top 5 were all at Airwaves.  I’m going to skip past Dr. Spock and Dream Wife as I’ve written pretty extensively about both bands recently, and go straight to The Ills.  When these crazy Slovakians hit the stage at Húrra, all five of us in our Airwaves posse basically groaned – “ugh, instrumental rock…”.  But by time the second song was done The Ills had won the entire crowd over, including us, with their sheer enthusiasm and joy of playing, plus of course they had some pretty sweet licks.  By the end of their set we were all bummed they couldn’t play just one more song.  We ran into a couple of the guys the next night and they seemed genuinely appreciative of the praise we heaped on them.  Bands like The Ills are why you go to Airwaves.  Look for a review of one of their albums in the upcoming weeks.

Top 5 Places to Buy Records

North America
1. Easy Street Records, Seattle
2. Daybreak Records, Seattle
3. Guestroom Records, Oklahoma City
4. Amoeba Music, Los Angeles
5. Hi-Voltage Records, Tacoma

The Rest of the World
1. Lucky Records, Reykjavik
2. Trash Palace, Stockholm (Sweden)
3. Shun Choeng Record Company, Hong Kong
4. Reykjavik Record Shop, Reykjavik
5. The Record Museum / Sam the Record Man, Hong Kong

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I feel like I should just retire Easy Street and Lucky, since they are my two go-to shops and will likely remain so for years to come.  Hell, I could easily populate a Top 5 in North America with just Seattle area shops that I visit semi-regularly.  But such is life in the vinyl lane.  Seattle’s Daybreak Records is new on the scene this year and has an impressive amount of quality wax in a relatively small space.  Guestroom was a very pleasant surprise that I came across during a business trip to Oklahoma, and I came away with an armload of great titles there.  And if there’s one upside to all the business trips I had to take to Los Angeles in 2016 it was the opportunity to pay some visits to Amoeba, which has so much vinyl that I literally run out of energy looking well before I’ve had a chance to look at everything.  Hi-Voltage rounds out the North America Top 5 – they moved into a new location down in Tacoma and I love the new layout.

We got to visit record stores in three other countries on two continents in 2016.  Reykjavik of course gave us the always amazing Lucky Records and Reykjavik Record Shop, places where the folks working there are more like friends and family than employees.  A pre-Airwaves trip to Stockholm gave me a chance to visit Trash Palace for a second time, one of the best punk/metal speciality shops around.  And Hong Kong… ah, Hong Kong.  Shun Choeng Record Company was hard to find – it’s actually in a regular looking office building on one of the middle floors, and there’s no sign for it on the street.  It was impeccably laid out and organized, and I swear every single used record in there was immaculate.  While we didn’t buy much there, it was a fun shop to explore.  And we can’t forget our visits to James Tang, aka Sam the Record Man (above), as he literally gave us a masters-level course in the different sound qualities of various versions of the exact same songs.  It was fun and educational, a visit I’d highly recommend even if you don’t end up buying anything (though I recommend treating yourself to a Japanese red vinyl first pressing of something you enjoy… you won’t regret it).  It’s probably the only record store that also has a chandelier and will serve you coffee or tea in fine china.

The best record shopping experiences are those that come when you can build rapport with the folks at the stores.  Record shopping is fun in and of itself, but that takes it to a new level and makes the whole thing special.

Top 5 Music Books

  1. Miles:  The Autobiography, by Miles Davis
  2. Hardcore:  Life of My Own, by Harley Flanagan
  3. Porcelain, by Moby
  4. I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, by Grace Jones and Paul Morley
  5. X-Ray Audio:  The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone, ed. Stephen Coates

milesauto

I’ve always been a pretty voracious reader.  I’m probably good for 30+ books in a typical year, and once when I decided to keep track I finished a year at 51… almost a book a week.  Traditionally I’ve spent almost all of my reading hours on non-fiction, but over the last few years I re-discovered my love for sci-fi and I’ve been consuming novels at a rapid rate, aided no doubt by the amount of time I’ve spent on airplanes in 2016 (best guess is I’ve been on somewhere around 60-70 flights this year).  However, I did find some time to squeeze in some music related reading, and these are the best of those books I read in 2016.

Most of these are autobiographies, which can at times be a mixed bag, perhaps nowhere as much so as with my top pick, Miles:  The Autobiography.  I applaud Miles for penning his own book, using his own voice and not relying on the co-author to turn his words into something different.  You feel like you’re listening to the man himself speak, though that can be good and bad.  What was refreshing in the first hundred pages could at times get grating as the book progressed.  Miles gives movies like Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction a run for their money with the sheer volume of “fucks” he writes, and there are entire sections that seem to devolve into “then I played here with these guys, then I played over here with these other guys…”  But man, there are some moments of brilliance here where you get a glimpse into how deeply Miles understood music, and I have to give the man credit for exposing himself completely, warts and all, including drug addiction and domestic violence.  An important work in understanding the nature of genius.

The other three autobiographies each had lot to offer as well, and I found them generally honest and forthcoming, not simply providing an idealized version of the individual.  Grace Jones probably has more of her pure ego come through than the others, but she’s a powerful and confident woman, and that shows on the page.  X-Ray Audio is a killer book about a very unique topic, old bootleg records from the Soviet Union that were cut on used x-ray file.  A definite passion project, and one beautifully packaged.  All of these were enjoyable and brisk reads.

 

So there you have it, my 2016 recap.  It’s had to believe this is the fifth one of these I’ve written… the years are going by so fast any more.  Keep on playin’ those tunes and hunting for new music, my friends!