Katla is one of the most active volcanoes in Iceland. Situated along the southern coast, it blows on average twice per century, sometimes quite spectacularly. The most recent large eruption was in 1918, lasting for 24 days and adding an additional five kilometers to the island’s coast.
Katla. (with the period) is also a metal band from Iceland. It was formed by a different kind of eruption than that of its namesake, this one the unexpected and very public splitting of the band Sólstafir. The only thing clear to us outside of the situation is that in early 2015, right before the band left Iceland for a tour, drummer and founding member Guðmundur Óli Pálmason was fired from Sólstafir, apparently by email. Gummi has written a bit about the situation and the resultant litigation HERE, and the band released a statement as well. I don’t pretend to have any kind of scoop about the cause(s) of this, but it’s certainly unfortunate on a lot of levels. The only benefit of the breakup is that, much like the 1918 volcanic eruption did to expand Iceland’s land mass, so too this Sólstafir eruption gave us a new and excellent band in the Icelandic music scene, Gummi’s new project with Einar Thorberg Guðmundsson (formerly of Fortíð), fittingly named Katla..
It seems strange to classify Katla. as metal. The intricacy of their music is certainly metal-like, and there are heavy parts (see “Hreggur”), but what defines Katla. sonically is a gloomy weight. I’ve seen them described as post-rock as well, which is probably more apt though also more pretentious-sounding. The music is textured and layered, the vocals originating from deep within the diaphragm and at times conveying a sense of anguish, not in a painful rage-like black metal growl but more one colored by hopelessness. It’s probably not a huge surprise that this reminds me a bit of Sólstafir, though I feel like Katla.’s sound is quieter and more introspective.
On Halloween Night 2012 Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane, Norberto, and I found ourselves staking out a corner table at the Reykjavik club Gamli Gaurkurinn. It was our fourth Iceland Airwaves together and we felt a bit like veterans, confident in our choices of bands and venues, and recognizing that testing ourselves against Brennivín was a bad idea on multiple levels. Plus we were excited because our horribly jet-lagged friend Tristen, who barely made it out of Boston in the face of Hurricane Sandy, was there with us for his first visit to Iceland. Rounding out our group was a solo American woman we’d met earlier in the day at Lucky Records and who we told to meet at Gamli Gaurkurinn to hear some great music.
In all honesty we were there to see the final band, who shall remain nameless. (♠) Before them, though, was a group none of us knew, so I’d be lying if I said we were fully paying attention when the trio stepped on stage, all back-lit and shadowy, the vocalist swaying with his head covered by a towel as the electronics guy and drummer oozed out a slow and heavy jam. And our conversations slowly tailed off as we all started to feel the pull of the music and recognize that we were hearing something special. And when the singer kicked in, the game was changed forever. We bought the band’s new CD and played it over and over in our rental apartment for the rest of the trip. Each of us has turned others onto their sound, and for years we’ve waited patiently, hopeful they would put out a new album.
October 31, 2012 was the night I discovered Legend.
That album was 2012s Fearless, roughly 55 minutes of deep electro-power, a trip down some of life’s dark alleys. It’s an album I feel so strongly about that it actually made me break one of my own rules – even though I already owned the CD, when I found a used copy of the vinyl a few years later I happily plunked down my kronur so I could have it on that format as well. While the four of us at Gamli Gaurkurinn that night probably all have different favorite songs, we all recognize Fearless‘ brilliance. So when we heard earlier this year that Legend was back with a new album, the severed-unicorn-head-emblazoned Midnight Champion, well, many a text went back and forth rehashing the merits of Fearless and commiserating about what we might get from Midnight Champion. In the interim we’d all experienced another of vocalist Krummi’s outlets, the psych-noise that is Döpur, so we weren’t sure what he and his bandmates had in store for us on the new Legend album.
Knowing that I was going to get a bit of a sneak preview, I intentionally avoided to watching/listening to the first singles that came from Midnight Champion – I wanted my first experience of the album to be hearing it all the way through as the band intended. It’s rare to have that opportunity to finally sit down and hear an album that you’ve literally been looking forward to for years, or at least it is in my experience, so it was pretty serious listen when we played it for the first time.
I was not disappointed. Though I also didn’t get what I expected.
Midnight Champion is not Fearless Part II. Let’s get that out of the way first. Are there electronic elements to the music? Yes. Is Krummi’s voice a simmering burn throughout the album? Of course. But Legend significantly expanded their sonic palette on Midnight Champion. Musically they incorporate a wide range of instruments that weren’t part of Fearless. The use of live drumming, and indeed positioning it more prominently than the electronic beats, gives the entire thing a more organic feel, like an actual heartbeat running through the songs. Meanwhile the guitar takes things off in a more metal direction, creating a dissonance and growl on the lower end of the spectrum that is more elemental and raw.
Normally I don’t interview artists for Life in the Vinyl Lane. Usually my posts are more real time impressions of what I’m listening to at the moment, and frankly I don’t think I’m particularly skilled at the whole interview thing. But when Artoffact Records offered me the opportunity to ask Krummi a few questions I couldn’t pass it up. So without even the slightest bit of editing, here you go:
Krummi, it’s been a while since we’ve heard from Legend. “Fearless” came out in 2012, and you did a split cover single with Sólstafir a couple of years later, but otherwise it looks like you’ve been mostly busy with solo work as well as the intriguing Döpur. Why was now the right time to get back into the studio for a new Legend album?
Me and Dóri felt it was time to sit down and finish the new record since we were not booked to do any more shows abroad. We started playing around with song ideas shortly after the re release of Fearless in 2013 but we never managed to follow them through properly. We were doing rough demos for ourselves to decipher and see where we would go on the next record but you never really know until it´s time to record. We´re not a band that makes records on demand. We do them when it feels right and our creative impulses are flowing through our mind and body. Also it was five years since Fearless and that´s a long time. We wanted to write the next chapter and keep progressing. For these five years we had time to find our sound and get comfortable. We don´t follow trends and we don´t do music for others. We do music for ourselves first and foremost, people liking our music is a huge plus and we appreciate that. The catharsis of creating something out of nothing and then releasing it into the cosmos is something we´re addicted to. But we do take our time in the music lab.
Sonically “Fearless” is a massive album. To me it feels like a thick, dark velvet curtain that wraps itself around me, full of texture and not letting anything in from the outside. It’s got a density and weight to it. “Midnight Champion” feels different to my ears, like there are three distinct layers – electronics and guitars at the bottom, your vocals in the middle, and the live drumming riding high on top of it all. If “Fearless” is a Van Gogh made of thick powerful strokes, “Midnight Champion” is a Vermeer – precise, intentional, and full of amazing tiny details. What brought about this evolution?
You’re missing one key ingredient on Midnight Champion and that´s the downtuned five string bass we recorded over the whole MC album. Fearless is a more electronic oriented album and MC is more of a progressive rock/metal record. You´re right about the record being precise and intentional. We build a foundation with Fearless so we had the underlying basis for MC. Setting up a musical grid of some sorts. Getting the foundation right is incredibly important for the music we create. You can easily get lost within all the layers of sound so the writing and recording process for MC was very meticulous so Vermeer is a good comparison. We wanted the songs to come into existence with live instruments and capturing that in the studio. Using only circuitry based music isn´t enough for me. I need the physical component of guitars, bass and drums. To me thats the true source.
Lyrically “Midnight Champion” comes across as a sequel to “Fearless”, a continuation of that man’s story. In “Fearless” his mind was dark and he lived out his impulses, but with just a hint of recognition and regret that he behaved the way he did (“I’m falling at your feet / And I’m praying in your name / I’m a sinner but there’s no one else to blame…” ). The opening track of “Midnight Champion”, “Cryptid”, introduces the female element that he seems to recognize as his salvation, though one he’s not worthy of, and the album feels like his struggle to become a better man, culminating with the closing song “Children of the Elements”. Do you see these two albums fitting together as part of a sort of narrative?
It´s interesting that you think it´s a mans journey and not a females journey. Or is it a journey at all? Of course everybody perceives a musical album differently. That´s why art is always interesting and an important element in our lives even if you don´t want it to be. Fearless is about the search and the journey and the things you learn on the way. MC is about the death and resurrection. Doing the unthinkable to reach a level of immortality and truth. The rebirth. The new record is the perfect soundtrack for the world we live in today. Sinful, wicked and black hearted but also thoughtful, high minded and vehement.
What are you listening to and loving right now? Who out there is making music that excites you right now?
Been listening a lot to Harvest and Harvest Moon by Neil Young because i´m taking part in this big show where we perform both of these records back to back. Some amazing Icelandic musicians are taking part so it´s going to be magical. I´m a huge Neil Young fan. One of my all time favorites. I´m really into the new Ryan Adams record ´Prisoner´. The single of that record “Do You Still Love Me” is so amazing. I get chills listening to it. The new Melvins is also a must have. Great music form them as usual. Our friends in Katla. are releasing a new album which is amazing and GlerAkur have a new record out. Highly recommended!
What’s next on the horizon for you, Krummi? Any other musical or artistic projects in the works?
I´m currently opening up a Vegan restaurant with my girlfriend and one other person so i´ll be busy doing that. My other band Döpur will go into the studio to record our first full length hopefully in December. I´m also scoring this short film which will be released early next year so i´m keeping busy.
Let me make one quick observation here before I go on to pontificate further on the virtues of Midnight Champion. I love the fact that Krummi doesn’t give me the simple agreeable answers and in fact challenges some of my observations. It would have been super easy for him to give me the “yeah, sure” thing, but to me this feels passionate and honest.
So what about my perceptions of Midnight Champion? God, where do I even start? The most striking aspect of the album to my ears is the intentionality of the sonic layers. Midnight Champion’s ten tracks don’t neatly fall into one genre box, they’re a blend of different styles and elements, some soaring and delicate, others dense and heavy. This is true both musically with the addition of new instrumentation as well as in Krummi’s vocals, which rely less on pure power to show a broader emotional range. I truly hear three distinct layers of sound across this album. The electronics and guitar comprise the lower end foundation, while at the top end we have the snappy punctuation-like drumming. And in the middle, right in the sweet spot, we have the vocals, sometimes soaring high and at others diving low, carrying the mood with pitch and lyrical content.
A listener always brings their own experiences, and yes their own biases, to the music they hear. I can’t separate my perceptions from my “Life in the Vinyl Lane” personal filter any more than I can walk a tightrope over Niagara Falls; all I can do is be aware of them and their influences on how I relate to a song or an album. At some level Krummi recognized this with his observation that I heard this as more of a man’s journey than a woman’s, which is spot-on – I clearly experienced Midnight Champion as the continuation of the story of the person associate with the songs on Fearless. In fact I may have tried too hard to make that narrative fit into the construct I’d created for it in my mind. And for that eye-opener I’m grateful.
But let’s talk a bit about the songs on Midnight Champion. The album opens with the instrumental prelude to “Cryptid”, which gives way to the first vocals inviting us to the story: Between the dusk and dawn / Live myths and vagabonds. And it’s here that we’re introduced to the feminine aspect of the experience as Krummi mentioned. The pace builds slowly, drawing you into the song without you even realizing it. Waiting to be found / Waiting to be found. There’s a spiritual quality to be found in the drumming, something that exists across most cultures and traditions. But it was the second track, “Frostbite”, where I first recognized that Midnight Champion was going to be something truly different than Fearless. When the vocals break free from the music with the lines I know / There’s something going on / With myself / Me against the world I was actually staggered for a moment, because I had a powerful flashback to the first time I heard Mad Season – it’s like Krummi is channeling the same base elemental force that powered so much of Layne Staley’s passion. The style is certainly a bit different, but the powerfulness of the vocal transition takes you to a different plane.
“Time to Suffer” is like a healthy plate full of comfort food. Gonna tear this house down. Yeah, bring me some more of that, with the sharp guitar and deep electro-beats overlayed with bass, hitting me right in the sternum like a pulsating sledgehammer. This is probably as close as Legend gets to their earlier work, but even here the precision of Midnight Champion shows through like a map guiding your way. That’s followed by “Adrift”, a sharp turn in an almost ambient direction. I want to know my true fate. And again we’re treated to a soaring quality in the verse’s tone, rising above the soothing layer of the instruments with warmth and hope. I can’t believe what I’ve become. “Captive” takes us on another deep dive into the primordial id, a region of impulses and desires, pulsating and raw. But it’s not all passion without restraint; oh no, there’s a chemical connection here, You are the only one / You are the only one / You are the only one / You are the only one that I am afraid of, afraid of how powerful my feelings are for you, scared by the depth of my own passion. I don’t wanna be in love / Please don’t let me feel this way... if you’ve ever been in love you’ve felt that way, the fear of giving in to it fully and exposing yourself to all the joy and pain that will inevitably follow.
That brings us to the title track, “Midnight Champion”, which has been stuck in my head as an earworm for the last three days straight. Yesterday I found myself humming it while doing spreadsheets at work, that’s how deeply it’s anchored itself into my unconscious. It’s a slow build-up that focuses on Krummi, slowly layering in sound and beats in an almost mystical way, adding one level after another until finally breaking free and giving us the payoff. “Scars” is as close as we get to Fearless, rich and dense with thick strokes, a primordial mosh pit that will force you to move around with clenched fists embracing the electrical current running up and down your spine like a bolt of lightning. “Liquid Rust” takes it down a few notches, but still with that deep vibrating power that has an almost plodding quality that makes you want to break free with speed and power, but all the while forcing you to stay restrained, to hold it all inside.
The final two tracks are the real payoff, uplifting and hopeful, leading the way toward a sort of spiritual nirvana in “Gravestones”: Gravestones / Never fails to be my friend / He stands by / My life. It’s surprisingly snappy and upbeat given where we’re at in the story, giving a sense of coming to terms with life and finding peace as the end nears. There’s nothing to fear here at the end, as we learn with the closing song “Children of the Elements”, a journey back to the earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust and completely devoid of fear or regret.
Midnight Champion is available on the all the major formats – vinyl, CD, and cassette, as well as digital download. You can check out your options as well as listen to some tracks on their Bandcamp page HERE or at Storming the Base HERE. A number of the songs are available for a free listen on YouTube! as well, but I believe as of this moment only the title track has an actual full-length video, which you can watch and absorb below.
It looks like I’m going to have to clear off some space on my year-end Top 5 Albums list to make room for Midnight Champion. Often highly anticipated albums disappoint, which is generally more a reflection on the listener than it is on the artist, but Legend brings us a multi-variate album that succeeds on every level, one that connects with the listener every step of the way. It rewards repeated listens, allowing you to not just hear but feel the details in ways that will both surprise and delight.
This is another record I picked up on our recent trip to Ireland. Ilenkus are a five-piece self-described post metal/hardcore band from Galway, and The Crossing (2014) is their second full length release. The album is self-released and the vinyl version is limited to only 100 copies according to their Bandcamp page. They did a great job with the packaging for a self-released product – James Sheridan’s cover art is top notch and the inner sleeve is on thick, glossy stock and includes lyrics for all five songs. Quality.
The opening track “Devourer” punches you in the nose right from the start – The Crossing opens hard and fast, not giving you any opportunity to ease into it. That’s not to say the entire album is one big assault on your ears, though; like any post metal band worth their chops Ilenkus know how to incorporate quiet passages into their music, such as the opening to “Goodbye Denial,” which is driven by piano… but slowly builds… and builds… and before you know it you’re in the middle some heavy hardcore. Their composition and flow imply a band that is confident in their musical vision. “Over the Fire, Under the Smoke” has a killer guitar intro and may be the most metal (i.e. least hardcore) song on the album.
The Crossing is available for you to check out in its entirety HERE. My personal recommendations are “The Crossing” and “Goodbye Denial,” which not coincidentally also both include some quiet passages. Longer, full-on hardcore songs sometimes wear me down, and having the slower intros and/or interludes seems to help me gain some feeling for the song. Mind you, that’s me; your experience is possibly quite different. But regardless of how you like your metal, there’s something for just about every metalhead on The Crossing.