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.

“Record Records 10th Anniversary 2007-2017” Compilation (2017)

Normally things on Life in the Vinyl Lane take a hard turn to all things Icelandic in early November, generally running through the end of the year.  The reason, of course, is because that’s when we head to Reykjavik for Iceland Airwaves and return home with a bag full of amazing new (and not so new) albums to share with you.  But this year my record pusher dealer enabler collecting friend Ingvar came to Seattle for a visit and brought with him a big box of stuff that Reykjavik’s Lucky Records had on hold for me.  That means that my “To Listen To” shelf is full of Icelandic records (and a smattering of tapes), so we’ll be getting an early start on Airwaves this year.  Don’t fret though, because Ingvar and I did a fair amount of record shopping here in Seattle during his visit too, picking up a lot of interesting non-Icelandic stuff and meaning I have so much “To Listen To” stuff right now that it’s actually causing me anxiety.

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So without further ado, I’m dropping the needle on the beautiful 2XLP Icelandic label comp Record Records 10th Anniversary 2007-2017.  I was lucky enough to get the red vinyl version, which is limited to 100 copies and comes in simple and elegant gatefold

The Record Records roster is deep – Of Monsters and Men, Retro Stefson, Agent Fresco, Mammút, Vök… it’s an Icelandophile’s dream.  Of the 15 bands on the album there’s only one that I haven’t heard of – Ensími; and I’ve managed to see about 2/3 of them live over the years.  You don’t really need me to tell you much about a label comp that’s this deep – these are great bands, and while I may personally have made a few different song selections, they definitely go this one right. (♠)  Most of the tracks are from the second half of the label’s lifetime, including some new 2017 tunes like Mammút’s “The Moon Will Never Turn On Me” and Moses Hightower’s “Mjóddin”, giving the whole thing a more contemporary feel.

Is Record Records 10th Anniversary 2007-2017 a good Icelandic music primer?  Yes… but with caveats.  Record Records has a certain style, so while there’s rock, reggae, and singer-songwriter stuff, you won’t hear any punk or metal or electronica.  What you will get though is a broader sample of the type of stuff that you may catch of whiff of on the radio, and there are some beautiful performances here such as Vök’s “BTO” and “Jolly Good” by Ojba Rasta.  I know one thing for sure though, and that’s that this record is getting me hyped for Iceland Airwaves 2017!

(♠) OK… I definitely would have included a song by Bloodgroup… but given that they’re no longer active, I can understand their exclusion.

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.

Vök – “Tension” (2013)

voktensionHolly and I were fortunate enough to see Vök perform live way back in April, 2014, a few months before their five-song EP Tension was released.  It was the last show we ever saw at Reykjavik’s Faktorý, with Vök opening for Prins Póló and FM Belfast.  And not to toot our own horns, but we both remember being quite impressed by the then duo; little did we know what great things were ahead of them.

We ended up with their 2015 EP Circles on CD, so while I was tempted to buy it on vinyl I didn’t have to resist too hard since I have a “rule” against buying something on vinyl if I already have it on another format.  That is until we showed up at the “record show” (and I use those words together VERY loosely in this case…) at Nordic House the weekend of Airwaves, and I found that one table was selling nothing but sealed copies of Tension and Circles at only 2.000 ISK (about $17.50) apiece.  I couldn’t pass them up at that price.  Sometimes a bargain is too good.

Sonically Tension is less dense than Circle, but the the overall vibe is similar and Margrét Rán’s voice remains incredible, one of the best kept secrets in music today.  The songs are Tension are a mix of English and Icelandic, which is a change in pace from their more current material which is strictly in English.  While this record doesn’t have a song on it as good as “Waterfall,” truth be told most albums ever recorded don’t include a song that good, so that’s hardly a criticism.  Look, you need to check them out, so go HERE and listen to what they’ve got on offer.  You won’t regret it.

Vök – “Circles” (2015)

Holly and I first experienced Vök at Reykjavik’s now defunct club Faktorý.  And it wasn’t at Airwaves, but instead during a trip we took to Iceland in April 2013 with Holly’s mom.  We didn’t schedule the trip around any shows – it just happened that FM Belfast and Prins Póló were playing a show together while we were there, and there was no way we were going to miss that.  Vök had just won the Icelandic version of the “battle of the bands” and people were expecting big things from the duo (they’re now a trio).  They certainly impressed us at that show, so when we saw they had a new four song EP out in 2015 we knew we needed to pick up a copy when we were in town for Airwaves.  Unfortunately for me, I didn’t realize it was released on vinyl, so I ended up with a CD copy instead.

Tonight I’m sitting in a hotel room in Los Angeles, where I’ve been working too many hours, and now I’m bored and tired and a bit too strung out to sleep.  What I really want is to listen to some Vök… but of course while i remembered my iPod, I didn’t bring earbuds, my stupid hotel room doesn’t have a docking station (but they do sell Faygo cola in the lobby, so hopefully I won’t run into any roaming Juggalos), and I didn’t even bring the right cord to connect my old school iPod to my laptop.  No problem though, I’ll just stream it online, right?  No, because the mega-old version of IE my company laptop runs on isn’t compatable with Soundcloud.  Technology is both amazing and amazingly frustrating.

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Fortunately Vök have videos for two of the four songs on Circles posted on YouTube, so right now I’m grooving to the slow, trance-like beauty of “Waterfall.”  Musically this is a fantastic song, with its moody synthy flow, but what really sets it off is the vocals of Margrét Rán Magnúsdóttir who is nothing short of brilliant.  We saw Vök twice at Airwaves this year, and not only has Magnúsdóttir improved as a singer, but also as a performer – she’s absolutely captivating on stage.  Her vocals seem strangely high and low at the same time, as if her natural range is higher but she’s trying to keep her voice as low as she can, giving it a sultry quality, but not in a sexual kind of way but more like someone who is completely exposing their inner most being to you.  This style permeates Circles, defining it.  The other highlight is the closing track, “Circles,” another slow smoldering number that just begs for a topper on your cocktail while you bob your head slowly and absorb the sound through your pores. 

I strongly encourage you to give Circles a listen.  I’ll be keeping my eyes (and ears) open for their future releases.