Review Summary: Darkwave wraiths from another age, daughters of the night, hear them sing.
It took approximately 35 years from the time three girls were put in cryo in some clandestine lab in the underground of Reykjavik to their awakening in 2013. When they regained consciousness, the first thing they looked for were a battered drum set, a rusty bass and a book with poems they had kept close, a treasure from the poetry festival where they met for the first time. There's no other way to explain the fidelity in the sound of the Iceland-borne darkwave brigade Kælan Mikla's in relation with the golden years of synth worship: the decadent 80s.
But first things first, humble beginnings would be an understatement to describe what went through my mind when I first saw them perform live as part of the Iceland Airwaves sessions in 2014 for KEXP. Through that performance you could discern a very ambitious attitude and sharp confidence struggling to rip through their doubtful management of the instruments they were using at the time. Icelandic poetry spilled over solid bass lines zig-zagging at the drunk beat of the drums. Attitude against proficiency, lyricism versus musicality, art limited to the very few who understood the language of their northern homeland, so part of their message was largely lost in the ether. But they persevered for years, with two EPs documenting this age of awakening and growth, until in 2018, something changed profoundly.
I remember hearing the first synth notes of "Gandreið", the first track of their first full length, Nótt eftir nótt
(Night after night), released in 2018, and feeling a glacial shiver down my spine when the bewitching chant of one of them evoked some sort of bone-chilling echo of Chelsea Wolfe's Abyss
era resonating against the synths in what was a properly eerie introduction to a group who had evolved a great deal from that very first live footage I had watched years before.
Nótt eftir nótt
already painted a clearer picture of what the trio was trying to convey, with their gloomy, almost spoken lyricism now supported not only by a scanty rhythm section, but with a newfound talent for melody and richer textures and a much more efficient rhythm base. Ghostly post punk met the glacial nature of their sound and finally something special was happening. Kælan Mikla had thunder in a bottle, and from that day, while December's agony started to kick in and AOTY lists flooded the media and vanished any new releases in that month, including the girls' enrapturing debut, their existence was kept on one dark corner of my mind, and I left it there, eagerly awaiting the day that they'd come back and what would they would bring with them.
And here we are, in 2021’s summer's death bed with Kælan Mikla surging like a geyser with new music after the longest time, and oh boy, it was worth the wait. Undir Köldum Norðurljósum
(Under the Northern Lights) is the album I somehow knew they had in them. It's darker, colder, extremely bewitching and mesmerizing, with every aspect of their debut being a thoroughly improved version of what it was. "Svört Augu" (Black Eyes) is the perfect opener, a goth marvel of whispers and spectral harmonies that would make Dracula break his immortal neck to the unforgiving beat. "Sólstöður" (Solar Positions) continues the spell with a heavy midtempo and beautifully defined vocals, supported by their usual disturbing yelling and synth chains that reach to the moon while the bass keep them tied to the ground.
There are interesting events happening in the middle section too, with "Örlögin" effectively mixing up bits of dream pop with a new wave scent, the lunatic dance sorcery of "Ósýnileg", or the lengthy and inviting elegy "Sirenur" evoking a sweeter but darker version of Dead Can Dance in their goth phase. "Stormurinn " is strong enough to receive the “deep cut” award, incorporating one of the most alluring vocal melodies of the album, but is their collaboration with French blackgaze phenomenom Alcest what rules the final minutes of Undir Köldum Norðurljósum
There's a good chance most of you have bridged from your love for Alcest to Kælan Mikla, and "Hvitir Sandar" (White Sand) is an ideal entry to do so. On the other hand, it is slightly disappointing that Neige's contribution doesn't grace the track with his misty cleans, resulting to just some background screams at the end of the song and some guitar wails floating in the reverb, while Winterkalte, who is credited as contributing with percussions doesn't really add to anything that the rest of the songs that came before had not already done. Still, and for other reasons, "Hvitir Sandar" is a hell of a tune, and one of the highlights of the trio's second full length. Finally, "Saman" closes the album peacefully, with carefully chosen words (not that I understand a single word, but how these words sound in context) sang in harmony in the Icelandic language, looming over a persisting arpeggio in a bluesy lullaby of fragile strings and crystalline notes dropping like morning dew on icy lake waters.
With better timing this year, and thanks to Canadian label Artoffacto Records (Skinny Puppy, ACTORS, Front Line Assembly, Kauan, etc.), Kælan Mikla has returned with an album that will resonate with any nocturnal creature fond of eternal goth legends The Cure or new wave stalwarts Siouxsie and the Banshees, with added mentions to more contemporary acts drinking from the blood of those two like Drab Majesty or Boy Harsher. As a final plea before I leave you in the hands of the daughters of the frost, let me say that, whoever is looking after them, whatever happens, please don't let them go cryo again, as I don't have much time left on this side of things and I'm delighted to share this timeline with them. That’d be all, you can go now and bathe in Nordic moonlight until next year.