If someone put you in a dark room and played you a version of Icelandic band Kaelan Mikla minus the vocals, you might well wonder which neglected post-punk band from the early ‘80s was in the process of being rediscovered.
Throbbing bass lines that sound like someone turned a funk record inside out, overtly synthetic-sounding keyboard chords sustained to the point of a panic attack, drum patterns with all the humanity of a metronome: Nott eftir Nott has them all.
But when you add the vocals back in, Kælan Mikla’s music becomes harder to date. The more strident vocals, half-sung and half-spoken, recall the sneering repudiation of beauty associated with first-generation of punk.
But something is different. The stress is too far off the beat. And the relationship between those deliberately “ugly” parts and the ones that are fully sung, drenched in ethereal echo, gives them a different feel.
Instead of recalling the early years of post-punk, Nott eftir Nott’s different vocal styles evoke the 1990s.
At times, it almost feels as though the work for two different sessions had been serendipitously conflated: one channelling the take-no-prisoners feminist agitprop of vintage Riot Grrrl, the other indulging in the dissociated dreaminess of Shoegaze or Trip-Hop.
Even if you can’t comprehend Kaelan Mikla’s lyrics – and let’s face it, not many people outside their island home will be able to – it’s possible to feel what they are trying to communicate.
When we see people laughing together or looking anxious and worried or shouting angrily, we don’t need to know the words to have a rudimentary sense of what is going on. But that has just as much to do with the historical sub-genres Kaelan Mikla’s captivating music traverses than a cross-cultural understanding of human behaviour.
On Nott eftir Nott – a title that is not hard for English speakers to translate – they realize the promise of their eponymous debut and its successor Mánadans, following through on an aesthetic program that encourages listeners to practice a kind of time travel, transporting themselves into the early 1980s and mid-1990s alike.
Although members of the band have described themselves as having a wide variety of influences, there is no way to avoid making these historical associations. And the band seems fine with that.
Part of the reason is simply that invoking these two eras invites being identified as a Dark Wave or Cold Wave band.
Despite obvious differences, artists who fall into these categories – many of whom hail from lands far from the English-speaking world that dominated those previous eras – share a willingness to partake of the same complicated double nostalgia, one which implies that they constitute the third element in a series.
Less clear is whether this sense of common purpose can extend to politics.
Like other artists whose work has been categorised as “Dark Wave” Kaelan Mikla manage to fuse the disenchantment and resignation that characterised the mainstreaming of early 1980s post-punk culture with the political and personal defiance with which independent artists of the early 1990s tried to ward off the lures of the major-label mindset.
At times, their songs seem to be asking the question, “What would have happened if post-punk could have continued to develop organically independent of the culture industry?” Or, more to the point, “What would have happened if post-punk had developed in the era of streaming services when the distribution problems of previous eras have largely been solved?”
Presumably, the situation today makes it easier for bands to attract attention based on their own merits, rather than where they live and whom they know.
It certainly seems to have benefited Kaelan Mikla, who have parlayed the opportunity to open for The Cure – because Robert Smith had discovered them online – into an international fanbase that would have been hard to achieve otherwise.
At the same time, however, the fact that it is so much easier to connect with people who are far away is making it harder for bands to achieve the critical mass necessary to become hit-makers.
Unless you are one of those lucky artists singled out on a television show or hand-picked by someone with serious internet clout, the dream of making it big can seem even more foolish than it did in the time of Payola.
But maybe it’s sufficient to make it small. There are far worse things than getting to travel around the world playing the music you love, particularly when you hail from a country as isolated as Iceland is.
Still, it’s worth asking whether Kaelan Mikla mean to do more than achieve minor musical success.
From the way their vocals overlay beauty and ugliness; to the manner in which their lyrics self-consciously appropriate their homeland’s rich literary tradition; to how they present themselves on stage, Kaelan Mikla seem intent on being a standard-bearer for a new model of womanhood.
Not just any, but one which simultaneously plays homage to the gender-bending of male artists from the early 1980s while implicitly calling them out for discovering their feminine side at the expense of actually existing women.
Certainly, the fact that Iceland is considered to be one of the world’s most progressive places for women is a factor in the band’s image.
When Kaelan Mikla promote themselves, they are also promoting the culture that made it possible for them to exist. Given the fact that Dark Wave and Cold Wave are surprisingly popular sub-genres in places where authoritarian populism is currently ascendant, such as Turkey, this is significant.
By finding a way to revisit the 1990s, when the end of the Cold War and the rise of the Internet seemed to promise an era of unprecedented collaboration and harmony, through a sensibility rooted in the pessimism of the early 1980s, Kaelan Mikla helps us to see both the darkness in the light and the light in the darkness, suggesting that what we make of our times is not set in stone.
Screenshot courtesy of Kaelan Mikla. All rights reserved.