Kælan Mikla started things off right. Their first album (their second, really, but we’ll get to that), Kælan Mikla, opens with the song “Kælan Mikla,” in the tradition of Black Sabbath (whose self-titled debut album opens with the song “Black Sabbath”) or Motörhead (whose self-titled debut album includes, but does not begin with, the song “Motorhead”).
But Kælan Mikla are not a metal band. They’re a goth/synthwave trio — Margrét Rósa Dóru-Harrysdóttir on bass, Sólveig Matthildur Kristjánsdóttir on keyboards, and Laufey Soffia on vocals. They came together in 2013, performing Kristjánsdóttir’s poetry at a contest in their native Reykjavik. They won. Soon after, they recorded an album, Mánadans, with just bass, drums, and vocals (no synths), but shelved it. They didn’t make their official debut with Kælan Mikla until two years later, in 2016. That was followed by Nótt efter Nótt in 2018.
Kælan Mikla was a moody, but rhythmically pulsing album, perfect goth-club dancefloor fodder. Soffia’s vocals ran the gamut from witchy hisses and eerie shrieks to sinister poetic recitations, and Kristjánsdóttir’s synths and Dóru-Harrysdóttir’s bass oozed and throbbed, giving the simple but memorable melodies theatricality and depth. The lyrics were all in Icelandic, which gave the music an extra unearthly quality for non-speakers. The language has an incantatory quality; all the choruses sound like spells.
On Nótt efter Nótt, they made the synths even more prominent, heading into industrial territory at times. Soffia’s vocals were more heavily produced, swathed in reverb and other effects, and the drum machine was more persistent and pounding. But the changes were subtle; Kælan Mikla were still themselves, just making slightly bigger sonic gestures.
Mánadans was finally released in 2018, too. With no keyboards, Kristjánsdóttir on drums, and bare-bones production, it felt like an interesting diversion, but little more. The group had already established a very different identity, and frankly, the raw and punky approach of the early songs felt like a dress that no longer fit them.
Their fourth album, Undir Köldum Norðurljósum, is out now. It moves them even farther down the path into darkness. The synth atmospheres are more pronounced than ever; the bass is still the pulse at the music’s heart, but the focus is on layers of vocals and an almost Halloween-ish atmosphere.
“Solstodur,” the album’s second track, features multiple layers of vocals — Soffia delivers the verses in a calm croon, but behind her, wordless chants and the occasional piercing scream create a haunted-house feeling. She’s surrounded by industrial-rave synths creating clouds of tuned static, and the bass and drums are a perfectly synched plod, with the drum machine occasionally stuttering out a trap beat (trap being the version of hip-hop that’s closest in spirit to goth and synthwave).
On “Halastjarnan,” Soffia sings in a higher register than usual, bringing to mind Kate Bush, and the darkness seems to lift for a moment, as it’s a perkier, more upbeat song than much of Kælan Mikla‘s material. The synths zap and pop and sing, and the rhythm is built around bursts of handclaps as much as slamming beats.
“Osynileg” and “Orlogin” are more postpunk in their approach, with Cure-like basslines given extra prominence. They subvert that, too, though, layering vocals on the former like a group of young girls singing together (which, in a way, they are). On “Hvítir Sandar,” they bring guests into their world: it’s a collaboration with Neige and Winterhalter of French post-black metal act Alcest. The live percussion and guitar (buried in the mix though it might be), plus the occasional distorted scream, doesn’t fundamentally alter the group’s sound, it just adds an intriguing element.
Kælan Mikla‘s two previous albums have been roughly 36 minutes long; this one is nearly 10 minutes longer, but the songs still feel just as economical and conceptually focused as before. This group knows exactly what they’re doing, and they’re really good at it. Undir Köldum Norðurljósum is their best work yet, and it feels like they can keep going as long as they want.