(NETTWERK MUSIC GROUP; 2019)
There was a time about 15 or 16 years ago when everything coming out of Iceland or Scandinavia would excite the hell out of me. Bands were being written about like crazy by lovestruck American scribes including yours truly, and in those post-Bjork days groups like Sigur Ros, GusGus, the divine Mum, Ampop, Trabant, Mugison and many others had me at “Halló, þetta er okkur!” I craved hearing DIFFERENT sounds, DIFFERENT voices, anything that wasn’t predictable American formulaic stuff. And I falsely concluded that anything coming outta the Arctic Circle or thereabouts was gonna be thrill-tronica.
Not quite, it turned out. Just ‘cause you have weirdness in your country with midnight suns or a month or two of darkness or the like, doesn’t mean you’re driven to make potently original music. Bland pop can come from anywhere. However, it wouldn’t be fair to call Iceland’s Vok bland. Take the fact they’re from Iceland, with the exceedingly high expectations I’m guilty of, out of the picture and you have an accomplished band with a good strong singer (Margrét Rán), a vibrant enough arsenal of peppy keyboard sounds and tons of production finesse, and you got yourself a more than listenable pop/rock platter. IN THE DARK won’t annoy you or your friends, not at all. But neither is it likely to make you scramble to the web to look up everything you can find about the band. They’re from Rekjavik. They started in 2013. Besides the serious-of-intent Ms Ran, the group sports saxophonist Andri Mar and the multi-instrumentalist Einar Hrafn. This is their second major release, and it’s a decent listen. I looked for details that stood out, and on the title track, onesuch is the tart way Ran sings the refrain “I better toughen up!” That last word comes out at a higher pitch than the previous words, and it gets you. So does this interesting, clearly sung verse: “A creature in the making/Is taking a shape/It’s a form that I’ve seen before/It feels so familiar/But still so rare/Wanna see it but it shakes me to the core.” That’s pretty evocative, and when you consider she’s likely singing about love, you know you got someone with some real artistry here. Guitars are muted, there’s a slow build going on that is refreshing… but it does feel like the sound itself is rather familiar. That impression is reinforced with tracks like “Night and Day” (marked by clean, cool ‘80s-retro keys) and the mid-tempo “Scarcity,” which sounds like, well, “Night and Day.” The first clutch of songs really have a sameness about them which, if you like female fronted synth-pop, you’ll probably enjoy. By the time you get to “Spend the Love,” a bit of ennui may be setting in, although I was grateful the chorus was “spend the love” instead of “spend the night.” Anything for a difference.
Fortunately, there are three stellar tracks on tap. “Round Two” begins with a bit of ominous keyboard, almost alien, then a lovelorn sonic dreamscape unfolds, with Ran’s voice mixed to maximize an edge of heart-piercing vulnerability. “Would you step away with me/And give me everything I wanted,” she sings, with just a hint of Bjorkian eccentricity. Her lyrics here actually remind me of Taylor Swift, but the murky “otherness” of the production kills that impression pretty quickly. The underlying shadows in this song make it a winner; so does Ran’s vocal. “No Direction” is the other mixtape-worthy number, starting with wordless singing and a handclap-emulating rhythmic element before one of the standout verses emerges: “The highway’s leading me the wrong direction/The silhouettes are dragging me down the road/The question is, where am I going?/Better find out than not knowing.” At least that’s what I think I heard, and it sounds an awful lot like my own life. So yeah, this is a nice, showy number. Some film director may get ahold of this one for a deeper than you expect romantic melodrama down the road. “I can wait another day for love” is the chorus line that’ll lodge in your memory, possibly. The surprise but short instrumental “Rooftop Views” is a bit of welcome respite, then we get another standout: “Fantasia.” This is probably the best song on the album, actually. It’s cool, classy melancholy all the way, with Ran’s voice in your face and bigger than life, yet intimate in that chilly Icelandic manner. There’s a minor-key beauty here, coupled with a true sense of purpose at painting a mood of romantic anguish. And this verse is killer: “It coulda been love from the start/We could have been home/Words are a game to you/The only thing you can control/I felt so lonely falling/We had put on a bad show/Too proud to let you know/Too proud to let it go.” Although one more step into production busy-ness could have deflated this one, they kinda get it just right… it’s angsty and musically captivating in about the right blend. If someone is gonna shed tears during Vok’s new release, it’ll be to this song.
So it’s like this: IN THE DARK is a perfectly competent, listenable album with a way better than average chanteuse in charge of things. But in a country known for original sounds, it doesn’t break much ground. Ran was asked by an interviewer where their name “Vok” came from. Her response was, “It’s one of those words used to describe something, and it has no equivalent in English.” Most of the sounds on this record have PLENTY of equivalents in the English-speaking world. That doesn’t make it bad, not at all. Just not truly intoxicating except for a song or two.