Vök / Roch
London, The Lexington
While we’re principally here for the debut London headline show of Icelandic trio Vök, it would be remiss not to make mention of the support. After all, what grabs our attention is a rare thing, not least on the capital’s live circuit: silence.
On stage, a diminutive singer calling herself Roch (and pronouncing it “rock”) is flanked by two minimalist males (one a Chris Lowe-esque synth zombie; the other strapped to a bass, possibly dead). The noise they make as we enter almost hides in all corners of the room, dark and conspiratorial. Suddenly, Roch locks her voice mid-song. A bassline fizzes, then fades into fibrous silence. In a Wild West scenario, the piano player has just shut the fuck up, and someone is about to get blown away. And when Roch’s crystalline voice, after a seeming eternity, returns to slice the silence like a blade, the entire Lexington saloon is effectively just that.
It’s a rare gift indeed to instil a note of respectful deference upon the capital’s customarily garrulous gig-goons (although tonight’s Vök crowd are not your average ape-like ilk), and for that Roch deserves rich applause. More than this, hers is a contemplative sound composed of such soul-bearing honesty as to expel exhibition: repose, not pose. And while most of the artsy crowd are engaged in the latter, the space in between their practiced stances is suffused by treacle-thick tendrils of noise that recoil and collide with magnetic resistance, with cleverly overlapping, undulating chord structures almost waltzing in opposite directions.
The sound is so familiar yet alien – incongruous, like midsummer currents lost in midwinter. Roch herself is slight and statuesque, with a voice straight from a cloud’s catacombs – weightlessly deep; a million miles away yet somehow in your face. Around the room, dark musical shapes are on the move; Roch’s sonorous vocals sweep them ever on. Truncated beats tiptoe conspiratorially around rhythmic incantations like priests in purple cassocks, and the whole room transmogrifies into a gothic version of Alice In Wonderland directed by David Lynch. So weird; so, so close.
“This next song is ‘Closer’,” she announces, invoking more claustrophobia as the walls get smaller and oxygen darts out the fire exit. We draw a final lungful as ‘Closer’ draws things to a close, its seductive pop showcasing Roch’s Mazzy Star-like bone-china voice, which cracks for the last time like a brittle plate at the Mad Hatter’s party. The crowd remains respectfully silent, still and contrived as statues, but now almost amorphous – a collective closer to humanity than their shapes suggested at the beginning.
And even when we later discover art student Roch is potentially one of them, her craft eschews esoteric posturing in favour of incandescent, insouciant honesty. This is Roch: star (in the sculpting).
After which, the organic craft of Vök shows what Nature herself can sculpt with the tools of geographic circumstance. Born out of Iceland’s forbidding landscape, this triumvirate’s glacial sound is one that demonstrates how geometry too can be a compositional element. And while it’s true the sound emanating from their homeland has a tendency to evoke Sigur Rós, Björk et al – just as, on the opposite side of the globe, Australian bands rock in perpetuity on an adolescent highway to AC/DC – the generic strain in the northern hemisphere is one that consistently evolves. The polite term for this contiguity would be ‘homogenous’ (in Oz: ‘homunculus’ ); the similarity, however, is redeemed by one simple fact: they do it so… fucking… well.
In the case of Vök, theirs is an evolution of sound that, while unmistakably of its region, forges an identity that’s paradoxically unidentifiable – alien. The three figures facing us from the stage are convincingly mother-ship material, stationary and rigid as pens shoved up Kraftwerk’s arse, while leader and frontwoman Margret Ran has a voice broadcasting from everywhere and nowhere – a series of points in time that converge at the slightest tilt of her elfin head.
Surrounded by a mixture of beats and melodies that run the gamut from minimalist old-school analogue through industrial gothic to striated Blue Weaver-style disco, the chaos is anchored by Ran’s nursery-horror vocals that seduce and scathe with alternating abandon like a hibernating banshee. And while she remains fixedly positioned centre stage – flanked by synth-bound goalpost men – her distracted, almost desultory vocals writhe like fidget like knotted serpents brimming with poison. During soporific seducer ‘Waterfall’, the venom is like a whispered osmosis drip-drip-dripping into the heart of a cavernous, black-hole melody that implodes and impregnates itself. It’s as if original sin has found a soundtrack.
But despite the reference points – smatterings of Jan Hammer, Portishead, Kraftwerk, The KLF; Prussian hauteur meets Icelandic auteur – we’re still floating somewhere in the middle of nowhere, neither hot nor cold, neither human nor alien. This is music to simply exist to, with no definitions – no country or boundaries.
“Apparently, our Icelandic gear doesn’t agree with your electricity,” one of the goalposts says, trying to hook up his synth and unearthing some cantankerous English voltage. The metaphor is as irresistible as the currents apparently are: theirs is a life force that can’t be translated; regions are so alien to their output that special adapters are required. And while their sound is fiercely and studiously confining, it staunchly refuses to be confined.
As the saxophone comes out on the sultry pop-poltergeist of ‘Before’, the musical shift is like a tapestry, its pattern familiar but alien, like déjà vu in reverse, with Ran’s voice running back and forth, weaving in and out, and sculpting itself around the living melody with ergonomic precision. With the sound of water overlain with soporific effects and throbbing, robotic bass, eventually evolving into metronomic beats and saxo-cacophony, it’s like a scene from Bladerunner the porno (dir. Fiddly Scott) wherein replicants upstage humanity with precision love-making. Passion never sounded so mathematical.
By the time the throbbing trance-like genesis of single ‘Circles’ brings us aptly full circle, it’s difficult to know whether this has been a cerebral or a sensual experience. The feeling is like love as an equation: precise as Cupid’s arrow unleashing chaos in the heart. The music is so replete with angles, its architecture a mixture of Brutalist and Romantic, it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly where and how it comes to meet you. All you know is: it just does. Vök’s music is a force that arrives without invitation, yet is somehow uninvasive; the sound, like the entity that makes it – on the surface of it yet another Icelandic triptych with synths and a frontwoman with airy, Björk-like vocals and dodgy, Björk-like hair stub – is just welcome without rhyme or reason – the expected unexpected. That this collective comes under the moniker of Vök is the only definition on offer.
In fact, with regards the band’s name (pronounced ‘verk’), rumours abound that it’s a phonetic encryption, a composite word fusing various European linguistic pronunciations to make a rude word (basically ‘fuck’ in three languages). Whether it’s true or not is moot – it’s very apt: this is a sound that ventures out beyond all confines and structures to become something that defies geographical provenance. And a surreptitious, multilingual profanity is fine with us – it’s as good a definition as any: a Fuck-you Tower of Babel set to confound national grids and electrical currents all across Europe and the known world, with everything and nothing lost in translation.
By the end, we’re lost for words. The only thing that springs to mind has, like the music that prompted its utterance, seemingly come from nowhere: Vök me!
* An edited version of the Vök review is published in Record Collector in the UK and Flood magazine in the US