I’d had little connection with Vök prior to this show. Somehow they’d travelled beneath the radar, like the trolls and elves that inhabit the lava fields of their homeland (honestly). Evidently I need to ‘wake up’ (that’s how the band’s name translates from Icelandic) because they put on one hell of a show.
I know from past experience that Icelanders work hard and play hard but Vök go well beyond that. They put in such a shift that they completed a 20-song set, including three in the encore, in an hour and 20 minutes. That must be some sort of record. And if they ‘play’ to the same degree it must have been dawn when they staggered out of the bar.
This brief UK tour (they are at Oslo in London as I write this) is followed by an immediate dash off to SXSW in Austin, where I’m sure they’ll light up the Texan capital as they did here.
Speaking of lighting, their onstage set-up was as sophisticatedly simple, if you’ll pardon the oxymoron, as I’ve ever seen, consisting of about a dozen thin vertical tubes that flashed on and off throughout the set in a variety of colours, at times exploding into a Roman Candle firework effect. Living proof that you don’t need to spend your entire live show budget on a myriad of spots.
Unfortunately it did leave the stage a little dim at times, or so I thought until I realised that I was looking at it through a plastic screen up, in the mezzanine, that hadn’t been washed since B.C. (before Covid) by the look of it. It’s over three years since I was last in the Deaf and it obviously needs a lick of paint. Come on lads, many bands have played here at the start of monumental careers; it’s an icon, so make it look iconic.
Vök aren’t one of those bands; they are well into their career with three EPs and three full-length albums behind them, including the eponymously titled ‘Vök’ (September 2022) which was the underlying reason behind this tour.
That said they played a set covering their full portfolio. The little research I managed before the show advised me to expect ‘dream pop’ and ‘indie-electronica’. What I saw and heard embraced much more than that, from (unexpectedly) soft-centred almost ballad-like songs to the sultry and sensuous, to out and out bangers; they cover the entire pop/rock spectrum.
Margrét (Magnúsdóttir) is more than a mere front woman; as the only vocalist and a musical contributor on keys and synth pads to boot most of the attention falls on her. And that attention is amplified by an outfit that is somewhere between a prison uniform and pyjamas, and the sort of tinted glasses you’d expect to find on a villain in an Austin Powers movie. An International Woman of Mystery.
But guitarist Einar (Stefánsson) and drummer Bergur (Dagbjartsson) do more than play their part, providing a scintillating overture to the pre-recorded parts of the songs. Dagbjartsson in particular impressed me with his complex yet effortless rhythms.
The set was too long to go into in detail (and I can’t read my own writing anyway) so I’ll focus on the highlights as I experienced and remember them. ‘Headlights’, which has been issued as a single, combined melody, anthem and dance-ability in one package while ‘In the dark’ had possibly the best hook of the night.
‘Lose Control’, which was dedicated by Margrét “to all the lesbians out there” (and there were quite a few in the audience) is really a banger live.
The single Icelandic song of the night, ‘Ég Bíð þín’, (‘I wait for you’), turned out to be one of my personal favourites. I’ve been trying to avoid referencing any other Icelandic artists or bands but the delivery of this highly atmospheric yet bleak, angst-ridden song, especially the vocals, had the mark of early Björk stamped right through it while Dagbjartsson delivered a master class in how to deliver an attention-grabbing rhythm out of a common time beat.
‘Round 2’ finished off the main set with a rollicking finale.
But it was mere seconds before they were back on stage for a three song encore which underlined their diversity, starting with ‘Breaking Bones’, which I can best describe as modern prog, the sort of thing the original King Crimson might have been doing now.
Then ‘Before’, which, aptly, has shades of New Order in both the guitar and percussion, after which they rounded off the evening with a tribute to GusGus with a cover of ‘Higher’.
The longer the show went on the more I realised that I’m at the start of a journey with Vök, a trip down that rabbit hole to use the popular expression, because there is far more to them than could be revealed in this universe, tonight.
My only regret is that Margrét didn’t talk to the audience a little bit more. It isn’t for lack of confidence, she has oodles of that; it’s more that I think that, like most Icelanders, she could be a fascinating raconteur if she put her mind to it.
And that brings me to my final point, which is that the acid test of any band playing abroad is that they should at least invoke an image of their country in their songs and how they perform them. Did Vök do that? You bet they did.
They’re so Icelandic that I can imagine them stopping off at a roadside Troll bar on Highway 41 between Keflavik Airport and Reykjavik on their way home and chatting with the assorted Huldufólk there about how it pissed it down during every single minute of their stay in Manchester.
Support on the night was provided by Audrey’s Dance, a female duo not from Iceland but from Preston, which is at least on the way there. If they’d have continued the Preston By-pass/M6 northwards it would have gotten to Iceland by now.
I don’t know how they acquired the name but I do know that ‘Audrey’s Dance’ was a song in Twin Peaks, so perhaps there’s a connection there?
The singer (sorry I don’t know their names either) immediately endeared me by sinking a pint. None of this fancy wine or spring water in’t north, lad.
They offer mainly slow and quite compelling ballads (‘sad pop’ as they call it) and her alto voice hits the spot consistently. With a tad more stage presence it could have been Weyes Blood up there.
I’m assuming that the material is mainly their own, but the rendition of Bat for Lashes’ ‘Laura’ was sublime. Natasha Khan would have been drooling.
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