The small island of Iceland is absolutely teeming with musical talent of all genres: One could say it’s full of fire and ice (far more than the hot springs and ice formations that you can find while scoping out the best place to see the Northern Lights). One of the groups included in that mix is the blues-folk-rock quartet Kaleo. Ever since the group relocated to Austin, TX and signed with Atlantic Records, it seems like a never-ending stream of success stories, the most recent being the release of their sophomore album A/B (June 2016 via Atlantic Records).
Comprised of Jökull Júlíusson (vocals and guitar), Davíð Antonsson (percussion and vocals), Daníel Ægir Kristjánsson (bass guitar), and Rubin Pollock (guitar and vocals), Kaleo have been around since 2012, with their first major debut being at Iceland Airwaves in November of that year. Kaleo really started to gain more traction after they released their version of “Vor í Vaglaskógi,” (“Spring in Vagla Forest”) a classic Icelandic folk song, on YouTube. This gave the band some traction in their hometown of Reykjavík, which eventually catapulted them to where they are now: living in Austin, having well-attended headline tours around the US, being signed to a major record label, and successfully releasing their second studio album.
What makes Kaleo memorable is the blend of different genres the group could fall in: Rock, blues, and even folk. Their sound isn’t just a “dipping of the toes” into each of these types of music; Kaleo really owns each sound, and it’s showcased in their most recently released record, A/B. Falling in line with its name, A/B is a smattering of re-recorded material from Kaleo’s independently-released 2013 debut and fresher material, including singles from the past year. What results is a Stateside introduction, perhaps a disappointment for fans anxious for new material, but a necessary preamble for the band’s continued success.
Watch: “No Good” – Kaleo
A/B kicks off with the guitar-driven “No Good,” which was featured on HBO’s Vinyl. The track has a hard rock feel to it – more so than Kaleo’s previously-released material – but it sets appropriate expectations for the record. Fittingly, “No Good” is also the song Kaleo use to open their live shows. It’s easy to see why: A few aggressive guitar chords kick it off, followed with Júlíusson belting:
Can’t fight the temptation
Once you hear the vibration
Won’t do you no good
Let’s say that the “vibration” that can’t be fought is the song’s undeniable bass beat: It’s easy to jam out with Kaleo on their opening track.
The second track, “Way Down We Go,” is a more accurate depiction of Kaleo’s take on melody and lyricism. The track lets Júlíusson show off his impressive vocal range, Pollock his guitar skills, and Kristjánsson his bass support, making it clear why the song was featured on series such as the popular Netflix exclusive Orange Is The New Black and #8 on the US Adult Alternative Charts.
Watch: “Way Down We Go” – Kaleo
More familiar songs litter the album, including Kaleo’s single “All the Pretty Girls,” which has received significant airtime on radio stations around the US, as well as re-recordings of “Broken Bones,” “Glass House,” and “Automobile.” All three tracks are more expertly mixed than on the band’s first self-titled studio release, have more musical instruments present, and longer intros before the first verse. It’s almost like a before and after picture — but the before side was never really all that bad to begin with. Overall, the songs are stronger and more accurately reflective of the energy and excitement present in Kaleo’s live shows.
Newcomer “Hot Blood” is reminiscent of “No Good,” with similar guitar licks, a strong presence of the drum throughout the track, and a bit of Júlíusson showing off his vocal range again in the bridge. But, of the two new songs found on the record, “Save Yourself” takes home the gold.
Listen: “Save Yourself” – Kaleo
A more low-key tune full of emotion, Júlíusson is really able to show off what he can do with vocal range, and not be hidden or overshadowed by the shredding guitar (and you’re not too busy dancing or jumping around with the drums). “Save Yourself” is one of those songs that you can slip your headphones in and listen easily. But be careful once you start listening to the lyrics. It’s one of those tunes that’s easy to start to piecing together with a situation you’ve experienced — which is almost scary, because it makes the world seem a little smaller in the fact that this group of guys making music from Iceland can relate to you on a personal level. For example:
Little things that make you smile
Dancing barefoot in the dark
Tell your secrets to the night
You do yours and I do mine
So we won’t have to keep them all inside
On the surface, “Save Yourself” is probably about a girl who’s “pure” in some sense of the word (Oh, for one so pure/Can’t be sold/Don’t let your feelings take control/Hold on to the one thing he’s begging for), and the lyricist did her wrong somehow (Sweeter ones are hard to come across/Well there is more than meets the eye/Heart like yours is rare to find/Someone else’s gain will be my loss), and now she’s off with someone else who’s taking her “purity” for granted. But this idea of not having something (or someone) you love and having to deal with someone else having it (or them) in their life, and not seeming like they appreciate it is applicable in so many different situations – like not getting into a class you might need to graduate, and then hearing other students complain about it, or missing the deadline to get tickets to a show and having to see photos of it afterwards splashed across social media — fill in your situation here.
Of course, “Vor í Vaglaskógi” also makes an appearance, and even though most of the world doesn’t speak Icelandic, it’s really easy to pick up on the lyrics and start singing along — especially after listening to it a thousand times — which is also easy to do with Júlíusson’s voice, made even better since he’s singing in his first language. Other instrumentation (besides guitar) isn’t heavily featured, but where it is, it complements the softness of the song nicely.
Single “I Can’t Go On Without You” finishes off the record. A longer track (clocking in at 6:17), this song rounds off all of the things that set Kaleo apart from other rock/folk bands: Júlíusson’s impeccable whistling and vocal range, a mix of background guitar from Pollock and complicated licks, steady drum beats from Antonsson, and supportive bass from Kristjánsson.
All in all, A/B is a strong second record from Kaleo. A lot has changed for the band since their 2013 debut: In an interview in October 2014, they didn’t say much besides the fact that they wanted to take their time with the second record, and here we are, two years later, with a much better final product in our hands and playing in our ears. Even though it would have been nice for established fans to have more new music, A/B is a great compilation for all to get acquainted with this band. A/B has helped pave the way for Kaleo’s continued success, and it’ll be exciting to see what happens next for the Icelandic quartet.
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cover photo: Kaleo © Alexandra Valenti