The Icelandic word for snow wolf is snjólfur. Snow goddess is snædis. I keep searching. When I find “snow as big as dog’s paws”, I smile and reach for my pen. Hundslappadrífa.
My novel is 90,000 words and my deadline is a week away. On my desk are talismans of the month-long writing residency in far northern Iceland that inspired my manuscript: a deck of tarot cards from a Reykjavik flea market, a tiny elf crafted from felt with handstitched cape, and a small bottle of schnapps the locals fondly call Black Death. Playing quietly in the background is a YouTube loop of Icelandic punk. I’m too involved in my writing to pay it much heed. Occasionally a drumbeat will capture my attention, or a yelped phrase I do my best to translate. I’m just about to shut down my computer when the song begins.
It doesn’t sound punk to me. I lean towards the screen. A repetitive keyboard note is followed by hypnotic bass. Three girls clad in black stand awkwardly with their instruments. They are so young I think they might be teenagers. One wears a spiked dog collar. Another has her eyes closed and a bass guitar the colour of fairy floss. The singer waits, showing a septum ring and a mouth full of crooked teeth. And then she starts to sing.
She lets loose vocals that land somewhere between a shriek and a scream. Her banshee howl is completely at odds with their coldwave goth sound. The effect is magical and mesmerising. I love it so much my hand hovers over my heart, unsure what to do next. So I put their name into the search bar, Kælan Mikla, and hit play again, and again, and again.
There is nothing quite like falling in love with a band and gleefully reaching out a hooked finger towards their back catalogue to slide it towards you. As a punk fan I’m accustomed to meticulous searches that end only with one scratchy 1980s EP and a blurry fanzine. Kælan Mikla are so new they formed recently for a poetry slam in high school. I am delighted that for once, I have a whole future catalogue to be excited by.
They remind me of a review I read of The Blue Fox, a book that won the Nordic Literature Prize: “The Icelandic stereotype of small, dreamy and stabby is in full effect here.” It’s not quite the stereotype I have of the land I love, but it does seem fitting here.
Their own webpage describes them as a cross between Diamanda Galás and The Birthday Party. I tell a friend they are like Bikini Kill mixed with Joy Division. We’re both correct.
When Robert Smith invites Kælan Mikla to play at The Cure’s 40th anniversary gig in London, they assume it’s a prank and ignore the email. It’s only their manager who pursues it and gets them on a plane. I watch the clip, three young Icelandic goth punks in a rotunda in Hyde Park, wide eyes smeared in kohl. When their final song finishes they kneel, one by one, at the front of the stage. Their heads bowed in supplication, the snaggle-toothed singer rings a bell, whether to summon a Norse goddess or announce the end of the set, who can say. I am so charmed I watch it four times in a row.
They sing songs about witches and night flowers, changelings and executions. My favourite is the enigmatic ‘Ætli það sé óhollt að láta sig dreyma,’ I think it is unhealthy to dream. It starts as a gentle fairy tale and turns into the singer kneeling in front of the microphone, writhing back and forth with a wail. It’s the first video I saw, however, that I keep coming back to, with their solemn stares, the pale pink bass and the unexpected caterwauling of the singer. When she steps forward at the end and barks the name of the song, ‘Kalt’, Cold, it becomes a word that encapsulates not just the lure of the land that haunts me, but also their sparse and spellbinding sound.
I write out the lyrics in Icelandic, thrilled that I can recognise certain words. Their music belts out of my writing studio for the duration of my deadline, and, I suspect, far after it. They are the anthem to finishing my manuscript, to sitting in Melbourne while writing about the northern lights snaking over my rooftop, about avalanche sirens making me jump and spill my black death schnapps over my notebook. And they play while I write about snow, as big as dog’s paws.
Stereo Story #505