Elektra/Atlantic, 2016


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Here it is: the most exhilarating album I didn’t review yet this year.

If Led Zeppelin was the proof of concept for European bands combining jacked-up, bruising blues-rock with gentle folky ballads, then Kaleo is version 7.0 or so. These four young Icelanders—JJ Julius Son (lead vocals, guitar, keys), David Antonsson (drums, vocals), Daniel Kristjansson (bass), and Rubin Pollock (guitar, vocals)—take a familiar, heady mix of Delta blues and acoustic folk and add in a healthy dose of Nordic thunder, counter-balanced on the quieter songs by their frontman’s remarkable range. Add in Julius Son’s fondness for vinyl and you end up with a debut album nominally split into a fiery, ferocious side A and a softer, more contemplative side B.

Opener “No Good” is a full-on assault, heavy riffage over a stomping beat as Julius Son exhorts the crowd: “You can tell I got fever / You try to shake it off, try it all you want / It won’t do you no good.” By the time you get to the wailing breakdown and solo section, the momentum is positively tidal. “Way Down You Go” starts off rich with portent, the rhythm section digging a pulsing, deliberate groove that gives the whole song the feeling of a tribal chant, building with subtle textural elements: piano, handclaps, harmony vocals, and laser beam guitar notes. The musical tension grows and is never entirely resolved, leaving the listener unsettled.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“Broken Bones” offers a straight-up back-porch blues with a shuffling gait, but there’s something inevitably exotic about it simply because of who’s singing it; it’s a cultural mashup of the best kind. Batting cleanup, “Glass House” comes galloping into view astride a raucous hook that will have you punching the air before the first verse is done. Add a wordless, rousing chant for a chorus and it’s easy to imagine a packed arena singing along to every syllable. (This track also manages to distill the essence of rock and roll into just five words: “C’mon baby, don’t say maybe.”) Closing out side A, “Hot Blood” lives up to its title, a glammy, growly rocker with tremendous velocity.

Side B opens with the song that broke the band outside their native land. You might think titling a ballad “All The Pretty Girls” feels a little obvious, but 15 seconds into this track when Pollock’s gently strummed acoustic guitar meets Julius Son’s suddenly angelic voice, it’s all over. By the time the rhythm section, harmony vocals and strings eventually arrive, you’re long since under the spell of an absolutely devastating falsetto.

Acoustic blues number “Automobile” sketches a companionable road song before giving way to “Vor Í Vaglaskógi,” the only track here sung in Icelandic. The language barrier proves no barrier at all thanks to the emotion the group brings to their performance, revealing this shimmering mid-tempo number as a evocative, elegiac love song. That amazing falsetto returns for the delicate “Save Yourself,” setting up extended closer “I Can’t Go On Without You,” whose gentle pleadings give way to brief, electric eruptions of frustration, another Zeppelin-esque number that leaves its considerable musical tension largely unresolved.

From the Viking war cry of “Glass House” to the haunting falsetto of “All The Pretty Girls,” Julius Son delivers one of 2016’s most memorable vocal performances. The fact that he, Antonsson and Kristjansson have been playing together since they were 14 is evident in the unconscious, hypnotic grooves they fall into on almost every track, with Pollock providing complementary fireworks on both electric and acoustic guitars.

A very impressive major-label debut, Kaleo’s A/B feels like a blast of Nordic winter air, firing all the senses into overdrive and demanding complete attention. Whatever comes next, count me in.

Rating: A-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2016 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Elektra/Atlantic, and is used for informational purposes only.