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Over the Wall – # 12

September 29, 2009

One of the most truly strange and challenging outfits the era this week, who paved the way for one of the most important Icelandic bands of all time.

Edition #12 – Punk For Beginners?: Kukl.

Formed in 1983 by members of recently-split up first-wave Icelandic punk groups, Kukl was a group that was quite on its own. Mixing up politics, the occult, and performance art along with a handful of sounds from the post-punk palette, they were a unique group who did things on their own terms, and who did much to take Icelandic pop music out into the world, setting up the foundation, actually, for its biggest exports in the late eighties and early nineties.

Their name translates as sorcery in English, and as a single-word description of what they were doing, it works very well. They sat astride goth, punk, and avant-garde, and were quite in tune with what was going on in the early eighties in terms of tastes for mysticism and freakiness, as well as statements of purpose. They had both defined statements of intent and an admiration for the unspoken and mysterious, which meant that they were into being challenging both artistically and politically. Nobody much knew what to make of this band, either in Iceland or in Europe (it’s debatable whether they had much attention at all in North America during their time together), but they forged a path for themselves nonetheless. Aided by a relationship with influential English group Crass, Kukl performed and had records released throughout Europe between ’83 and ’86, drawing attention for the sheer uniqueness of what they were doing.

The band’s relationship with Crass led to their two studio LPs (there was a live one in between) being released on Crass Records: The Eye, in 1984, and Holidays in Europe (The Naughty Nought) in 1986, both of which have remained in-print and are still available through Bad Taste, the Icelandic label/distributor that members of Kukl helped establish in 1986. The LPs (along with the printed manifestos that accompanied them) were done in English, and were received fairly well in England’s underground, though the band’s name and the names of its members remained unpronounceable to most. The music was impenetrable enough without a language barrier to overcome, as the band fused multiple sounds and styles into one commotion. The players were quite free within the whole, and the band was fluid, never repeating much or sticking to standard structures. Much of the focus rested upon the two vocalists, however, Einar Örn Benediktsson, former frontman of Purrkur Pillnikk, who brought his manic, ranting vocal style, and Björk Guðmundsdóttir, with the voice that would make her an international star within a decade. All put together, the Kukl sound was a mystery, one which existed on the fringe of explored territory in the post-punk realm. Needless to say, they didn’t catch on. They intrigued listeners and the music press, but the nature of what they were doing was such that many just couldn’t follow.

Aware of their situation and looking for something new after a few years, the band decided to split up in 1986, with the three main members, Einar, Björk, and drummer Sigtryggur Baldursson (plus some new guitar players) carrying on under the name The Sugarcubes. That, of course, is a whole different story (about the greatest success an Icelandic band had ever had up to that point), but one that wouldn’t have been if it weren’t for their earlier incarnation as Kukl. Taking the radicalism of Kukl down a few steps, The Sugarcubes nonetheless sought to subvert and were themselves quite a challenging band, despite operating in a decidedly poppier mode.

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