Each and every listen to the debut from Iceland’s Legend draws me back to the first time I heard them, a cold day this past fall in my parent’s home in a rural part of Nova Scotia. The first song I heard – the monolithic “Runaway Train” – seemed a perfect soundtrack to the moment; nestled indoors while outside the glacial wind whipped off the ocean, the warmth and comfort of my surroundings at odds with the onset of cold outside. I still think it’s an apt way to describe the music made by the Icelandic duo. At every turn Fearless shelters the listener from itself, each song situating the audience in warm place against a backdrop of massive, frigid sound.
There’s something intrinsically wintry about Fearless to me, and I think it has a lot to do with how vocalist Krummi Björgvinsson and his partner Halldor Björnsson approach songcraft, layering icy synth tones and digital echo onto songs which feel as though they could have easily started life as simple piano or guitar compositions. While the instrumentation of the album is largely synthetic, it’s never mechanical in any way; tracks like opening instrumental “Amazon War” feel organic and natural by virtue of how hazy their edges are, like being at the center of something large enough to obscure where it actually begins and ends. What’s consistently impressive is that the melody never gets lost amongst the layers of sound, the vocal lines and leads kept proportionate and resolute against production that might otherwise threaten to overwhelm them. And what’s more they do it again and again without the motif ever losing power. Mid-album ballad “Violence” may start small with a simple bit of piano but by the two minute mark it’s soaring alongside the aforementioned “Runaway Train,” held aloft on booming drums and gusts of reverb.
In reading reviews of the record a name that keeps coming up is Depeche Mode, and I think that’s somewhat apt. While the British institution is most often invoked as lazy shorthand for song-oriented synth music, in this case I think the comparison is justified. Legend have the mixture of rock and electronic tropes that have defined the latter DM albums down to a tee, executed with the grandeur that the latter has only intermittently been able to pull-off. Much of the success is due to Björgvinsson’s vocals, his experience as singer for oddball Icelandic band Mínus displayed in his shifts between a soft croon and straight ahead trad-rock phrasing on “City”. When he pushes himself into the upper register on the chorus of the fabulous “Sister” there’s a wonderful confidence and brightness to his performance in contrast with the dark tone of the music and lyrics.
Speaking of darkness, it’s actually a mood that Fearless largely avoids, and I think it’s a stronger LP for that. It does foreboding quite well in a few spots (“Benjamite Bloodline”, the verse on Artoffact bonus track “Virgin”), but it’s generally in service of making the light shine brighter. I suppose that makes sense for a group that named themselves after an extended cinematic riff on the old “no light without darkness” motif; it’s one of those oft-invoked truisms the meaning of which is usually lost in the translation into art. Legend have that duality down pat though amongst a few others, breathing life into shopworn binaries like, warm versus cold, big versus small and natural versus artificial. You can toss new versus old in there as well, I could point to any number of musical antecedents to their sound but all the elements are arranged in a pleasantly unique and characteristic fashion. It’s how expertly and naturally they walk the line between all those extremes that makes them special and makes their first album one of the year’s best. Recommended.