When Niki and the Dove first emerged from Stockholm, its chromatic charm already fully realized, efforts to categorize the band strained under its individuality. The duo behind the music, Malin Dahlström and Gustaf Karlöf, had merged sound and color to spark a conversation dense in syntactic variety—they were Europop, electronic, neo-goth, theatrical, pagan. All they were chasing, though, was a rush. “There’s something very intuitive and spontaneous and natural in the way we make music,” Dahlström, the group’s amiable vocalist, says. “That’s maybe why we were a little surprised when people put names on the music. We had no intention of going any one way.”
Two years later, Niki and the Dove have just released Instinct, their first full-length album. It’s a creatively adroit collection of pop fairy tales, at once atmospheric and full, accessible and peerless. Like many of the individual tracks, it begins at a slow rumble and then leaps somewhere otherworldly—a place where tribal rhythms underline the glossy sheen of Scandinavian power ballads. Despite being a collection of new work and highlights recorded over the last two years, the album achieves a continuity that transports listeners to Dahlström and Karlöf’s lyrical source, a world of wild animals and apparitions, of heartache eased by live performance. “I’m a drum, I’m a drum,” Dahlström sings, her voice an instrument of its own, and you begin to believe her.
Despite the band’s relatively brief existence, Dahlström and Karlöf carry themselves with an awareness that seems to ease the strain of their expanding profile. It also informs their creative liberty. “You don’t sit and try to please everyone. If you go down that road, it’s dangerous. Imagine looking at a painting that someone painted to please you—you don’t want to see that,” Karlöf reasons. This mindset allows an apparent free-flow of creativity and inspiration that’s both aural and aesthetic, a starry-eyed underworld in which performances border on live theater. When Dahlström and Karlöf, their faces painted, appear on stage with glow sticks, rows of percussionists, and sets of energy-inducing dancers, they bring their sound to life in a manner that completes their appeal. “You have to be open,” Karlöf says. “There are so many things out there that can provide a lot of positivity. You have to be open to it, and we try to get influence from many things.”
As Instinct solidified, this approach enabled the group to carve out a niche in the distinctively Scandinavian strand of electronic pop. Despite a stated desire for autonomy from the region—“We have no interest in being a part of it, and we have no interest in stepping away,” Dahlström says—comparisons drawn to the likes of the Knife, Robyn, and ABBA are not without reason. At the same time, labels lean toward oversimplification, and the diversity of sounds on Instinct supports Karlöf’s notion that the group is “influenced by anything: colors and the light of day, other people, other kinds of expressions in art: paintings, movies, books, or another style of music.” Were it not for the totality of their output—the sound, the aesthetic, the theater—the variety of Karlöf’s stimuli might seem naïve, a criticism quickly dismantled by Instinct and the performances paired with its arrival.
It began with “DJ, Ease My Mind,” first released in 2010, which appears again on Instinct. The song unfolds with an eerie, Knife-like opening until Karlöf’s synths appear, at which point the primitive backbeat gives way to Dahlström’s anthemic chorus: “Oh, oh, DJ, ease my mind, will you? Play that song again.” In a different vein, “The Fox” would have brought the band to similar heights had it been released in the 1980s, when such slowly burning, winding synths were at their apex. Dahlström and Karlöf are nothing if not technically astute, and they top the sound off with a sort of shrill urgency that consumes the listener. Finally, when Dahlström opens the epic album-closer “Under the Bridges” by telling us, “There’s something I really want to show you,” content and form conjoin perfectly—the tempo propels urgently forward and climaxes in a bridge of howling, clapping, and pounding drums.
What Instinct ultimately leaves with the listener is the realization that the diverse labels thrust upon Niki are at once accurate and also considerably oversimplified. What the songs share is a fullness that borders on exhausting, recorded proof that their wish to create near-perfect pop was granted twelve times over. “I remember when we were in the studio producing the songs, we didn’t stop until we had that rush,” Dahlström says. With a performance schedule that has already grown into a full-time calling, as well as an upcoming tour with Twin Shadow, they’ll join the wave of Scandinavian artists reminding the world that pop music need not be manufactured radio fare. But, with their humility, all they see is their own gradual progress. “The band started two years ago. We did our first performance last year,” Dahlström reminds us. “It takes some time to grow, especially if your group is new. And we’re quite new.”
Photographer’s assistant: Eric Chakeen.