Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Ólafur Arnalds - For Now I Am Winter


Not many can say they've gone from one extremity of music to the other without their career going the way of the dodo. When Icelandic song-writer and composer Ólafur Arnalds started out as a drummer for a heavy metal outfit in his younger years, I imagine even he couldn't see himself one day a neoclassical composer - music lesser in volume but far more fulfilling and moving enough to land him spots on a fair few Hollywood A-list blockbusters. But to say his featuring in film is the highlight of his career, in this particular case, it would undermine the feats at which the Icelandic individual has truly built for himself. While Eulogy For Evolution, his debut in 2007, was a moving piece of soft, slow-burning piano laced with layered classical instrumentation and the occasional head-peering sight of synths, it wasn't until 2010's ...and they have escaped the weight of darkness did Arnalds mark himself one of the fundamental artists of the new-generation surge in neoclassical musicians. Following in the same light as the likes of Max Richter and Nils Frahm - the latter joining forces with the Icelandic musician for 2012 Record Store Day's Stare EP - Arnalds has never let his eye lose track of the more dabbled and experimental side of his music. His fond attraction to electronic music, as in previous albums, has managed, at the very least, to poke its buzzing nose into the shy, secluded frostiness of his compositions. Fans have waited long-and-hard for Arnalds' next offering in studio LPs, and 2013's For Now I Am Winter is, without question, his most experimental work to date. And as we discover straight from the off, that love for electronic beats and atmospheres that grip, as much as they do invite, never wavers.

Sudden Throw, the first of this twelve-strong number, conjures a more ambient and distant foray of sounds than the man's previous listens - slight tints of brass and a small dabble of piano slowly coming more into play as it opens with its lightly treading pattern of keys. Slow, low-pitch violins are added in the backdrop and thus, the more higher, greatly richer and intense strings lace completely over the song in a gorgeous arcing sweep that's both moving and completely overwhelming. And as if commanding the track - or rather, washing it in its same bleaching fluidity of melancholy - the remaining layers too intensify and grow increasingly more louder and frontal against the listener. By the time the listener's ears are directly in effect with the high rise of violins taking over, the track comes to an abrupt on and leads, rather fittingly, into the thrusting and tense sprint that is Brim. Violins are a lot more neutral in their tone, but the tempo and manner in which they're performed suggests the emotion and tension from the previous track is anything but removed. And to confirm that, there's a shredding-like texture and ice-cracking muster of synthesizers that take over the rhythm - the Jungle-like clamber of beats casting the music straight into this darker, escapist retreat alongside the surreality of piano that, more bizarrely, comes off sounding cheerfully optimistic. As if we're already running or fleeing from something we have no idea of (both in identity and reason), the track never lets slip of this fast-paced high-risk intensity to the track. It seems rather content and fitting that the track then breaks away from this momentum in favor of perhaps of approaching the music more methodically (or more than likely, familiarly in regards to past albums) by treating with stripped-back wanes of violins and humble piano that end the track on more a hopeful and lasting sense than previous.

But moving onto the title track and getting an immediate billowing effect from the inflating swell of what sounds like brass, but could be synthesizers in equal measure, presents the more obvious question to the listener in regards to how far Arnalds is going with his experimental ventures. There is a return to the man's recognizable string of piano keys - and that I suppose adds some assurance and security - but when Arnor Dan's vocals come in, you do begin to question where it is Arnalds is going with this piece. Considering the vocals don't really add much other than a lyrical reflection of the mood the music does well enough in expressing, you'd hope the shuffling flicker of synths and bloom of instruments are meaning to do as much emotional contribution/effect/damage to our senses as the previous tracks did so in tremendous fashion. Sadly, the track feels stuck musically in neutral and apart from intriguing lacing of tone, there's no breaking away from the track's lack of forward momentum, and this a need to escape from its starting block position. Fortunately, A Stutter does place vocal offering in an appropriate position. Arnalds' familiarly anxious and cold minimalism of piano and waning violins offer Dan the space and time to offer what is a somber and fittingly stretching exertion of lyrics. Even when the music gains intensity and the violins begin to break away from their withdrawn silence into a sweeping outpour of emotion, the murmuring texture to Dan's voice gives the track an ethereal and solitary feel amid its frosty, isolated palette.

One of the issues that comes up, however, on this album - while not overly problematic - is Arnalds' nature of experimentation and the way he goes about navigating and positioning this album in regards to what it is that gives the record its identity. By this point, we have already seen both the old and new side to his artistry and musicianship, but there is an unavoidable suspicion that these tracks don't exactly encompass each other in regards to a proper start-to-finish progression. Some links between tracks are present - and are fulfillingly strong in that regard - however others feel out-of-place or, at the very least, questionable in how they positioned. It's Arnalds' material and foundry of instrumentation that is not at fault though. With a track like Reclaim, it demonstrates Arnalds is a man that is keen to show his stern approach for emotive illustration in music, comes through in his music. Violins again conjure a very bold and intense atmosphere as to what is taking place, perhaps, in the concept of this track - this moist, sloppy-like texture of beats adding, surprisingly, a more earthly and encapsulating feel to Arnalds' escalating reach of classical arrangements. And yet, despite the clash between high and low, Arnalds manages to match the emotion of both the organic and the synthetic into a piece that is all about the rich intensity and the feeling of presence that the music often conjures within its listener. Hands, Be Still feels from the off slightly less surrounding of its person, the bobbing echo of keys sounding as if they're being played from the other end of a telephone line, perhaps. It does then, as a result, give the accompanying violins and later inclusion of more present, ground-trodden synthesizer beats something of a dazzled perspective. I can't help but question then what - or perhaps where - it is Arnalds is attempting to set this piece in.

It's the geography and visual accompaniment of the music that confuses me, and while I am fond of Arnalds' use of classical instrumentation and electronics to maybe enrich what is already a melancholic mood into something more (darkly) thriving with life, I don't feel like I can (as Arnalds comes across as stating) put myself in the position of where it is the music meets if it were on a axis or means of position. Old Skin fortunately, is one of the moments on this album where my position feels both located and content in staying. Arnalds' youthful flurry of piano and high-end keys is a welcome withdrawal from the low-end Earth-trodden steps the album has made thus far. But the track is more than just a contrast against. Arnor Dan's vocals are given possibly the most clarity they've had thus far on the record, and while the musical leads do become patterned and thus repetitive, Dan's lead offers an enticing swing into the song's later use of shuffled drum synths that, surprisingly, match the sprawl and clatter of instrumental keys. Ultimately, with all layers in play, the track charismatically acts like a joyous flurry. And the break from all the melancholy that came before, acts as a sort of liberation and just bringing of an energy we haven't experienced yet.

As noted in my track review of This Place Was A Shelter, said track features all the familiar slow treading utterances of piano and violin strings, but the electronics feel a lot more delicately worked on and rather fuse, as opposed to clash, with the spread of instrumentation. Like the synths, the instruments vary in intensity ranging from slow, distant crawls to frontal and heavy bursts - the drum synths working in great detail around the motions with which the instruments themselves carry. As a stand-alone track however, it is a fine balance between conflicting sounds, but leading on the album continues to act like this imbalanced swaying to and fro the emphasis on electronics. Carry Me Anew ends the album - though emphatically ambient and delicate in its treatment of string arrangements and the thinning  textures they apply - the slow fade-off though equally delicate and soothing in its method of appeasing its surroundings, does leave many unanswered questions looming over, once more, where it is Arnalds is contextually placing his music. Not only does it end the record with an elapsing border that holds no real clear-cut differentiation for identity, the way the album has flowed almost with lesser direction and relying more-so on its experimentation, suggests less a focus on the progression of his sound because of this.

Ideally, looking back on the scope of For Now I Am Winter, the crucial element this album is indeed direction. Direction in the sense that Arnalds' compositions feel almost belonging in two seperate, diverging categories. For whatever reason, the track-listing and flow of the album has ended up feeling as if it's zig-zagging back and forth between the man's intently somber instrumentals and his [perhaps] more extreme, but still overly emotional, testing use of synthesizers alongside. It's Arnalds' stern, and obviously greater attention to electronics that unfortunately splits the album in two. And it's the divide that is, unfortunately, not as well-treated in the management side of things, that ultimately drags the album down somewhat. But the synthesizer discoveries are far from amateurish, or misleading, or even tarnish what is a richly spectral record. Rather, the great benefit of this album - and one many listeners will/should take away with them - is that Arnalds' grit and determination allows him to conjure up the most melancholic and darkest of sounds (and here, the instrumentation is a lot more leaning towards that end of the emotive spectrum) hit directly at the listener's inner self. But beyond that, even when emotion isn't key, Ólafur Arnalds' use of dabbling piano and violins - in such a brisk, secluded space as the ones he so often presents - reminds us that it's not so much what substantiates from the empty space that is the great effect. Rather, it's the space itself, and the challenging negativity with which we often succumb to get lost among, both physically and mentally. And at a time when spring is slowly approaching, and winter is giving one final, frosty outburst to be remembered by, this album is (as much as we'd prefer sun and clear skies) a welcome reminder that the last in proceedings is certainly, in any shape or form, never the least.
~Jordan

7.7

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