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I believe I've made my obsession with Icelandic music clear in past reviews. Now, we delve into classical music from the country, in a beautifully scenic array of strings. Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson has released his sixth album, Orphée - the first since 2008's Fortlândia. Combining beautiful symphonies with subtle ambience and electronica, Jóhannsson has crafted something special.
Creating classical music in the modern era is perhaps a bit of a contradiction. Still, however, it does make a statement. Modern classical music is full of expression and innovation. There's different things we can do with music today and different techniques. Most importantly, there are different experiences. Contemporary classical is all about giving the music a voice without speaking.
Orphée does exactly that. Instead of speaking, per se, it paints pictures. It creates motion in its movements and vivid details with each resonating chord. The first song 'Flight From The City' introduces the peaceful and imaginative pictures with its spacious piano and backing strings that build slowly with traces of electronica slowly pilling up behind them. 'A Song For Europa' is similar, creating a much starker experience with a greater feeling of isolation than wonder as a droning woman's voice sounds in an out-of-reach place.
The first thing you need to understand about Icelandic music is that it makes something out of nothing. The barren landscapes of Iceland are awe-inspiring, and that's clear in all of its artists. It affects people in different ways, and there's no one way to really define it. There is a core of isolationism in the music, though - when you listen, you feel alone in the music. It's you and your feelings - nothing else.
This album does a lot with that loneliness. It's a journey through the mysteries of Iceland - the volatile but incredible volcanoes in the dramatic organs and pulsing electronics of 'The Burning Mountain'; the grassy, barren plains in the electronic spirals and peaceful piano of 'By The Roes, and By The Hinds Of The Field'; and the grand glaciers in the dark string leads of 'A Deal With Chaos'. The imagery on the album is phenomenal. The dynamics of the deep basses, the high stings of violins, the cry of the pianos all working together in a tragic, captivating dance that invigorates your mind and your emotions.
Jóhann Jóhannsson is a modern genius. The layers and beauty of Orphée is stark and almost incomparable. The only complaint I have is that lots of tracks don't really resonate too deeply or don't have enough strength to them to really leave a lasting mark, but there is imagery in every corner of the record. The beautiful pictures this album paints are some you can never forget. Iceland is a beautiful mystery, as it proves again and again.
Favorite Tracks: By The Roes, and By The Hinds Of The Field; Flight From The City, Good Morning, Midnight; A Pile Of Dust
Least Favorite Track: De Luce Et Umbra
Rating: 80 / 100
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: anything that comes out of Iceland is always magical. Whether it be the barren soundscapes of Sigur Rós or the haunting synths of Björk, there is something special that Icelandic artists find in the isolation of their country.
Sin Fang is the new contender on the block. His sound is something we don't normally see come out of Iceland - a fuller, pop sound. His fourth record Spaceland has him explore the beautiful pop soundscapes that still feel frosty just as the isolated pictures of Iceland paint.
Listening to the first song 'Candyland', it sounds like something you'd expect out of some underground electropop from New York. The dinky vocal synth intro paired with the scratchier synths lead into reverberating vocals that harmonize in a glitchy excellence, before the chorus brings in a splash of cool sound. It's a super chill and an all-around great pop track, but it doesn't quite scream "Iceland!" It progresses into a more hopeful composure, though, having that signature Icelandic power of being full of emotion but still having a certain emptiness at its core. That is what makes this album so great - it channels that perfectly.
This becomes clearer on the next track 'Not Ready For Your Love', which sees Sin Fang's melancholy lyrics beautiful sing above a deep synth with a strong beat. The whirling vocal synths in the bridge support Sin Fang's vocals in an enchanting way, like the souls of Iceland's stark nature are supporting the essence of the song. 'Lost Girls' shared the same melodic prowess, the song building less of the supporting details and more from its smooth vocals.
Most of the album succeeds from simply having raw beauty. The dark and brooding instrumental of 'Never Let Me Go' with Sóley's female voice harmonizing with Sin Fang's atop a dramatic and mystical composition. The choruses build stronger and stronger as a more driven beat continues to progress further, giving the song a stronger presence. There's something very mechanic in his voice, and that serves as a strong disposition to Iceland's essence. That very mechanic, almost empty-but-not-quite approach makes it feel that much closer to the isolation of his country.
The instrumentals do a lot of the talking on the album, as well. The huge waves of synths in 'I Want You To Know' that create the beautiful choruses lead into choir-esque synths in the verses, before whirring back into full force in a matter of seconds - blissful seconds. The best instrumental content has to be 'Snowblind', which has elements of dubstep beats interlocked within the beats, the huge bass hits sounding like black holes absorbing you into the somber messages, the lyrics appropriately chanting "the darkness became stars." The album concludes on an admittedly underwhelming note with 'Down', but it takes the album on a peaceful and somber note - respectfully quiet and not flashy, as if to give the album an respectable ending, not overrun by flashy production.
Sin Fang shows the essence of Iceland in a more approachable light, without sacrificing any of its beauty. There's something about Iceland that has a profound affect on the art that comes out of it - it's completely unique and beautiful, and it's incredible. Spaceland is as barren as Iceland is, but brings to life the exciting moments of its isolation in vivid scenery. Iceland, you're amazing. You are too, Sin Fang.
Favorite Tracks: Never Let Me Go, Snowblind, Lost Girls, I Want You To Know
Least Favorite Track: Down
Rating: 92 / 100
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Iceland is a place of many wonders. If you haven't learned of its magic from post-rock legends Sigur Rós, perhaps Pascal Pinon can provide a more accessible gateway into that. The Icelandic indie folk duo's third record Sundur is just that, caked with a pop sweetness shrouded with wonder.
The sounds of Iceland are unique. Pascal Pinon borrows harmonies from the likes of Björk to build haunting melodies that are hard to ignore; sweet harmonies make the opening track 'Jósa & Lotta' as they dance above sweet piano and ambience. Piano plays an important roll on the record - its atmosphere is a big part of what makes the songs sound mysterious. Key in to the piano on 'Spider Light', an instrumental focussing on the relationship of a metallic beat and somber piano. The sound of the piano itself throughout the record is longing and reminiscent, allowing for it to sound barren and cold, yet surrounded in mystery - the essence of Iceland.
Piano isn't the only thing that builds the character of Sundur, though. 'Skammdegi', a song sung in Icelandic, uses a clean guitar to add atmosphere instead, and a Sufjan Stevens synth to help it. Acoustic guitar does the same in '53', the piano taking a minor role in this one as acoustic guitar and vocals on top of distant electronics take you into a dreamy oblivion.
Through all the sadness this album may have, there are moments of happiness. 'Orange' may have that familiar sadness, but its recognizable, almost tangible. Its a sadness that's known to us all, but what it means will change. That's bittersweet, at least. 'Forest' has a poppier vibe than much of the rest of the album, dinky beats on top of a tangy synth lends itself to sound generally happy. The rest of the song doesn't sound like its jumping for joy, but it has a lot more hope than much of the rest of the record.
There are moments on the record that provide some freshness, too, albeit, most are minor. The dark sounds of 'Twax' seems like a sunset on a normal day in a small town of Iceland. The ambience of synths and xylophone that pair with a bunch of different sounds make this song sound uneasy - windchimes, bells, and more can be heard in this song, which transitions into a song with the same setting and windchimes, 'Babies', which ends up with sounds that seem to spiral out. 'Fuglar' is an odd track, and one of the album's most experimental. It's organ and brass intro starts nice but as electronics try to mesh with the harmonies, it's a bit off putting. It loops sweetly but lacks cohesion that brought together a lot of the record.
Sundur is the sound of Iceland is a poppier light. Sigur Rós' barren soundscapes show the isolation of Iceland's creations, while Pascal Pinon show its welcoming emptiness. It's all a familiar adventure. Sundur isn't perfect, but it's understanding, and that's all you could want from Iceland.
Favorite Tracks: Spider Light, Skammdegi, Orange, 53
Least Favorite Track: Fuglar
Rating: 75 / 100