It’s like I was meant to listen to Clangour blindly, freed from the constraints—yes, that is what they are—of expectation and preconception. Seabear, the Icelandic septet whose chief contributor, Sindri Már Sigfússon, recorded this album, remains largely unfamiliar to me (and, I suspect, most American audiences). The included press release hints at the album’s fearless pop explorations but reads like a review auto-translated from English to a foreign language and back again. (A particularly incoherent excerpt: “Whereas on the one hand face and body of his band Seabear gained their outlines more clearly, there remained a deliberately left open game with the sounds on the other hand.”)
The songs, that is to say, speak for themselves. For a moment on “Fafafa”—arguably the record’s finest track—the singer’s stifled mumbles and grating electronic groans suddenly give way. Then, a gorgeous barrage of multi-layered vocals with a pop chord progression, brightly and confidently strum. Then, glimmering organ, piano, echoes of backing vocals and percussion get added. It all sounds so natural—such a grand transition—kind of emblematic of Sigfússon’s songwriting. Despite the cluttered layers of distance between song and production—bloops and bleeps, buzzing lo-fi chaos, other elements of distance and distraction—the melodies and harmonies seem always to shine through.
To hear Clangour is to immerse oneself in a rich collision of genres that all seem to build momentum within a psychedelic context. Folktronica is a pretty silly term—I can barely utter it aloud with a straight face—yet it defines much of the album. “Clangour and Flutes”, a particular example, marches with its driving techno beat a surreal backdrop for the singer’s hushed, Iron & Wine-style songcraft. The track’s sonic landscape, however, is a dense grab-bag of Nigel Godrich trademarks: dreamlike piano arpeggios, rattling electronic percussion, even a jarring flute solo. Elsewhere the artist lets his electro-pop fancy run wild on “Catch the Light”, a pulsing, mid-tempo number and “Advent In Ives Garden”, a hyperactive workout with an intro like a ‘95 Zelda soundtrack. He tackles the folk side of the spectrum on “Poi Rot”, with its acoustic pop and fey vocals hushed enough to pass for a Sufjan outtake.
More wonderful, however, are the flirtations with `60s psychedelia, and “Sunken Ship” is the mini-masterpiece. About two minutes in comes another utterly transformative moment, in which tinny drums and processed synthesizers dissolve into a blissful explosion of flutes, xylophone and guitar. The conclusion is a colorful dancehall piano solo, total Sgt. Peppers homage and perhaps the album’s most organic and alive refrain. Like Dungen’s music, it’s unabashedly retro, yet never self-consciously so.
What’s fantastic—and what ultimately makes the record a triumph—is how deftly Sigfússon treads the line between producer and songwriter; how fluidly the songs (generally quite accessible) and sounds (as otherworldly as anything this side of Merriweather Post Pavilion) mesh together. It’s not perfect (“Melt Down The Knives” tries on a stripped-down garage rock grittiness that never quite fits; “We Belong” is one techno/folk-pop marriage too many, like “Clangour and Flutes” to blander effect), but it proves a dazzling tour-de-force in both stylistic and sonic terms. The result of this restless tinkering resembles more an endless stream of brilliant musical moments and ideas than a cohesive whole, but with an artist as inventive as Sigfússon behind the wheel, it’s difficult to complain.
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