Hey there, oh cultured ones. May I ask you a question, in the hope you will answer in all honesty? This is how it goes—do you truly, honest-to-god, enjoy classical music? Awww, do wipe that look of shame off your face. After all, confession is good for the soul. Don’t feel so bad, it takes a rare breed to appreciate the genre anyway. You know, those dead 17th Century types.
The problem of classical music lies in context, I guess. The arias of Haydn, Beethoven, and Bach may be met with reverence, but it is more of a solemn respect accorded to museum artifacts rather than any actual enjoyment. As much as it pains us critics who are supposed to be residing in the realm of high culture, we simply cannot connect with the sweeping vistas and breadth of emotions that the composers-of-old intended us to travel, because we do not have the benefit of a shared history. At most, we may have an inkling of its breadth and depth due the virtuosity of the performers, perhaps exacerbated due to our extensive study of the compositions’ background. Yet, there is no immediacy, no pleasure beyond that of the academic.
This is why we should be thankful for the nation of Iceland, which provides us numerous performers like Björk, Sigur Rós, and Múm who create classical music relevant for our times. This is not chamber music in the traditional sense. Instead, they meld the innermost sensibilities of classical, which are the invasion of our minds by the sheer melodic manipulation of instruments and our modern-day aesthetic of cyber-technology. The genre which I label the Icelandic instrumental is the classical symphony of our modern age, expressed in the musical language of tempered electronica where our existentialist, post-human, and spiritual selves can only understand.
Though Denmark-based Efterklang may not hail from Iceland, the Scandinavian influence is definitely found in its similar philosophy and devices of deliberate instrumentation and computer technology to create atmospherics of desolation. Incidentally, the ten-piece outfit features Sigur Rós’ own Amina string quartet.
It does seem a disservice to write about the music of Efterklang on any categorical level, to divide the various overtures that comprise the tracks into meaningless sentences like “oh, that’s a Rachel’s sequence” exclamation in the beginning, a “Tortoise meandering” in the middle, and then concluding with a “Godspeed You Black Emperor! twist”. The sequences are programmed like most conventional orchestras, with the control of the ebb and flow of the music determining my responses. However, from the classical cultural lenses I wear, I am not here to document the calculation; I am here to embody the results of said calculation
It opens with a track aptly titled “Foetus”. This song epitomizes the arc that runs throughout the album, a journey involving a mind affected by the possibilities of cyber-technology and space travel, discerning the elements of metallic artifice in the music. Suddenly, actual instruments kick in, akin to a Gavin Bryars-like moment, the kind of tune doomed musicians played just before the sinking of the Titanic. Ghostly vocals emerge from a layered sheen, and the song refocuses on its electronic tricks. This is the melding of high technology and high art.
The final song “Chapter 6” (which happens to be the 10th song) is a Baroque composition processed through the digitization filter of computer technology. “G-minor in the Shell”, if you will. The title itself seems to be making a statement—even though the journey ends for now, the destination has not been reached. And no wonder, because if the possibilities of music are represented as space is the final frontier, then we have but scraped the surface. The masterful string section holds prominence here, as with most of the album, begetting a roller-coaster of conflicting emotions. It soars and soars, but then it abruptly ends, cruelly deflating whatever orgasmic intentions Efterklang has for us in the first place. An unfortunate oversight perhaps, and besides, even if it was deliberate, it denies the listener his sense of climax.
The Icelandic instrumental has few entries among the ranks, but the players in the arena have raised the bar to the point of divinity. Being mind-blowingly, ethereally beautiful isn’t enough. Instead, it is merely the starting point. I am pleased to report that barring the less-than-stellar conclusion, Efterklang’s debut effort does surpass these impossibly high standards. It is a worthy addition to the canon.