Ólafur Arnalds: ...and they have escaped the weight of darkness

[16 August 2010]

By Ryan Reed

Art featuring a solar eclipse and weepy, hand-drawn birds.  Strings.  Pianos.  Iceland.

Ring any bells?

Yes, the easy comparison for producer/instrumentalist Ólafur Arnalds—native of Mosfellsbær, Iceland, and creator of emotional, elegant post/rock compositions—comes in the form of fellow Iceland natives Sigur Ros.  Arnalds released his debut full-length album, Eulogy for Evolution in 2007, and I suppose Sigur Ros saw the resemblance as well, asking Arnalds to join them for an opening slot on the band’s 2008 tour.

...and they have escaped the weight of darkness is even…well… Sigur Ros-ier, downplaying the occasional electronic and mild prog influences of his earlier work in favor of a grander, more classical approach.  Every track on darkness features the same basic template: atop gentle sonar pings, simple piano lines trickle and a string quartet weaves in subtle lines, drifting like rafts in an ocean, adding gradual harmonic development. 

According to Arnalds, the theme of the album is cyclical light—darkness fading into light and vice versa, the back and forth, the push and pull of humanity and nature.  Inspired by the opening sequence of a Hungarian indie film metaphorically describing a solar eclipse, Arnalds sought to connect this concept to his own and ended up choosing the album title from a key piece of dialogue from the film’s introduction.

Since the album is completely instrumental (though there is some wordless vocal accompaniment on “Gleypa Okkur (Swallow Us)”), the concept is inessential to the listening experience—if you’d told me the album was about the end of the world instead, I would have believed you.  And, in fact, that would have been more believable—these lengthy, draining, drifting compositions drill home the same somber, teary-eyed emotions album-wide.

...and they have escaped the weight of darkness opens with “Þú Ert Sólin (You Are the Sun”), where a gorgeous piano is consoled by a string quartet.  The track seamlessly flows into “Þú Ert Jörðin” (You Are the Earth”), which features one of the album’s most lovely piano melodies—a part of such simple elegance, it could and probably was played with one hand.  Listen to it on headphones and get the full experience—the scraping of the bows against the strings, the mild twinkling of electronics, the quiet reverberations of the piano. 

By the end of “Þú Ert Jörðin”, you’re lulled to sleep in outer space, which makes the effect of the thunderous bass (provided by King Crimson and Peter Gabriel veteran Tony Levin) and drums, which kick in halfway through “Tunglið”, even more jolting and effective.  The rhythm section is used sparingly, appearing during select moments on a few other tracks and always bringing maximum impact.  It’s hard not to wish for more of it—Kjartan Bragason’s textural, tom-heavy drumming is particularly effective on “Gleypa Okkur”.  So much so, in fact, that it pretty much carries the track.

At the album’s midpoint, it becomes evident that what made the music so initially entrancing is now weighing it down.  At first, the stark simplicity of the arrangements brings a feeling of weightlessness, of clarity, of a slow, reflective grace.  By the time tracks like “Loftið Verður Skyndilega Kalt (The Air Suddenly Goes Cold)” and “Kjurrt (Still)” have smothered with their frozen grasps, the piano lines start to sound a bit repetitive and the strings a bit too cheap.  At its worst, darkness is just plain boring.  When you reach “Undan Hulu (From Behind Shadows)”, you’ll beg for some movement or variety in the arrangements.  More of a cycle of light and dark, if you will.

There are moments of splendid, jaw-dropping beauty on ...and they have escaped the weight of darkness.  Too many to not recommend it.  Any of these tracks taken individually could inspire the grand emotions Arnalds is striving for.  Received in a such a tiring bundle, however, the chilly beauty loses a great deal of its luster.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/128614-olafur-arnalds-...and-they-have-escaped-the-weight-of-darkness/