[9 October 2008]
Ólafur Arnalds—Óli—is Icelandic, a man in his twenties from Mosfellsbær, north of Reykjavík. Sigur Rós has its swimming pool studio there. And there are some easy comparisons that can be drawn between Sigur Rós’s body of work and these two albums from Arnalds: both of them have music that moves in waves, both feature passages of delicate sound, and near the end of Eulogy for Evolution there’s a smash of rock drums and guitar as there is on ( ).
So, yes, comparisons can be drawn, but they shouldn’t be overdrawn. They’re no more than loose sketches, if anything. Aside from that moment in Eulogy, Arnalds works with a piano, a string quartet, and a few electronic blips and hums, not rock instruments. There’s a strong backbone of classical organisation inside his compositions, very different from Sigur Rós’ indie-postrock keening and pounding.
He doesn’t shimmer, as Rós does. He’s earthy, he mourns. Both Eulogy for Evolution and Variations of Static are soaked through with loss, the feeling that something has arrived and departed, or that it is in the process of arriving but will eventually depart. Eulogy has a motif that rises and drops, rises and drops, through the entire forty minutes of the CD, and the idea of evolution, of things coming to life and dying and being succeeded, is caught in that one phrase. Each note from the piano softens like silt around the edges. The strings surge like sprouting seeds pulling through the air towards the sunlight, but the piano is there with them, reminding us of moss and decay. Nothing is entirely happy or uncomplicated.
Eulogy is lyricless. Everything flows from the instruments. Variations of Static, on the other hand, incorporates a computer voice that sounds like a boyish version of Stephen Hawking’s vocal synthesiser. The voice has a poignancy that comes from its unnaturalness, near-human-but-not, the way it assembles each sentence out of affectless words as someone might jam Lego blocks together. This unalive thing is talking about death.
“We were play-ing in the park and you asked me what hap-pens when you die. I said: You forget ever-y-thing. Ever-y-thing. Easily? Yes. Yes. Easily. You did not want to die…”
This is one of the most moving parts of the album, this relentless, plaintive voice that doesn’t belong to anything that can be comforted or conversed with. Static is a less optimistic work than Eulogy, constantly drifting into slow passages of grief then recovering itself, melting towards stasis. It doesn’t have the birth-to-death narrative drive that Eulogy enjoys, or anything to compete with the other disc’s rock band crash. On the subject of that crash: you can see how an unheralded explosion of outside noise fits into a theme of death and evolution—evolution interrupted by a mutation, a species dying out, maybe, or the destruction of the planet or of an ecosystem—and still wish that it wasn’t there, feeling that theory has overridden craft. The crash is more irritating than dynamic, forcing the whole piece to stand still while the drums beat themselves up with the self-absorption of a tantrumming toddler. The work, which has been sprouting outwards through the violins, pinches down to a spot. There’s a point there, but Eulogy might have been more coherent if he’d found a different way to make it.
The pathos that runs through both albums is powerful, flexible, something more complex than simple melancholy, but melancholy too. If I were trying to pick one to buy, I’d choose Eulogy above Static for the way the strings writhe together in track two. If I bought both I wouldn’t feel cheated—they’re not the same thing twice.