The characteristics of the natural environment can shape everything from our behavior to the relationships we make. Of course, some feel more of a connection with their surroundings than others but for Icelandic producer and DJ, Bjarki, the environment he was brought up in defines him and is central to the music he creates on his phenomenal debut album Happy Earthday.
Iceland and his relationship with it lies at the heart of the album with the music often mirroring its dazzling, rich natural variations. Iceland is a place where vastly different natural forces coalesce. Where spectacular geothermal and volcanic activity collide and where its unique climate and location combine to form world renowned glacier formations. Where the sun doesn’t rise in the depths of winter and never sets in the summer. Considered in this context, Happy Earthday is the point where all of these extremes interact as Bjarki uses a rich sonic palette to ruminate on just how this place has shaped him.
“Blessuð Börnin” (which roughly translates as “blessed child”) opens with a distant rumble, bright, pinging sounds and somber, funereal synths that lead into exhilarating breakbeats. Throughout, Bjarki intersperses pulsed whale calls and muffled Icelandic vocal samples to create a wondrous collage of organic and man-made sounds. “Alone in Sandkassi” expertly evokes the feeling of being out of the city and embracing nature with the peel of faraway bells joined by the buzz of insectile synths as reverb soaked pads and muted piano keys keep the rhythm moving.
“(.)_(.)” raises the BPM as he skilfully manipulates bird song samples with powerful, yawning sounds and flashes of bright noise that interact with a blizzard of hyper breakbeats. Bjarki creates such a profound sense of time and place that the listener is quickly transported outside as if both listener and creator are staring at awe at the same dazzling stars. The all too brief “Two-Brainedness” rides a familiar scraping, techno beat that he bravely chooses to curtail rather than see it build into a atypical club banger. “AN6912” opens with a resonating beat before metallic percussion and chilly, swirling organ-like synths waft over the track, irradiating the darkness. With noises and samples detonating around it, it’s this synth line that maintains its direction, like moonlight illuminating a clear path over rocky terrain.
“Healthy Texting” sounds like an intercepted communique from beyond the stars backed by clattering beats and wide-screen synths while “Bheiv_sheep” is another intricately layered masterpiece that tips its hat to Selected Ambient Works 85-92 era Aphex Twin. With glitchy alarm like stabs of noises cutting through the track like steady, urgent warnings, ticking percussion and brisk swirls of synths it could almost be an Aphex Twin B-side (which is no disrespect as, more often than not, Aphex Twin b-sides verge on genius).
“ANa5” surprises with Dj Shadow-esque live drums that maintain a steady groove. With stuttering loops and gently dilating synths Bjarki demonstrates a remarkable deft touch as he manipulates frequencies without losing focus on the draw of the rhythm. “Cereal Rudestorm” is probably the closest on here to a club-ready techno track with a charging beat and glitchy vocal hooks all with nebulous synths that sound like they are being slowly submerged under water.
“Salty Grautinn” sets blizzards of percussion against sobering synths while the mid-tempo dirge of “Spring 3-2” finds him exploring more natural samples that sound like actual field recordings from a crisp, Spring day. “Plastic Memories” could soundtrack the tension of a cold war thriller with a hook that lurks in the shadows and jittery, shady synths.
“Lita og Leira” finds Bjarki neatly scaffolding percussion as the track builds, while on “Happy Screams” he makes samples of people going through primal scream therapy sound both captivating and shocking. With cascading notes, widescreen ambient synths and trickling, dripping sounds, closer “UXI” echoes the transition of a solid melting away to become a liquid. It is an almost transcendental way to finish with the nagging suggestion that the end of the album is also the end of something wider and more intimate.
Happy Earthday is clearly a very personal album. Full of the puzzling dualities and dichotomies of being, heightened by a spiritual reverence for nature with melancholic mournful passages stimulated by energizing breakbeats and hooks cultivated from the sounds of nature. It’s an album that can be understood as a reflection of the artist who made it, as a representation of the power and majesty of nature, or simply as a brilliant, intricate electronic album. The fact that it can be understand and enjoyed as any combination of the three demonstrates what a remarkable piece of work it really is.