Two Trains is hauntingly intimate in its execution, chronicling yearning and lost hope through sparse electronics, Högni's trembling voice, and an all-male choir.
20 Oct 2017
It is exhilarating to watch an artist like Högni try something with as much ambition as Two Trains. Unfortunately, the anticipation of such a project can lead to some disappointment when it doesn't reach the potential that its artist appears to be striving for.
Högni, once a member of GusGus and yet another in the proud tradition of otherwise uncategorizable Icelandic musicians, wrote Two Trains as something of a tribute to the locomotives Minør and Pionér, established in 1913 and shut down in 1917, exactly 100 years ago. They are symbols of lost promise, of a future that never came to pass, the sorts of metaphors that are perfect for, yes, personal relationships. Indeed, despite the grand scope of its inspiration, Two Trains is hauntingly intimate in its execution, chronicling yearning, disagreement, and lost hope through sparse electronics, Högni's trembling voice, and an all-male choir. Högni attempts to fit all of this into a scant 36 minutes.
The result is intriguing, yet somehow incomplete.
The choir is the most jarring of the elements here, as it is a behemoth, a wall of voices that can't help but attract the attention of the listener. Opener "Andaðu" is comprised entirely of a choir and it's a gothic and sorrowful piece that sets a certain expectation for what is to come. When Högni himself begins to sing on the track that follows, titled "Shed Your Skin", the effect is jarring, as he comes off something like a less operatic Antony Hegarty, with a pure, lilting, and slightly affected tenor voice. The two elements are brought together early in "Komdu með", perhaps not surprisingly the highlight of the album. The choir flows in and out of the mix behind Högni, as the two vocal elements dance among skittering, pulsing synth work and clattering percussion. It is at this point that Högni shows his full hand. There's little more in the way of mystery.
That is not to say Two Trains is weak, necessarily, it's just that the setup of those first three tracks sets expectations for something momentous. Some tracks are in Icelandic, others in English. Most tracks feature Högni's vocal work in some way, shape or form, though the choir gets more chances to shine as well. The strongest element, though, is probably Högni's programming, electronic music that offers allusions to dance, ambient, and pop, while never diving headfirst into any one specific genre. If you hear a four-on-the-floor beat, it will quickly decay into something without so obvious a beat. If he sticks with a sound long enough for it to turn into a drone, he'll be adding elements to it soon enough. His unwillingness to let anything breathe for very long might be a weakness, but it's also the trait that keeps all 36 minutes of Two Trains interesting, if not always engaging.
Taken on its own, later track "Break-Up" may well be the strongest track in this regard. It is built on a consistent, slow, squirmy beat that bobs and morphs throughout, while Högni adds strings, synth melodies, and most effectively a percussive piano line toward the end. His lyric of a decaying sort of love never quite resonates, but the music behind it is fascinating, starting as simplicity, evolving into beauty, before concluding with menace. Along with "Komdu með", it is another complete composition on an album of ideas and thoughts.
There is enough potential throughout Two Trains to suggest that Högni has a great album in him; despite its own failure to live up to its potential, Two Trains is fine driving-along-a-snowy-highway-at-midnight music. If he gives more of his (usually very good) ideas time to let themselves turn into fully-formed songs, his next attempt could truly be something special.