Human Existence, in One Album: Ólafur Arnalds' 'Eulogy for Evolution' Ten Years Later

Ólafur Arnalds' stunning debut Eulogy for Evolution, still his masterpiece, remains a gorgeous and disquieting vision of human life.

Ólafur Arnalds

Eulogy for Evolution 2017

Label: Erased Tapes
US Release Date: 2017-08-25
UK Release Date: 2017-08-25

The bewildering sleeve art to Eulogy for Evolution, the 2007 debut LP of the Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds, poses numerous mysteries. An image of a field, with a mountain in the background, lays haphazardly affixed to what looks like a hastily assembled collage of denim, painter's tape, and coffee-stained paper. Upon closer examination the form of a book reveals itself, evident by the slight ridge of a spine on the left-hand side of the sleeve art. Below the photo, in old-school typewriter font, "olafur arnalds" and "eulogy for evolution" name the contents of the enclosed album. Even before one hears a single note of Arnalds' music, she is presented with a fragment of a lost world. The photo of the field appears dated, dulled by time. The materials surrounding the photograph suggest that whoever was decorating this book cover did so under duress, with little regard for aesthetics. For some reason, the contextless image of the field, with its unremarkable carpet of straw and remote telephone pole in the background, needed to be preserved.

For a tenth anniversary release of Eulogy for Evolution, Arnalds decided to change its sleeve art. In lieu of the original cryptic collage, Arnalds swapped in a simpler, yet no less odd nature shot taken by Stuart Bailes at Arnalds' home in Iceland, around the time of Eulogy for Evolution's 2007 release. Like its predecessor, Eulogy for Evolution 2017's sleeve art depicts a nature scene, but this time a dilapidated building intrudes on the placid landscape, jutting out from the left of the frame. The clear blue sky of the 2007 photograph has now been cloaked in fog, which bisects the mountain in the background. A lone telephone pole, its wires stringing into nowhere, stands in the diminished shadow of the mountain. In many ways, this landscape looks quite like the one that graces the cover of the 2007 Eulogy for Evolution, though the picture quality this time around is clean even as the steely blue of the fog casts a pall over the land. This change in image is noticeable, but really things haven't changed much at all. Before the listener can put headphones on, Arnalds shows her a capture of nature removed from itself, a single slice of life unpopulated by humankind. The main difference now is that thanks to the building peeking in to interrupt the quiet mountainside behind it, we can see the remnants.

However remote these two images are, upon setting the needle on the grooves of Eulogy for Evolution one is transported far away from such fragmentary terrain. Described by Arnalds' label Erased Tapes as "a journey from birth to death, transporting the listener through life itself." At the time of Eulogy for Evolution's 2007 release, critics largely concurred with Erased Tapes. François Couture, reviewing the album for AllMusic, affirms that Arnalds "pulls [the concept] off rather convincingly". Writing for this very publication, Deanne Sole traces the theme of the life course down to Arnalds' basic compositional choices: "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." Exaggeration is an inflexible currency in the world of artist promotion, but most saw the truth in Erased Tapes' description. The consensus regarding Eulogy for Evolution can be best described in a term popularized by Arnalds' fellow Icelanders, Sigur Rós: "Ágætis byrjun", a "good beginning." Yet even those who didn't get too drawn in by the album recognized its ambitious aims: to capture the life cycle without a single lyric.

The plethora of adjectives that swirled around Eulogy for Evolution during its first public reception is owed in part to the genres in which it participates. First and foremost, Arnalds' debut is a classical chamber piece, with strings and piano occupying the forefront of the composition. In the context of Arnald's native Iceland, a land teeming with as many artists producing ethereally beautiful music as it has pristine vistas, Eulogy for Evolution fits in the post-rock milieu. "For fans of Sigur Rós and Jóhann Jóhannsson" accurately represents Eulogy for Evolution, but the album's aesthetic and national family resemblances cannot fully capture what it achieves. Sure, the transcendent "Track 3" from Sigur Rós' () reaches a glistening crescendo peak that exudes an affirmation of life that Eulogy for Evolution shares. But where post-rock apes the compositional tropes of classical music, Eulogy for Evolution endorses it. When electric guitars and a modern rock drum kit appear toward the end of Eulogy for Evolution, they are in service of the through-composed piece. Arnald's Icelandic contemporaries in the post-rock scene aspire to orchestral grandeur with non-orchestral instruments, but he uniquely melds rock and classical instrumentation.

This meld of musical styles contributes to another unique achievement of Arnalds'. A well-curated post-rock playlist can with one afternoon walk become a soundtrack to a life transformed. The lift of a placid guitar melody ascending to a crescendo, the sweep of a ten-plus minute track that spans a range of timbres and tonalities: these powerful tools define the wave of post-rock that followed the early music of Sigur Rós and the other titans of the genre like Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky. Like any established musical genre, a knock-off problem mires post-rock, one that even its practitioners have openly critiqued – "It's like, I get it, you have a delay pedal, and you know how to play a minor scale on the guitar," Russian Circles bassist Brian Cook once quipped. In the right hands -- such as those of Arnalds, or of the members of Sigur Rós -- post-rock techniques can result in universal music that can latch on to any life experience and imbue it with significance.

One could take snippets from Eulogy for Evolution and use them as backing music for a sunset walk or a hike in the mountains and achieve the "score to an unseen film" effect realized by the best post-rock. But in his debut, Arnalds achieves something rare: a concept album that needs no words to articulate its concept. The feeling of a life coming into existence and then ascending to its demise is communicated with the long drag of a bow across a string, a piano note left to echo for a measure, with a drumbeat lifting a song to its peak. "Life"," death", and "evolution" are as nebulous conceptually as the good post-rock is emotionally, yet with Arnalds' talent Eulogy for Evolution finds specificity in some of the most universal topics of existence. Every note tells a story.

* * *

Eulogy for Evolution is the only title used for the music on Arnald's debut. The album consists of eight songs, but each one is marked only by its progression on the timeline of the piece. Track names like "0040" and "3704/3837" may suggest little initially, but in the context of Eulogy for Evolution's lifespan theme, those numbers read less like timestamps and more like markings along a timeline that lasts millennia. When the second of those aforementioned two tracks reaches its chaotic end, you'll certainly feel as if it's been much more than the 40 minutes that comprise Eulogy for Evolution.

Like rays of sunlight ascending over a mountain range in the early morning, a string section opens "0040". The strings don't get long to introduce a melody or a motif; after 38 seconds -- right at the 00:40 mark -- a solo piano takes center stage, moving uncertainly between chords, looking for the right theme. At times dissonant, the piano meanders until the two-minute mark, at which point a simple and powerful melody in the right hand discovers what it was looking for all along. The piano lays out the melody, and shortly thereafter the strings re-enter to work in unison with the piano. In this overture, Arnalds captures the drama of creation, of starting off with a mess of parts that over time cohere into a whole.

But coming into existence isn't enough. Creation fosters indeterminacy; the "what if" question arises just as soon as things have been set into place. The high-register piano notes that introduce "0048/0729" manifest that "what if": the piano chords, echoing as if played in the middle of a silent valley, interweave with melancholic strings, painting a picture of a landscape teeming with possibility. "0040" is the act of creation; "0048/0729", the illustration of the challenges ahead.

"0952", the most delicate and optimistic moment on Eulogy for Evolution, re-introduces that gorgeous melody at the heart of "0040" with muted hesitance, a quiet rejoinder to the somber tones of the track before it. As the strings swell around the piano melody, the music exudes a positivity that cuts through the at times mournful atmosphere laced throughout Eulogy for Evolution. Though only three minutes long, "0952" provides a necessary respite, a luxuriating in the beauty of the evolutionary process. Evolution comes with all sorts of trials, but from those trials comes beauty -- even if only for a few moments.

The glimmers of hope on "0952" recede into the pensive gloom of "1440" and "1953", Eulogy for Evolution's centerpieces. "1440" features an unaccompanied piano for much of its time, and uses it to lay out a landscape of minor chords, up until its gentle crescendo. Arnalds excels at this kind of instrumental song structure: after a few minutes of what seems like sonic scene-setting, the song rises to a gorgeous peak as pristine as the Icelandic vistas that no doubt inspired Eulogy for Evolution. One can easily imagine a filmic montage by the likes of Terrence Malick unfolding alongside the music. "1953" builds on this further, albeit to more serious ends. The warm "1440" concludes with a tear-inducing, almost sentimental outro. "1953"'s final moments consists of a funeral march, almost entirely washing away whatever remnants of positive emotion fostered by "1440". By this point into Eulogy for Evolution, over halfway through the album, the life it depicts seems prone to tumult rather than comfort, conflict rather than peace.

Arnalds gives hope one last try on "3055", the most indelible moment on Eulogy for Evolution. The track starts off with the same somber air as "1440", with strings and piano weaving a wordless account of struggle. But then the music recedes, leaving only the sound of a chilly wind behind. The "0040" melody is played softly on the piano, a fragmentary, nostalgic reminder of a time that has since passed. Rather than let the sorrow win out once again, however, the piano picks up a new melody, to which the strings respond with a newfound sense of being uplifted. The piano picks up. The strings ascend. Then, for the first time on Eulogy for Evolution, percussion enters the picture as a snare is hit with increasing speed. The drums then establish a driving, powerful rhythm, bringing Eulogy for Evolution to its summit. Previous moments of happiness on the album played out slowly, all long bows on the violin and gingerly played piano notes . "3055" answers the grim "1953" with verve -- which is to say, life. For the first time, the evolution of life feels full-throated. It is one thing to bask in awe, as one is liable to do on the tender moments leading up to "3055", but it is another thing entirely to embrace life, to push back the forces of trial in one's life with the assurance that things can and will be better.

If one dynamic defines Eulogy for Evolution, it's that of rise and fall, and for however transcendent "3055"'s high feels, it's not long until Arnalds brings us back down to earth. Sounding like a score to a cataclysmic volcano eruption, "3326" uses a solo violin to bombastic, destructive effect, an apocalyptic segue in between the gleam-eyed "3055" and the jarring "3704/3837". Gréta Salome performs the violin solo with aplomb; at times, her chaotic bowing gives the sense that her instrument is about to snap in half. "3055" attempted to rescue Eulogy for Evolution from its lachrymose impulses, only to have "3326" usher in a destructive finale. Salome's violin solo, tempestuous as it is, ultimately feels like the calm before the storm because of what happens next.

Immediately following the final shrill note of "3326", a single piano note suggests a rest from the preceding tumult. On Eulogy for Evolution strings are the most dynamic instrument, with the piano giving the piece its greatest moments of tranquility and meditation. But "3704/3837"quashes whatever calm its opening notes promise. Before yet another moody soundscape can be formed, "3704/3837" bursts open with a squall of powerfully strummed guitars, rapid drums, and violent stabs of static, after which the song collapses, leaving only an isolated, lonely series of keyboard notes to conclude the album. The dawn-like strings that began Eulogy for Evolution feel centuries ago when "3704/3837" implodes.

Eulogy for Evolution could be the aural document of numerous visions of life. Things start off with promise, only to devolve into destruction: it's a narrative sold by religious and philosophical systems across the world. Perhaps while writing this piece, Arnalds imagined an apocalypse, one wrought with the violence seen in the book of Revelation. Maybe, in light of Western military interventions around the globe and the rise of terrorism, Arnalds saw in humanity an impulse for self-destruction, so rendered in the distorted guitars of "3704/3837". Death is an end, a withering away, and sometimes a violent ruin. Yet not all deaths happen as cacophonously as they do on Eulogy for Evolution. Why should Arnalds' vision of the progression from life to death come to such a disruptive conclusion? We may never know. But the power of Eulogy for Evolution is that it accepts, even invites, dozens of visions of life. One can even make the argument that "3704/3837", however grim, can't erase the moments of warmth, even triumph, that occupy much of the album. It is a testament to Eulogy for Evolution that it captures the familiar emotional volleys of life, all the while presenting life as a fundamentally impenetrable mystery. We know that life will have its ups and downs; all the rest is up to interpretation. Such philosophizing has been done for centuries, of course, but never has it been done instrumentally in the way that Arnalds imagines it.

* * *

Nils Frahm remastered Eulogy for Evolution 2017. His handiwork, while evident in moments throughout the album – a note rings a little clearer here, a tom hit feels more forceful there – wasn't needed to further enshrine the legacy of this music. Given the vast technological boom in the past two decades, the quality of music production is so high that when the inevitable anniversary releases of records dropped after 2000 hit the market, audio quality won't be of concern except for those most devoted audiophiles, or in the case of albums that got dealt a bad hand during the initial studio sessions. Eulogy for Evolution had no rough luck. The original recording still hits the same heights as it did back in 2007.

But Eulogy for Evolution 2017 still has good reason to exist. Far from a cheap cash-grab or an exercise in nostalgia for nostalgia's sake, Erased Tape's reissue of the album ultimately shows that in some rare cases, it's enough to re-introduce an album into the public consciousness. Initial acclaim didn't lead to Eulogy for Evolution to become regarded as a classic, even a minor one, and since then Arnalds has earned more popularity for other projects, such as his work scoring the Broadchurch television series. Bringing Eulogy for Evolution into the spotlight not only makes sense but feels right. As America faces one of its worst periods of political and social division, Europe's transnational project continues to fray along its many borders, and the Middle East continues to experience Western aggression, the rage that concludes Eulogy for Evolution feels like a warning, in a way it didn't back in 2007. Great albums inevitably change over time, even if their greatness remains constant. Eulogy for Evolution, through the merits of its incredible music alone, more than justifies a revisiting. Still, one can only hope that humanity hasn't moved closer to the seismic eruption of "3704/3837". Perhaps this is the eulogy of our time. What a way to go.

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