Ólafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm have been in impossibly good form over the last few years. Record after record of polished, shimmering music has been produced by these two, without any downtime in between. Just this year Frahm released the gentle piano experiments of Solo and Arnalds teamed up with pianist Alice Sara Ott for the brilliant The Chopin Project. The two tinkerers are unconcerned with genre restrictions and have found a strong friendship through their boundary pushing actions. So it makes sense, but also seems unfair that Arnalds and Frahm also had Collaborative Works waiting in the wings.
The release is split into four pieces: Loon, Stare, Life Story Love and Glory, and Trance Frendz. Loon and Stare are glitchy ambient works, with wafting hints of Brian Eno’s more atmospheric work trailing in. Life Story Love and Glory holds two faded, gorgeous, piano tracks that seem to have been recorded decades ago, and Trace Frendz is appropriately subtitled as “An evening with Olafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm”. Any of these projects can be listened to on their own but, despite the disparity in sounds, the full album is tailor made for one sit down listen, to fully immerse yourself in Arnalds and Frahm’s world.
The piano-based songs are reminiscent of Frahm’s cooing work from his live album Spaces and have gentle nods to Arnalds’ love letter to Chopin. But the strange, glistening ambient works hold more secrets and beauty between the cracks. Album opener “Four” is a loping song, with delayed synths tripping over their own notes as small chimes float to the forefront of the song. It plays as a calm invitation to something much larger, just a taste of what’s to come. The following “Three” wouldn’t have felt out of place on Eno’s space age tribute Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, “Wide Open” relies on the spaces in between the notes to create a somber mood, and “W” takes its sweet time building from clicking synths into a steady beat.
The songs of Stare feel more contemporary, despite being the oldest recordings here, coming from a session in 2011. “a2” is brilliant ambient mist, with calming chimes turning the song into a lullaby and its partner “a1” is begging for a dance remix of sorts. But it’s “b1” that ends up being the core of Collaborative Works. It’s par for the course for Arnalds and Frahm to make massive songs (the best song on Frahm’s Spaces was over 16 minutes long) but “b1” is something else entirely.
Over 13 minutes, the burbling synths hovering in the background warp and morph in subtle ways. It’s a disturbing and disorienting experience, allowing you to unconsciously slip into the song’s pattern only for the arpeggiating notes to suddenly slide into new territories. It takes a full five minutes before something from another world breaks into the watery realm with Anne Muller’s thundering cello slashing through the sound with booming drums backing her. It’s a song that should soundtrack the first visit to Jupiter’s frozen moon Europa, which has a vast alien sea beneath miles of ice.
Life Story and Trance Frendz are not as fascinating as Loon or Stare but for sheer elegance and grace, there are few releases that can touch them. Trace Frenz is particularly impressive, as each track here is an improvised duet between Frahm and Arnalds. It sounds a bit ramshackle at times (especially in the later bits where more haunting electronics come into play) but the fluttering work of “21:05” and “20:17” cannot be denied. Further more, when those decaying keyboards come into play, the sounds become sublime. The movie soundtrack quality of “23:17” is undeniable while “23:52” bursts into an ear shattering drone that resolves with church organs and a heavenly light descending from on high.
What Collaborative Works offers is something strange: a shared world created by two mad geniuses. The mammoth piece, as a whole, may seem disjointed and cohesive, but it’s bound by a musical friendship and an insatiable appetite to push boundaries in a dozen different genres. Long may Arnalds and Frahm tinker.