Ólafur Arnalds – For Now I Am Winter (
Released 11th March in the UK
A major label and the introduction of vocals herald the next stage of this exciting young Icelandic composer’s career.
For now, we are all winter. The calendar says March but the sky outside says otherwise, as gentle piano tones land and melt along with the late snowflakes. The strings sweep in, and already you’re somewhere in the deep forest, breath freezing around the icicles dangling from branches. Business as usual for the remarkably prolific and still almost unbelievably young Mr Arnalds then? To an extent. But only to an extent.
Years ago some patronising old person told me “oh, you’ll appreciate classical music as you get older.” You got that one too? A lot of people did. Like the pop or rock or indie or punk or funk or hip hop or whatever we were listening to wasn’t Proper Music, the way the BBC in the sixties largely treated “pop music” as a passing fad. Yeah right, we sneered in that cocksure way only teenagers can, of course, I’m going to wake up on my 25th/30th/40th birthday and all of a sudden this music I love will cease to have any relevance and it’ll be Mozart all the way from then on. Maybe someone said the same to the teenage Arnalds back when he was drummer for the outstandingly named hardcore band Fighting Shit, though I doubt it. You see Iceland isn’t like that. An impression acquired from conversations and interviews with a lot of islanders, musicians and music fans, as well as the one incredible week I spent last year on their frozen volcanic soil: “here” I was repeatedly told (or words to this effect) “there’s just music”.
In the more stratified musical climate that is most of the rest of the western world, the entry point for many to “classical music” in recent years has been via “post-rock”, whatever the hell either of those terms actually mean. The relatively accessible likes of Mogwai and Iceland’s most successful export of recent years Sigur Rós lead to something more spacious or ambient or complex and before you know it you’re discussing the finer points of the string section with people with year’s-length beards: at the heart of this blur of boundaries is the wonderful Erased Tapes label, Ólafur’s home for much of his recording career to date. This is his first for a major label, and with his music also currently showcased to British ears via his soundtrack work for the ITV series ‘Broadchurch’ it does feel like a time of transition, from underground artist to at least the interesting end of the mainstream. The same week, Sigur Rós announced an arena tour; the great British public actually having more adventurous taste than some music snobs like to think.
There have been changes, developments. Where once you could almost hear his fingers on the raw piano and the scrape of bow on string, here arrangements have been expanded and textured with the assistance of American composer Nico Muhly. Even those shivering opening piano strikes on ‘Sudden Throw’ are soon joined by lush synths, and elsewhere the crackles and twitches of electronics are reminiscent of artists such as Ghosting Season and indeed former labelmate Rival Consoles. That’s not all that’s different, either – around half the tracks feature vocals. Vocals! Imagine! This really hasn’t gone down well with some fans, but you can’t as an artist live your life trying to please people who think they know what they want, can you? The voice is that of Arnór Dan Arnársson from polyrhythmic progressives Agent Fresco, a man quite capable of the sort of unearthly screams that could shatter plate glass, but fear not – here he’s delicate, heartfelt, sometimes desolate. His melodies – especially on the title track and the beautifully fragile ‘Old Skin’ – echo the thoughtful melancholy of Phil Elverum (Mount Eerie) and the lightness of Sigur Rós’s Jónsi, and never detract from the instrumentation, simply adding another layer. ‘Reclaim’, with its stirring stabs of cello and a vocal tune that could have slipped off any of this year’s arty-side-of-commercial-indie albums is almost pop music – certainly as close as Ólafur’s ever come to it – and it works.
Elsewhere it’s more kind of Ólafur Arnalds Plus. The evocatively titled ‘This Place Was A Shelter’ mixes electronic percussion with portentous strings to powerful effect while ‘Only The Winds’ is a great sweeping soundtrack awaiting a film; close your eyes and you might find yourself flying above the Icelandic landscape – though the train speeding past pure white fields and snow-dusted rooftops that real life provided as an accompaniment to my own most recent listen works just as well.
This is not an album to stick on once and go “yeah, that’s nice” – though it is, and could just as easily soundtrack a Didsbury dinner party as a wild hike through the tundra. Like most things even vaguely associated with the post-rock meets contemporary classical oeuvre it richly rewards repeated listenings and real attention. And right now it’s getting plenty from these quarters, not least because it seems to work against the somewhat unseasonal backdrop. This is a winter album, undeniably so, but a late winter album speckled with the green shoots of spring. Let’s hope the weather is listening.