Viktor Orri Árnason: Eilífur
CD | DL
Released 18th June 2021
Pre-order on Bandcamp
The unbearable heaviness of being. Viktor Orri Árnason’s debut is an existential journey that hypothesises about the inevitability of eternal life. It’s centred around Árnason’s sumptuous compositions and his magnificent viola and violin. Oh, did I mention that there’s also an astonishing choir? Gordon Rutherford reviews for Louder Than War.
Great art is all about storytelling and Eilífur, the debut album from Icelandic composer, conductor and producer Viktor Orri Árnason, tells a story. Like those ancient and epic Scandinavian sagas, it’s a tale that is a deep, philosophical reflection on life itself. Put succinctly, Árnason posits the hypothesis that rapid advances in medical science will ultimately eradicate death by natural causes and Eilífur is his bold attempt to musically narrate this seismic shift in life (and death) as we know it. K-pop it ain’t. Clearly, given the solemnity of the subject matter, this is a heavy piece of work. It’s heavy in its textures, heavy in its moods and heavy in its meaning. This is a collection of compositions that arrive draped in their winter cloak. For the most part.
Árnason emerges from the same Berlin studio as the brilliant Rutger Hoedemaekers, whose outstanding album, The Age Of Oddities, was reviewed by yours truly on these pages earlier this year. In fact, Árnason featured on his contemporary’s album. In recent years, this studio has been a hub of experimentation and creativity, a place where younger up-and-coming composers like Árnason and Hoedemaekers could rub shoulders and collaborate with such giants as Jóhann Jóhannsson and Hildur Gudnadóttir. Like Hoedemaekers, Árnason now emerges as a composer in his own right, and, just as Hoedemaekers’ did with his debut, he has created a body of work that is hugely impressive. There is another commonality between both albums that it would be incredibly remiss of me to fail to mention. All orchestral parts on Eilífur were performed by the brilliant Budapest Art Orchestra, conducted by Árnason. They sound just as good as they did on The Age Of Oddities.
To use a football analogy, Eilífur is an album of two halves. In contemplating the music in the context of the philosophy that sits underneath it, the first half appears to be influenced not by eternal life, but by death itself. Those early tracks are almost funereal, held together by the most beautifully tragic, mournful strings. Like all good stories, it is vividly and dramatically told. Árnason’s innovatively sepulchral viola and violin sweep across these tracks majestically, occasionally heightening the drama by becoming slightly discordant.
The stand out feature of the album’s first half, however, is the voices. That’s what hits you right between the eyes. We first encounter the choir, conducted by Árnason’s father, Árni Hardarson, on the opening track, Var. I’m sure the Fóstbrædur male choir haven’t had many mentions in Louder Than War before now, but, hey, perhaps choral music can become the new rock n’ roll. There is something tragic, something gothic, in those voices. They evoke images of hooded figures emerging from the shadows of spectral cloisters and silently weeping women. If Arthur required a soundtrack for his last journey to Avalon, it would be perfectly provided by Árnason’s Var. Whilst they are not quite so prominent, voices play a role throughout the remainder of the first half. They are haunting and sombre, drifting between the sweeps of Árnason’s mournful viola on the sumptuous minimalism of The Thread and clashing against the dissenting strings of Maiden.
But then the album transforms, as though time has accelerated and delivered us from the bleak midwinter into the rolling meadows of late spring. We are no longer contemplating death. Instead, the mood alters, becoming more optimistic, as though the prospect of eternal life may be worth celebrating after all. This transformation is ushered in by The Vision, a gorgeously melodic track that is starkly different from anything that has come before. Based around a beautiful melody provided by Stefan Baumann’s bass clarinet, it ushers in a lightness and relief from the immensity of those choirs. This theme continues with the minimalism of Nectar. A piano picks out a delicate and fragile line before being joined by graceful and airy strings. Anima Mundi completes a trilogy of lightness before the choirs return to close the album on the final track, Var-Er.
In his existential classic, Milan Kundera wrote about the concept of ‘lightness’. With Eilífur, Viktor Orri Árnason has created his own existential story, except he has come at it from a quite different direction. The unbearable heaviness of being. Eilífur is a serious album; one that demands your attention and consideration. For a debut work, it is incredibly ambitious and Árnason’s ability to conjure up vivid images in your mind through his wonderful music is quite special. I genuinely hope that he has many more stories to tell.
Photo credit: Yvonne Hartmann
All words by Gordon Rutherford. More writing by Gordon can be found in his archive.