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Ólafur Arnalds: ... and they have escaped the weight of darkness

img  Tobias Fischer

Happiness is a curious thing. Just when you think you found it, doubts and questions inevitably set in: Can it be? Is it for real? Can it be trusted? Unlike sadness, which bends down on its victims with the atrocious physical weight of a millstone, joy always feels slightly fleeting, intangible and temporary, a force to be treated with caution, an emotion of questionable esteem. And yet, as Ólafur Arnalds demonstrates on his second full-length, these bipolar extremes are merely different sides of the same coin. Both tears and laughter emanate from every bar of music here, pain and elation are brotherly ingrained into each bleeding chord and every melody speaks of hope and despair, sorrow and ecstasy, delight and regret alike. It is a work that cautiously delivers a message that could be misunderstood as cheap talk but ends up sounding tenderly consoling: No matter how down and out you may be - where there is darkness, light will always follow suite.

Rather than having to adapt his script to this underlying train of thought, writing dialectically came naturally to Arnalds. Already his debut, „Eulogy for Evolution“, saw him stumbling upon places of nostalgia, melancholy and outright grief with a torch in his hand and a smile on his face. And while you could, of course, listen to records like „Found Songs“ or „Variations of Static“ all dressed in black, smoking cheap, self-rolled cigarettes and burying your face in a pillow, there was no need to feel bad if their heavenly voicings, circular harmonies and brittle lyricism  made you feel perfectly good instead. So if „... and they have escaped the weight of darkness“ now takes this duality as its point of departure, then the only real difference lies in the conceptual nature of the idea: Compositions, arrangements, instrumentation and build-up of the album have all meticulously been aligned with the programmatic proposition, lending a deeper sense of meaning to each track, tune and timbre and erecting an arch that binds the work together from beginning to end.

From the woozily whistling two-tone-drone that promisingly rises from silence on initiatory „Þú Ert Eólin“ all the way to the Folk-tinged marching band euphoria of closer „Þau Hafa Sloppið Undan þunga Myrkursins“, the album therefore comes across as an epic and coherent journey, along whose banks Arnalds carves out a plethora of emotional implications. Sparse, Ambient-oriented pieces and elegiac chambermusical settings delineate sentimental spaces, while dramatic, bittersweet string quartet fantasies and Space-Rock-solos explore the extremes of the emotional gamut. Up until the final third of the album, a striking and stringent choreography propels the album forwards with undeniable momentum: Two slow and quiet movements are unerringly followed by a fulminante band-effort laden with forceful percussion, Tony Levin's resonant fields of Bass and sweeping exultations in the Violins, Violas and Cello. The underlying motto is turning into a structural device here, an intuitive compositional tool to enhance and intensify the narrative.

Much has already been written about the richly orchestrated architecture of the album, whose genesis was an arduous process of continual refinement. Without a single doubt, „... and they have escaped the weight of darkness“ profits from the extension of the palette: Horn, Trombone and voices are adding colour and brilliance to the textures  and in the forceful big ensemble moments, Arnalds blends the best of the world of orchestral music with the tight and raw immediacy of a band. But even though some of these tracks are made up of innumerable layers, carefully piled on top of each other in the studio, the work never feels topheavy. Rather, the richness of „... and they have escaped the weight of darkness“ is a subterranean and circumstantial one, lurking underneath the surface and adding depth and a sense of not quite being able to fathom all of its secrets to the music.

„Hægt, Kemur Ljósið“ at first seems like the perfect ending to the story, a stormy major-key anthem growing from a gently gyrating introduction, which dispels the sinister insinuations of some of the preceeding material with a single jubilant gesture. And yet, two more pieces follow suite, extending the work's resolution by nine more minutes. It is this break of symmetry and expectations that turns „... and they have escaped the weight of darkness“ from a mere collection of iridescent instrumentals into an album of alluring ambition. It is almost, as if Arnalds were doubting the happy-end of the tale himself, returning to a state of pensiveness and sinister reflections, only to arrive at an even deeper triumph in the end: This time happiness is not just for real, but here to stay.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Ólafur Arnalds
Homepage: Erased Tapes Records

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