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Ólafur Arnalds: "Dyad 1909"

img  Tobias

Sometimes, precociousness can be a curse. If „3055“ hadn't been such a moment of all but perfect Pop, „Variations of Static“ hadn't turned out such a beguiling blend of crushing electronica and romantic splendor and the „found songs“-project had resulted in a slightly less inspired collection of instinctive composition, perhaps people would not consider Ólafur Arnalds „complete“ as an artist yet. As it is, ten out of ten rankings have become business as usual for him without further journalistic reference to the seemingly subtle, but in fact quite strategic changes Arnalds has applied to almost every aspect of his productions over the years. And yet, it is certainly no coincidence that he has opted for shorter, EP-like formats for his last three works, allowing him to sharpen his artistic vision while gently fine-tuning and continually honing his techniques. Which is why an album like „Dyad 1909“, with its recognisable balance between discreet classical allusions and electronic textures, may not outwardly appear to be a work of progress. But for those willing to look beyond the surface, it certainly deserves to be appreciated as an important step forward.

The work's conceptual angle alone demanded an entirely different point of departure. Conceived as the score to a ballet by British choreographer Wayne McGregor, it takes Arnalds' oeuvre into overtly programmatic territory for the first time. Admittedly, „Eulogy For Evolution“ worked as the soundtrack to a secret movie in his head and „Found Songs“, with its assignment of one new track per day for one week, also had a quite concrete underlying motivation. But none of them related as openly to a non-musical element as „Dyad 1909“, which posed the double challenge of writing a work which not only served as a functional structure for McGregor's performance, but also as an emotive composition in its own right. What seems simple and straightforward on paper constitutes an extremely fragile and complex balance in practise. Ballet and contemporary dance feed from an equitable interaction between sound and choreography, after all, and they require a distinct sonic narrative without ever getting too concrete: If there is no story for the dancers to hold on to, it leaves them struggling for direction. If it turns too tangible, there is no room for mystery, imagination and magic.

Arnalds has resolved this delicate task by paradoxically refusing to focus too obviously on physical movement. There may be some of his most pronouncedly percussive patterns running through a couple of tracks here and even in passages of distinctly classical quality, there is an energetic rhythmical pulse to the action. With their cool mechanical precision and machinal poundings, however, none of them ever attains the sexuality of a well-oiled funk-band, never growing into a contagious groove. On „Brotsjór“, the drum machine is instead pounding like the heart of a caged animal caught in an industrially distorted booby-trap, threateningly forcing the listener's body into submission. The effect is never one of electrifying propulsion, but rather of amazed paralysis, starry-eyed stasis and a haunting, eye-of-the-storm-like calm on the contrary. On pieces like the one and a half-minute short opening introduction or heartwrenching ballad „Við Vorum Smák“, the metrum even dies down to a barely perceptible whisper, a fragile figment feeling its way forward down a dark and narrow corridor.

Yes, „Dyad 1909“ partly comprises of previously released tracks. And it is true that it harks back to ideas already explored on Arnalds' back catalogue. But at the same time, it segues both the new and the old, the familiar and alien as well as the pleasing and exploratory into a seamless and utterly hypnotic maelstrom. It is in the way that the album is built around an almost perfectly symmetrical architecture. How robotic sequences organically merge with touching traces of acoustic instruments. The way themes are picked up and reworked or reprocessed without getting tedious or pretentious and a single, defiant chord on „Lokaðu augunum“ can change the entire feeling of the track. It is in the small details and open references, with „Til enda“ almost imperceptibly picking up the chord progression of predecessor „3326“ and closer „...og lengra“ sounding like a fresh take on „Lost Song“ (from „Found Songs“), but always with just a tad more finesse and a string of tricky irregularities which, in the end, serve to make the album even more immersive and fluent.

All of this may not constitute a revolution per se or satisfy the appetite of die-hard fans for the upcoming new full-length. But it does show that, precocious or nor, Arnalds is still growing as a composer – and that he undoubtedly has a couple of surprises for the future up his sleeve.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Ólafur Arnalds
Homepage: Erased Tapes Records

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