Ólafur Arnalds’ Winter Chill


Hear Ólafur Arnalds talk about For Now I Am Winter on Tuesday May 13 on Echoes

Hear this review in the Echoes Podcast 

Ólafur Arnalds’ For Now I Am Winter

Ólafur Arnalds’ For Now I Am Winter

Icelandic artists are subjected to many clichés: most commonly that their music reflects the frozen north, land of glaciers, fjords, and endless nights.  As a critic, you try to avoid that  trap.  But Ólafur Arnalds’ has released two albums in a row that truly seem to emerge from the heart of Icelandic winter darkness.  If his 2010 album, And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness, was the sound of Iceland’s sunless winter days, his latest release, For Now I Am Winter, turns the Nordic freeze into heroic rapture.  The opening track, “Sudden Throw,” is a sunrise panorama, like a slow-motion flight through a blizzard of siren strings and echoes hanging in the air like frozen sculptures.  I wish this piece had gone on much longer before dropping into “Brim,” which goes austere, a nervous string quartet joined by syncopated electronic rhythms. But even this Philip Glass-inspired  piece eventually moves into a heart-breaking meditation of pensive piano, violin and viola, on the verge of breaking into tears.
“Only the Winds”

And that’s how For Now I Am Winter moves.  The sound is reflected in the cover art of this elegantly packaged CD.  A profile portrait of Arnalds’ face is broken up by a pale, superimposed coastal seascape.  The lyrics and liner notes of the booklet are hand written, and look like words crossing over from a spirit realm, bleeding through the paper rather than printed on it. Just like that image, Arnalds’ music seems to push through in shifting layers and moving clouds, an electronic pattern covered by yearning strings; a mood of dire isolation shading one of euphoria.

Arvo Pärt is an obvious reference for Arnalds, but Craig Armstrong is a forgotten pioneer in merging acoustic strings with electronics, as heard on his album, The Space Between Us. Ólafur Arnalds has codified a similar approach with a more downtempo, glitched edge, as clanking electronic percussion often pulls these tracks along in a chain-gang rhythm.  Across these grooves, the string orchestrations on pieces like on “Only the Winds,” scored by American composer Nico Mulhy, move in a tremulous, angelic surge.

Arnalds introduces the vocals of Arnór Dan Arnarson on several pieces. He sings in a faint, fragile voice with falsetto cries that go into the terrain of Jonsi, the singer from Sigur Rós. It’s the kind of intimate sound that Arnalds explored instrumentally on his recent project called Living Room Songs, recorded in his home.  Even with a full string section assembled next to his sofa, these are gentle, delicate works that speak to the quaintness and intimacy that underlie Arnalds’ compositions. You can hear that aesthetic at work here on the piano track, “Words of Amber” where every creak and squeak of his piano becomes part of the composition.

Both sophisticated and edgy, Ólafur Arnalds inhabits his own sonic universe, balancing emotions and mood on a laser’s edge.  I thought I wanted winter to be over until I heard For Now I Am Winter. Now I want to be embraced by the chill a little while longer.

~John Diliberto ((( echoes )))

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