re:member by Ólafur ArnaldsRelease date: August 24, 2018
Label: Mercury KX
For his fourth solo studio record, Ólafur Arnalds has enthusiastically opened his arms (and his beloved pianos) to new technology. Stratus, a piece of software that composer and audio developer Halldór Eldjárn has spent the past two years collaborating with Arnalds to hone, links two self-playing, semi-generative pianos to a central, human-controlled piano. Using algorithms whose complexity will likely make your eyes twitch, the pianos respond to the notes played on the primary piano and then conjure patterns of notes, melodies, and harmonies of their own. This innovation has led to an album of new approaches, new tacks, and new sounds. Whilst Arnalds has utilised this tech to alter his method, he has also opted to incorporate the far-ranging influences, some of which have made appearances in his Trance Frenz and Kiasmos collaborations, in a raw, unfiltered manner which has, inevitably, led to a varied and evocatively emotional release.
Oh… and he also employed Stratus to design the album artwork. Just don’t ask me how.
There is something inherently watery in Ólafur Arnalds’ sounds. That is not to say weak, but dappled and flowing. Of natural rhythms and glinting possibility. It’s also music that is aware of an unruly danger. A fluid threat. And in that lies the trickle of melancholy, of potential fear, that pervades re:member. With every step forward there is hope. But there is also uncertainty, as if the pebbles upon which we tread may slide out, cascade down and send us under the lapping froth. This is no more true than on the aptly titled ‘They Sink’. A track that is awash with sploshed keys and wending sonic currents. Similarly ‘Unfold’ puts deep waves, with just a hint of punch, to use. Choppy strings play in a pool with ankle-damp ditties, like the seaside dance of crab-chasing children with their faces turned towards a fresh, breakfast, sun. The throb of Berlin’s influence arrives two-thirds of the way through, allowing breathily opined, wordless thoughts to surface through low-end pulses. ‘Ypsilon’ also continues this with plucks panning like the rise and fall of a small vessel atop the sea. The deep is tailor made for comparisons with memory. With tides that return whilst altering the landscape. The shoreline may be familiar but its subtle changes, disappearances, and assimilation are not dissimilar from the erosion of our own recollections brought about by age.
This theme of memory appears to manifest on other tracks too. An atmospheric hush surrounds the deliberate and emotive piano piece at the centre of ‘Momentary’. It gently evokes shared afternoons amidst amber leaves and an underfoot crunch. Afternoons that are simply no more. The darkness is never far from hand. ‘Partial’s championing of ambient swells is the soothing state that helps to assuage such dread wreaked by our own ailing faculties. That this seamlessly transmutes into a flood of electronic notes backed by rising strings seems to signal Arnalds’ acceptance of our digital existences and the constant recording of our lives that arises from this. A piano melody that recalls Logh’s ‘Death To My Hometown’ materialises on ‘Saman’. Although, on revisiting the latter, it is increasingly unclear as to why. Perhaps the similarity lies within the sadness that accompanies those light keyboard flourishes. Revealing something of a tear-stained smile.
Sadness has always been present within Arnalds’ music. Sometimes it has been embraced (Living Room Songs’ ‘Öldurót’), sometimes quashed (Eulogy For Evolution’s ‘3704 3837’), and sometimes it is grasped, enveloped, and transcended. ‘Inconsist’ is a prime example of the latter. From morose piano plinks into riveting rhythms and strings that sweep and shoot. This takes what was once forlorn and lifts it into a radiant light. But it doesn’t forget its roots. The coda returns us to the softness of sadness. With ‘Brot’ brave strings are stretched to their limits. They appear determined to soar despite evident fears that they might indeed break. These lone voices, calling out into the dark, are soon joined by sturdier souls whose shoulders bear noticeable weight and, together, they reach further and touch deeper.
The title track lulls in the soft, cold, quiet that, for many of us who have never stepped foot on Icelandic shores, embodies an image, a feeling, a mythology of the place. A mythology helped, in heavy part, by the recordings of Ólafur Arnalds. This shifts from the slow, minimal blue into a heaving restaurant of hungry pianos chomping through platefuls of notes. Warming bass sets a space nicely to seat a rousing beat. Owing more to electronica and hip hop than the post rock of yesteryear’s Eulogy for Evolution, the drums here whip and snap like a mobilised trip hop backline, propelling forward and affixing grins.
This sense of optimism is continued throughout the album on tracks like ‘Undir’ and ‘Ekki Hugsa’. The latter of which apparently translates into English as ‘Not Think’ and sounds like the morning following a psilocybin adventure. All synapses squeegee cleaned and firmly firing. Carving fresh new pathways and reinforcing existing ones. It’s the attack of dazzling snow on sauna’d skin. A rise in the chest and a broadening smile. The drudgery of life’s demands absent for just a moment. Comparably the former of the two tracks showcases forwards facing strings that stir amongst gurgling keys as the burgeoning clack of a drum stand reaches the surface. This is soon joined by the thud and ‘kah’ of both bass drum and snare, shifting this into a groove of chilled breaks. Deploying the growing composition of his older post-rock period, everything escalating until it all gives way and we descend the other side of the mountain. As if departing from old friends after a long overdue weekend get together.
But by the time that we reach the closing track, ‘Nyepi’ (its name taken from the Balinese celebration known as the ‘Day of Silence’), that melancholia has returned. From a sombre start it sifts through past sorrows with a licked thumb pausing on every page. Each descending key on the piano is imbued with a noticeable weight. It scrambles and searches for a joy that it knows exists but is not always within arms reach. It might not be there right now but this feeling will pass and joy can soon return.
That this desolation can pass like a set of clouds, or the tide, is both comforting and unsettling. If it can leave so easily, perhaps it can recur too. Maybe we all need a pair of robotic pianos, triggered by our moods, to help pull us through.