Á by HeklaRelease date: September 14, 2018
Label: Phantom Limb
Á is an album of solo theremin and voice from a mysterious Icelander, if that’s not something that piques your interest I probably can’t help you friend. On the off chance you’re altogether unfamiliar with it – the theremin is a curious and enchanting instrument that you play without actually touching. The musician controls oscillators for frequency and volume by moving their hands within the field of its two metal antennae. Magical electronic music pulled out of thin air. It was popular in 50’s sci-fi movie soundtracks, Bernard Herrmann’s The Day the Earth Stood Still being a prime example, and budget horror too, its spectral wail a natural fit for eerie situations on screen. Probably due to Frank Black’s UFO fixation it turns up wobbling all over Pixies’ ‘Velouria’ and Jon Spencer used one in the Blues Explosion. If you’ve ever seen Evil Blizzard live that weird baby head they get into the audience with is a theremin. The results of having the crowd attempt to play it are as chaotic you’d imagine. Most recently, and at the opposite end of the scale in terms of its considered deployment, it features often on Pram’s magnificent Across The Meridian.
Generally then the theremin pops up to do something between making weird noises and bringing another interesting texture to full band arrangements. Here it’s front and centre. Á is a collection of dreamlike, beat less, vocal and theremin duets that explore its possibilities. Hekla summons an impressive range of sounds from bass drones to high end bleeps via smooth melodic arcs and mostly avoids the ‘sinister Clanger’ whistle and wobble of her instrument’s b-movie pigeonhole. Still, she can’t elude cliché altogether, the theremin’s charm is its distinctive otherworldly quality and the way it intertwines with her vocal lines makes the regrettable use of the word ‘ethereal’ here all but unavoidable.
Sinister single ‘Muddle’ is thick with deep cave dread alleviated slightly by a touch of whale song about some of the spiralling high notes. Its darkness is relieved by the steady, gentle beauty of ‘Heyr Himna Smi∂ur’ an instrumental setting of a traditional hymn. ‘Arms’ is perhaps the record’s calm centre, a series of low drones beneath a pure vocal that seems to echo to us from far away. What I guess we might call the solo at its midpoint glows like a mournful carol, a half remembered folk song. The icy unease returns on ‘Ekki Er Allt Gull Sem Glóir’ as queasy high notes swirl over the drones. The video makes plain the strong sense of the Icelandic landscape and folklore suggested in the music. In it Hekla appears to call forth sounds from the clouds of steam billowing out of the cracked earth. As the tune reaches a teeming discordant climax she is snatched away, perhaps by the elemental forces she has summoned. There’s a vague sense of Iceland’s huldufólk (or elves) in there hiding behind the rocks. Dragging the theremin from shaky space adventure and burying it in the ancient earth, like a downed satellite.
In the traditional ‘make your lazy comparisons here’ box we might note down Julianna Barwick, Colleen and Julia Holter. More for their solo combination of open experimental approaches and voice than for than anything else. In a recent interview here on Echoes she spoke about her practice, how the tracks are built up from layered parts of improvisations and how the theremin is perhaps not the easiest instrument to write for or repeat anything in performance. Á is a quite melancholy album and it does sound eerie or ghostly but not in an overly gothic or doomy kind of way. Still, that’s what you want from an album of solo theremin and voice from a mysterious Icelander isn’t it? I mean, if that’s not something that piques your interest, I probably can’t help you friend.