Keeping a finger on the pulse

Ólafur Arnalds´ revolution of sound

in Explore/Issue #4/REVIEWS by

Words by Stína Satanía
The review was originally printed in Reykjavík On Stage (Issue 4)

Over the years, Ólafur Arnalds has earned acclaim in both the contemporary and classical fields. His fourth solo album, re:member, was released in August on the new post-classical British label Mercury KX, which had already published his 2017 Island Songs as the first album under their umbrella. This time the BAFTA-winning multi-instrumentalist pushed himself out of the comfort zone and managed on just one album, to synchronise all the directions he has been spreading into – it has the classic sound of Ólafur Arnalds, with touches of his electronic dance side project Kiasmos, even hip-hop influences and the addition of hi-tech software. Bingo, or not really?

There’s something magic about the way Arnalds shapes soundscapes. Building his own aesthetics on gentle piano chords and delicate orchestral strings arranged by his long-time collaborator Viktor Orri Árnason (Hjaltalín, Skark Ensemble), Arnalds opens re:member in his classic way. With a breeze of human feeling, lightly breathing violin players and details characteristic of Viktor Orri’s style, strings continue to play an important role – being both a bedrock for the tracks as well as a figurate topping.

But there is a new space on this album that lets us in in the first composition. That’s the space of the Stratus technology developed by Ólafur himself together with Halldór Eldjárn (known also of Sykur and his solo works). There, human feelings are manipulated by, some might say, a soulless machinery that eventually lets Ólafur Arnalds discover new possibilities that might not necessarily have popped up in his genius mind before. Except playing a main piano, Ólafur uses two algorithm-driven self-playing pianos. On the one hand, it’s an addition of cold machinery; on the other hand, though, it brings a much-needed life-giving torrential rain of notes into the sound. However, the engineer in me finds a weird joy in listening to those algorithms. For the first time I can describe Ólafur Arnalds’ neo-classical music not as melancholic but actually even joyful and… energising, like a ray of warm morning light illuminating the mountains.

The sound revolution on this album stems not only from the software. Ólafur seems to flourish and make most of the seamless Icelandic music community within which he resides, allowing him to push beyond his own limits of the closed contemporary music zone. The bonuses on re:member are percussion (‘re:member’, ‘undir’) and vocals by English singer and producer SOHN on ‘unfold’, as well as Arnalds’ flirting with hip-hop through co-producing the album with BNGRBOY, the Icelandic beat maker known to collaborate with rocketing Icelandic hip-hop star GKR. As an example, ‘brot’ was originally built around a beat that eventually was removed to generate a perfectly soothing ambient track and heading into subtle electronica with a forceful rhythmic beat here and there on the album, among others, such as on ‘inconsist’ and ‘ypsilon’. Yet, soft pianos still remain at the centre of Arnalds’ universe, and in ‘saman’, the grand piano becomes a natural extension of the player.

Arnalds is not the only one to open people’s minds to classical music through letting in an easily digested and subtly underpinned electronica, but he does it efficiently. Peaking at No. 2 on Billboard’s classical-music chart, re:member clearly signals how captivating the album is. Taking into consideration how I fell into those cascading pianos and floating strings despite all my previous resistance, the answer to my question from earlier in the review is easy: ‘Bingo, Ólafur’.

Ólafur Arnalds – re:member
1. re:member
2. unfold
3. saman
4. brot
5. inconsist
6. they sink
7. ypsilon
8. partial
9. momentary
10. undir
11. ekki hugsa
12. nyepi

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