Words by Stína Satanía
The review was originally printed in Reykjavík On Stage (Issue 2)
Ragnar Ólafsson is a versatile musician who has established his name on the Icelandic music scene with such bands as Árstíðir, Ask the Slave, In Siren or Lightspeed Legend. Playing almost everything from chamber folk through jazz to progressive metal, he has tirelessly surprised listeners with his numerous sonic hats. On Urges, his debut solo LP released in June 2017, Ragnar once again reveals a new face. This artwork is different from all his previous achievements and goes a long way into his singer-songwriter outfit.
This solo project is perhaps a little sidestep in Ragnar’s music career. Labelled a heartbreak album, Urges is packed with emotional and intimate songs. Lyrically, darkness is everywhere. The songs are heartfelt but sorrowful and mirror dealing with changes and experiencing the lows of life.
The spotlight stays on Ragnar: his well-shaped melodies, his voice and guitar. His songs are finely crafted, also accompanied by a ukulele and a banjo, with just a pinch of piano, synthesizers or Rhodes. Luckily, Ragnar also makes use of his most personal asset: his voice can be smooth and delicate as a falling feather, then become harsh and almost aggressive.
The album opens with the soft acoustic melodies of ‘SSDD’, where a harmonica adds some melancholy to the gentle and fragile vocals. The next track ‘Wine’ is lo-fi and lovesick, while ‘War’ charms you with simple ukulele picking. The piano-driven ‘Relations’ permeates with sorrow. This song sounds particularly gloomy, with the echo of voices from a playground and a lyrical reflection about growing old.
For the album to shine even brighter, a touch of femininity was needed. Aldís Davíðsdóttir, Michaela Lucas and Sólveig Ásgeirsdóttir bring a new and delicate dimension to Ragnar’s compositions, like in ‘Dozen’ or the poetic ‘Petals’, where the voices intertwine like ex-lovers reminiscing over a past relationship.
Ragnar also balanced the album with more dynamic and stronger compositions like ‘The Prayer’. This particular track has a thrilling and haunting sound and displays his impressive voice range. This is where his other projects (outside of Árstíðir) come to mind. ‘The Prayer’ is the most powerful moment on Urges, and feels like a deeps stab in the heart. Ragnar also showcases the dark side of his vocal range in ‘Bravery’ as well as in ‘Scar’, introduced with a spoken-word piece found in family archives and a banjo trill. As ‘Scar’ progresses, it gains in sonic intensity with a full arrangement, bluesy electric guitar solo and roaring vocals, just to end… quite unexpectedly (I won’t spoil it for you!).
As a conclusion, Ragnar offers the dramatic ‘Red Wine’. Swells of viola join heart-breaking vocal with synths falling down like raindrops on a window pane. Like a poignant far cry when a tiny light of hope shines somewhere in the distance. Listening to Urges by Ragnar Ólafsson is like falling into the charming arms of sorrow itself. His debut solo album offers us 47 minutes of introspection and a really good soundtrack for contemplation.
Ragnar Ólafsson – Urges
4. A Prayer
12. Red Wine