Bedroom Community

Press Reviews for Draumalandið

It may be a bit early in the year to make such a proclamation, but, following my colleague Richard Allen’s lead, 2010 is really shaping up to be another strong year for Icelandic music.Valgeir Sigurðsson is a man who wears many hats: that of an accomplished producer who has worked with a diversity of artists from Björk to Will Oldham, that of a composer and musician, and that of the owner of the Bedroom Community label. It is this last role that is perhaps his most accomplished. Sigurðsson has proven himself to be a first-rate organizer of talent, a fine curator of some of the most interesting artists making music today.

Perhaps it is natural that Sigurðsson’s soundtrack album, Draumalandið (Icelandic for “Dreamland”), creates an outlet to utilize all these musicians’ talents on one record. This is in contrast to Ekvílibríum, the solo-debut in which Sigurðsson explored pop and electronic sensibilities. The latest work features Sam Amidan’s idiosyncratic take on folk, arrangements by the precocious young composer Nico Muhly, the incredible sound production of Ben Frost, and a host of other contributors augmenting Sigurðsson’s compositions to create a beautiful and compelling record. Daníel Bjarnason, the subject of Allen’s aforementioned review, also contributed prepared-piano to the project, and Hildur Gudnadottir, whose Without Sinking garnered similar praise from the prolific Allen, contributes her haunting solo cello. Some sections are perhaps a bit grandiose, but since this music is the score to a film about Iceland’s natural resources being overtaken by industry, one should expect a certain amount of grandiosity. Soundtracks are a bit tricky for this reason, as the music has a very specific function to fulfill. Our interpretation and judgment needs to consider the function of the music. Draumalandið is versatile nonetheless, with subtle motifs tying together the disparate styles. Although occasionally one can’t help but imagine the narrative of the film’s different scenes being reflected in the score, the entire project maintains a sense of unity and cohesion. Even without knowledge of the film or its themes, the record holds its own. With so many excellent composers and producers involved, one shouldn’t be surprised that a close listen with headphones reveals great nuance and sophistication that is easy to miss otherwise.

The film Draumalandið is an Icelandic documentary that explores the environmental and human burdens of industry and global capitalism, specifically Iceland’s rush to build a massive hydro-electric dam to provide energy for Alcoa’s aluminum smelting factory, and the resulting debt in the fallout of the global economic crisis of the last few years. Iceland was particularly hard hit by the recession, and perhaps its people have greater reason to reassess their willingness to part with their natural resources and culture in exchange for material wealth. Opening track “Grylukvaedi” is a reinterpretation of a traditional Icelandic folktune, sung by Sam Amidan, complete with banjo and framed by Ben Frosts' programming. The song tells of an old woman who devours mischievous children, and it appropriately grounds the album in Icelandic culture and warns of the dangers of forgetting one’s heritage. Many of the following tracks feature a large orchestration, arranged and composed by Muhly. Though Sigurðsson’s piano and the strings often seem to take center stage, the brass, particularly the French horn, does much to contribute to the dynamic range of tone and mood found on the album. The marimba dances around the cello and violin in “Past Tundra” until the calm is disturbed by foreboding low piano notes, and the pace gradually picks up, morphing into ecstatic tribal rhythms, hand claps, and wailing brass. “Past Tundra,” co-written with Muhly, leans towards the melodramatic side, and I can only assume it is meant to accompany some scene in which tensions are rising. The rhythms catapults the piece forward, but the pacing is just right; at only a few seconds longer than five minutes, the track contains just enough development and variety without lagging or crowding the development of the theme. Compared to other such contemporary classical pieces that fuse traditional orchestration with electronics, Sigurðsson’s latest features rhythms prominently hammered out by percussion, electronics, double-bass, and low-end piano, somehow evoking neither rock nor traditional classical, but something entirely its own.

Some shorter tracks, such as “Economic Hitman” and “Laxness,” focus on one mood, predominantly placing the emphasis on the strings. These lead the way into their succeeding tracks, transitioning the themes expertly as the longer tracks allow for more dynamism and variations. Like Clint Mansell’s The Fountain OST, several of the tracks have companion pieces, which give the album a sort of cyclical feel- a structure that reinforces a sense of coherence, as well as supplementing the narrative of exploitation and redemption. “Dreamland” begins with a lovely piano and string melody but gradually turns sinister. Later, “Draumaland” features the same motif, beginning with a variation of the piano theme that opened the former track, but played in a lower register. The organic simplicity of the short piece “Hot Ground, Cold” is contrasted against the pulsating electronics of “Cold Ground, Hot,” which transforms into the mournful sounds of brass.

Sigurðsson certainly has proven himself capable as a producer and solo artist, but Draumalandið’s great strength is in the community of musicians synthesizing their various styles. From the dynamic production to the warm tones of the orchestration, Draumalandið rewards the careful listener with the subtlety of its construction. Ben Frost’s programming on the final two tracks, “Nowhere Land” and “Helter Smelter,” is much more rewarding when taken in on a good pair of headphones. The album doesn’t exactly resolve itself or end on an upbeat note. Rather, Frost’s hazy distortion builds as the song seems to melt apart, with a prepared-piano faintly audible in the background, hammering away.

I suppose the people of Iceland may not be feeling so optimistic at the moment, but with such excellent artists, Iceland gives us all something to be hopeful about.

Joseph Sannicandro

The Silent Ballet (February 5th 2010) ★★★★★★★★

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