2017 is shaping up to be one of the best years ever for new releases from Iceland. We’ve already seen and heard new albums from established veterans of the scene DIMMA, HAM, Singapore Sling, and Sólstafir; young up-and-comers like Fufanu, Úlfur Úlfur, and Vök; and debuts from the likes of Madonna + Child and Milkywhale. Plus we’ve been told to expect stuff from Legend and Gusgus before the end of the year. And that’s just scratching the surface – the DIY scene is bubbling under with so many cassette releases that I stopped even trying to keep up. But even with this wealth of sonic riches vying for my attention I was caught by surprise to see an announcement last month for another forthcoming record, this one by our friends Epic Rain.
It’s been three years since we’ve heard new music from Epic Rain, back when Lucky Records put out their excellent Somber Air in 2014. And it’s been a time of transition for the group, which is the brainchild and vision of vocalist Jóhannes Birgir Pálmason. More emphasis has been placed on the musicians, giving them space to shine, and the departure of male co-vocalist Bragi coupled with the growing role of chanteuse Ingunn Eria moves things in a more haunting direction on Dream Sequences, and that’s saying something given Epic Rain’s penchant for describing the darker aspects of life.
I first listened to Dream Sequences on my very long, early morning commute into work a few weeks ago and was immediately swallowed whole by the dreamy and eerie opener “Dream Sequence 1”, so much so that it wasn’t until a few songs later that I snapped out of it and thought, “wait a minute, did this album open with an instrumental track?” I actually had to go back and check, and sure enough it does. Now this may not seem like a big deal, but considering that the most distinguishing characteristic of Epic Rain’s sound is Jóhannes’ voice and cadence, opening with a full-length instrumental is an important statement – Dream Sequences is not simply a collection of songs, or even a group of songs loosely tied together around a common theme. This is a cohesive and immersive experience, one meant to be heard all the way through. There’s a definite plan here.
Musically we’re treated to a combination of electronic and instrumental performances, often blended together so well that it’s hard to hear the line separating the two. The defining musical element of the album, however, is undoubtedly the fantastic jazz-style drumming of Magnús Trygvason Eliassen (aka Maggi), who is probably best know for his work with the Icelandic jazz quartet ADHD. When I mentioned this observation to Jóhannes via email he completely agreed, noting that Maggi’s drumming gives the percussion on Dream Sequences a completely different sound than that of previous Epic Rain efforts. And here’s the thing – this isn’t super-intricate drumming; it’s at times snappy, other times brushed, keeping time and creating structure while also contributing to the mood. The way the album is mixed gives the drums more prominence than they had on Somber Air, where they were flatter and spent more time in lower registers. Maggi’s percussion is sometimes even at odds with the rest of the music, existing on a higher plane and providing a counter to the ethereality of the rest of the performers. “Disguisement” is a prime example of this, the snare popping like low calibre gunshots behind Jóhannes’ staccato vocals. While the album is best considered as a whole, listeners are sure to still have favorite songs and this is mine, due in no small part to Maggi’s drums.
Dream Sequences creates an emotional environment similar to the effect of those 1960s era horror and vampire movies, films that didn’t rely on the pure shock value of excessive gore and violence but instead on the more subtle approach of slowly and methodically building your disquiet. When Jóhannes rasps I document your dreams behind the picture on the wall / I sense that you’re running, trying to reach the door / You’re bound by my chain and I’m bound by this psychosis / Now wake up my darling / It’s time to smell the roses on “A Night Like This” the song doesn’t crescendo, it’s almost banal – you’re slowly descending into madness, I’ve been watching you, and now it’s time to smell the roses. There’s no other way. Come on, let’s go. Don’t make a fuss and accept the inevitability of what is to come. Taking on the voice of a killer in “’62 Mustang” he describes his murder kit and weapons in the same unemotional way a mechanic would describe his tools, each with a specific purpose, no one more important than the others. Coupled with the sad tones of some far away surf guitar it’s not maudlin but instead matter-of-fact in its dreariness. This is who I am, this is what I do, and these are the things I do it with.
Across the first five songs Pálmason and Ingunn Eria circle each other, usually existing in distinctly separate spaces but in a way that strongly if indirectly implies a relationship like that of perpetrator and victim, all the while infusing the entire thing with a sense of inevitability – he knows her so well, and she’s both aware of his presence and the inescapability of what is to come. The first and last songs are instrumental “Dream Sequences” which bookend the story expressed in the middle three tracks. The same format is used for the second batch of five songs (Eria, however, makes a brief vocal appearance on “Dream Sequence 4” so it’s not technically an instrumental), though this time the story has shifted to a confused tale of drug abuse and memory blackouts that imply a violence that can’t be remembered. The subtlety of the first story is put aside in favor of a blunt tale of the descent into madness, which is already well on its way by time we’re introduced to the scene, and this time it’s Eria that feels like the voice calling the soon-to-be victim to his grave. The strength of Dream Sequences is that these two vignettes fit together sonically and thematically like a pair of cautionary tales, completely devoid of morality and instead simply warnings of what is to come.
Dream Sequences is the next step in the continuing evolution of Epic Rain, taking their sound in musically richer and lyrically darker directions. You can get a sneak preview on YouTube with the opening track, the instrumental “Dream Sequence 1”. I’ll definitely be picking up a copy of Dream Sequences at Airwaves this fall.