Ólafur Arnalds – “LateNightTales” (2016)

From hardcore punk rock to neoclassical to electronica, it feels like Ólafur Arnalds has experimented with just about every type of musical genre that exists.  At the ripe old age of 29 he finds himself at the forefront of the growing modern classical movement.  As the notes on the back of LateNightTales‘ jacket tell us:

Right now we’re standing at the intersection where techno meets classical music and it sounds mighty fine.

olafurarnaldslatenighttales

I was surprised the other day when I came across this June 2016 release, as I hadn’t seen anything online about Arnalds releasing a new album.  Though, to be fair, LateNightTales isn’t exactly an Ólafur Arnalds project – he’s directly involved in only four of the 18 tracks that make up the double album, three credited as Ólafur Arnalds and one as part of his fantastic ambient electronic duo Kiasmos, all of which appear to be previously unreleased.  The other 14 tracks are contributed by an interesting assortment of artists, a few of who like Samaris, James Blake, Rival Consoles and Hjaltalín that I’m familiar with, but also others who I haven’t heard before.

This latest curated LateNightTales release is pure chill, songs for the evening time when you’re hanging with a small group of friends, or maybe just by yourself, relaxing, talking, unwinding, grooving…  I wasn’t familiar with this series of compilations until checking out the label website and was surprised to see a couple of dozen of the these collections put together by artists like Fatboy Slim, The Flaming Lips, and Django Django, and it’s an interesting concept.  It appears that a number of LateNightTales releases include cover songs by the curating artist, and in Arnalds’ case he teams up with vocalist Arnór Dan of Agent Fresco fame (who was also featured alongside Arnalds on the brilliant track “Old Skin” on For Now I Am Winter) to cover Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name,” which Arnór handles beautifully.

Arnalds’ own material is, of course, excellent.  But of the artists he selected I came away most impressed with the more uptempo ambient of Rival Consoles’ “Pre” and the rich beats of Jai Paul’s “Jasmine (Demo)”.  Spooky Black’s “Pull” is another high point, with its haunting vocals that seem to float on top of the undercurrent that is the music and the beat that has a surprising kick to it for such an ethereal song.

I’ll have to keep my eyes open for used copies of other albums in the LateNightTales series – it’s a cool concept and I could see getting into some of these if the price is right.

Fighting Shit

Once there was a hardcore band in Iceland called Fighting Shit.  They put out some CDs in the mid-2000s and were pretty decent, if not well known outside their native land.

So why are they important?

Well, their former drummer is arguably one of the most gifted and well respected of the new generation of classical musicians, artists who play and compose in a classical style but still bring modern technology to their works through sampling, etc.  His name is Ólafur Arnalds, and he has an insanely passionate and devoted international following.  If you’ve seen the movies Hunger Games or Gimmie Shelter, or watched the British TV crime drama Broadchurch, you’ve been exposed to his music without even knowing it.  (And their former guitarist, Þórir Georg Jónsson, is a pretty impressive musician in his own right as well, one who often gets overlooked when Fighting Shit is mentioned… but I for one really like his stuff as well)

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I came across these three Fighting Shit CDs complete by accident.  I emailed the Paradísarborgarplötur label looking for something specific, and over the course of a few emails I got a list of a bunch of CDs and tapes they had available.  Given how reasonable the prices were, I asked them to basically send me one of everything.  And that, my friends, is how I ended up with not one not two but three Fighting Shit CDs:  Tuned For Thrash (2003), Bothered – a split release with Dead After School (2005), and Forgotten Daughters, Abandoned Sons (2006).  Almost the complete discography, as near as I can tell.

Musically Fighting Shit was hardcore, pure and simple.  Maybe even a bit more heavy metal thrash than hardcore punk – the songs are incredible bursts of speed and energy.  I mean, the nine song Tuned For Thrash is only 11 minutes long, with eight songs running less than a minute apiece.  These are insane flurries of noise, though musically there’s structure – this isn’t just some insane noise fest, these guys are playing legit songs, and they sound pretty tight even with all the speed.

 

By Forgotten Daughters, Abandoned Sons Fighting Shit slowed down the pace a little, and while the vocals are still raspy assaults on your ears, you can now easily understand the words (which are in English) without the aid of a lyric sheet, at least you can a lot of the time.  Musically the band matured by leaps and bounds, alternating pacing within songs and even doing some harmonizing.  It’s a much more approachable album to my ears, having moved even more towards the heavy metal end of the spectrum and with songs long enough that you have a chance to get into them – with seven songs at about 21 minutes it’s more a traditional format.  Some of it is even slow and heavy, most impressively the nine minute, Sólstafir-like “I Am The Quiet End,” my favorite song in their catalog, by far.

I’m not going to pretend that I could have listened to Fighting Shit back in the day and thought, “you know, there’s something about that drummer… I’ll be he’s going to be huge someday”.  It’s hard to believe that Arnalds has been releasing recorded music for this long – he would have been about 17 when Tuned For Thrash came out… and he’s only 27 today!  His body of work is impressive, not only because he’s so young but also because he seamlessly transitioned from his hardcore punk with Fighting Shit to his classical sounding solo and collaborative projects, a disparity that couldn’t be much greater, moving from one end of the spectrum to the other without any real stops along the way.

I was primarily interested in hearing Fighting Shit because of Arnald’s involvement, but after  giving these CDs a listen I came away impressed with what I heard, especially Forgotten Daughters, Abandoned Sons, which I’m going to need to burn to my iPod.  I’m not sure if a hardcore fan of Arnalds current work will enjoy Fighting Shit, but I can promise that if you like punk/thrash metal they’re worth a listen.

Kiasmos – “Thrown” EP

kiasmosthrownI’m not sure how I missed Kiasmos.  OK, it’s not like they’ve been super prolific, only putting out a split 12″ prior to 2013’s Thrown, but given that the group is comprised of Janus Rasmussen from Bloodgroup and Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds, they seem like the kind of group I should know about.  I mean, these are both performers I’ve actually met!  Ironically both encounters took place in Seattle, not Iceland where they are based.  We got to spend some time with Janus and Bloodgroup before their show here at the High Dive a while back and I met Arnalds earlier this year when he did his live in-studio at KEXP.  Both were great guys.  Man I hope we didn’t miss them performing together live at Airwaves this year…

So now that I had “discovered” Kiasmos, I went online to look for a copy of their four song EP Thrown.  I could only find copies for sale in Europe (i.e. high shipping costs), so despite my preference for vinyl I relented and purchased it on iTunes instead, where it is a true bargain at $3.97.  I’ll still keep my eyes open for the record, though; maybe I’ll get lucky and find a copy in Reykjavik at Airwaves 2014.

Thrown is an entirely electronic album – no vocals here at all.  There are two original tracks, “Thrown” and “Wrecked,” along with remixes of each – FaltyDL doing the honors on “Thrown” and 65daysofstatic on “Wrecked.”  The soundscapes on the two standard tracks are certainly influenced by both performers’ other projects – there are elements of Bloodgroup beats here, particularly in “Wrecked,” while Arnalds’ presence is felt in the quieter and slower undercurrents.  That’s not to say that Kaismos is just some kind of blend, because it certainly isn’t; if I’d heard this “cold” without knowing who the members were I doubt I would be able to connect Thrown to either, at least not in any obvious way.  Both songs are quite good, though I’m personally partial to the more up tempo sound of “Wrecked.”  The 65daysofstatic remix of it is killer as well, a shorter more danceable version that really kicks into gear just before the 3:30 mark with some deep electronic beats.

With over 24 minutes of music you’re getting your money’s worth here, and then some.  Don’t let the fact that two of the four tracks are remixes make you hesitate – the remix versions are departures from the originals and more resemble unique tracks of their own than just mixes.  Kiasmos also contribute a track to a new limited edition box set (5 X 7″) called Erased Tapes Collection V (as does Arnalds as a solo artist) that is also available by digital download or vinyl at the Erased Tapes Records website.  I will definitely be following these guys on Facebook to stay up to date on future releases.  And I’ll keep looking for that vinyl.

Ólafur Arnalds (with Arnór Dan Arnársson) – Live in Seattle @ Benaroya Hall 9/27/13

We spotted Ólafur Arnalds on the lineup for Seattle’s annual Decibel Festival, but because my wife was traveling for business that week and not returning home until the afternoon of the show we figured we probably wouldn’t make the show.  But when we found out a week ago that our friend Arnór Dan Arnársson of Agent Fresco fame was coming to town to perform some vocals for Arnalds, reprising his role on For Now I Am Winter, that changed everything.  Tickets were purchased, plans were made.

Arnalds has done a number of performances for Seattle’s KEXP radio over the years, and the morning of the show he, Arnór, and their string performers did a roughly 20 minute live set over at the studio.  I reached out to a friend and he was kind enough to invite me down to watch, which was fantastic.  Not only did I have a chance to see Arnór for a couple of minutes, but I also got to briefly meet Arnalds who was great.  They played four songs – two instrumental (one from For Now I Am Winter, the other from Living Room Songs) followed by two off the new album that featured Arnór singing, “For Now I Am Winter” and the absolutely brilliant “Old Skin”.  The guys sounded great, and despite bets being made in the studio as to whether or not Arnór would be able to hit the high notes during the performance that he kept missing during practice (I believe the wager eventually involved Arnalds putting up an airport lounge pass, his health insurance card, and $10 Canadian…), he nailed both songs and sounded amazing as always.

The show itself was held in the perfect venue for Arnalds – the Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital  Hall at Benaroya Hall, a 536-person room designed specifically for great acoustics.  German composer Nils Frahm opened the show with his ambient electronic and piano arrangements and was joined on stage by Arnalds for one number.  This was my first experience with Frahm and I found that there were parts of his performance that I liked a lot, particularly those that were less electronic based and had more emphasis on his piano skills.  His pieces are long, making them somewhat challenging, but I felt he got stronger as the set progressed (that may say more about me becoming more attuned to what he was doing than anything else) and he ended on a high note with the long piano part to close his final song, which was the pinnacle of his night.

Arnalds was joined on stage by a violinist and a cellist, just like he was when we saw him at Airwaves last year, but this was a much more enjoyable and intimate venue when compared to the raised stage and crowd sitting on the floor that made him seem a million miles away during that show in Reykjavik.  One of Arnalds strengths as a performer (as opposed to simply being a fantastic musician) is that he engages the crowd, not only being funny and telling us a bit about his songs (one of which was composed following a drinking bout during an overnight van ride while traveling to a gig in Poland, for example… “Sad songs don’t have to always be a out heartache… there are other kinds of sadness too!”), but also about how he was using technology during the show, capturing samples on his iPad and then layering them into the song as it continues.  Another of his strengths is that he loves to showcase the talent around him as was evidenced by the strong violin parts written into some of his pieces, one of which involved an extended solo that he simply sat and watched, obviously relishing it.

Arnársson joined Arnalds on stage for two songs it the second half of the set, the same two he performed at KEXP earlier in the day.  It was apparent that at least some members of the crowd knew Arnársson from his work with Agent Fresco, especially given that someone shouted the band name from the back of the hall when he was introduced (it was’t me, Arnór!).  He was emotional and brilliant, with Arnalds understanding exactly how to get the most out of his singer’s voice and showcasing it much as he did the strings.  And yes, he hit the high notes.  Frahm joined the entire ensemble on stage for one of these songs as well.

Overall it was a very enjoyable night of music.  With so much talent in the room you knew you were going to be impressed throughout, and blown away at times, and Arnalds and friends came through.  And given that Arnalds is only 26 years old, I suspect we can expect decades more of great music from him, and I for one will be watching… and listening.

Ólafur Arnalds – “For Now I Am Winter”

One of the items I was on the lookout for during Record Store Day was the limited edition (of 1,000) vinyl of Ólafur Arnalds’ 2013 release For Now I Am Winter.  I kinda figured this would be more of a European release since Arnalds is from Iceland, and when I didn’t see it at Easy Street or Silver Platters I wasn’t terribly surprised.  But Monday night while I was perusing the Easy Street website I was surprised to find they had one copy listed for sale as part of their RSD “left overs” and I knew I had to get it.  I debated driving over that night to pick it up, but given the time it would take and the cost of gas these days, paying the shipping and sales tax was a good economic decision.  Besides which it ensured I could have another cocktail that night after placing my order online, since there’s no rule against drinking and buying stuff on the internet, a fact for which many retailers and especially eBay are grateful.  A guy I know surfed eBay drunk one night and woke up to discover he’d bought a very used limousine.  True story.

The record arrived today and we put it on the turntable to give it a listen while we ate some ice cream.  We’d seen Arnalds live last year at Iceland Airwaves – people talk about him like he’s the Stephen Hawking of music over there, so we wanted to see what the fuss was all about.  Arnalds was on the piano, along with one electronics box, plus a violin player and a cellist.  After seeing the set I agree that Arnalds is insanely talented; and that many of his fans are unfortunately insanely pretentious, almost acting like those of us not already “in the know” about Ólafur were intruding on their private conclave.  But the violin player that night was absolutely amazing, and we were still glad to have seen Arnalds’ show.  Originally a punk rock drummer, over time he’s developed into sort of modern-minimalist-classicist.  Nice music to have on while you’re enjoying some ice cream after a hard day of work.

Holly and I both almost dropped out spoons at the same moment, when the first time a vocalist snuck out of the music about half way through side A.  Boy, that sure sounds a lot like Arnór Dan Arnársson from Agent Fresco, we agreed… and then it sounded even more like him… and lo and behold, the album credits “Arnór Dan” with the vocals, so it has to be him!  Which makes sense given that the two traveled to New York last week to do a couple of shows.  Wow – that got us listening a bit more attentively.  Arnór is crazy talented and, just as importantly, a really great guy, so it was cool to hear him on this.

As mentioned before, For Now I Am Winter is more or less a classical album – classical instruments for sure, though hardly orchestral in scope, and it’s actually very quiet and still.  Arnársson’s vocal sound flows in and out of a handful of songs almost like a unique instrument of its own, and my favorite song by far is “Old Skin” which features him prominently.  It’s great chill music, a worthy addition to anyone’s music library that will almost certainly warrant a play from time to time when the mood is quiet and relaxation is an imperative.  Regardless of the style(s) of music you primarily gravitate toward, you owe it to yourself to have a couple of high quality, soft albums like this on the shelf.