Árstíðir – Hvel – Album Review
Is it strange that I can identify the Iceland sound? Between the character-placement of the band/album name and the overall tone and assembly of the music, I was left with little to no doubt that Árstíðir was coming to us from this beautiful still-fairly-untouched music-mecca. Turns out that yes, based in Reykjavík, this four-piece has been making music for some time already – we’re a little late to the party here at sleepingbagstudios; after listening to Hvel the new album from Árstíðir, it’s very clear that this is a band at their creative maximum right here and right now.
In probably one of the most pleasantly enjoyable experiences I’ve had listening to an album since I latched onto the beautiful compositions of Mimicking Birds; Hvel starts out with “Himinhvel,” a track set out in the distant atmosphere of your speakers. Lead singer Daníel Auðunsson sounds almost like the Icelandic Michael Stipe here on this song; the performance is absolutely stunning, as is the music. It slowly builds melodically upon itself into a swirling ending…and right when you think you run the risk of Árstíðir turning into extreme metal…the song just ends quietly on the beautiful tones it came in on and drifts sweetly into “Things You Said.”
When you make music truly based in atmosphere, it takes you somewhere special…somewhere you can’t get to with your own imagination. With the assistance of the proper tune made exceptionally well – it’s almost like seeing the world from in behind an entirely new set of eyes. “Things You Said” comes with the extraordinary achievement of all of this; the slow grind and build of this melodic song is intoxicating as it plays and takes a firmer grip on a listening ear as it heads towards the all-encompassing ending. With strings in full-flare, this track continually expands until it’s right out into space itself.
“Someone Who Cares” is a sweetly-toned melody with gorgeous harmonies, acoustic guitar and dynamic strings that push this track forth to beautifully creative heights. It’s a TINY bit strange to me that over the course of about three years here at sleepingbag, I’ve compared about a dozen or so bands to the sound of The Verve Pipe. Now…that’s not a knock on The Verve Pipe or anyone I’ve compared to them – that’s a fantastic, melodic pop-rock sound…but it never caught on for more than one single. Can anyone tell me why that is when I constantly hear similar sounds? They seemed like nice people…they couldn’t have been that mean; and half the people making music now should have been growing up on that sound when it was popular…I’m shocked they missed so many people when I hear so many bands doing something similar NOW.
But that’s what they say right? Music is all about timing. For the record…I don’t believe in bad timing, only bad promotion; but who’s to say who’s right? It could be that The Verve Pipe was fifteen years too late, or, maybe they had management that didn’t know how to push a sound that apparently a ton of people would discover later on down the road…
In any event, for those that know the band, you’ll hear the similarities in both “Someone Who Cares” and in the following track “Moonlight.” Seriously a magical moment in music, “Moonlight” is a slow, sweet melody played to absolute perfection, sung with astounding focus on tone. For those of you that have felt the incredibly spacious atmosphere of Coldplay’s early work, songs like “Amsterdam” or “Spies” have that similar intensely ‘open’ feel to the music, as isolating as it is expansive.
“Vetur að vori,” the fifth song, led by nothing but synth, vocals, courage and pure-hearts – this song…well…this band really…has surpassed any expectations I could have had for them – this is beyond professional and the song-writing is just immaculate. Almost all the words throughout the album are presumably in Icelandic…but that couldn’t make less of a difference to me when the melodies are as strong as they are here.
Of course, being from Iceland, almost every journalist in every column is going to make their best effort to mention Sigur Ros or tie them in somehow. Shamelessly, I’m no different. But, if you’ve ever longed for the combination of Sigur Ros and Radiohead combined – listen no further than the album’s middle tracks “Friðþægingin” and “Ró.” Not even kidding – with the elements of pop/jazz notwithstanding, the strings, drums, bass combination of “Friðþægingin” sound like the ( ) album from Sigur Ros meets OK Computer from Radiohead. It’s a dark, quick melody with a bright & beautiful chorus that shows real diversity within Árstíðir; the vocals have been standout throughout the album, and so have the strings really…the drums become a true champion in this particular song as it plays through. Followed by the melancholy instrumental “Ró,” a beautiful piano/string combination with subtle bass…plays like an extended & slowed-down breakdown from “Paranoid Android” from Radiohead’s OK Computer days, or a heartbeat away from launching into something like “Exit Music.”
Regardless of comparison, these combinations put together by Árstíðir borrow elements, but the band retains their style, their sound throughout. The focus on beauty, on the craft of music and exceptional composition simply radiate from these songs…just unbelievable instincts at every second and every moment. Even when jumping into a language outside of their own native-tongue, like singing English words throughout “Cannon,” this band literally never misses.
The downbeat emotion of the melancholy “Silfurskin,” takes the album into a darker territory as it plays through with sparkling clarity and a hopeful vocal tone brought out to full potential through their excellent harmonies. It ends on sullen piano notes as it leads into “Shine,” which, with its subtle but powerful opening…lyrics are spectacular once again…the metering is just as perfect when they switch to English as when they sing in Icelandic. It’s all so completely well placed…every moment of Árstíðir’s music makes perfect sense to my ears. “Shine” has a slow-intensity to it, similar to what Mars Volta had when they stripped it all back.
“You Again,” takes it back to the beautiful elements and atmosphere that have dominated a fair portion of this album. In perhaps the most emotionally convincing performance from the vocals up to this point; that’s saying a ton because the vocals have stood out as incredible all throughout Hvel. Against a soft piano background, vocal parts drift in and out of the harmonies, strings come in…and the true magic of how music can capture your heart, mind and soul are all in full bloom. As the track breaks into an all-piano ending, it’s so breathtakingly emotional that I can only imagine playing this live wouldn’t leave a dry eye in the entire building.
Into a final voyage of musical adventure, “Unfold” displays the brilliance of timing and melody that have made Árstíðir an extraordinary find. With tones almost similar to the harmonies you’d find in the mellow songs from Tool and Maynard James Keenan, almost tribal or chant-like throughout the verse. The chorus is just otherworldly gorgeous once again…I feel like I’m running out of words to describe just what amazing music Árstíðir are putting out here on Hvel.
For such an incredible sound that is completely their own, it all echoes some of the most brilliant artists and bands I have a very deep respect for and maintains an incredibly diverse versatility in the music while holding onto an overall feeling, tone and atmosphere that envelops you completely.
Hands down one of the best albums I’ve heard this year – watch out for Árstíðir – this band is going to be a global sensation one day. Find out more from their official page at: http://www.arstidir.com/
Join the thousands of bands & artists reviewed at sleepingbagstudios by clicking here!