Review Summary: Icelandic boy wonder makes grown men cry with focused second effort
Having already wowed and quite probably irked the wine-swirling suits at the neo-classical party with his critically acclaimed debut album ‘Eulogy for Evolution’, young Olafur Arnalds has wasted little time in crafting another set of gems with his latest EP ‘Variations of Static’. While ‘Eulogy’ offered brilliance in the form of crushingly plaintive piano/violin melodies, raw and organic in their fragility, and then punctuated them with a big fat exclamation mark - an unanticipated post-rock crescendo, ‘Variations of Static’ uses electronic glitches and a robotic voice to bite down hard on the nerve endings, allowing the venom of the chamber orchestra to sink in and spread its melancholic anaesthetic throughout the body.
Whether you’ll enjoy this release will very much depend on your reaction to the electronics. For me, they add an element to the record that would be missing without them. While the songs would be powerful and passionate if untouched, like a roaring forest fire, the synths and drum machines breathe together to work as a wind which pushes the flames forward, maximising their devastation. Opener "Fok" is a showcase piece for such an analogy, the gentle electronics whisper behind a poignant piano melody, edging it on to meet the strings which tug at the throat. The drums then slip in, and before you know it, a new piano has entered the foray and the leaves are blown up under your feet in a whirlwind of emotional noise.
The rest of the album continues in similar fashion, introducing the robotic voice and allowing the glitches to melt into one another while the piano and violin take centre stage. The voice ricochets off the piano keys in "Við vorum smá...", while "Haust" shows a complex layering of violin and cello, dotting piano keys around to comfort quivering strings, absent of glitches or drums. The next track twists and tangles the violin strings with the special talent Olafur has of uprooting the core power of a note and squeezing it for all its emotive worth. Finally, the record comes to a close with the strings circling around the voice in "Himininn", a tender piano taking the voice’s place and the glitches murmuring behind to end an incredibly moving record.
The robotic voice will also bring differing opinions on whether it enhances or damages the piece. The voice is prevalent throughout the album, peering out above the glitches and notes, looking out onto the unknown, like the curious child on the shoulders of his faithful father. Hearing the voice scattered randomly over the piece is like hearing the voice of a long lost loved one on an ancient home video. It has a nostalgic, ironically human quality which you immediately connect with, despite it not being real.
The album never really surprises, content to wash over the listener without drowning them. Unlike his first album, the Icelandic superkid shows maturity and focus in allowing the songs to progress smoothly, without feeling the need to branch off in to some unknown quantum, just for the sake of because. He takes the linear route, but luckily he manages to make it a scenic route. His choice of adding electronics shows he is not afraid to take a risk or two, and this decision to try and understand and exploit their use has enabled him to add another weapon to his already dangerous orchestral arsenal.
The only issue with the lack of surprises is that you come away feeling a little disappointed. After the shocking finale to his first album, which literally took the breath away, the decision to leave all the post-rock at home for this EP leaves a slightly unsavoury taste on the tongue. There is the niggling thought that he could have added the unexpected without compromising the flow and focus, but maybe that’s asking for a little too much. There is also the problem of the length, its just a tad too short, even for an EP. Perhaps I’m greedy.
Bottom line, watch out for this young maestro. It won’t be long before he’s scoring your new favourite movie, recording your new favourite album, and becoming your new favourite name to drop. ‘Variations of Static’ proves Olafur Arnalds is well on his way to the top, so do yourself a favour and enjoy the ride with him.