There’s always a worry when artists who specialise in instrumental music decide to record an album that features vocals. Maybe it is partly fear of the unknown (ie. what form the voice will take) or just a nagging concern that what follows might dilute or sully their former work. In more cases than not it seems to result in albums that get pushed to one side and quietly overlooked rather than embraced wholeheartedly in the way their earlier albums do.
On his latest release For Now I Am Winter however Icelandic musician Ólafur Arnalds fares much better than most. It very much confirms him to be representative of the modern composer-musician – extremely prolific (this is his third full length album to go with the five EPs and three film scores that he has already released) and also with a seemingly insuppressible interest in artistic collaboration and expansion of musical horizons.
It also sees a change in record label for him, moving from Erased Tapes to Mercury Classics (a conscious decision linked to the change in style).
To date, arguably his greatest achievement has been …And They Have Escaped The Weight Of Darkness, his 2010 breakthrough album that propelled him to the forefront of the modern classical movement. It is quite possible however that For Now I Am Winter will eventually be viewed in similar terms.
It gets off to an attention-grabbing start with opening instrumental duo Sudden Throw and Brim. The former is as elegant as anything he’s released so far, while the latter is embellished with electronically generated beats that reappear throughout the album (although overall he doesn’t quite make as much of them as he could have done). It’s almost as if he wants to allow the listener time to settle in to the album before introducing the vocals, which are provided by Agent Fresco singer Arnór Dan Arnarson (who he worked with on Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Japanese tsunami benefit project).
They arrive in the shivering beauty of the title track and the melting-ice purity of A Stutter. Sung exclusively in English and, set against the orchestral backdrop, they recall fellow Scandinavians Efterklang. Arnason’s voice also shares the fragility of that belonging to Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi Birgisson, and there are valid musical comparisons to be made also. Many tracks have an orchestral swell not dissimilar to that found in Sigur Rós’ music, maybe not that of their ‘prime’ period but certainly in line with last year’s restrained and muted Valtari. The engulfed drama of Only The Winds and This Place Was A Shelter provide two of the more animated moments on the album.
Sometimes the sound can appear overly clean, but on the whole Arnalds makes intelligent, informed decisions on the musical options available to him (particularly well illustrated by the tidal pull of the strings and brass found on Reclaim).
It almost feels superfluous to remark on the quality of the arrangements and musicianship on display as these are areas he has always excelled in, but For Now I Am Winter sounds like an album that will eventually be viewed as a important Ólafur Arnalds release, the moment where a self-confident artist took the first step towards something more open and accessible.