The Hamrahlíð Choir may not be as universally known as fellow Icelanders Sigur Rós, Of Monsters And Men and Björk, but in their native country they’re been an integral part of the cultural landscape for decades. Founded in 1982 by a group of former students of Hamrahlíð College, the ensemble has since toured the world, collaborating with modern classical giants John Cage and Arvo Pärt along the way, and receiving widespread acclaim for their hauntingly pure sound and technical virtuosity.
The aforementioned Björk herself was a member of the choir as a teenager, and as a result has been a long-time collaborator. The Hamrahlíð Choir featured on her 2017 Utopia album and she had all 52 choristers accompany her around the world to perform at every live show of her 2019 Cornucopia tour. It’s therefore no surprise that these twin forces of Icelandic music are now collaborating again on Come And Be Joyful.
The album features a selection of Icelandic folk songs along with two collaborative Björk covers – Cosmogony from 2011’s Biophilia and Sonnets from 2004’s Medúlla – based on Björk’s own arrangements. These two tracks, appearing one after the other in the middle of the running order, will feel the most familiar, and indeed Sonnets – set to a poem by e e cummings – was already entirely acapella in its original form. Both tracks recall Mount Wittenberg Orca, Björk’s masterful collaboration with Dirty Projectors, with their combination of intricate vocal patterns and propulsive energy. This dynamic is also recreated on some of the traditional compositions, notably the jaunty, chanted swagger of the title track (Í gleðinni in Icelandic) which feels both exultant and slightly menacing in equal measure. There are echoes too of The Polyphonic Spree, that long-forgotten but bizarrely wonderful early 2000s choral collective, in the sheer otherworldly strangeness of this music.
In contrast, we also get other pieces that feel almost medieval in their structures and sound, none more so than the album’s two bookends, the soaring Island, farsælda frón (Iceland, Beloved Country), which opens with booming horns straight from the mead hall of a Norse saga, and the fragile, unadorned beauty of Smávinir fagrir (Fair Little Friends), which closes the album on a quiet, reflective note reminiscent of plainsong.
Bar the two Björk covers, unless you’re an expert in the field of Germanic language family studies it’s unlikely you’ll understand a word of what’s been sung on Come And Be Joyful. But such is the richness and precision of the singing, it hardly seems to matter. Irrespective of your mother tongue, it’s hard not to pick up on the underlying sadness of Vísur Vatnsenda – Rósu (Vatnsenda-Rósa’s Verses), or the hushed devotion of Haustvísur til Máríu (Autumn Verses to the Virgin Mary).
Come And Be Joyful is clearly too esoteric a record to have mass appeal. Fans of Björk may be disappointed to find that her overall influence is strictly limited, and it can be a challenge to absorb everything going on at times. However, those who do seek out The Hamrahlíð Choir will be treated to a unique choral experience by undisputed masters of their craft.