Atmospheric music can come from anywhere, but recently, “Icelandic” has almost become short hand for a particular sound rather than an indicator of where the artist is actually from. Not that this seems to bother Anton Kaldal Ágústsson’s in the slightest. His electronic soundscapes and occasional use of live orchestral instrumentation appear to be the very epitome of the moody and sometimes unusual music that is expected from Icelandic musicians.
With Tonik Ensemble, Agústsson is not concerned with apparent signifiers of place on this album; Snapshots is first and foremost influenced by colour and sound. Throughout the album, Ágústsson explores the colour palettes of his instrumentation and of the human voice, building up songs that are at times rather impressionistic but that also manage to adhere to club beats.
The songwriting process for this album has been described as a form of painting, and it seeks to explore a form of the neurological condition Synaesthesia that causes those affected to associate sounds with specific colours (Chromaesthesia, is the specific name for this form). Snapshots is intended as a visual and sonic experience, and although there are moments where the beats start to evoke images of dry ice swamped dancefloors, this is an album perhaps best experienced in isolation and afforded full concentration.
Ágústsson’s main strengths lie in achieving a finely crafted balance between the vocal aspects of the album and the electronic and “authentic” instrumentation. Nowhere is this more evident than on the opening track Prelude, which begins with an almost primordial vocal thrum that calls to mind Philip Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi, before slowly introducing new layers and colours. It could almost be the sound of evolution.
From there, the main theme of the album is addressed via Synaesthesia. A minimalist track that cracks and bubbles as a low vocal explains the effects of the condition. Surprisingly it’s more engaging than it sounds, this is after all not a medical dictionary set to music, and as the song progresses new instrumentation and vocal hooks are added.
What started as a blank canvas now has depth and this is exploited by Landscapes, a song that sees Ágústsson throwing everything into the mix. The vocals are provided by Ragnhildur Gisladottir, most well known for her work on Tricky’s Maxinquaye, and her soulful timbre soars delightfully over a carefully constructed soundscape that features just enough light and shade.
The bubbling synths of Imprints pull a similar trick, managing to come across as threatening and beautiful at the same time. The vocals of Johann Kristinsson are carried on the “environmental noises” and ever growing currents of the song. If there’s a colour associated with this song, then it’s that of a towering, icy-blue arctic wave.
At times the album can feel a little impenetrable and introspective for its own good. The bizarre whispered disco and sax noodling of The Further I Go is jarring and confusing, whilst the endless icy drip of Powers Of Ten is evocative but struggles to hold the attention. It’s no surprise to find there’s a vocal line that states “my mind keeps drifting”.
Despite this, the closing track Until We Meet Again finds the perfect balance of sonic sketching and elegant chilled pop. When Ágústsson is this focussed he can be utterly breathtaking. His palette on this album might seem a little subdued to those without Synaesthesia, steeped as it is in glitchy electronics and whispered vocals, but there are moments of glowing fiery wonder too.