Live Music + Gig Reviews

Ólafur Arnalds @ All Saints Church, Brighton

4 December 2013

“Damn, it’s cold” says someone in the queue for the bar, before looking guiltily upwards at a portrait of Christ because we’re in a church. But they’re not wrong: it is very very cold, and much of the support slot is spent either vying for a stage sightline amidst the bobble hats or sizing up All Saints Church for sources of heat.

That’s not a criticism of Douglas Dare: his piano-driven singer-songwriting is frequently lovely, and his dexterity quite staggering, even if his lyrics rarely match the eloquence of his fingers. But it is something of a relief when his set ends and we get to queue for the toilets to thaw out our hands beneath the taps and hunt, wild-eyed, for radiators.

It’s not a criticism of the venue either: on the contrary, these are precisely the conditions that Ólafur Arnalds’ music demands, the vaulted arches and gothic stone and still and silent space a complement to the grandeur of the Icelandic composer’s work. “For most of this tour we’ve been travelling in summer,” Arnalds laments. “It’s good to be somewhere more appropriate.” Well indeed – when your last album is titled For Now I Am Winter the unremitting glare of Californian sun probably isn’t particularly welcome. Much, much better the gloom and the echoes and the (artificial) mist and the duffel coats of a huddled, reverent audience.

It’s a set arranged into pretty much three acts, the first largely focused upon piano, violin and cello, the second incorporating electronics – or Mr Jobs, as Arnalds introduces his iPad – and the third foregrounding Arnór Dan’s vocals, the Agent Fresco frontman’s already-striking voice lent a particular gravity within this space. The flow mirrors the development of his music generally, from the sparse and understated melancholy of Ágúst through to the glitch and reverb of Hand, Be Still and the emotive crescendo of Old Skin – which despite its kitchen sink of orchestral swells and mawkish lyrics and crashing beats manages to cling, narrowly, to the right side of overblown.

Whilst many critics were slightly lukewarm to the recent shifts in Arnalds’ musical palette, preferring the purity of his classical compositions, live the balance works perfectly, the performance a progression of style and mood and stories about vodka. Vodka, it seems, was quite central to the creative process. “We met in a bar and we had some vodka,” he says of working with Arnór Dan, “and then we had some more.” Perhaps, on the strength of the evidence here, we’d benefit from changing our national drink.

It’s a beautiful show, warm and intricate and fragile, and a remarkably humble one: Arnalds himself is rarely the central figure within his own compositions, ceding the centre-stage to Dan or to his violinist, most notably during a stunning, exhausting mid-set solo. Indeed, it’s the latter that delivers the truly killer blow, at the close of Arnalds’ solo encore piece Lag Fyrir Ömmu. Written for his grandmother after her death it’s a lovely piece, sparing and haunting and immensely powerful, building to a mournful refrain that’s echoed from side of stage by the strings as they recede into the vestry, door closing symbolically behind them as Arnalds plays out the final fading notes. It’s a simple device but a devastating one, the context granting the subject matter a resonance that few spaces could provide, and it’s a subdued and slightly tearstained crowd that threads their way through the columns and past the statues and into the starry night.

Photo credit: Marino Thorlacius/Mercury Classics

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