The music of Ólafur Arnalds does not have any words. And yet when Ólafur Arnalds, the maestro behind the moniker, talks about his music, he describes it as a story. For instance, when talking about his newest album …And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness, he says that the fifth song, “Kjurrt,” is “an important part of the ‘story’ the album is telling. I love writing simple stuff like this and trying to take it as far as I can go. Here I was exploring how the same three notes can mean something completely different in the beginning and the ending of the song.” So the language that Ólafur Arnalds uses to tell his story is at first blush simple: minimalist piano, sweeping strings, drums and electronic beats. But as they say, the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts, and such is the case for Ólafur Arnalds.
A former hardcore drummer, Ólafur Arnalds has been composing and performing his classically informed, melancholy and moving music since 2007. He has released three EP’s and two albums proper, with the aforementioned latest LP having come out in 2010. As many critics have noted, there must be something in the water (or, um, ice?) up there in Iceland, because Mr. Arnalds' music shares a certain glacial majesty with the two most well-known musicians of his homeland, Bjork and Sigur Ros.
Sigur Ros, for whom Arnalds has opened on tour, is an appropriate point of entry when approaching Arnalds' music. He contrasts the soaring vocals, maximalist instrumentation, and percussive crescendos of Sigur Ros with patient, calm music that is emotional, yet still maintains sonic space, room for the listener to enter into the songs. The two bands share a cinematic quality to their music, but Arnalds lets you write your own script: each listener meets the piano and strings at the heart of the story that he is telling, but the simplicity allows the listener’s imagination to produce the characters and settings for the emotional plot of the music.
And this plot goes back and forth between melancholy and majesty. Throughout the course of …And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness, the piano uplifts, and at other times sounds down-and-out; the strings mourn, but also sweep; drums join in to press on, or to bring a song to a crashing end. And then on the final song, the drums emerge at the end with a bouncy little march and are joined by light-hearted horns, the first appearance of horns on the album. This final song is the album title translated into Icelandic, and commenting on it, Arnalds said, “I wanted a happy ending to the album, to end with something positive and to put emphasis on the point that the light always comes back.” And in Ólafur Arnalds’ music, it seems like it always does.
- Ben Dixon