Iceland's Olafur Arnalds.
Iceland's Olafur Arnalds. Stuart Bailes
Get out your hanky. Variations of Static, the new EP from Iceland's Olafur Arnalds, is one of the saddest collections of songs you'll hear this year. But don't let that be a turn-off: Arnalds' mostly instrumental songs, which fall somewhere between contemporary classical and experimental electronica, are gorgeously textured sketches with as much restrained hope as melancholia. Arnalds himself calls his music joyful and uplifting, and while that may be hard to hear, Variations of Static is undeniably beautiful, with songs that lie quietly in wait before soaring epically.
At the heart of Arnalds' music is a simple interplay between spare strings and piano lines. Arnalds recorded the songs at his home studio with a string quartet, layering the pieces with subtle electronic accents. The songs on Variations melt seamlessly into each other without a break, from the delicate atmospherics of the opener ("Fok") through the impossibly titled track that closes the album, "Himininn er ad hrynja, en stjornurnar fara per vel."
The album's lone voice comes from a disembodied robot, introduced briefly on the second track, "Vio vorum sma," more as a narrator than a singer. (Think Radiohead's "Fitter Happier" from OK Computer). The title of the song translates to "We Were Little," a reference to the only other moment the voice appears, at the end of the album. "Do you still remember when we were little?" it asks. "We would play in the park, and you asked me what happens when we die. I said you forget everything."
"To me, the voice is something that makes me think about the surreality of computers or machines having feelings," Arnalds says. "It makes me think about where feelings come from. I was traveling when I was writing the song, and... I didn't have a microphone, so I just turned to the speech function on my Mac for some help. The result absolutely stunned me. It just really made me think, 'Why is it so weird for us that a computer is talking about human emotions? What do we have in our bodies that a machine, built in exactly the same way as the human body, wouldn't have?'"
Arnolds is touring Europe in support of Variations of Static, and will later open for his fellow Icelanders in Sigur Ros.
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