Anna Þorvaldsdóttir

Mix Tape #36 : Best Albums of 2015

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A very HAPPY NEW YEAR to you all!

In keeping with 5:4 tradition, here’s the new year Mix Tape showcasing music from each of my Best Albums of 2015. Three hours that demonstrate something of the sonic wonders that materialised last year. Enjoy! — and there are links to buy each of the albums featured in the last two days’ articles.

As usual, the mix tape can either be downloaded or streamed via MixCloud. Here’s the tracklisting in full: Read more

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Best Albums of 2015 (Part 2)

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And here, bringing 2015 to a truly glorious end, is the conclusion of my countdown of the year’s best albums.

20 | James Newton Howard – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

The Hunger Games film series has always been more about people and relationships than mere action, and James Newton Howard has consistently mirrored that in his scores. For the final film in the story, Howard gets archetypal, his score working as well as it does by juxtaposing crushingly imposing climaxes, reinforced by massive bass underpinning, with delicate folk music elements that (echoing the film) powerfully intimate the fragility of each and every one of the lives lost or threatened. Soaringly beautiful, solemn, spine-chilling, epic: a fitting accompaniment for the finale of one of cinema’s more emotionally involving franchises of recent years. [Amazon]

19 | Line Katcho – Pulsions

Québécoise composer Line Katcho speaks of using sound in her work “as kinetic matter, representing movement, forces and gestures”, and that’s abundantly clear throughout the five pieces on Pulsions. Their acousmatic nature is characterised by sounds that often fall just beyond one’s reach of recognition, Katcho whipping and spinning these sounds such that they become like gusts of wind manifested as solid objects. These are in turn sliced and fragmented into huge swirling clouds of sharp-edged matter, penetrating a variety of pitched materials, including deep bass drones and undulating sheets of consonance. Captivating and magical. [Kohlenstoff]

18 | Julia Holter – Have You In My Wilderness

It’s three years since Holter’s superb second album Ekstasis (one of my Best Albums of 2012), an album that drew liberally on musical manners from an earlier time, which is also a defining feature of Have You In My Wilderness. One detects backward glances to the lyrical mindset of a figure like Bacharach, particularly in album opener ‘Feel You’ (which could almost be a 21st century render of a number from the ’60s), as well as permeating the jaunty melody of ‘Silhouette’ (until the wonderful point where it structurally breaks apart, unleashing a host of strings) and the lush accompaniment surrounding Holter in ‘Night Song’. But discrete points of influence are numerous and treated extremely fluidly, jazz and improv jostling with ballad and baroque pop elements. An air of wonder pervades throughout, as present in the palpable sense of joy that arises from Holter’s unexpected arrangements as it is in her lyrics. [Amazon]

17 | Anna Þorvaldsdóttir – In the Light of Air

“The latest CD from Icelandic composer Anna Þorvaldsdóttir, In the Light of Air (out on Sono Luminus), develops further her distinctly elemental approach to music. Here, we’re immediately plunged into a primitive, even primeval place, filled with sounds at once inchoate yet at the same time stylised, producing a kind of heightened, ritualistic tone. Things move, yet for the longest time everything seems essentially static, held in check by its own oppressive weight; but, heralded by twangs on deep piano strings, Þorvaldsdóttir conjures up an atmosphere like folk music waking up, underpinned by some unstable drones and enriched by a movement away from gesture towards melody. […] In the Light of Air‘s conclusion bears similarities to its opening, yet is quite transformed, still decidedly weird but fundamentally more stable. Once again, with characteristic economy of means, Þorvaldsdóttir has created a stunningly immersive soundworld, the music of which conveys perceptible threads of narrative, yet which remains resolutely strange. This is perhaps her most primordial music to date, and it’s extremely impressive…” (reviewed in October) [Presto Classical]

16 | Man Without Country – Maximum Entropy

Surely contemporary pop’s most forward-looking and exhilarating synthpop duo, Man Without Country have somehow managed here to top their sublime 2012 debut, Foe. Sensitivity has always been pivotal to their music, a potent human presence balancing out the electronics, along with a leaning (it would be overdoing it to call it more than that) toward hints of the soundworld of their ’80s predecessors. Tracks like ‘Laws of Motion’, a delicious duet with White Sea’s Morgan Kibby, and ‘Virga’ demonstrate how subtle is their handling in this respect; one feels distant memories being triggered yet everything is fresh and new, making for a complex aural result. Ryan James’ vocals are as breathily ambiguous as ever, pushing the lyrics into a middleground of expressive potential, and the duo don’t seem to be anywhere near to using up their gift for lyrical ingenuity. [Amazon]

15 | C Duncan – Architect

You really don’t see music like this coming. Christopher Duncan’s approach to songwriting taps into a musical equivalent of summer holiday polaroids from the 1970s. Far from sounding merely like a retro throwback, his songs are homages to a kind of folk simplicity, inhabiting a dreamlike world of technicolor cheerfulness and harmony. One of the things that’s so remarkable about Duncan’s music is how it never feels remotely twee (despite how i’ve just described it), and also—considering how its composer wasn’t even born until 1989—how authentically it speaks. There’s a decidedly wistful punch being packed here, Duncan’s captivating voice emerging like a pristine artefact from the past that you’d thought was lost many, many years ago. Gorgeous. [FatCat Records] Read more

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New releases: Gottfried Huppertz, Elliott Sharp, Anna Þorvaldsdóttir, Coppice

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i want to flag up a few more new releases that have recently been tickling my jukeboxical fancy. To begin with, music that’s not remotely contemporary, but which in its own way marks an important contribution to the development of a particular musical strand that began early in the 20th century. Gottfried Huppertz was the composer for two of Fritz Lang’s most impressive films; his 1927 score for Metropolis can be heard as a progenitor of the style and approach that is at the heart of composers like John Williams. But it’s his score for Lang’s massive 4½-hour two-part epic Die Nibelungen, composed three years earlier, that can be heard to contain the quintessence of the movie soundtrack in a startlingly nascent form. In contrast to Metropolis, where mechanistic machinations dominate its narrative, Die Nibelungen is a score rooted deeply in lyrical melodic action. Huppertz’s musical language is sumptuous, echoing the shifting harmonic sensibilities of Richard Strauss, but above all strikingly redolent of the impassioned melodies (and instrumentation) of Scriabin’s symphonies. His approach is essentially leitmotivic, establishing a variety of principal ideas that are continually repositioned and recast in different lights and flavours in response to the events on-screen.
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New releases: Anna Þorvaldsdóttir, Markus Reuter, Ensemble Musikfabrik, Arditti Quartet, Eric Craven, Audiobulb, Zbigniew Karkowski, Nordvargr, Stockhausen

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It’s a while since i’ve had a chance to survey new releases, so there’s quite a few that are overdue being highlighted. Some of them appeared on my recent Best Albums of the Year list, such as Anna Þorvaldsdóttir‘s Aerality, out on Deutsche Grammophon. As i’ve mentioned in my previous articles about Þorvaldsdóttir’s work, her overtly elemental music thrives in establishing environments where elements of certainty are both undermined and consolidated. Orchestral work Aerality is a superbly lucid example of this, a work that seemingly keeps trying to reset itself via strong intervals like octaves, fourths & fifths, which are repeatedly overrun and infiltrated by tendrils of material, leading to fascinating passages of grey, almost blank obfuscation (a Þorvaldsdóttir fingerprint). Much of her work explores this friction between clarity and obscurity, variously weighted, and most of the works heard here begin shrouded in abstraction. But what’s so very refreshing about this is the absence of clichéd value associations: clarity here is no more positive a thing than its opposite. The interest, and it is considerable, lies in the juxtapositions and steady evolutions between states, a connotative mirror—if one wishes to see it as such—of Þorvaldsdóttir’s Icelandic heritage but just as much a liberated celebration of the primordial plasticity of sound. Read more

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HCMF 2014 revisited: Anna Þorvaldsdóttir – æquilibria (UK Première)

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i went to Huddersfield last November not knowing anything about Icelandic composer Anna Þorvaldsdóttir‘s music; two months on, following an HCMF première and a CD release (review coming), that’s happily no longer the case. In many ways æquilibria, the work of Þorvaldsdóttir’s receiving its first UK performance at HCMF, serves as something of a paradigm for her work as a whole. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a composer from a country characterised and constantly being altered by shifting geological activity, her music often avoids concrete statements, preferring the establishment of firmaments, the stability and permanence of which are forever being undermined and questioned. In æquilibria (the title being an archaic plural of equilibrium) this is captured via a series of fundamental pitches—’tonics’ in a post-tonal sense, reinforced by being heard in multiple octaves—over and upon which intricate lines of filigree extend and rival harmonic emphases are brought to bear. As octaves become untenable, other intervals—4ths and 5ths—start to operate as indicators of permanence, Þorvaldsdóttir flirting with conflicting major/minor connotations above them, before threatening these too, roiling low winds at the work’s epicentre leading to a huge surge and ebb, leaving the piece in an entirely unclear state. Read more

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Mix Tape #32 : Best Albums of 2014

Posted on by 5:4 in Best of the Year, Mix Tapes | Leave a comment

HAPPY NEW YEAR everyone!

Many, many thanks to all of you who have followed the blog through the last 12 months, particularly to all those who have commented and tweeted in response or retort. As usual, here’s my new year mix tape featuring a track from all forty of my Best Albums of the Year. i said yesterday how 2014 had been a breathtaking year, and listening to this 3-hour condensed version of its best music, i really think that becomes obvious.

Enjoy! – and assuming you do, please support the artists wherever possible; links to purchase each of the albums can be found on the last two days’ articles.

Here’s the tracklisting in full, followed by the download link; and you can also stream the mix tape via Mixcloud. Read more

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Best Albums of 2014 (Part 1)

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* Please note this list has how been superseded by the one on the Best Albums of the Years page *

And so to the main course: the countdown of my forty best albums of the year; part 2 will follow tomorrow.

40 | Bora Yoon – Sunken Cathedral

Korean-American composer & singer Bora Yoon’s latest album is a fascinating intermingling of traditional and experimental elements that Yoon describes as “a sonic journey through the chambers of [the] subconscious”. Her songs are personal yet aspire to and evoke heights of mystical ecstasy; my review summed up Sunken Cathedral as “heady, even intoxicating stuff, with absolutely no sense of novelty to any of it … a tour de force of the most imaginative kind of avant-garde lyricism” [Innova]

39 | Anna Þorvaldsdóttir – Aerial

Þorvaldsdóttir’s approach to composition is heavily informed by an interest in textures, heard to excellent effect on the six works on this album. A recurring feature—and a beguiling one—is her predilection for rendering sounds vague, bereft of an obvious point of origin—no mean feat in instrumental music. Yet for all its unfamiliarities, her music is in the best possible sense accessible, employing structures and juxtapositions of material that are often disarmingly simple, making their point with utmost clarity. [Amazon]

38 | Weeping Willows – The Time Has Come

Anyone with a fondness for the easy listening of the 50s and 60s will find much to love about Weeping Willows’ latest album. The Swedish group’s adoration of its tropes makes the inevitable elements of pastiche forgiveable, but transcending the air of homage is singer Magnus Carlson’s voice, which here comes close to lyrical and vocal perfection. The arrangements are sumptuous and sensitive, but they wholeheartedly serve Carlson’s singing, conveying alternate waves of elation and sorrow. [Amazon]

37 | Gwenno – Y Dydd Olaf

Time away from the flogged-dead-horse The Pipettes clearly does Gwenno Saunders a world of good. Hinted at in a collection of singles that began emerging last year, Y Dydd Olaf boldly enters a soundworld informed by crowd-friendly pop yet drenched in an unmistakable ambiance that harks to a more monochromatic past (without resorting to ghastly ersatz retroisms). These twin forces, inviting and distancing respectively, establish an equilibrium of sorts but Gwenno’s vocals—sung in her native Welsh—gently undermine this, making her songs sound at once familiar yet wonderfully strange. [Peski]

36 | Jenny Hval & Susanna – Meshes of Voice

Not quite the explosion of vocal ingenuity one might have expected, yet Meshes of Voice nonetheless charts a pretty fearless path through new realms of song-writing. What constitutes the foreground in these songs is an aspect ever in flux, with vocal lines often submerged in multiple layers of material, the half-glimpsed words only one—and by no means the most important—part of their communicative language. Elsewhere, folk tendencies arise strongly, rooting the music in an authenticity of utterance that prevents it from losing itself in mere expressionism. [Norman Records]

35 | Deerhoof – La Isla Bonita

One of the beauties of Deerhoof’s music is that it manages to have its tongue permanently in its cheek while maintaining a capacity to invent and challenge conventions. Perhaps that’s just another way of simply saying that Deerhoof find music-making endless, immense fun – something that radiates throughout La Isla Bonita, from the playful cowbell repetitiveness of ‘Paradise Girls’, the stop-start metric shuffling of ‘Tiny Bubbles’ (a song seemingly going at three speeds at once) and the leftfield construction of seemingly straight-faced album closer ‘Oh Bummer’. As ever, wonderful stuff. [Boomkat]

34 | Black Swan – Tone Poetry

Black Swan’s unique take on hauntology has featured in many of my Best of the Year lists, and their latest offering is no exception. Tone Poetry is less caked in detritus, with the result that its surface is not merely strikingly visible, but often brilliantly bright. This surface becomes the focal point for a series of searing lyrical episodes, some (‘Prophecy’) packed with muscular strength, others (‘Rapture’) barely emerging from the dazzling light noise that fills them. Hauntological artefacts remain, though, occasionally coming forward to cast a sepia wistfulness on everything. [Bandcamp]

33 | Paul Dolden – Who Has the Biggest Sound?

Dolden’s particular compositional angle has much to do with layers—lots of them, stacked on top of each other way beyond the point when the structure should come toppling down. But this outrageously reckless approach is one of the key things that makes his music so strong and so appealing, coupled with a mischievous sense of fun, which has arguably never been more obvious than here. As i noted in my review: “the combination of voices and orchestra is used to initiate some almighty pile-ups, along the way peppered with weird carillon/jazz mash-ups with more superimposed saxes than you could shake a stick at, florid episodes running at Nancarrow-like breakneck speed, rock-out reveries a la Buckethead, Zappa-esque synth ensemble passages and a surreal take on country music”. How could anyone resist that? [Starkland | iTunes]

32 | Gazelle Twin – Unflesh

While Unflesh didn’t (because it couldn’t) live up to the hype and expectations that preceded it, what Elizabeth Bernholz has created here came as a genuine surprise. Gone are the roaming, elevated forms of melodic lyricism that characterised The Entire City and last year’s Mammal EP, replaced by an aloof, clinical sense of detachment. Beats and patterns predominate, the lyrical content obsessed with what it means to be human—with the combined result sounding like an alien’s perspective on the subject. Fascinating and unsettling in equal measure. [Amazon | Bandcamp]

31 | Poemss – Poemss

Trying to second-guess what Aaron Funk is going to do next is a mug’s game. All the same, few could have even imagined Poemss, a collaboration with fellow Canadian Joanne Pollock, eschewing Funk’s trademark breathless break beats in favour of laid back tempi, dreamy atmospherics and delicate melodies, executed with the kind of self-effacing, authentically unpolished vocal delivery one rarely hears from established artists. The electronica is as intricate and imaginative as ever, though, accompanying and encasing their voices in a veritable celebration of the joys of analogue synths. [Planet Mu] Read more

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