Ólafur Arnalds is a well- known character in Poland that represents the world of Icelandic music. Although he hasn’t reached the status of super star in his mother land he has been successfully enchanting with his music millions of people living afar from this small island. It would seem that being a neo-classical composer can cause that he would eat his own tail due to the danger that he might not show anything surprising on his next albums.
There’s no denying that Arnalds suspended the bar of my expectations of this release so high that I was afraid that he won’t jump. I had trembled of anxiety and he laughed it off with his sense of self-worth. He had let us relentlessly wait in a great tension and go under in the sea of anxiousness. When I found out who was his collaborator this time my uncertainty slightly decreased, it hid somewhere and turned into an uncontrollable impatience. There were additional attractions that had accompanied the album’s release like a possibility of watching the broadcast of the orchestral or string quartet’s recording session via ustream.tv a year before the album was out. It had made me scream for more.
The album is a collection of twelve compositions with richer arrangement than on previous releases. In terms of musical layers For Now I am Winter consists of two spaces that cooperate wonderfully. First of them has been already classic for this artists – it bases on the sounds of the piano that are almost woven on the canvas of silence and creates an intimate atmosphere. But it also bases on parts of the string quartet that are full of emotions. The second layer has been surprising not only to a listener but in the beginning also to the author. Something had been missing in almost finished album. Fortunately, Ólafur let an orchestral arrangement give his music a previously unknown depth in time so it showed another dimension of his compositions and also added a majesty while not leading to the triumph of form over content. Ólafur Arnalds entrusted the care of his musical child to Nico Muhly. He did the right thing. As a result, he received a powerful sound of the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra conducted by Atli Örvarsson.
So far, the electronic elements in Arnalds’ works were more hidden in the background. They had put some more flavour and hadn’t seemed to create themselves as independent entities. On For Now I am Winter they play much bigger role, they are more exposed. Those elements attract attention, like in Sudden Throw, and make us feel like the composition has to break to a listener through a thick smoke of reprogrammed sounds in the background.
For the first time in Ólafur’s solo career we can hear vocals. The original voice of Arnór Dan known of Agent Fresco melts together with this musical creature that represents the album and this voice allows to treat itself as just another element of the whole, one of many instruments. It looks like it has always been there, although it got finally heard on this album. It can hit strong our internal strings but at the same time it still remains fragile and appears innocent even if it’s actually able to raise a veritable storm and show the violence of beauty. The voice can also enhance a prominent string section that nevertheless stays to me the most precious jewel on this album.
The first of four compositions featuring Arnór begins darkly and gloomy with streaks of the electronic sounds. For Now I am Winter illustrates an oppressive snowy landscape that is hard to wade across by feet. The singer almost purrs his mantra into our ear. For Now I am Winter. He charms with his voice achieving high tones so easily as if he only needs to stand on tiptoe for doing that. The background painted by the string section adds single rays of the sun, hope and light to the whole image. However, a smooth transition to Stutter fills us with a kind of nostalgia. Flickering sounds that step out of the background cause that something inside us start anxiety whirring, we wait for something. They flash as if they were a lantern and thereby they give a little safety and a chance to return from a journey through the darkness. In the softest air a stutter steers the heart away from the bane, leaves the lasting sorrow and carries me anew. Arnór’s singing is being blown in a snowstorm.
But let’s back to the beginning. Unlike the turbulent opening track that builds a tension the second composition entitled Brim opens another door this time towards some sort of the tranquillity. There appears something sensitive in the sea of uncertainty that make us afraid of touching it or letting the air out of our lungs in its direction to not destroy something delicate that was intricately built by the sounds of the piano leading a kind of tender dialogue with strings. Electronic beats only emphasize a charm of the song. Arnalds feels free to play with intensity of the sound and at proper time he can transform a dynamic composition into a fragile structure covered with fresh ice crystals that haven’t accumulated into a disorderly creature and still can reflect the rays of light with multi-coloured charm.
Words of Amber soothes with its melody like watching snowflakes that fall to a calm surface of the water, dance on a gentle breeze and jiggle happily although their destiny is to kiss the surface and weld together into one being. Arnalds caresses the piano keys with such delicacy that it wakes melancholy and longing for perceptible and tangible beauty.
A majestic sound of the orchestra in Reclaim wakes us up from a thoughtfulness. The stunning voice of Arnór is again a master of the ceremony. The string quartet seems to be preparing for taking off, crazy running, dancing in the wind, looking at the stars moving in a dizzying pace across the sky driven by the electronic rhythm.
Hands, Be Still begins with melting sounds that drips and while falling down they echo between walls of our mind’s cave. This compositions furthers quiet. A song of the violin is nostalgic, wistful but very beautiful and touching.
Next, Only The Winds that is in my opinion a composition full of the incredible intimacy. It takes a listener on a journey without words to the white horizon. To the place where only the wind blows. Where you can reach inside yourself and take up the fight so you could stand up with a new force and survive until enchanted between string lines white nights will come. An affecting violin bow strokes on vibrating strings seem to be the last words of this instrument. Like the last breath before the wind will push it back to the lungs without mercy.
As a result, Old Skin is like a shake, awakening, an injection of hope. As if it was really a shedding the old skin. Arnór leads us by the hand into the light. He shows brightness and some lively joy. In these hands I’ll hide while this world collides. The song ends ushering in pensiveness. Is it about these hands that we might hide in?
After those emotional turbulences, when we got through the darkness and saw that the brightness is coming although maybe not right away but it comes into play. It’s time to rest. We (too) shall rest. The sound of violin almost places a sticking plaster on the mind that is troubled by the darkness, cradles exhausted body and whispers words of motivation straight in the ear in its own language.
However, the darkness inside us struggles with the light illuminated to our eyes and still doesn’t want to give up. What was once a bastion of the security now it has changed dramatically as it’s been seen from a different perspective. It fills with horror and pain. This place was a shelter. It’s a violent internal battle that tries to tear the soul into pieces so we wouldn’t be able to rebound and allow us to get covered by waves of sadness.
Carry me anew is a delicate image of the rebirth in the spirit of hope. Almost like survivors hauled up on the shore. A vision blurs because of the upcoming brightness. The worst has been already behind us. Now it can get only better.
For Now I am Winter soothes troubled senses. It wraps them in a warm sonic blanket. It pushes a listener gently into a contrary dark cloud of the safety. All around indicates that it’s not going well but it’s dramatic, dark and dangerous. It seems like we are on rough high seas but we still put our hope in an inevitable change of fate or in this blinking light of the lantern. This is how the album appears to me – as a hope for the end of the winter and darkness that symbolise all bad experiences and an adversity that we encounter on our way. You just have to believe that tomorrow will be better. Tomorrow there will be more light on the path of our lives. More such an exceptional light that only Ólafur Arnalds can paint on a stave.
Ólafur Arnalds – For Now I am Winter
1. Sudden Throw
3. For Now I am Winter
4. A Stutter
5. Words of Amber
7. Hands, Be Still
8. Only the Winds
9. Old Skin
10. We (Too) Shall Rest
11. This Place Was a Shelter
12. Carry Me Anew