Simon Jay Catling
, October 10th, 2012 06:10
Efterklang moved quickly to remove themselves as targets for the sort of soporific catch-all descriptions being thrown at any act to come out of the Nordic countries in the first half of the last decade. The Danes might well have hailed hundreds of miles across the Norwegian sea from them, but Sigur Ros' emergence at the turn of the millennium quickly led to a critical net being thrown over any north European act who displayed spatial awareness, a focus on dynamic relationships, or who believed that instrumental interplay expressed as much as the uttered word in their music.
Even as critics attempted to pull them into line from the beginning, though, Efterklang's music quickly moved into a different orbit. 2003's debut EP Springer and 2004 full-length Tripper did contain certain similar sonic motifs to bands like Jeniferever or Múm, but they also had multiple exit routes so as to continue to evolve their sound. They proved that on subsequent releases, with an almost de-modernised take on their initial output on the folk-embellished Parades (later performed with the Danish National Chamber Orchestra) and a bright set of electronic-tipped pop paeans for their 2010 4AD debut Magic Chairs.
What's stuck from those releases is that Efterklang are one of a select few who can approach their music from any vantage point, yet create an end result that will always retain that indescribable sense of them. For this LP, Casper Clausen, Mads Brauer and Rasmus Stolberg decamped to the abandoned Russian settlement of Pyramiden on the archipelago of Svalbard, Norway. A former mining town originally bought from Sweden in 1927 and once boasting a population of over 1000 people, it was abandoned in 1998. Given that the speed and nature of its architecture's degradation into decay has been fast and brutal, it's a somewhat surprising leap to a resultant album of mouth-wateringly rich pools of soulful pop textures and latter career Talk Talkisms.
However, edits from over a thousand field recordings gathered from their nine days there, mixed with live studio work, have been sculpted in a way that suggests that Piramida looks to celebrate nature's reclamation of the land, as opposed to its destitution at humanity's withdrawal. The re-found stillness of Pyramiden underpins much of the LP, songs coming into focus amidst a twilight backdrop of meditative drones, shuffling rhythms and wood block-aping percussion. It's an album that on the surface is a clear whole, yet under a microscope reveals a complex DNA molecule: metal spikes being hit punctuate the murmured opening of 'Hollow Man', the sounds of a fuel tank hide among the sparse arrangements of 'Sedma', an off-key note from a found grand piano, apparently the furthermost north in the world, are sampled to make 'Apple's synth sound. Such methodology is to be admired and marvelled at, yet as the album unfurls it becomes trivial as the focus zooms out again to take in the expanse made up by the miniscule parts.
Often on Piramida, the group's approach feels remarkably on-trend by their usually more peripherally-influenced standards, recalling the minimalism of the XX and the more introspectively-constructed beats of the UK's current glut of bedroom producers. It's something that never fully defines the album, though; they constantly ease in fresh layers, employing the use of a 70 piece choir and, on tracks like 'Between The Walls', mixing natural glitches with circuit board patters and vocal harmonies. Collaborative names like Nils Frahm and Peter Broderick become just that as their contributions on piano and violin respectively drop seamlessly with little fuss into the larger atmosphere.
In a recent interview with DrownedInSound, the group explained that the idea to record in Pyramiden became an obsession – "it was just something we had to do" Clausen said – and yet lyrical influence is hard to detect, or is hidden in code; 'The Ghost' makes a specific reference to place, but away from that it's in the played elements that their voyage makes its presence felt. It allows it to wriggle out regards putting it into some sort of context, dodging the label of a concept album; certainly the group found inspiration in the Arctic, but it doesn't play the whole part, with much left unexplained. That's perhaps a trait that survives from their earlier days, only over time have vocals become substantially more than another aural component.
Without that clear signpost of thematic intent, this world of naturally found soundwaves, hushed intricacies and hidden hooks does have the potential to drift right past if not given due time. It's true that Efterklang whisper while everyone around them shouts, and it's a dynamic that can often be confused with a sense of seriousness. Yet persevere, and the joy had in conceiving and recording Piramida is clear; with darting strings, broad woodwind and vocal lines that, at one point, hit a glorious, almost soul-sounding falsetto, this is the sound of a band once again setting a course for personal creative development and revelling in its every ambitious step.