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Olafur Arnalds
...And They Have Escaped The Weight Of Darkness Wyndham Wallace , May 5th, 2010 11:55

Ólafur Arnalds' latest album arrived little more than twelve hours after I learned of the death of my grandmother, a woman so unhappy for the last years of her life that she was once found by neighbours standing outside her home in the middle of a howling storm. Asked why, she explained that she'd spotted a loose tile on the house opposite. “I was hoping it would blow off and hit me," she laughed wryly. She complained bitterly about the loneliness of old age, how she wished that her God would free her from “this mortal coil", and one day answered my sister, who had tried to reassure her that “everyone's time comes at the right time", with the dry response, “I'm not convinced". These stories, shared after the funeral, summed up much about a woman whose influence on me as a child was considerable, who inspired me to read so voraciously that for a long time the pseudonym I previously used was in fact the name of the house she'd occupied while I was growing up. These, and other sentimental memories – of her collection of antique clocks chiming incessantly throughout the night, of the piles of fading magazines cluttering up the staircase to her attic and through which I would leaf for hours, of the way she'd clutch my hand and place 'jingle jangle' in it at the end of our family visits – are now inextricably linked to Ólafur Arnalds and his … And They Have Escaped The Weight Of Darkness, as though it were the soundtrack to my entire relationship with this remarkable woman.

Ólafur Arnalds - "Tunglið" by kaykanat

And They Have Escaped The Weight Of Darkness is a record that drips with sentiment, on occasions perhaps a little too much, so a personal response is inevitable. In fact, Arnalds would most likely welcome it, for this Icelandic prodigy – he's still only 23 years old – seems hotwired to the soul. He might be the former drummer for the improbably named thrash metal act Fighting Shit, but over the course of his solo outings he's proven that it's the sensitive end of his emotional spectrum that reaps most rewards.

Arnalds' art leans heavily on purveyors of minimalist classical composition like Erik Satie, or perhaps Arvo Pärt in the late 1970s, names that are sometimes thrown around with abandon – much like Henyrk Górecki's – but whose influence would be hard to discern in the work of most of those who namedrop them. Arnalds, however, has more right to claim them as significant influences than most, something he shares with his compatriot Jóhann Jóhannsson, though the latter's recent work for 4AD has, for the most part, been rather more grandiose. Arnalds has always been as interested in the fundamental lines traced by (on most occasions) his piano as by the arrangements with which he has surrounded them, and though the moments when strings and drums have lifted his compositions out of their glacial minimalism are often the most striking – the uplifting climax to Eulogy For Evolution's '3055', for instance – the ambience of his most contemplative moments is what makes his records so special. Some have leant on the occasional electronic embellishments that he's given them, almost as though they're necessary to justify his inclusion in non-classical music media, but the truth is that people gravitate to Arnalds – much as his label, Erased Tapes must have done – because he offers relief from the endlessly banal and predictable stream of indie, rock, electronica and pop with which they're normally faced. His music is organic and honest, it's carefully thought out though far from over-intellectualised, and it's not even remotely interested in whether or not it has a place amidst contemporary musical fashions. Eulogy's '3704/3837' may have burst unexpectedly into the kind of epic rock favoured by Mogwai, but it's unlikely that this was done for any other reason than that Arnalds simply felt it appropriate.

…And They Have Escaped The Weight Of Darkness continues this working methodology, picking up to a degree from where he left off with the Found Songs project that saw him write and record a song a day for a week, maintaining the purity of their initial conception. It aches with tragedy in places, but then unfurls with an optimistic majesty in others. It conjures up an atmosphere of intimacy and romance that some might find too sugary, but which offers an undeniable solace and refuge if you're looking for such things. Opener 'Þú ert sólin' is as calming as still waters, its delicate twinkling and almost imperceptible hiss echoing in the distance, its poignant melody as moving as Morricone's soundtrack to The Mission, before it bleeds into 'Þú ert jörðin', built around four chords that shift shape like moonlit clouds. It's a technique he employs again on 'Kjurrt', which fades into the sound of what might be raindrops on a roof or perhaps the remote applause of an intimate audience. But … And They Have Escaped The Weight Of Darkness is not always so naked: Arnalds has sought to expand his palette here through the involvement of co-producer Barði Jóhannson, the shadowy figure behind Iceland's cult Bang Gang and also a collaborator on the rather wonderful, if underrated, 'Lady & Bird'. His familiarity with electro-acoustic sounds ensures that Arnalds reaches further than ever before without his expanded instrumentation becoming overstated, except perhaps on 'Gleypa okkur', where a guitar seems overly insistent on mimicking David Gilmour's more heavy-handed moments.

Instead the record remains full of evocative light and space, encouraging its audience to indulge in mental journeys of their own, all the time clear in its stated theme, “that there is always light after darkness". This might mean that, for some, the melancholic but still joyous climax to 'Loftið verður skyndilega kalt' is a little too like the closing theme to a Hollywood tear-jerker along the lines of Kramer vs Kramer or Terms Of Endearment, but for me, it's consolation as I grieve for a grandmother who has herself escaped the weight of elderly solitude. The chamber music of 'Undan hulu' may drift by less patient ears, but to mine it's laden with flashbacks to the quiet house in which she lived out her twilight years, surrounded by the wooden furniture that she adored. 'Þau hafa sloppið undan þunga myrkursins' may bring the album to a close with sweeping strings and a brass band that seem to play in sepia slow motion like a sedated Sigur Rós bereft of guitars, but all I think of is the dusty leather-bound books that lined her shelves and bewitched me night after night. And 'Hægt, kemur ljósið' could perhaps be dismissed by insensitive types as closer to Richard Clayderman than heaven, but trust me: if it catches you in the right mood, at the right time – and for me that was an evening journey on crowded public transport, my headphones clamped to my head – the way its lone violin and fragile piano melody give way to symphonic strings and chiming keys, like Orchestral Explosions In The Sky, out of which its bare bones again emerge, will reduce you to wordless tears. There is always light after darkness: it's as basic and cliché a statement as that there's eventually sunshine after rain. Sometimes, though, it's good to be reminded. Cynics may dispute this, but they're welcome to argue elsewhere. I'll find my comfort here.

“Ten granny points," my grandmother used to say when she was pleased with me. “Go to the top of the class." This time they're yours, Ólaf.