Árstðir’s third album Hvel, founded via Kickstarter back in May 2014 was one of two releases I anticipated most last year. As it happens often with my favorite bands, I had extremely high expectations, but as usual there was a little bit of fear they might not live up to those. Not so much because I didn’t trust them to deliver music I would like, but because I had already heard many new songs live during the past year and felt the surprise factor of the album would mostly lie in finding out which of the many new songs they had picked eventually. While I loved pretty much all of the new material I had heard, I have to confess that I might have been just a tiny bit jaded already, feeling I knew what was coming. The fact that the original release plan was delayed by six months only added to this. I gladly admit that I could not have been more wrong.
When I received the email with the download link from Kickstarter I got excited, happy to know they had finished the album and curious how it would play out and what the few songs I had not yet heard would be like. Thus, I did what I usually do when a band or an album is important to me: I retreated to a quiet place, put on my headphones, closed my eyes, opened my heart and mind and let the music do the talking. There are very few bands today, who can carry me through an entire album, start to finish, capturing my attention so much that nothing else has any room in my thoughts while I’m listening to it, filling my soul. Árstíðir is one of those bands and Hvel the perfect album to do just that. It simply blew me off my feet.
After the first listen Hvel left me with goosebumps all over, tears in my eyes and a huge happy smile on my face. It’s a beautiful album that did not only meet but exceed any and all of my expectation. The moment I allowed the music to draw me in (i.e. from the very first sound), the album took me on an emotional rollercoaster that left me pretty much drained (but happily so) in the end. At the same time, however, I realized just how amazing the mixing and production is – the overall sound is crisp and clear with every instrument distinguishable, yet it blends into a perfect whole that is much bigger and better than the sum of its parts. Kudos to the sound engineer!
Hvel sounds very much like an Árstíðir album, yet wonderfully fresh and bursting with new ideas. The band has completely reinvented themselves while still keeping their trademark mixture of classical, pop and electro elements and the beautiful harmony singing. This is no longer the same band that recorded the first two albums, they have evolved into a band that has left some strict rules behind and made a move toward the more experimental without denying where they are coming from. Overall Hvel sounds fresher and musically broader than both of its predecessors. Needless to say that the playing as well as the singing on each and every song is flawless and spot on. Rarely have I heard an album that is as strong throughout. It was without any doubt worth the wait and truly deserves being called a masterpiece.
From here on, I’ll write a few words on each song, to give you a better impression of the album and to show how many surprises it had in store for me, even though I thought I already knew most of it. I’m not a musician and I don’t know anything about sound effects so please forgive me if I cannot get the technical terms right. I’ll just describe how it sounds to me.
The opener Himinhvel is probably the song that has changed most since I first heard it in the summer of 2013. Some people may remember a song with a rather beautiful cello intro that was repeated throughout. At first it didn’t have a name at all and was later referred to as Juli-lag (July song). Himinhvel starts with a deep humming sound that changes into a string melody with added sound effects that I could neither name nor describe. These give the song a rich texture where the words become an additional layer of instruments, blending in with the others. Without having the slightest clue of what the words mean the sheer beauty of the music and the gorgeous singing had me in tears from the start. I would have never believed the song could work without the hauntingly beautiful and very recognizable cello melody, but to my surprise it works well even with the melody being transformed. It is still there, only the instrumentation has changed, making the song truly one for the new band.
Things you said the first single offers a sound that is just as rich as the first track, yet completely different. The drums are the most surprising addition to the band’s usual instruments and they work well with the baritone guitar. Overall I love the dramatic music that perfectly underlines the bitterness of the lyrics. This is anything but a positive description of an ending relationship. The words are so strong, they cut like a knife and make the heartache palpable, the hurt and disappointment feel real. In the end the music rises one last time and then just comes to a sudden stop, just like the feelings of the song’s protagonist have ended.
One of my personal favorites ever since I’ve first heard it, Someone who cares strikes me as one of the most beautiful songs on the album with amazing guitar picking and great harmony singing that immediately grabs my attention, not to mention the strings that carry the central part of the song. It speaks to me on so many levels, yet I find it hard to describe what the song is about. While essentially a love song, the words can be applied to many different situations. The song does not tell one specific story, but captures certain emotions that paint an ever-changing picture in my mind’s eye, depending very much on my current situation and mood. Overall the words have a deep personal meaning for me and I find a deep melancholia in the lyrics, paired with just as much hope.
In comparison Moonlight is a song that has never spoken to me much. I can’t really explain why, as I find the lyrics rather beautiful. The singing is quite soothing, as if the whole song was saying “hey, keep your head about you – things are not as bad as they may seem”. The melody is sad throughout, while the lyrics become a bit more hopeful as the song goes along. There are no dramatic changes here, it pretty much stays on the same level musically and thus does not grab my attention as much as the others. While the performance is lovely and the music captures the mood of the lyrics perfectly, this is just a tad too quiet for me and carries a bit too much sadness.
Vetur að vori is also one of the more quiet songs on the album, built on guitar picking and one lead vocal that make the core of it. Yet, just as one might think “this is pretty straightforward” harmonies and different sound effects are added to the mix, the music growing into something bigger and more complex than expected from the first notes. I love how the song rises and falls, how at one point there is only a clicking sound left to hear, creating a break after which the music fully sets in again, before going back to the soft guitar melody from the beginning.
One of the few songs I didn’t know beforehand, Friðþægingin the second single became an instant favorite. For me this is the most surprising song on the album and left me with my mouth hanging open. I don’t even know how to describe the details of the music. The song has so many layers of instruments I find it difficult to name them all. An explosion of sound, coming together into one powerful melody, changing at every turn. Somehow it makes me feel like the language I am listening to is not Icelandic, but something else, a language I don’t fully know, but understand bits and pieces of, leaving me on the edge of grasping the meaning, but unable to put it into words. Friðþægingin sounds very familiar, reminding me a of a million songs I cannot name at the moment, but at the same time it has the freshness of something never heard or experienced before. Brilliant is the only word that comes to mind.
Ró, the album’s one instrumental may not contain words, but it still speaks volumes. It’s a dialogue between all the instruments in the band, piano talking to guitars, being called to by strings, going back and forth, coming together and drifting apart again, the individual instruments coming in and fading out at different points in time. I could not pinpoint which part of the melody or which instrument makes the song, for me the beauty lies in the way they interact and form a complex picture that I do not want to take apart. Ró means calm, quiet and that’s exactly how this song make me feel: calm and at peace with the world.
The first time I heard Cannon during soundcheck in February 2014 I almost ran from the room, because I instantly fell in love with the song and could not bear the thought of first hearing it in a form that was not yet intended for an audience. At the concert that followed I heard it in all its glory and have loved it ever since. The album version is even better than any of the song’s incarnations before, with small changes in the words and music that have smoothed out the rough edges without making it too polished. The lyrics are a wonderful example for several layers of meaning. At first glance this is a sad love song and it works as such. It becomes more interesting though, once you know that the object of desire described here is not only a woman, but also a gun. In its live version the song usually comes with a funny story about said gun. The story, however, is not mine to tell. You’re just gonna have to wait until you hear it from the author.
The emotional rollercoaster continues with Silfurskin, a song that drives me to tears almost every time I hear it. I just love the piano’s calling being answered by guitars, the beautiful string melody, the harmony singing, the overall sad undertone. It fascinates me how words I do not understand can move me so much. Like so many of Árstíðir’s songs this one has a touch of melancholia, but somehow they manage to make it sound so delicate and give it so much warmth that it leaves me feeling happy.
Shine is a song that I’d describe as minimalistic, yet dramatic. It uses instruments sparsely, starting with just the slow strumming of the baritone guitar, gradually adding a few notes on the piano and violin. The melody gradually grows and becomes more powerful, but always remains in the background. It’s a perfect example of music that strongly supports the singing but does not become overpowering. Against this backdrop the singing ranges from soft strong, all the while carrying a multitude of emotions. The lyrics paint a picture of loneliness and all the thoughts going with having too much time on one’s hands. They have gripped me from the start and never lost any of their power though all the different incarnations of this song I’ve heard. Yet, I am convinced that Shine would speak to me just as much even if I didn’t understand English.
Known to some through the awesome video collaboration with Kitty Von-Sometime You again can be viewed as a song about being unable to letting go. The words are directed at a person, but universally applicable to anyone or anything we have loved once (or love still) and cannot stop thinking about, no matter how hard we try. I’ll leave any other possible interpretations to the listener and will only say that there are many. The piano melody of the song has a haunting quality, echoing and underlining the lyrics. It sounds like a question in the beginning, later turning to certainty being reinforced by strings. This song is not as easily accessible to me as some of the others, but well worth the time needed to fully grasp it.
The album’s last song Unfold makes me believe the band was trying to save the best for last. It is certainly one of the highlights of the album. Lyrically, as well as musically it is the perfect finale, mirroring many of the themes already touched on throughout, connecting the dots. Once again it uses drums, this time providing the foundation for the entire song to rest upon, creating room for guitars, piano and strings to move it forward. To me the lyrics, speak about looking for and making connections. They sum up what their music is all about, bringing the journey of this album to an end.
It seems to me that Things you said (radio edit) was added just to fill space on the album and this is my only minor criticism of Hvel. It fleetingly made me wonder if there could have been another new song instead. I’m not complaining though, this band knows what they are doing and I feel the selection of songs is the best it could possibly be.
Hvel is a marvelous album as it is and I wish every band would put as much love, dedication and passion into their music as Árstíðir do. From the gorgeous artwork to the perfect sequencing of songs into an album that captures my attention from beginning to end, it is a masterpiece that I will treasure for many years to come. It offers brilliant soundscapes and lyrics that speak volumes, no matter which language they are sung in. The voices serve as an additional instrument, making the already rich songs sound even fuller. All they ask the listeners to do is give the music their full attention, listening with their hearts and minds. Personally, I think this is not too much too ask and I promise you, your efforts will be much rewarded.
The album will be released on March 6th and can be pre-ordered on Árstíðir’s Bandcamp