Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Crossfire: Olafur Arnalds - For Now I Am Winter

Album Rating: B/B+
Greetings! Today, Moses Kim, a newcomer to the work of Olafur Arnalds, and Jacob Royal, a longtime fan of Arnalds, will discuss the neo-classical musician's latest album, For Now I Am Winter.

Moses: I guess I should preface all of my opinions by saying that this is the first album by Olafur Arnalds I've ever heard in full. He's becoming an increasingly ubiquitous name in the cinematic music community, and with a body of work as prolific and as consistent as his, it's not hard to see why. It's surprising, however, that For Now I Am Winter is as accessible an entry point as most new listeners will get. It takes what he's refined over the years--sparse but emotional melodies made more affecting by disciplined, minimalistic composition and instrumentation--and reconstructs it into something both familiar and exciting.

The big thing that's changed is Arnalds' scale of ambition: he plays with unexplored sounds and textures throughout his latest, and he's at his best when he finds insightful new perspectives from which to process his musical style. With a completely different set of instruments and a more aggressive climax, standout "Brim" could easily pass as orchestral dubstep. There's a sense of precision to everything: the driving, forceful strings, the beats, which crackle with electricity, and the penny-precise control of dynamic and sonic density all add up to a track that demonstrates Arnalds' mastery of his form--and his rich palette of emotions. "Reclaim" follows up on a similar concept but gives its nimble instrumentation an anchor in vocalist Arnor Dan. And then there's "Old Skin," whose piano-led beginning fits right in with Arnalds' ouvere--even if the rest of the track spurts off into completely unexpected directions. If I said "sad underwater dance party," would it count as a spoiler?

All of this adventure has the unfortunate side effect of leaving Arnalds drained when he goes back to his basics: in the album's quieter moments, there's a slight tendency to drag that I found indulgent. My question is whether longtime fans such as yourself will think differently, so how do you feel about the album, Jacob?

Jacob: I definitely agree that the album's a great starting point. Arnalds hasn't ever been this accessible, and his newfound affinity for pretty, but accessible, music has much to do with this. I would venture to say the most mundane moments are the ones that most closely represent his past work, because he revisits them in a redundant way. "Only the Winds" stood out to me, not because of its memorable nature but rather how it dragged for its entirety. Fortunately, these moments are definitely outweighed by the positive ones.

I do agree that the more bombastic moments Arnalds presents are the more successful ones. And I also enjoy the use of vocals-- it's a nice addition to Arnalds' musical palette, although there are always some things to be ironed out. How did you enjoy them overall, in the context of his music?

Moses: I feel that the addition of vocals is one of the best parts of the album. Arnor Dan acquits himself nicely in every track: he uses his fragile tone in a variety of ways, playing foil to the more sweeping tracks and melting into the soundscapes on the more solemn ones. He finds himself at home on "Old Skin," where he gives perhaps his best performance: the regret and longing he builds through his repetition of phrases and his delicate timbre is stunning. I suppose the lyrics are a bit of a struggle to make out, but honestly, his voice conveys all that needs to be said.

Jacob: Yeah, there's definitely something to be said for "Old Skin," and how Dan's voice adds so much emotional depth to the track. It reminds me of the way I felt the first time I heard some of the strongest tracks on his last album, ...And They Have Escaped The Weight Of Darkness: the track has that emotional poignancy that really strikes a chord with the listener. The music video adds a ton to the experience, too:

Moses: To digress a bit, I'm still a bit torn on the placement of the slower pieces, honestly: the album is very well-paced, but there's an imbalance between the big climactic songs and the transitional pieces in between. When most of the interesting stuff is happening in the album's blockbuster moments, it's hard to appreciate the quieter moments. That said, there are plenty of more reserved gems on For Now I Am Winter, too: "Hands, Be Still" is one of the simplest--and one of the most striking--tracks on the album, its quiet but powerful climax built on the strength of one well-executed melody line. The problem is that we also get songs like "Only The Winds," which is pretty and sad, but nothing we haven't heard before. If roughly half of For Now I Am Winter is about Arnalds stretching out of his comfort zone, the other half is about his attempts to find a new equilibrium. Unfortunately, sometimes he wallows a little too long to get back on his feet.

On one last note, Jacob, how would you compare this to his last album? (I listened to it after I listened to this album, but I still see significant similarities and differences between the two.) Personally, I feel like the emotional subtext on this album feels much more complex, and the grander instrumentation brings it to life. The Weight Of Darkness' strengths lie more in its immersive mood and how much it does with so little.

Jacob: Overall, both albums are strong in different ways. The Weight of Darkness feels like more a passive piece, hooking you in for a couple songs towards the beginning, but then tinkering with different atmospheres for the rest of the album. While it has some incredible moments, I'm inclined to say For Now I Am Winter is a more reliable record. This has everything to do with its more immediate nature, too. The Weight of Darkness is an immense album, and it really does immerse the listener in the atmosphere, but For Now I Am Winter drops the listener into a pre-established atmosphere within seconds, while Weight of Darkness lets the listener witness the journey behind the atmosphere's creation.

Moses: I think that's an apt assessment. At its core, For Now I Am Winter is a reconstruction, and though parts of it still aren't quite in place, the foundation is sturdy. Overall, it's a solid--sometimes even groundbreaking--new direction for Arnalds, one that should give the musical architect plenty of room to build towards his lofty aspirations. B+

Jacob: This is definitely a promising release. It's obvious that Olafur is starting to understand his strengths in the post-rock world, and this knowledge serves him well, because it allows him to construct monuments like "Old Skin" and "Brim." They're different beasts than their predecessors, but are just as meaningful. Ultimately, I see For Now I Am Winter as an exploration into the more concise side of post-rock, the style at which Arnalds exceeds the greatest. B

Official Website


1. Sudden Throw
2. Brim
3. For Now I Am Winter
4. A Stutter
5. Words Of Amber
6. Reclaim
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

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