Ask someone to name a musician or band from Iceland and you can generally expect one of two answers: Björk or Sigur Rós. With those two artists as touchstones for our musical perceptions of the country, we may presume that all Icelandic artists are inspired by the unique, seemingly alien landscape of the island that they live on. However, that’s not always the case – neo-classical composer Ólafur Arnalds has admitted that one of his most beloved songs was, in fact, originally conceived with a far more pragmatic goal in mind, while electro-poppers Retro Stefson make music that would sound as at home on a Mediterranean beach as it does on the streets of Reykjavik.
Samaris, on the other hand, create the kind of Björk meets Fever Ray hybrid that feels like it could only have been conceived in this harsh yet beautiful climate – combining Áslaug Rún Magnúsdóttir’s haunting clarinet motifs, Þórður Kári Steinþórsson’s glacial electronica and the captivating vocals of Jófríður Ákadóttir, whose words are taken from 19th century Icelandic poems. Though they have stressed in interviews that they are not solely inspired by the nature of their country, it still seems somehow fitting to describe their self-titled debut release in terms of Iceland’s landscape – so let’s go on a journey…
At the outset, ‘Hljóma Þú’ serves as a perfect introduction to the atmosphere that Samaris create, calling to mind both the near-permanent darkness of Iceland’s winter and its vast areas of rugged basalt terrain. As if to complete this overall picture of the island, ‘Viltu Vitrast’ evokes the wide open sea that surrounds Iceland, with aquatic synthesisers bubbling underneath as a clarinet line soars above like a lone bird of prey. It’s ‘Góða Tungl’ that is the single most evocative piece on the album, however. Spacious, electronic beats reflect miles and miles of uninhabited landscape, the mournful clarinet sounds like a glacier slowly melting, rumbling bass echoes the tectonic activity that stirs between Iceland’s surface, and the ethereal vocals lend the whole thing an otherworldly feel.
The crystalline synths of ‘Stofnar Falla’ could represent frozen waterfalls, towering basalt columns or monumental ice flows, with the song’s dense atmosphere also conjuring up the bleak beauty of such distinctive landmarks. ’Vöggudub’, meanwhile, evokes the idea of finding respite from the bitter cold in other people, with Jófríður’s vocal shining like a beacon of humanity in an unforgiving expanse. As two takes on the same poem, ‘Sólhvörf (I)’ and ’Sólhvörf (II)’ feel like a slowly shifting lava field being depicted in two different ways – the former’s synths quiver and shudder in a way that evokes the dead of night, while the latter glistens like the first light of dawn, lending the imagined scenery a newfound serenity. Finally, we move to the very source of much of this natural beauty, with ‘Kælan Mikla’ sounding like the aftermath of a volcanic eruption – the vocals are more sombre and funereal than ever, with the synths like ash clouds slowly settling until they suddenly explode once again.
The last four tracks of this record are remixes by members of Iceland’s burgeoning electronic community, each of which throws a different filter on the pictures conjured up by these songs. Muted’s remix of ‘Hljóma Þú’ calls to mind an overcast, rainy day, while Futuregrapher’s version of ‘Viltu Viltrast’ is quite the opposite, bathing the song in the warm, comforting glow of summer. DJ Arfi turns ‘Góða Tungl’ on its head, his minor-key re-working making the landscape seem unnerving, with the threat of monstrous things lurking in the shadows cast by a distinctly bad moon – but the best of these remixes is Subminimal’s drum ’n’ bass refit of ’Stofnar Falla’, which offers not a change of mood but a change of pace. It evokes a feeling of travelling at great speed, with the rapid-fire beats akin to the foreground moving in fast-forward, while the vocals and clarinet remain implacable, distant and majestic, like mountains on the horizon.
And thus, Samaris comes to a close, as does our journey. But if you take one thing away from this piece of writing (or want a tl;dr version), let it be this – the music that Samaris create is truly transportive. You may not envision quite the same images as I do when you play this album, but I guarantee that what you see in your mind’s eye will be wonderful regardless.
Samaris is available now on One Little Indian records.