Tag Archives: Samaris

2013 Catchup: The Transportive Music Of Samaris

Samaris - Samaris

Samaris – Samaris

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.

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International Artist Of The Whenever #1: Samaris (IS)

Anyone who was lucky enough to be at last year’s Iceland Airwaves festival will surely have heard the buzz around Samaris – a unique trio making the kind of glacial electronica that could only have come from Iceland.

Samaris

Samaris

Comprised of vocalist Jófríður Ákadóttir (who is also one half of Pascal Pinon), clarinetist Áslaug Rún Magnúsdóttir, and electronic musican Þórður Kári Steinþórsson, Samaris make music that sounds a little like a meeting of minds between Björk and Fever Ray. Watch the video for the mesmerising ‘Góða Tungl’ below.

The band have recently begun to attract attention outside Iceland, with The 405 and The Line Of Best Fit among others picking up on their self-titled debut UK release on One Little Indian. Samaris is a compilation of two EPs that were previously only released in Iceland – Hljóma Þú and Stofnar Falla – and sets the words of 19th-century Icelandic poets against a backdrop of trip-hop/dub influenced electronica and haunting clarinet motifs, with Jófríður’s enchanting vocals completing the band’s otherworldly sound.

The band played their first UK show back in June in London, and after making festival appearances at Sonar, Electric Picnic and Berlin Music Week, they return for two dates in the UK next week. First up is a gig at Gorilla in Manchester on Tuesday 24th September, supporting the wonderful Jon Hopkins and Lone. Then on Thursday 26th September they play The Lexington in London along with Eye Emma Jedi from Norway and Satellite Stories from Finland.

A new album from Samaris is scheduled for release before the end of the year, but for now I would implore you to listen to their debut release – it really is an unconventional and incredible record that marks an extremely promising beginning for this young trio.

Samaris is out now on One Little Indian records. For more information about the band, check out their official website.

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There Was An Englishman, An Irishman, And A Swiss Woman… – An Iceland Airwaves Adventure, pt I

Sensible people might want to go somewhere with a bit of sun for a holiday in November – but I’m prone to not being very sensible, so together with my friends Peter and Alex, I headed off to Reykjavik in Iceland for the annual Iceland Airwaves music festival. Before I get started, I’d like to thank them for their company (putting up with me isn’t always easy), and also for any uncredited musical comparisons or opinions I’ve taken from them for the purposes of this blog. Thanks again guys.

Wednesday 31st October

This journey begins as it ends – on a plane, sleep-deprived, contemplating how different things will be when we arrive. But let’s skip most of the boring travel crap – suffice to say that by Wednesday evening, Peter, Alex, and I have all arrived safely at our hotel in Reykjavik. And I should probably start out by saying how accommodating the good people at Fosshotel Baron were – reception seemed to be open pretty much 24 hours, and they were always friendly and helpful when it came to asking questions and making travel arrangements. We’d paid to have an extra bed in a double room, but in fact we ended up in a room big enough to sleep four people in it, which was a nice bonus.

We head off to the centre of town soon after – picking up our wristbands proves to be a quick and painless process, so after a brief walk around the centre of town, we pick The Laundromat Cafe as our first stop for food. We get some reasonably-priced burgers, and Peter and Alex try their luck with the Icelandic beers (I go for a tasty caramel milkshake, because I’m a wussy non-drinking type). Once we’re finished, it’s just a short walk to our first venue of the festival, Iðnó.

In perhaps the most questionable bit of scheduling I’ve ever seen, some of the hottest Icelandic bands are playing in this tiny venue – a deicision that must feel inspired to those who’ve managed to get into the room, but no doubt seems insane to the ever expanding queue outside. Unfortunately, we find ourselves in the latter position to begin with, arriving slightly too late and spending all of Pascal Pinon’s set stood tantalisingly close to the front of the queue. After being usurped by various press-pass wielders and other entitled types, we finally squeeze into the back of the room to watch Sóley. And at this point it’s pretty clear why several hundred people have been queuing to get into the venue – these songs are beautiful, delivered in sweetly accented tones as fragile arrangements float around them. ‘Pretty Face’ and ‘I’ll Drown’ are spellbinding highlights of a set that’s received in hushed, awed silence.

Next up is Prins Póló, who starts out by hopping into the crowd and handing out crown-like hats. I’ll admit I’d kinda written him off after listening to a couple of tracks beforehand, but bolstered by a live band the likes of ‘Niðrá Strönd’ become a hell of a lot more dynamic and engaging – even if he sings almost entirely in Icelandic, and thus I don’t understand a word. A pleasant surprise from an artist who I was expecting to be little more than filler.

Following on from that, we have a man who’s been described by Rolling Stone as “the Icelandic Beck” – Sindri Már Sigfússon, otherwise known as Sin Fang. Alex has been excited to see him for ages now, and while I don’t recognise most of the songs he plays, his dreamy alt-folk sound is still very much pleasing to my ears – the gorgeous ‘Slow Lights’ is mesmerising, evolving subtly as it washes over you. There’s also a healthy sense of humour in the Sin Fang camp, as indicated by a new song called ‘See Ribs’, whose inspiration is about as literal as its title might suggest – Sin Fang’s producer seeing some ribs and subsequently wanting to eat them. Creativity’s a funny thing, huh? Sóley is also playing here as part of Sindri’s band, and in an amusing moment she takes him to task for saying that he won’t be watching her show in the program. Sin Fang might only on stage for about half an hour, but it’s certainly enough time to convince me to listen to more of his recorded material.

Peter’s been banging on about FM Belfast ever since we booked the trip, so of course we weren’t going anywhere. The band’s live setup turns out to be one guy with a laptop and a bunch of electronics, an Icelandic Tim Harrington on percussion, and four other people taking up singing/dancing/general party-starting duties. The result is a gleefully chaotic spectacle that the band’s recorded material just doesn’t do justice – live, these songs are shot through with a thousand volts. The throbbing synths of ‘Delorean’ seem that much more arresting, the soaring falsettos of ‘I Can Feel Love’ that much more delirious, the sheer joy of ‘Par Avion’ that much more palpable. ‘Underwear’ becomes a fist-pumping anthem, interlaced with random rap-battle interludes that reference ‘Fuck Nicole’ and ‘Can’t Touch This’ – and then the trousers come off in a literal nod to the song’s chorus “we are running down the street in our underwear.” The encore of ‘I Don’t Want To Go To Sleep Either’ is lunatic, grin-inducing fun – and it would be fitting if it wasn’t for our lack of sleep and the fact we need to be up at 7am tomorrow…

Thursday 1st November

We’ve heard rumours of storm warnings and excursions being cancelled, but nevertheless Icelandic Guided Tours (http://igtours.is/) pick us up shortly after 8.30am for our planned trip around The Golden Circle. Our guide is called Javier, and if you’re thinking that name doesn’t sound very Icelandic, you’d be right – he’s from Spain, and was originally a geologist. Throughout our trip he proves to be very knowledgeable, providing a plethora of information about Icelandic history, industry, politics, folklore and more besides.

The tour gets started with a couple of warm-up stops – the volcanic caldera Kerið, and the very picturesque Faxi waterfall. But the real spectacle is yet to come – the majestic Gullfoss (Golden Falls) is truly a sight to behold, the Hvitá river plunging deep into the earth. I’d try to find the words to describe it properly, but to be honest you may as well just look at the pretty picture.

Gullfoss

We also visit the Geysers at Haukaudular – the original Geyser that gives all the others its title is now pretty much dormant, but there is an active one called Strokkur that still erupts every few minutes, propelling a column of water around 30 metres into the air. We also visit a nearby cafe and sample some Icelandic lamb soup, which is rather good as it turns out.

Our final stop is at Þingvellir, the site of what’s thought to be the oldest parliament in history – 10th century Icelanders would travel from all over the country to meet here, at the convergence of several major routes. If you’re looking for a perfect snapshot of the bleakly beautiful Icelandic landscape, then this is an absolute must-visit.

Þingvellir

What these pictures don’t quite capture is just how windy it was – little did we know that the worst was yet to come in that regard…

After a fact-filled journey home, we realise we’re just in time to go catch Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds playing a set at Norræna Húsið (Nordic House). Playing the piano, and accompanied by a violinist and a cellist, his delicate but stirring music is the perfect way to wind down a little after our trip. For his final song, the string musicians leave the room to allow Ólafur to play solo – only for them to circle back round and start playing behind us as the song comes to an end. It’s a clever use of the space, and an excellent touch to what has been a beautiful performance.

After that, we stick around to catch an acoustic performance from Danish rockers Thee Attacks, who even in this capacity are intriguing and energetic enough to warrant further investigation. Dinner this evening comes courtesy of Café de Paris, though none of us eat anything particularly French. Alex and Peter going for the fish of the day – ling, a locally sourced white fish – while I decide on a big bowl of nachos with cheese, chicken, salsa and sour cream (because I’m culturally appropriate like that).

After that it’s time to get involved with the evening’s music, and so we head over to the Reykjavik Art Museum. First on the list are Samaris, an unconventional Icelandic three-piece – the minimal electronic music of Þórður Kári Steinþórsson is embellished by clarinetist Áslaug Rún Magnúsdóttir and captivating vocalist Jófríður Ákadóttir. The end result sounds like Björk fronting Fever Ray – the kind of glacial, haunting electronica that could only come from a country like Iceland. Mesmerising set-closer ‘Góða Tungl’ cements them as my favourite new Icelandic band of the entire festival. Next up are US electro-rock band Phantogram, who by comparison are competent but lack a certain something to make them truly engaging – Pete pins it down to a lack of dynamic range, and I’m inclined to agree with him.

We decide to make tracks to Harpa, an impressive glass construct on the harbour that houses various concert halls. We stick our heads into the largest one, Silfurberg, to find Jamie N Commons wearing a silly hat and sounding pretty dull, so we chill out for a while on the upper levels of the building. We return to the hall in time to catch Dikta playing out their last track, and I get the feeling that I probably didn’t need to hear much more than that to get a handle on their fairly harmless, upbeat indie rock. Due to a scheduling change (thanks for nothing, Poliça), Purity Ring had been moved to headline the Art Museum instead of playing here, but I was interested to check out their replacement, Bloodgroup. In hindsight, it wasn’t the best choice – the band’s dark electro pop sound isn’t bad, but their set is largely lacking in the kind of astmosphere suggested by their final track ‘My Arms’.

We’re really here for Of Monsters And Men though (I say “we”, but I suppose that only really applies to Pete and I – Alex later tells me she wasn’t that bothered about them), and for the most part they don’t disappoint. Their performance doesn’t quite feel as truly triumphant as it could have and I’m too fatigued at this point for them to truly win me over, but even in my sleep-deprived state I can’t really fault them too heavily. You know you’re doing something right when you can use the clichéd “for instant ‘epicness’, just add la-la-la’s” trick about half a dozen times without it getting old. Looking back, perhaps I ought to have checked out some bands I hadn’t seen before, but that shouldn’t take anything away from the band’s performance. And then, to bed, as we’re all tired and in theory we have another trip planned for midday tomorrow. As it turns out, nature isn’t done with us yet, not by a long shot…

Part II of this review can be found here.

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