Anything happening in the world today? Nope? Good, so here’s something a little bit different, and certainly a complete contrast with the Icelandic boy band we featured yesterday.
Hringfari are an Icelandic / Canadian duo consisting of Teitur Björgvinsson and James Bunton, and their debut self titled album has been a real labour of love, written, recorded and produced at long distance between the two countries. The result is a stunning album which is as surprising as it is completely charming, with delicate pop textures fusing together with experimental and ambient soundscapes – and some blisteringly powerful moments too.
Similar to the Sturle Dagsland release we featured last week, the recordings were made in a variety of places, mixed between professional studios, churches, the inevitable secluded Nordic cabin and at home. You can really hear that in the sound too, it’s part of the personality of the album.
Trying to track down Teitur Björgvinsson’s past musical history is a bit tricky, but there’s a few references online to his reputation, so I’ll maybe establish some details later, but James Bunton has a long established reputation as a producer / mixer, and he’s worked on a vast number of musical projects back in Canada.
I haven’t seen any publicity about ‘Hringfari’ so it seems like this is a real hidden gem, and I’m still only on the start of my listening journey. It just has so many stunning elements, but straight from the opening of ‘Fossgata 5’ you can hear the attention to detail, with delicate instrumentation and very Icelandic sounding vocals – plaintive, expressive and to an extent simplistic in their delivery. I’m sure they won’t mind me making a comparison with Sigur Rós
‘Andvarpa’ has beguiling rhythms which carry the song along, and the introduction of strings at first is subtle, before it develops anthemically to a belting climax with the theme belted out against a wall of ambient noise – definite post rock influences, and interesting that they tag themselves as ‘post pop’ on Bandcamp.
‘Svefnvana’ is again string led, and already I’m slightly blown away by the ambition of Hringfari, a relatively low key project with such sumptuous strings and production that again swells to an impressive level, whilst ‘Heima(h)ljóð’ is more reflective, with a curious experimental edge, with pizzicato strings providing the rhythmic background.
The instrumental organ based Ljósavatn is in many ways a tribute to Teitur Björgvinsson’s father, as‘ Björgvin Tómasson designed and constructed organs across Iceland - the track was recorded in one of those churches. But auð)lind has a different feel with dramatic strings leading a powerful instrumental section, a strong melodic vocal line building to another huge climax when all elements are brought together – it’s an obvious highlight of the album, but listen too for those subtle intricate sounds fused into the mix.
I should point out at this point, if you haven’t already guessed, that Hringfari sing in entirely Icelandic lyrics and ‘How Did this Happen’, despite the title, maintains this. Broadly they explain that “the album draws lines across distances, travels the circle, and creates and collects shared stories and memories”, but that’s a little bit vague – maybe we should do an NMR interview to find out more about the themes.
The opening of ‘Heimsendi’ is a reminder of the duos love of more experimental sounds, but it builds with an easy listening pop sensibility. It’s about to be my least favourite song on the album, when it heads in a completely leftfield atmospheric direction, and then ends with quirky electronica based support - there’s really never a dull moment,
‘Seyðisfjörðu’ is almost bewilderingly beautiful, piano sets out a meandering minimalist inspired theme, lovely vocals with gentle strings adding sumptuous arrangements before fading to another surprise – a discordant, almost uncomfortable ending. I really need to understand the lyrical content, surely that explains everything - or maybe they just got carried away in the recording studio.
Either way it builds into a proper belting indie rock track, the free flowing ‘Syrgjandi‘, with a huge melodic chorus, where they throw the kitchen sink at the track instrumentally, yet underneath it all the driving strings and hints of tinkering piano can still be heard. Then after an unexpected cut off in sound, the duo build back up to the most extraordinary of climaxes. Oh my. These guys should be performing high up on the bill at Airwaves.
‘Syrgjandi‘ is a stunning ‘conclusion’ and it’s almost impossible to follow, but somehow they do it with the thoughtful ‘Er þú grætur‘, again utilising the organ in a track where the distant vocals add an added poignancy.
I really wasn’t expecting this. Such a beautifully written and well produced album, but balancing such power and intimacy too, even though I feel I’m missing so much with my shameful lack of knowledge in Icelandic. The beauty here really is in the detail, as well as those huge contrasts in sound – at times I find it joyously simple, and yet I marvel too at the album's scale and power. I’m just so privileged to have found it.
Now I just need a vinyl copy please.
Nordic Music Review 9/10
You can find them on Bandcamp.