Red Barnett - ‘Astronauts’ (album)
Iceland is spoiling us this week, and I don’t just mean in their new selection of Chicken Satay Noodles. Of course the variety of music releases for such a small nation is phenomenal, and that’s part of the reason why NMR exists, but after the beautiful surprise that was Hringfari (go check them out), one of our favourite Icelandic bands Red Barnett have also released a new album. Entitled ‘Astronauts’, it represents a step up in scale from their release ‘Shine’ from way back in 2015.
Of course Red Barnett are a favourite of mine, and the fact I was so looking forward to the release isn’t necessarily a good thing, as that does add an element of pressure - there’s nothing worse than being disappointed in a really anticipated release.
Thankfully of course, there wasn’t much danger of that, ‘Astronauts’ is an engaging, sophisticated indie album, which is packed full of elegant if slightly sad sounding melodies and which in particular benefits from a such a weighty full instrumental sound – the band of 6 Icelandic musicians make a hell of a good noise.
Added to this, the album was recorded in deepest, darkest Wales, at the legendary Rockfield studio which has great credentials – if they ever record over there again, we’ll have to try and encourage a live gig somewhere.
The album opens with ‘Sky’, immediately conjuring up visions of space, looking up to a gently rotating satellite perhaps, and after a while the piano theme becomes implanted, with added instrumentation them layered on, it’s subtle and atmospheric. This is followed by that pre-album single which made such an impact, the inspired ‘Astronaut’, which is still one of my songs of the year, a compelling song which builds up to an almost overwhelming climax, and I just live the piano / keyboard contribution.
I still can’t help but look up again towards the stars at the opening of ‘For a Friend’, with firstly just a gentle acoustic guitar, but it’s those expressive instrumentals that are so appealing – it’s like listening to a concert pianist playing a Mozart piano concerto, those little subtle accents and touches. ‘Turning Up’, also a single, is still a curious track in the context of the album, but it’s grown on me and I think the change in musical style works just ok.
‘Julie’ is a simple enough sounding song to start, but builds with some sizeable instrumental flourishes, the use of strings was almost inevitable, but the arrangements are done to almost symphonic scale. Clearly there are many bands that use strings in this way, but I can’t help but think of fellow Icelandic band Monotown a little.
The plaintive ‘So Hard to Sleep’ is expressive but understated and always melodic, whilst ‘Star’ lifts the pace but actually isn’t my favourite song, maybe because I find the lyrics a little contrived. Thankfully the sensitively judged ‘Moon’ suits my mood perfectly, a acoustic guitar with finely judged support, whilst ‘Landslide’ has the most gorgeous melancholy tune, an epic track with a sweeping chorus and the ending is just blistering. It reminds me somewhat of the climactic track ‘Syrgjandi’ from that Hringfari album, albeit the style is different.
It feels like the album just needs one track to wrap up after such a centrepiece, but Astronaut has two, the stately and smooth ‘Serenade’ builds with the help of a choir and the piano is at its most expressive for what appears to be just a simple accompaniment - and the harmonies are almost literally out of this world. Subtle string arrangements open ‘Satellite’, before it opens up with another searing display of instrumental power.
I guess it’s been a strange week, with such ‘goings on’ across the pond and new lockdowns in the UK. But I’ve got so lost in Astronaut that everything else has been forgotten. Well almost. Red Barnett‘s founder Halli is such a powerful songwriter, and he seems to have assembled around him a ‘dream team’ of Icelandic musicians that add the most intense richly textured instrumental sound. It’s an absolute joy to listen to, and I can’t imagine I’ll be putting this one down for a while.
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