Let’s begin with a question. Can the place you are from define you? In character, in conscience, in persona? I’d say yes, for sure – at the very least in the lives we lead and the music we make. I know very little about Iceland. My knowledge of this intriguing country is embarrassingly limited to random thoughts, people and pictures I have seen on TV. And then there’s Björk, of course, who I fell in love with many years ago. So why is it that I think Icelandic saxophonist/composer Tumi Árnason’s musical identity is forged from his surroundings? I really don’t know the answer but it obviously has something to do with the music I’m listening to here. All I can say is that this was one of my first impressions when listening to the adventurous, spellbinding, almost mystical music performed on this album. Maybe it’s the imagery that Árnason’s music creates in my mind. Can music be visual? Again, I would say yes, of course. The sounds I am hearing transport me to another place, a palette of many colours blending together, offerings of pictures to view in a gallery. But it’s more than that. These pictures are like dreams, moving in and out of focus. Some are like natural elements, coming together perfectly to live in harmony. Others are more like oil and water, refusing to mix, challenging and then repelling one another and once more going their separate ways. This is the musical landscape of “Hlýnun”.
There is an identity to Árnason’s music that is steadfast. His writing is uncompromising, experimental and tantalisingly unique. Once the spell is cast, it won’t let go. Deeper and deeper I fall from the glimmering, glacial rock-face, plummeting down through the half-frozen waters, fighting for breath as I rise once more, taking in a new horizon in my mind’s eye. It’s a primordial thing. Echoes of a distant life surrounding me. Birth, rebirth, life and death. A universe spinning on its axis, flooding my mind with random imagery from who knows where who knows when. And then I refocus, as steadily all reflections subside as I draw closer to the elemental, ever-changing nucleus.
“Hlýnun” – which translates as “Warming”, is an album that addresses our current existential threat, the climate crisis, through free jazz and experimental improvisation. It invites the listener into a dynamic ecosystem. Saxophonist/composer Tumi Árnason, with bassist Skúli Sverrisson, drummer Magnús Trygvason Eliassen, and keyboardist Magnús Jóhann Ragnarsson, use their instruments to orbit one another, trade ideas and create vital soundscapes. A living multiplicity that grows and flourishes, gains balance but is threatened by an ever-advancing hegemony. Songs of extinct birds are unveiled through melodies and a requiem for life itself bursts out of the organ. Man’s systematic and mechanical thinking haunts the work, rousing intensities and endangering its unity. The ecosystem regresses and becomes an apocalyptic ambience, hiss, then silence.
This is not necessarily the easiest music I will listen to this year. But if ever the music reflected perfectly the source of its inspiration, then this is it. It has its lighter moments, but the overall mood is sombre, as Árnason’s magnum opus challenges the listener to involve themselves in his journey. Fully immersive and compellingly brilliant, “Hlýnun” is a true work of art.
If you are thinking of delving deep into the wonders of this recording, I highly recommend you look at purchasing the very, very special vinyl edition. It is, quite simply, stunningly beautiful. The record is pressed by RPM Records in Denmark on a double 180g white marbled vinyl made from recycled materials. The sound is incredible. The ‘Poster Style” sleeve wraps around the vinyl and opens out to reveal six 12” sections on both sides, giving a total of twelve printed panels. The artwork design by Elín Edda Þorsteinsdóttir and Íbbagoggur, with front cover art by Þorsteinn Cameron, complements the music perfectly. The litho printed covers were made in Iceland and include scores, texts and poems by Brynja Hjálmsdóttir and Tómas Ævar Ólafsson. The overall package is one of the best I have ever seen produced anywhere in the world. The music and the product combined make for an incredibly visceral, rewarding experience.