Ásgeir (or ‘Ãsgeir’, or even ‘sgeir’ depending on your system formatting limitations) is the most recent addition to Iceland’s disproportionately long list of universally popular musical exports.
After finding huge domestic success in his home country with Icelandic-language debut ‘Dýrð í dauðaþögn’, the young songwriter enlisted the talents of lyrical heavyweight John Grant to translate his words for an English-speaking audience. The result, 2014’s ‘In The Silence’, was a beautiful slice of electronic folk-pop of a Nordic bent that blended the quiet power of Bon Iver’s most isolate moments with the icy atmospherics of James Blake in a far more assured manner than the two artists managed themselves back on 2011’s ‘Fall Creek Boys Choir’ (although perhaps not than their more recent collaboration ‘Need A Forest Fire’).
For his follow-up record, Ásgeir elects to push ever further down the well-trodden path that leads from borderline acoustica over to pure electronica. Singles ‘Unbound’ and ‘Stardust’ soar skywards on top of a buoyant keyboard line not dissimilar to the one that elevated ‘King and Cross’ far above your standard folktronica fare. This upwards lift is compounded by the accompanying lyrics, which are once again largely contributed by Ásgeir’s father Einar Trausti and brother/bandmate Thorsteinn. The repeated references to release and escape (“Drive away with me straight into the rain / Never coming back again”, “I'm free from love's breathless scream following me”, etc. etc.) serve to distance this record from its predecessor, which was largely concerned with the cosy hospitality of home depicted on ‘Summer Guest’ and, um, ‘Going Home’.
Ásgeir’s time spent with John Grant can be heard in his increasing tendency to hang each section of a song around one central piano line, regularly dousing its second half in sweet, sticky orchestration. This approach is perfectly realised on the lush ‘Dreaming’, where a school of simple horns teem under the surface of sustained synth like a school of lazy fish, as well as on impressive closing tracks ‘Fennir yfir’ (which neatly evokes Massive Attack at their most delicate) and ‘Hold’. The latter’s Icelandic lyrics somehow seem to transcend any language barrier to deliver one of the most emotionally charged moments on the album. Elsewhere 'Here Comes The Wave In' might have a limited grasp of what constitutes as English (one gets the feeling Grant was too busy to take Ásgeir’s call this time around), but it's grand crescendo exudes a rare majestic style that only Dry The River have previously managed to nail down.
Unfortunately there are a few tracks here and there that really let ‘Afterglow’ down. ‘I Know You Know’ is a pretty awful piece of music that veers far too close to tropical house for anyone’s liking while ‘New Day’ already sounds like it’s trying to sell you a plasma TV. When forced to endure moments like these you can’t help but worry that Ásgeir is only an Ed Sheeran support slot away from falling in with the wrong crowd and morphing into little more than a good looking but empty vessel.
As things stand at the moment, however, Ásgeir's music is far too complex and interesting to start writing off as advert fodder. There's a depth to his work that deserves to be burrowed into. 'Afterglow' itself works particularly well as a thoughtful sequel to 'In The Silence'. That record was the archetypal warm-blanket record, tailor-made for drawing up close to the fire with loved ones to stave off the encroaching cold of the winter-long Icelandic night. This album, on the other hand, is as warm and inviting as the dawn of Arctic summer, apt to melt even the iciest of hearts that open up to it.
Words: Josh Gray
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