Sigur Rós fans will be drawn instantly to the debut release from Ólafur Björn Ólafsson, the band’s touring keyboardist and percussionist, especially given the fact that the last Sigur Rós album dropped the percussion. But we’ve already buried the lead story: Óbó is worthy in his own right.
One of the unique beauties of Icelandic bands is a lack of conceit. Members of bands – even famous ones – happily play in other bands and pursue other interests. At festivals, those who can carry their instruments are known to dash through the streets, on their way to guest appearances at other gigs. Óbó has been doing his thing for a while, contributing to the works of at least ten other local artists (Emiliana Torrini, Benni Hemm Hemm, múm), who all seem to be friends. From what I’ve seen at Iceland Airwaves, all Icelandic musicians seem to be friends (an idealistic view, but not far from the truth.) And Innhverfi is a friendly album, despite all indications to the contrary.
First to the gentle, half-sung vocals. Sigur Rós was never held back by Hopelandic; one might make a strong case for the vocals as pure texture. The same holds true for non-Icelandic listeners approaching the work of Óbó. In this sense, he has more in common with country mate Ólöf Arnalds, who has made a fine career without compromise, and seems now to be branching into English on Palme only because she doesn’t have to. Those expecting Óbó to sound like Sigur Rós will likely first be disappointed, then enchanted, as his sound is much more acoustic and personal. Only in the climax of the album’s lovely instrumental centerpiece “Stilla” does the artist approach anything resembling post-rock. Innhverfi is his, and his alone.
Now to the subject matter. Innhverfi is a play on the Icelandic words for “introvert” and “suburb”, which implies a withdrawn, even sullen album. Yet the opposite is the case. With sprightly ivories inhabiting songs like the brief and twinkling “Fyrirbo∂i”, it’s hard to be morose. Instead, Óbó draws on the power of introversion in the same way that Björk did on Vespertine, albeit in an organic fashion. After all, there’s little suburban sprawl to be found in Iceland, as one simply needs to travel beyond the boundaries of Reykjavik to find the solace of the open field, the glory of the tall mountains, the peacefulness of the fjords. With tender playing and soft singing, Óbó evokes the restfulness of the north more than the bustle of the south.
The contrast between the lyrics and the music is a hallmark of Icelandic music. Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs stumbled by trying to say too much; Óbó says more by saying less. In “Svartur Galdur,” he sings of “blue neon mountains and digital barns”, and in the near-title track he laments, “been working hard for the longest time to find the way out.” And yet, in true Icelandic fashion, he gives thanks: there’s never been a moment like this one; there’s never been a place like here, never been a sound this bright.
In “Gullregn,” the artist rests the album on a plea: remember the old times, remember the old times. The electronic and orchestral elements peak here before completely retreating, leaving only a creak to occupy the album’s final minute. It’s as if the final guest has gone home, allowing Óbó to surrender to quietude, listening to the house settle and the boat rock gently at the dock. (Richard Allen)
Release date: 14 November