Iceland’s scenery is lovely yet savage. The views are astonishing, from the Northern Lights to the purebred horses. But storms can arise at any moment, and recent eruptions have solidified the nation’s reputation as the land of fire and ice. One may drive up to a glacier on a one-lane road without guard rails, but if one should get in trouble, help may be late in arriving. Last year a New Jersey tourist became famous for following his GPS six hours off course (having typed Laugarvegur instead of Laugavegur, an easy mistake), briefly becoming a local celebrity; he then repeated the mistake on a drive to the Blue Lagoon.
Gail Priest captures the nation’s dichotomy in her dual-toned aural exploration, Heraclitus in Iceland. The title refers to the philosopher who wrote, “You cannot step twice into the same river.” Reading Heraclitus’ work while enjoying her residency in Olafsfjordur, the Australian sound artist finds further wisdom that she applies to her field recordings, one saying per track. She is herself an explorer, seeking to understand a landscape vastly different from her own. In so doing, she discovers beauty and darkness, locked in an eternal struggle, the cover image a perfect reflection. To the beauty she adds her own beauty (the mallets of “So Much Water”), to the darkness her own darkness (the dark bass and pitch shifts of “Scraps for Sirens & Harpies”). In so doing, she becomes one with her environment, while Heraclitus in Iceland becomes less of a field recording set than a personal journal.
Priest’s diverse skills yield a wide variety of timbres. “Rusted Rituals” seeps glissandos and drones, echoing the sorrow of sailors drowned at sea, its buoys and bells sinking in an ocean of inevitability. The final waves bear not survivors, but debris; the carrion birds approach. The winds of “Home Moan” are met by siren choirs as they whip against neighborhood flagpoles, an invitation to a shipwreck. Yet as Priest turns her attention to streams, churches, and ultimately to the Northern Lights, the mood shifts from doom to delight. Above, below and all around, wonders are waiting to be heard. When cathedral bells ring in “Tocsin Tales”, their tone is the opposite of those in “Rusted Rituals” ~ flight instead of weight. The album’s closing cut, a modular aurora, invites listeners to look beyond the danger, and dream. (Richard Allen)