If you haven’t yet checked out Norman Records’ review of re:member, we urge you to do so immediately. It’s quite funny, and underlines the way in which Ólafur Arnalds has conquered the hearts of those who adore lovely music. But to pigeonhole Arnalds as a composer of beautiful offerings is to miss the larger picture. Ever since his debut a decade ago, he’s been pushing himself to delve deeper and to expand into new territories. This has been apparent in techno collaborations, a shared tribute to Chopin, an installment of Late Night Tales and a series of creative tiered releases, the last of which saw him traveling the Icelandic countryside, teaming with family, friends and local luminaries.
This time around, the lead story is the development of the new Stratus software ~ essentially “two self-playing, semi-generative player pianos triggered by a central piano.” Arnalds worked with Halldór Eldjárn for over two years on this project, which is now unveiled in a big way. For a taste, see NPR’s wonderful Tiny Desk Concert. Those keys aren’t playing themselves ~ or are they? Their first major appearance midway through the title track is showcased by sublime stereo effects. Every time they reappear they add a touch of joy, one clearly shared by the artist turned inventor. If they too are beautiful, it’s no surprise ~ the tone is accepted with the same sort of grace.
Thanks to the Stratus software, re:member is the least melancholic of Arnalds’ albums. The title track serves as an overture, as the solo piano is joined by strings, then Stratus, and finally electronic drum patterns. The track seems like an awakening or coming out party. This is followed by “unfold,” shared previously at ACL in our summer tracks feature. SOHN contributes wordless vocals, keeping it as light as the levitating woman in the video. “inconsist” dances and weaves until its final minute, offering a welcome slice of dynamic contrast. “Partial” rises to a bubbling center before subsiding like the Great Geysir. The longest track, “undir,” offers a perfect contrast between the orchestral and electronic, the latter twice ceding space to the former. “ekki hugsa” (“do not think”) smiles the whole way through.
So where can one turn for the bittersweet ache of Arnalds’ earlier works? “they sink” offers a dollop, although the effect soon dissipates due to the length (2:35). The same holds true for “momentary,” a pensive pause that reflects its title. The very end of “undir” allows space for such reflection. But an unexpected shift occurs in the last track. Arnalds sits at his piano, at first alone, playing so sparsely and tenderly that one imagines him forgetting the notes. The other instruments enter as gently as friends, brushing the shoulders of the composition with quiet compassion. The purity of this encounter lends the album its most powerful moment, as the music wraps back around to the beginning like a perfect story, passed down from generation to generation. (Richard Allen)