Icelandic duo (with friends) Hugar makes a huge step forward with its sophomore album, from self-released to Sony Masterworks. Not that their debut album was modest ~ it included Ólafur Arnalds on drums, along with brass and a string section. The new album extends these timbres in a manner that may remind some of the mid-period works of that other Icelandic post-rock band. But in this case, it’s a badge of honor; the latter group has discarded their older sound, while a newer group has picked it up. Consider this an alternate timeline.
When Hugar goes big, it goes really big, as exhibited by the album’s first single, “Saga.” The title references Icelandic history. Partially shot (or so we believe) at Þingvellir, the video is a mesmerizing combination of rune and religion, acid and apocalypse. The track is a rope-a-dope, swinging with the right hand of strings before landing the left hand of brass.
“Ró” takes the band into political territory. The track is simple: unadorned, closely miked piano. But the video delves into dystopian territory. The 2018 film Woman at War (Kona fer í stríð) underlines one form of environmental standoff; “Ró” imagines a future in which the heroine fails. Varða means “to affect, to concern, to regard.” Knowing the people of Iceland ~ some of the most conscious and aware when it comes to protecting national resources ~ the corporations don’t stand a chance. Each work of art that challenges the ravaging of land serves as a call to arms for a willing populace.
Maybe this is too much to lay at the feet of Hugar, who mostly just want to make good music. “Frost” is an early standout, the natural heir to “Úti,” which occupied the same position on the last album. The piano lays the groundwork for a slow stream of guitar and bass, followed by slow-growing horns. The drums wait to enter astride a new layer of strings. One imagines a traveler stuck in the snow, trudging forward one resolute step at a time. The final crescendo implies triumph.
After attaining such heights, Hugar eases down, displaying its more ambient leanings. The album’s midsection is pensive, even melancholy. This section flies by in a five-track, eleven minute suite, a journey across the fjords in a small yet seaworthy boat. The strings begin to rise again at the end of “Fell,” signifying a return to the fight; the brass follows one track later. “Rok” travels from solo piano to the album’s biggest, loudest riffs before “Land” closes it down, like a celebration on the far side of the fjord. Peaks and valleys are classic post-rock, but also prime features of the Icelandic landscape. By staying true to people and land, Hugar strikes a welcome note of authenticity. (Richard Allen)