Many of our readers have heard Gyða Valtýsdóttir without learning her name. As a co-founder of múm, she injected mystery into the band’s early releases. On her own, she’s gone from strength to strength, building her reputation through original works and collaborations. 2018’s Evolution was a stunner, albeit mostly vocal; the more instrumental-minded Epicycle II is her crowning achievement to date.
While Epicycle concentrated on the classical canon from Schubert to Crumb, Epicycle II is a tour through modern Icelandic composition. Sono Luminus has been faithful in presenting works of the nation over the past few years, so it’s only fitting that they host this release. Many of our favorite artists are represented, and there’s only one cover ~ Daniel Bjarnason’s “Air to Breath” ~ but we already loved that song, so nice call!
The first, and perhaps largest surprise, is seeing Valtýsdóttir in action. Her music has always beguiled, but we never knew she possessed such a powerful visual presence as well. “Evol Lamina” pairs the cellist with Jónsi, whose own album is scheduled for release this fall. The track is breathy and crunchy, the visuals sinuous and even sinister. As she tells Grapevine, “I loved how it made me feel both naked & vulnerable as well as more embodied, fluid & forceful.”
Two tracks reunite Valtýsdóttir with friends from múm. This is a good place to inject the fact that the Icelandic music scene is vastly different from the scenes of other countries. Band membership and concert support are fluid; people tend to leave bands and remain friends, which makes sense in a small nation but is also a sign of mutual respect. “Liquidity” (which can be heard by clicking the link below) pairs the artist with Kjartan Sveinsson and is a logical choice for a single due to its lush instrumentation and tender voice, reminiscent of Kate Bush. The other lyric-based track, “Safe to Love,” was written by Ólöf Arnalds and is soothingly romantic, with high notes dissolving into an ambient sea.
Skúli Sverrisson’s “Untold” is as dramatic as the Icelandic landscape, teeming with long shadows, distinctive angles and sudden clouds. Valtýsdóttir views the piece as “dancing in the prism of its light.” Anna Thorvaldsdóttir contributes “Mikros,” which begins and ends stringed cries akin to those of whales, a slight irony as the title is Greek for “small” or “microscopic.” The careful, intricate development fits the title, the mood investigative. It’s one of two pieces to rely on cello alone, the other being “Air to Breath.”
Úlfur Hansson’s father occupied the building below the artist’s childhood loft, and built the cello that Valtýsdóttir now uses. The Middle Eastern influenced, co-written “Morphogenesis” conveys Hansson’s early fascination with death metal. Waves of darkness surge across the sonic field; the artists scramble to address the devastation in-between. As stark as this piece may be, it’s only part of the story; the only question is how it will end. “Octo” is “a loop to play with,” courtesy of Amiina’s María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, and creates the album’s final impression: that Valtýsdóttir is as playful as she is serious. She does more than collaborate with this incredible array of composers; she stands on equal ground. (Richard Allen)