Obsidian may have been a surprise release, but it was long in the making, as evidenced by the intricacy of the music. This sumptuous album is thick in texture and stereo effects, a reflection of the concurrent exhibition at New York’s Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, running through December 11. Even without the walls of choral speakers, sculptures and strobes, and the aromas of amber, ozone and birch, the music makes a soulful impact, bearing the awe and majesty endemic to Jónsi’s portfolio.
This is Jónsi’s third album apart from Sigur Rós, but the most like it in character. While Go was packed with ebullient pop gems and last year’s Shiver was dark and experimental, Obsidian is mostly calm and yearning, save for soft abrasion in “Cypriol.” Those who follow the artist will love it, but so will those who wondered if he might ever return to his classic ethereal sound ~ and to Hopelandic. He sings, and one need not understand the words, as tone and texture are the primary ingredients. But what if one did want to understand? The album is a tribute to the eruption of Fagradalsfjall: the volcano’s energy and power, its destructive and regenerative powers. Crows caw atop “Ambrox” like harbingers of doom. A sullen wind threads through heavenly harp. “Kvika” emerges from quietude with a brief, triumphant sequence that cedes space to the gurgling of magma. And in “Pyratone,” at long last, the drums, the drums!
Obsidian is volcanic glass formed by rapidly cooling lava; Obsidian (the album) was born from a period of heartache and hiraeth. Unable to return home, Jónsi was still able to dream of home, to write of home, to sing and sculpt his memories and projections into physical space. Through this album and exhibition, the Icelandic polymath becomes a multi-sensory contemporary of Pico Iyer. Close the eyes, and one can picture the cooling crimson and orange, smell the acrid birch, pitch forward in time to new growth sprouting from the glistening black. The album builds to a peak with “Eyja,” at 3:47 an obvious single, before turning contemplative: the choral Öskufall floats on water, paving way for twenty minutes of instrumental bliss. As so much of the album has been dramatic, the ambience seems well-earned, a respite, a rejuvenation. Obsidian is the beautiful byproduct of a violent event, a metaphor of the sacred space in which grace might flow into a newly-formed gap, creating an inner transformation. (Richard Allen)