“Hugar is the Icelandic duo of Bergur Þórisson and Pétur Jónsson, two composers and multi-instrumentalists. Bergur is also the musical director for Bjork, who collaborates with her on her live dates. They’ve also collaborated with fellow Icelanders Jóhann Jóhannsson and Ólafur Arnalds, and Hugar has also recently worked with Sigur Rós on their Black Mirror score as well. Musically, they smartly electronic flourishes into their varied instrumental compositions, offering up a widening sonic palette that communicates with the new classical world and beyond. The majority of the recordings sessions for the new album took place at night, imbuing a nocturnal energy into the final product.”
There is something to be said about the music that comes out of Iceland. The likes of Ólafur Arnalds, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Snorri Hallgrímsson, Amiina, Sigur Rós, Hildur Guðnadóttir come to mind when you think about Icelandic artists. Each have their own sound world’s, but one thing seemingly ties them together and that is the quality of their pieces. From fragile innocence to moody introspection and fully formed epics, Icelandic musicians have a way of producing music that is perfectly formed and shows the rest of the world how to do it without being over the top in any facet of the music or indeed it’s promotion. There is a very laid back and natural feeling I get when listening to music from Iceland. You can now add Hugar to the above list.
The duo of multi-instrumentalists Bergur Þórisson & Pétur Jónsson are childhood friends who began making music together in 2012 with their first album, the self titled “Hugar” being released in July of 2014 as a free download (it is still available as pay what you want) and has been streamed some forty four million times and counting. The follow up “Varða” will be released on the Sony Masterworks label on August 23rd. The fourteen track album moves easily through pieces of Post Rock and Modern Classical styles with cinematic touches imbued throughout them. Hugar will be heading out on a European tour in support of the album.
Opening with “Grandi” your ears are instantly treated to a full sounding piece that really sets the tone for the grandeur and beauty that will continue through the next thirteen tracks. Some what reminiscent of Japan’s Mono and the way that they infuse moments of breath taking beauty alongside walls of sound, it has its own feeling about it which is largely anchored by the raw, naked piano. The Post Rock meets orchestral feel continues with “Saga” which feels like Modern Classical and for some reason Folk touches come to mind as if what you are hearing is an old Icelandic traditional piece of music. The string, brass, and drums later on propel the track as it grows organically building up and entrancing the listener. The track moves through instrumentation from the opening acoustic guitars to more forceful electric guitars. According to the duo “Through the window of our studio our surroundings are the snow covered mountains, the sea and the harbour just outside Reykjavik. The title of the song “Saga” is an old Icelandic word meaning story. In a way, this song re[presents a story. A story that is supposed to challenge the imagination of the listener, there is no limit on imagination”. This narrative like feel will show its head more times throughout the album.
The final part of the Post Rock opening is “Altavík” a rather sublime and thoughtful drum and acoustic guitar tracks with tiny Morse code like piano fragments that give the piece an aquatic feel as if you are descending in a submarine. Following this with the track “Frost” you can hear the duo constructing their score to an imaginary film. There is tension without the melodrama, moodiness without it being to introspective and the feeling you are being taken into the cold dark night not sure of if the situation you had found yourself is either good or bad. As the track winds it’s way around the building it undertakes is rather breathtaking as the duo take you to the precipice and leave you holding onto the edge by just your finger tips.
“Ró” sees the nakedness of piano that was part of the opening track be totally exposed with a sound which is a mixture of distant and nostalgic, but also fragile and broken. “Orói” aka “Unrest” moves back into the wider screen feeling of the earlier tracks and is their most obvious electronica influenced piece. The track mixes the fluid drone like strings with subtle beats, a relaxed ambience and the return of the aquatic styled piano tones. The way the elements work together is extremely complimentary resulting in a gentle, but intriguing track. At the midway point of the album the balance of strings and electronics is further explored as Þórisson and Jónsson craft a piece that pulls in all the elements hears thus far and combines them in the most natural way, that even though it is the most ambient orientated piece so far, it has more going on with it than just the ambience. It also shows the calmness and subtlety of the composers who take a slower pace and not have components that are so front and centre and how this makes the piece work by reigning in the music. The duo mentioned in the press release to the release of these two tracks as contrasting pieces between order and disorder. The order belongs to “Ró” with it’s English translation being calm and the unrest of “Orói” being the extremes of nature and of life in Iceland with blizzards but yet midnight sun. Pairing the opposites in meaning and indeed sound to further expose the duo to new listeners works well.
“Haf” is the half way mark of the album and it feels like from this track onwards the focus of the album changes away from those earlier post rock influenced epic works to more moody and personal pieces that have a somewhat still feeling about them. The quote from above that describes their recording at night feels like this time of recording has influenced the colour tone and texture of the material for the albums second half or flipside (on the vinyl version “Fold” opens up the Side B). The closest Hugar get to the earlier tracks and style of the album is on the penultimate track “Rok”. With “Haf” a piece that last little more than ninety seconds, a shift is created where the weighty strings and ambience come into play more dominantly. The track could easily fit into a feature film as the piece conjures up a loneliness that has an amount of despair woven into it, but not enough to overpower the piece. The following track “Dýpi” is of a similar nature and length to “Haf”, but is centred around the piece with the mood changing to a more introspective one as the piano is used more minimally. It’s no surprise that the rawness of the real recording of piano matches the raw emotions of the music. Very subtle drones and electronics add a siren like motif which makes me think about the emotions being released in a tension scream.
“Fell” brings back additional instrumentation that has been absent from the past two tracks fusing strings and piano with the pace being slightly more upbeat. This is the type of track that would see the duo walk into the soundtrack world quite easily. As they have alluded to before about stories and imagination, a track like this lets the listener conjure up their own vision accompaniment to the music. Though it is tantalizingly short, Hugar manage to pack in the ideas and feelings to make it feel bigger than it lets on. “Logn’ has post rock hints in what sounds like bowed guitar alongside flowing long strings, brass and determined piano. It may sound weird, but this feels like the most Icelandic track on the album and reminds me of some of the work of their friends and collaborators in Sigur Rós without simply copying their sound. Maybe it’s because of how the album opened with it’s epic early pieces, but I feel that could listen to these tracks with double to three times their length. Hugar could easily create longer formed pieces that would be as equally captivating as their shorter siblings. Maybe it’s just as well that the pieces are quite contained as it simply leaves you yearning for more.
The aforementioned “Rok” and “Land” bring the album to completion. “Rok” unfurls slowly with minimal piano and strings that drip with emotion as the notes are coaxed out. For such a minimal base of material the results leave others in their wake. The change is noted with a dirty bass line (the first and only visible one if I am correct for the album) and tribal beats which slowly grow as does the other instruments as the intensity increases incrementally. Before you know it tremolo guitar is expanding the soundscapes and elevating the piece further before the dam wall breaks and we are brought into more a Post Metal sound than Post Rock (think Red Sparowes for comparison). The track shows the many sides of Hugar and enhance the music that has come before it as you appreciate how diverse and compelling the music is. “Land” has a folk, but not folk feel -but like it’s has been put through a string section rather than done on acoustic instruments. There are returning motifs (like my favourite, but badly described sonar/aquatic sound), string and brass working together to create a swell of sound that centre upward while buzzing guitars lurk underneath as well as raw field recordings. The track is like the final paragraph in a dissertation or journal article where everything that has gone before it is tied together and it reminds you of the journey that you have been on, the sound marks along the way and how you have felt along the journey.
Since October of last year Sony Masterworks has been teasing with three tracks released, firstly with “Saga” and then “Ró” and “Orói” ahead of their first US tour back in March. Today, August 23rd sees the full album released and it is well worth the wait. “Varða” is an album to listen to from start to finish, preferably in a nice and comfortable environment to sit back and take in just how good it is. I can see this coming in on some end of years best of lists for sure. “Varða” is available on Limited LP (500 copies), Cd and Digital and can be bought from here.