Astvaldur-At Least: Album Review

On his debut record At Least, Icelandic producer Astvaldur paints a grim industrial picture that never really reaches the level of violence that the anticipatory tones allude to.  Instead, the tunes play with the listener’s ear, holding a cloud of approaching danger over every musical decision.  Aesthetically, the work features constantly shifting sands that pass key musical themes and motives through different contexts and instrumentations.  To some degree this results in a bit of a mixed bag as it can a bit difficult to grasp the individual songs, however, the variety of sounds presented makes for striking textural explorations and an especially dynamic overall sonic portrait.

“Hark” kicks things off with an almost incomplete sounding rhythmic motive that obsessively repeats itself.  Following the anxious pulses that begin the track, the motive is first uttered in the high range by this icy keyboard sound, before getting transferred to a more mellow instrumental sound.  Tense machinery sounds surround the action constantly from metallic quarter notes to more pressing, arpeggiating synths.  This track perfectly exemplifies the anticipatory nature of many of the tracks on this album.  The whole thing feels like a build-up, making for an almost off-putting emotional affect as we’re never treated to a stagnant dance beat.

Following is “Rotary Credo” with a more acoustic-sounding opening provided by circulating violin samples.  Popping surface noise enters, serving a bit of a rhythmic function as tense countermelodies building up the anxious nature of the track.  Here, we get an example of Astvaldur’s skill of changing the context of a melody.  At the beginning of the track, the aesthetic is especially human-sounding, but by the end the song is more metallic and sterile.  Rather than building layers and layers in a traditional dance way, the track takes one set-up and puts it through a different lens.

“Flesh” is perhaps the most traditionally contrived song structure.  Opening with non-specific robotics, the track eventually dives into an almost hand-drum patterns with quick, subdued rhythmic sounds.  This becomes the foundation for the track as sweeping electric sounds develop over top serving a quasi-melodic role.  Still, there’s a bit of a detached mood to the track, but this would probably be the tune most worthy for the trance/dance setting.

The last major accomplishment of the record is probably the intriguing textures that Astvaldur is able to put together.  This is something that’s achieved over the course of the whole picture.  It’s not just that Astvaldur achieves a unique sound-space and works with it on each track, it’s moreso that he’s consistently able to offer new musical findings.  From the scratchy acoustics of the beginning of “Rotary Credo” to the swirling candy of “Mother” that gets bottomed out by pressing piano pulses and even the plucked electronics of “Punture”, At Least proves that Astvaldur’s bag of sounds is especially large and unique.

At seven tracks, the album is certainly a quick listen and the slight lack of standout singles makes it a bit forgettable.  In the future, it would probably be best for Astvaldur to focus his energy on structured pieces, but his ability to play with anticipation and conjure unique sonic spaces is clear and his work could offer a nice balance between dance-able and violent experimentation with a bit more focus on songwriting down the road.

-Donovan Burtan

7/10

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