Keaton Henson – Romantic Works...

Sublime, ambient classical beauty.

Julianna Barwick talks about her album ‘Nepenthe’...

Louisiana born singer Julianna Barwick released one of the very best albums of 2013 with ‘Nepenthe’. Recorded in Iceland and produced by Alex Somers of Riceboy Sleeps, it features contributions from members of Sigur Ros, Amiina and Mum. It is a stunningly beautiful record, and a natural progression from her 2011 release ‘The Magic Place’. We caught up with her last week on the eve of an extensive tour of North America.

Sigur Ros @ The O2, Dublin – 16th November

The civilised and salubrious surroundings of the O2 hosted the return of Iceland’s most celebrated musical export, Sigur Ros, on Saturday evening. First up was Swedish trio I Break Horses who arrived on the back of a debut album that is something of an undiscovered gem; Hearts is a heady brew of dreamy shoegaze/electronica and was one of the best debut releases of 2011. Despite battling against extremely poor sound, they managed to demonstrate enough promise to suggest that their new album ‘Chiaroscuro,’ due for release in 2014, could be a belter. By the time they closed their short set with the icy synths of ‘Winter Beats’, they had all but ironed out the sonic kinks that had dogged the earlier numbers. It was a brief but captivating performance, and one that whets the appetite for a return to these shores in a smaller, more intimate venue. What can be said about Sigur Ros as a live experience that hasn’t already been said before? Tonight, they were at their mind blowing best, with a cleverly conceived set that mixed some older classics with cuts from their most recent album Kveikur.  From the moment they arrived on stage, it was clear it was going to be one of those special gigs; for ninety minutes they held the capacity crowd spellbound with a set that moved from magical and mesmerising to terrifyingly beautiful with consummate ease. Quite simply, as a live entity they are peerless – the attention to detail ensures that every song is a self-contained epic with its own unique lighting design and dazzling visual aesthetic. Jónsi stands centre stage – the dark avenging angel hunched and motionless, his silhouetted figure sawing away on his guitar, coaxing heaven and hell from just six strings. His voice remains a thing of unearthly, otherworldly beauty, an instrument that provokes awed amazement. Behind him, the band are joined by a small choir, together with brass and string sections ensuring that these songs sound as monumentally huge as they should do, filling up the cavernous spaces of the O2 with this glorious noise. The high points of the set are many – the trio of songs from arguably their best album Takk are greeted with a rapturous response, the crowd warming to ‘Hoppípolla’ in particular. They dug deep into the back catalogue with the joyous ‘Olsen, Olsen’ and the stunning ‘Svefn-g-englar’ from their breakthrough second album Ágætis byrjun. The operatic ‘Varúð’ was simply astonishing while set closer ‘Popplagið’ left the audience speechless, building from a sparse opening, to a pounding, pulsating climax, complete with eye popping visuals and guitars that threatened to lift the roof off the venue. Sigur Ros are a special band making music that connects with people in a very unique way. There are no patronising, crowd pleasing gestures, they don’t tell us how much they love us, they just play this celestial, beautiful music and eyes widen and jaws drop at the majesty that unfolds before us. One would be hard pressed to find a single soul who left the O2 on Saturday night that had not been overwhelmed by the sheer spectacle and power of the greatest live band on the planet right now. Astounding. (Photographs by kind permission of James Murray, stilpix)...

Chequerboard -The Unfolding...

Instrumental music of hushed beauty from Dublin based John Lambert aka Chequerboard.

Julianna Barwick – Nepenthe...

Let’s get this out of the way straight from the start – Julianna Barwick has just released the most hauntingly beautiful record of 2013 so far. Nepenthe is the follow up to her critically acclaimed 2011 album Magic Places and is an absolute delight from start to finish, a celestial wash of sound that beguiles and captivates. The decision to decamp to Iceland to record with Alex Somers from Riceboy Sleeps has been vindicated – whereas Magic Places relied almost exclusively on Barwick’s heavily processed vocal loops and chants to weave its spell, Nepenthe incorporates subtly aching strings and ambient sonic textures to add further colour to her wordless, beautiful songs. There are guest contributions from members of Múm and Amiina, and the influence of some of Iceland’s finest musicians has changed Barwick’s music in a way that feels like a natural progression from the Magic Places album, without relinquishing the essence of what made that record so unique. Fans of Sigur Ros, Riceboy Sleeps and Julia Holter will relish the solemn, ethereal grace of tracks like ‘Offing’ and ‘Look Into Your Own Mind’.  ‘The Harbinger’ features a gorgeous looping vocal melody underpinned by a pretty piano motif that ebbs and flows like a half remembered dream. ‘Pyrrhic’ is darker; low, rumbling cello notes and sinister vocal samples drag the listener from the sweet bliss of the opening tracks. ‘One Half’ features an actual discernible lyric but it’s no less lovely for this nod to a more conventional song-writing approach and there are echoes of Elizabeth Fraser and the 80s Goth dream-pop pioneers The Cocteau Twins on the very lovely ‘Forever’. There is always a danger with a record like this that it could fall into the wishy washy New Age bracket – Barwick...

Sigur Ros – Kveikur...

After the blissed out ambient soundscapes of last year’s Valtari, Sigur Ros make a quick return to the fray with Kveikur, the band’s seventh studio album since their formation in 1997. Heralded as a darker, more industrial sounding direction for the band, Kveikur is their first recording since the departure of Kjartan Sveinsson, a founding member and someone who played an integral part in creating their signature sound. So is this the ‘industrial’ revolution advance publicity would have us believe? Well, not quite; while Kveikur contains some of the bands darkest moments since their second album, it is also liberally sprinkled with some of their most anthemic and poppy songs to date. Much of the speculation about the change in direction came about following the preview screening of a video for lead track ‘Brennisteinn’. Opening with a squall of static before settling into a dark and ominous groove ‘Brennisteinn’ is a fantastic opener and gives credence to the notion that Kveikur might mark a shift from light to darkness. But once Jonsi starts to sing, the darkness dissipates, and we are back in familiar Sigur Ros territory. ‘Ísjaki’ and ‘Stormur’ are the kind of rousing pop songs that first surfaced on their most commercial album to date Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, while ‘Rafstraumur’ sounds uncannily like an Icelandic Coldplay. We are a full five songs in before we are back to exploring their darker side again –the title track ‘Kveikur’ creeps in on a murky, distorted beat,  a little Depeche Mode at their most thrilling and threatening with a chorus that is vintage Sigur Ros – the trademark Jonsi falsetto soaring skywards, over thumping drums and stirring instrumentation. The album closes on a predictably sombre note with the nocturnal piano lullaby...

Sigur Ros – Valtari...

Ambient masterpiece from the Icelandic innovators.