I decided to review this album on a whim. I’m glad I did.
Iceland - the country of guitarist Mikael Máni Ásmundsson - sits atop the mid-Atlantic ridge, the diverging boundary between the American and European tectonic plates, the intense heat and energy of the mantle plume of magma bringing to the surface a landscape that is austere, violent - as we’ve seen this year - rugged and bleak. Violence and upheaval is literally just beneath the surface.
Nostalgia Machine is, however, the polar opposite.
A subtle blend of jazz, rock and impressionism - which the creator calls “Jarm” - this album soothes, uplifts and refreshes like the ozone rich atmosphere after a heavy thunderstorm. It is compelling stuff and that is partly down to the music being uneasy to pin down to any particular style. Variety abounds, surprises on every track.
As with the composer, I knew nothing of any of the musicians on the album and what their strengths are, but feel I do a little now, having listened to the super ensemble playing and unobtrusive soloing and the quirky mix of instruments used.
Joining Máni is Magnús Trygvason Elíassen on drums, Lilja María Ásmundsdóttir playing the piano, celeste, metallophone (which I had to look up on Wikipedia to find out what it was; it’s part of the gamelan family I think) and electronics, Ingibjörg Elsa Turchi on electric bass, Sölvi Kolbeinsson on both clarinet and saxophone, and finally Marína Ósk Þórólfsdóttir with vocals.
Opener Nostalgia Machine starts with a calming female voice and the sounds of children playing over a repetitive triplet refrain. It offers a lot of bold sound textures, the most interesting being the metallophone, its soft edges providing a stunning contrast to Máni’s guitar, with its rougher, mildly overdriven edge. Interspersed is Kolbeinsson’s clarinet - an instrument I usually run a mile from; here, it operates in a perfect triad with Asmundsdottir’s and Máni’s sounds. Turchi’s bass just plays single sustained notes, and that’s all that’s needed to underpin what is a very solid, appealing start to the album that is upbeat, yet tinged with the melancholy that comes from looking back.
Take a listen to Nostalgia Machine here:
Trying to Stay Afloat opens with percussion and guitar as sparse as the middle of Iceland but likewise full of drama, as the other players introduce themselves; the soul is lifted. Let’s Start at the Beginning has a vibrant guitar at the start, replete with sweet harmonics, slides and bends, the low notes booming from the speaker. But it’s the spaces in between Máni’s playing and the subtle introduction of the celeste - another instrument I’d never heard of - duetting and harmonising with his guitar, that makes this track pleasant and unobtrusive.
Tracks like Two Sisters and Ani follow in a similar vein. This album is unadorned and under-produced, which here is a good thing (and plaudits to producer Matt Pierson for doing so); it serves up a melange of wonderful musical emotions from the different parts of the band, none of them competing with each other for attention. At times the album has the feel of poetry rather than conventional jazz or song, as the tunes wax and wane with all the leisurely insouciance of a summer brook.
I Want to Know Better is gossamer thin - just guitar and bass at the start but, like a flower in spring, the track bursts towards the sun into something of real beauty as the other musicians step in and nourish Máni’s playing. Almost There is the soundtrack to a lovely family day out - perhaps to the coast or to picnic by a river - where the sun is shining and all cares are forgotten.
Right up to the last track - The Attic - this album relaxes and charms. Your heart will beat slower and your mind clear itself of any mental detritus.
Nothing jars, startles or attacks the listener. It advances like one of the glaciers that dot the Icelandic landscape - beautiful, full of intent, moving but only with careful steps but with an inexorable beauty that compels the listener to stand and admire.
Music as beautiful as the country in which it was produced.