Egilsson & Pálsson Skjálfti (Quake) Sono Luminus

Eðvarð Egilsson & Páll Ragnar Pálsson (b. 1977)
Skjálfti (Quake)
Eðvarð Egilsson & Páll Ragnar Pálsson (instruments, electronics)
Tui Hirv (voice); Unnur Jónsdóttir (cello)
rec 2020-22, Hljómandi, Reykjavík, Iceland
Sono Luminus SLE-70032 [49]

First, to clarify some of the above data, or rather to do the opposite: there appears to be more ‘going on’ on this terrific disc than (unspecified) instruments, electronics, voice and cello. There are orchestral textures, nods are intermittently directed toward rock and post-rock, there are field recordings. Some listeners might regard the lack of detail in Sono Luminus’ minimal documentation a problem – given that SL is one of my favourite labels, audiophile or otherwise, I certainly do not. Their advocacy of new Icelandic music has been heartfelt, informed and long-term. 

I can understand those cynical voices who, having never taken the plunge, feel that the level of attention this increasingly popular ‘genre’ (wrong word, but it’ll do) attracts amounts to pure hype, folk who (not unreasonably) imagine that it is frankly impossible to produce such a jaw-dropping quantity of quality music from a nation with such a tiny (approximately 300,000) population, punters who might assume that simply sticking a label with the word ‘Icelandic’ onto a release will guarantee positive critical reviews and zillions in sales – none of which of course is even remotely close to the reality.

No names, no pack drill but I can in fact reveal that I have heard several pieces of music from Iceland which I would categorise as dull, unimaginative or plain lousy. It is actually no more immune to the bang average (or worse) than any other place. Yet looking at the sequence of Icelandic releases from Sono Luminus over recent years, I genuinely cannot think of a real ‘dud’, although there have been a couple I have been less convinced by (I reviewed both on these pages.) On the other hand thanks to this label I have become familiar with the work of several remarkable composers and performers. It is surely no coincidence that the works of the likes of Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, Daníel Bjarnason, Bára Gísladóttir, Thuridur Jónsdóttir and a host of others are turning up with increasing regularity in the concert and recital programmes of major orchestras, ensembles and soloists the world over.

So much for concert music. Another tranche (there MUST be a better collective noun) of Icelandic musicians have rapidly become the most sought after composers of film and TV soundtracks on the planet. Quite apart from the prolific Jóhann Jóhannsson (whose untimely death in 2018 triggered a plethora of highly regarded soundtrack releases from Deutsche Grammophon) others have taken up the baton (or more accurately the cue-sheet) most notably Hildur Guðnadóttir , who won an Oscar for her music for Joker and a BAFTA for her creepy score for the TV series Chernobyl. Another individual who has found success with his music for film is Eðvarð Egilsson, who collaborated on the score for the slow-burning family drama Skjálfti (Quake) with another outstanding concert composer Páll Ragnar Pálsson, whose Sono Luminus portrait disc Atonement I welcomed in 2020 – review

Despite its title, the present disc is NOT that score. I watched the film earlier today. It’s a quiet film which creeps up on one; it’s ultimately very touching without being mawkish. Though it is a study of family relationships, and specifically concerns the effects of epilepsy and repression upon mental health, there are plenty of opportunities for the soundtrack composers to characterise themes of conflict and reconciliation, of love and loss, whilst the wild winter landscape of Reykjavik and its environs offer bags of cinematic topography to exploit. Indeed Egilsson and Pálsson felt that the very brief cues they created for the movie had potential for development, re-arrangement, expansion, re-working. The fourteen tracks on the album Skjálfti are the result. I listened to it for the first time last night in complete darkness with decent headphones and a DAC. It blew me away. I have since played the disc a couple of times through my speakers. Both experiences proved to be enjoyably intense. Intriguing new details in the music seem to emerge with each listen, regardless of the equipment. 

The opening track is a blend of field recording, sharp high strings and electronic pulses which allude to the marvellous birds-eye shot of Reykjavik from the Hallgrímskirkja which opens the film (and lends its name to the track). Shimmering electronica enhances the impact. The two tracks entitled Flog combine astringent, even piercing strings with a low, synthetic tone to evoke the sense of unease and disconnection anticipated and experienced during an epileptic seizure. The vulnerability and fragility of the central character Saga is conveyed by a glorious cello line over brooding electronics. The longer track which follows (Safavél (Juicer) – it is briefly relevant to the plot of the film!) morphs from touching piano melody into atmospheric, pulsing electronica with washes of percussion and a tastefully ‘garagey’ electric guitar. These rather diverse elements coalesce wonderfully well. Similar vibes overflow into the landscape piece Hvalfjörður which follows.

Gleyma (Forget) couches an appealing acoustic guitar figure in lush strings, synthetic percussion, and lyrical cello. By this point it becomes difficult for the critic to summarise each number with vocabulary which doesn’t suggest generic new-agey muzak. And that’s the point. Egilsson’s and Pálsson’s music is anything but generic. It is novel, haunting and effortlessly gorgeous. It is stunningly recorded and oozes both integrity and good taste. Their adoption of elements from shoegaze and post-rock styles is seamless and only adds to the immersive attraction of this music.

By track 8 (Furulækur – an eerie evocation of the dilapidated former family home which is in the middle of nowhere and plays a significant role in the last act of the film) vocal elements seem to hover above and within the soundscape, convincingly evoking ghosts who may or may not be benign. Having seen the film I can only confirm that these sounds make complete sense. Katrin is a poignant piano prelude devoted to an important character In the film who never appears. As the album moves towards its conclusion the music swells and contracts in response to the extraordinary Icelandic landscape, whilst drawing together some of the thematic and harmonic fragments which have come and gone and moulding them into music which tentatively suggests resolution and acceptance, before a fulfilling (as opposed to cheesy) sense of affirmation emerges in the final number Klambratún.

Whilst Skjálfti is far from a conventional soundtrack album it is gloriously successful in capturing the enigmatic emotions at play throughout the film. It certainly repays repeated and even analytical listening, but I found that being enveloped in its delights free of one’s laptop, under the duvet through a decent pair of decent Grados and a DAC was actually preferable to hearing it through speakers. Whilst this disc is unlikely to appeal to classical purists I absolutely loved it. This is what musical curiosity and experimentation is all about. Beauty turns up in the most unlikely places.

Richard Hanlon

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1] Hallgrímskirkja [3:23]
2] Flog I (Seizure I) [2:04]
3] Saga [3:07]
4] Safavél (Juicer) [4:48]
5] Hvalfjörður [2:22]
6] Gleyma (Forget) [4:47]
7] Miklabraut [5:19]
8] Furulækur (Pine Creek) [3:20]
9] Flog II (Seizure II) [3:08]
10] Katrín [1:34]
11] Systur (Sister) [3:04]
12] Leigubíll (Taxi) [4:00]
13] Langahlíð [1:07]
14] Ívar [2:04]
15] Klambratún (Climbing Field) [4:44]