The Icelandic duo of Ragnar Zolberg and Addi Tryggvason met when the former appeared as a live session musician for Solstafir. As a multi-instrumentalist and ex-guitarist for Pain of Salvation, Zolberg gelled with the Solstafir founder and soon realised they had shared musical interests. Indeed, their vision for creating ice-cold pop music through the prism of post-rock abstraction is what makes their debut effort so intriguing. The melancholy piano-led music on offer here will convince you that you’re holed up in a winter house with a shortage of candles and rationed electricity.
Isafjørd translates as ‘fjord of ice’, and the introspection of opener, ‘Falin Skemmd’, gives you no reason to believe in the merit of leaving your house ever again. The nature of solitude and how it can enhance the understanding of the self is the aim here. Semi-distorted guitar arpeggios ring out with the resonance of the Psychedelic Furs while a simple tom drum pattern holds everything together. You can hear the icy deliberation of The Cure and the minimalist darkness of Joy Division, but Isafjørd never ditch the possibility of hope. This music leaves you feeling distant from everything and everyone, and that’s the point. Listen to the subtle noise atmospherics of the guitar pedals and the brave-face tears of the voice. It matters not that the words are in Icelandic – your heart can experience the anguish with the same poignancy.
Those expecting a post-metal record should already have the patience and understanding to appreciate the post-rock melancholy of ‘Mín Svarta Hlið’. Let’s be clear: Hjartastjaki is not a metal album. You’ll detect the influence of Radiohead’s Amnesiac and Anathema’s Judgement on the mood and maudlin introversions. The dual harmony vocals unite like prisoners with different skills in escape methods, who can benefit from combining their knowledge to achieve their goals of freedom. Guitar feedback flickers in the background as unobtrusive as the faint snow that will never set on the windowsill outside. ‘Hjartastjaki’ dares to be sentimental in its choice of piano notes, but it’s an unashamed yearning born of a teary-eyed smile. Sometimes, you wonder if you have a Thom Yorke solo album before you, but ‘Heiðin’ breaks out of its mould at the end and reaches a crescendo of noisy guitar distortion and interlocking instrumentation to remind you of the duo’s background in the Icelandic metal scene. The beautiful run of falsetto notes in the chorus to ‘Kuldaró’ ache with a desolate longing as the piano notes follow the vocal lines like a tuning device. It’s another song that ends in a flurry of ugly amp gain and fuzzy high-end solos.
When it arrives, the organ in ‘Njálssaga’ will surprise you. Why did they only use it as late as the penultimate track on the album? The naked simplicity of this music demands a furrowed brow and plenty of air in your lungs. Too many of the songs start from piano, but you can almost forgive this when you realise that the gaping pitch bends of guitar will end the proceedings, as they do on closing track, ‘Andvök’. In darkness, Isafjørd see light, but they know it will take a monumental effort to remain optimistic for the future.
Hjartastjaki will remind you of the musings of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but you can find much to ruminate on in the spaces of reflection they leave for you to gather the thoughts in your head. It’s an unsettled mind that knows no distinction between overthinking and anxiety, and that’s what the duo convey in their art. Their post-rock is shapeless yet simple. It’s exactly what you need this winter if you expect to be house-bound.
Release Date: 02/12/2022
Record Label: Svart Records
Standout tracks: Falin Skemmd; Heiðin; Kuldaró
Suggested Further Listening: Radiohead – Amnesiac (2001), Anathema – Alternative 4 (1999), Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (2000)