I got excited about a new Ólafur Arnalds album because, as part of Kiasmos, he made one of the best albums of the last decade. I knew this wasn’t Kiasmos, and I knew it wouldn’t be the same sort of album. Despite knowing this, I’ve really struggled to get beyond it with some kind of peace.
So if it’s not another Kiasmos, then what is it? Well there is one other album that I would compare it to from this year. If you listened to episode 33 of the podcast you would have heard us moan about (and also not moan about) MJ Cole’s Madrugada. some kind of peace has several similarities. Electronic producer doing classical type music, check. Piano recorded so quietly that you can hear the sound of keys squeaking against one another and the sounds of the hammers and inner workings, check. And you could also level the same praise and criticism at it, as we did in that podcast episode, from ‘beautiful’ to ‘classical music lite’. Yet all the while it seems to lack something that Madrugada has, which can be difficult to put a finger on.
One thing it lacks is a beat. It’s not until track five, ‘Back to the Sky’ where we hear anything resembling percussion. Instead, Ólafur opts to keep things pretty simple throughout – vocals, strings, piano, and a touch of synth here and there.
The simplicity with a beat works fantastically well for Ólafur as one half of Kiasmos, but not here.
Another thing lacking is change. Each track builds gently, peaking near to the middle, before fading softly back again. They tend not to develop too far dynamically, or indeed musically, with maybe only one or two simple, repeated phrases in each.
Whatever it is that is missing, crying out for even, it does do the peace thing well. For me though, it’s an uneasy peace; quiet but not comforting. I’m no fan of metal but curiously I found myself wanting to listen to Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’ instead. some kind of peace is a ceasefire of an album. You almost want the war back, just for variety.
Ólafur has become known for his soundtracks, famously TV drama Broadchurch. Is this a soundtrack that somehow became a proper album? Or is it an ambient work? Much of the album would suit the background to something else. Tracks without vocals especially so, ‘Zero’ and ‘New Grass’ for instance. In those circumstances it could easily enhance. On its own it merely detracts from itself, or remains neutral at best.
I really wanted to like this album. I definitely didn’t set out to be so mean in reviewing it. As I’ve said this is my own struggle and I’m not giving up on finding some kind of peace. The right place/time/mood for it and me is out there somewhere, I’ve just not found it yet. This is not the album to break the monotony of lockdown. With a ceasefire comes hope, and I’m sure we all list many of those for 2021. I’ll be adding a date with some kind of peace to that list.
Words by James Spearing