It is ironic that Valgeir Sigurðsson’s first recording that actually sounds like a complete album exists as an addendum to someone else's project: the soundtrack to the Icelandic film Draumalandið. The documentary explores the economic onus put on Iceland to find quick “green” solutions to their environmental problems that created a backdoor in which wealthy industrialists gobbled up more of Iceland’s natural resources in the name of developing an independent national energy source. It is a chilling symbol of how outside financial pressures, most notably from the IMF, led to the systemic collapse of Iceland’s economic system last year—effectively bankrupting the country. Too bad few will see this film, but it is par for the course that this album will be heard more as a separate piece of music rather than listened to in the context of the film. Did anyone really watch Henry May Long (Max Richter)? A Man Like Me (Jóhann Jóhannsson)? How about Joshua or even Cassandra’s Dream (Nico Muhly)?
Always the benevolent benefactor of Icelandic pop music, Valgeir Sigurðsson has based his career around making masterpieces for other people. He has been nominated for numerous Grammies for his work with Björk and for an Academy Award for his work on the Björk/Thom Yorke song “I’ve Seen It All” from Lars Von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark. Sigurðsson, towards the later half of the decade founded the illustrious Greenhouse Recording Studio and subsequent Bedroom Community label which has seen Sigurðsson at the helm of every critically acclaimed release by the Icelandic quintet of folk and classical composers under that banner. Shunning the critical spotlight bled over into his debut album, 2007’s Ekvilibrium, in which all the choice cuts went to guest stars Will Oldham and Dawn McCarthy. So what does a Valgeir Sigurðsson album sound like? We may never really know, but Draumalandið gives us a glimpse.
When engaged as the vision of Sigurðsson, Draumalandið bridges the gap between the electronic heavy Björk-era compositions with the orchestral maneuvers of his Bedroom Community compatriots of the last few years. Every member contributes graciously on the album ranging from Nico Muhly composing for the large orchestra, Sam Amidon contributing vocals on the first track and acoustic guitar throughout, and Ben Frost laying down some menacing cello dissonance on the sweeping closing tracks “Nowhere Land” and “Helter Smelter”. Sigurðsson builds from the ground up, playing simple, rhythmic melodies on strings or piano that lay the compositional groundwork in which Valgeir and friends fill with flourishes of electronics, woodwinds, various percussion instruments, and tonal varieties that range from sad to beautiful, elegiac to terrifying.
“Dreamland” and its fraternal “Draumalandið” (“Draumalandið” translates to “dreamland” in English, but you already guessed that) share a repeating motif built around weaving violin lines that are evocative of the muted grey-green vanishing point where Iceland becomes one with the winter cloudscape. “Beyond The Moss” allows the tension that runs concurrent with the prettier passages to break completely free, creating a world full of creaks and moans, light brushing drum strokes and interpolative flares of flurried cello strings. The beauty and tension that personify the album and its environs are often fought out in the small segues that break up the album. On the side of beauty we have “I Offer Prosperity and Eternal Life” with its heaven-curved ascending chord progression and barely-there piano line; and on team terror we have “Economic Hitman” whose upper register strings hold the anxiety of a Hitchcock thriller.
If an economy falls and no one wants to hear about it, does it still make a sound? Valgeir Sigurðsson juggles the tensions of runaway economic and environmental blight that mark Iceland with the country’s inherent splendor. On an album with vocals being conscientious objectors, Sigurðsson speaks for both. Although a movie soundtrack, the music on of Draumalandið both stands alone and speaks to the collaborative nature that has marked every Bedroom Community release.
3. Past Tundra
4. I Offer Prosperity and Eternal Life
6. Hot Ground Cold
8. Economic Hitman
9. Cold Ground Hot
10. Beyond the Moss
11. Nowhere Land
12. Helter Smelter