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Samaris – Black Lights

Album review

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Icelandic band Samaris are back with a new album, Black Lights. Made up of programmer Þórður Kári Steinþórsson (aka Doddi), clarinettist Áslaug Rún Magnúsdóttir and vocalist Jófríður Ákadóttir, they instantly made ripples throughout the music world when they released their self-produced debut EPs, Hljóma Þú and Stofnar Falla. After being signed to One Little Indian, they went on to release their eponymous debut album, followed by two further full-lengths, all of which were recorded in the Icelandic language. Notwithstanding this fact, Samaris succeeded in establishing a huge fanbase across Europe and it is partly as a result of garnering such a solid following that the band has now produced their first work performed in English, entitled Black Lights.

Having started life in three different countries in which each of the band’s members was immersed in very diverse cultures and environments, this immensely creative project has successfully been brought to a unified and wonderful whole, and the sum of its eclectic parts is an experience not to be missed. Today, The Monitors is delighted to bring you our very own track-by-track rundown of Black Lights – we hope you enjoy it as much as we did!

Wanted 2 Say

Urgent electronic stick click percussion cuts through faraway vocals while light and dark synth sounds whirl in a delicious meld, flush with the dancing notes of clarinet and colour-pop samples. A sublime lament for a blighted natural world, crafted in one of the most beautiful and unspoilt landscapes in the world, whose polar periphery is now suffering at the hands of a ‘must have, mod cons’ civilisation (if we can call ourselves civilised that is).
“My thoughts were about Iceland and the nature, how it’s our most precious thing,” says Ákadóttir, “[…] but the theme of the song became more about us writing and expressing our thoughts in English.” 

Black Lights

One of the best tracks on the album, it opens with a funereal sequence that extends out to underpin the body of the song. It builds and revolves around the juxtaposition of forlorn slow-march and hyperactive techno like a current of passionate, electric energy zipping through the dense shadows of a dark night. Lounging in a hammock on the hard shoulder of all this frenzy is the clarinet, effortlessly dropping notes like a kid lazily dangling their legs as they sit on a swing. Ákadóttir’s imperative vocal is at its most effective.

Gradient Sky

This utterly exquisite song has the most enchanting opening with a hint of a retro feel, with its Enya-esque inhale/exhale many-layered vocals. With Jófríður’s vocal pushed to the front of a thrumming undercurrent, it’s really only her voice and the beat that you hear. This is gossamer music crafted out of breath and heartbeat.

T3mp0

Don’t you just love the quirky way they’ve spelled the track names? ‘T3mp0’, aka ‘Tempo’ from the first breathy enunciation of the vocal, is pure Bjork.

This is a compound of jungle percussion accentuated by tabla drumming, futuristic electronic sounds and imaginative programming. This cool Icelandic composition is warmed by an inherent Asian vibe, with an infusion of intriguing clarinet lines delivered with aplomb by Áslaug Rún Magnúsdóttir. A quirky, ingenious composition that’s all about the tempo: “I am speedy, from the bottom up … I’m running faster than you see.”

I Will

The ghostly hammer-strike that signals the start of this track recalls Depeche Mode’s ‘Pipeline’, while the intense yet spacious cross-section of jagged instrumental sounds that cut through the fragmentary vocal are underpinned by a brooding dub-beat that gives the track a slightly menacing atmosphere. Delivered with an ethereal poignancy that sends shivers down the spine, Jófríður Ákadóttir’s vocals are redolent of some of Sinead O’Connor’s more heartfelt compositions.

R4vin

Distorted vocals, rave-nous techno beats and outer-space sounds with spacious bass notes lurking around. Listening to this is like lying in an infinity pool looking up at a sky full of shooting stars and scudding space rockets. There’s a trance-y feeling of floating on nothingness whilst all kinds of interstellar zipping is going on away in the galactic distance.

3y3

A series of looping siren blares lead into an acid trip of urgent techno and stonewashed vocals. Samples of confused electronica interspersed with peals of clarinet though which a constant techno pulse has a commanding presence. The heat of its searing propulsion is so fierce one can almost feel Jófríður’s icy vocal melting. The stuff of outer-urban warehouse raves on a hot ‘n’ sweaty summer’s night.

T4ngled

A dark and atmospheric electronic jungle. A powerfully, seductive and claustrophobic landscape of tangled love which Ákadóttir struggles to understand. Vocal caresses, evoking confused desire and questioning uncertain love, take centre stage in this luscious, syrupy song where Þórður Kári Steinþórsson’s programming is at its finest.

In Deep

The final track on the album unfurls with a cavernous instrumental, with a throbbing pulse that hungrily gobbles up a miscellany of sample sounds. A surprise twist comes as the track shifts gear, propelling itself into the periphery of electro-reggae. Oddly, it reminds me of some of the dub-electro beats that The Police tinkered with on Synchronicity. Magnúsdóttir is at her most classically creative on ‘In Deep’, with some dazzling clarinet sequences that are borderline orchestral.

Frothy vocal delays and wistful urgency highlight a pervading sense of nostalgia on Black Lights, while the overall effect of the darkly lit, tight and fraught instrumentals is one of chaos, confusion, uncertainty and regret. Isolation, loss, the yearning for what was and the search for answers are prevalent themes throughout. Yet despite the album’s intrinsically introspective nature, Black Lights does step out from the shadows of internal analysis into the glare of the outside world; but those moments are rare indeed.

Samaris have produced an album that has taken them to a higher, more mature level, musically, lyrically and emotionally. Experimental, wickedly ingenious and deceptively classy, this album full of juxtaposed contrasts is an astonishing feat by these three young musicians, especially when one considers the geographical constraints imposed by their tri-location during the initial stages of its development.

Black Lights is an atmospheric masterpiece of astounding emotional depth and staggering beauty, produced with robustly mature skill. A near perfect accomplishment that should establish Samaris as one of the most talented and endlessly imaginative acts to emerge from Iceland since Bjork.

Derval McCloat

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