Although they have been making music for a decade now, have toured the US and Europe and collaborated with Anneke van Giersbergen, Arstiđir are not that well known outside of their native Iceland. This might be due to the fact that it’s quite difficult to classify their music. And the job keeps getting harder with every new album. Comparisons that I’ve read range from Simon & Garfunkel to Radiohead and A-ha. I hear a bit of Portishead. The genres critics have been connecting Arstiđir to are equally diverse: indie folk, minimalism, neoclassicism and pop. As to the pop label, I can assure you that it’s wrong. I’m going to elaborate on that below. The music is very mellow, yes, but only on first contact. Once you’ve dealt with it, once you’ve immersed yourself in the lyrics and the sound, abysses open up. You’ll see that the package of lyrics and music keeps expanding. You will hear fear, danger, excitement and a hint of insanity in what you first thought was a harmless and unassuming sound. And that’s exactly what’s makes this album fascinating. The more you listen to it, the better it gets.
Lyrics are rarely included in the press material of a release. While some bands seem to hide them as if they were fearing close inspection, Arstiđir are laying everything open, inviting you to take a closer look. So that’s exactly what I did – I took a good look. What did I find? Intelligent, insightful, sensitive and intriguing writing, definitely worth engaging with.
The main subject of the lyrics on Nivalis are interpersonal relationships or love relationships. I’m only using the expression “love relationships” for lack of another term to describe that complex form of entanglement between two people. While “interpersonal” seems too sterile, the word “love” has become so banal, especially in English. In the US you can basically say “I love you” at the end of a conversation with a stranger when you actually mean “See you” or “Goodbye”. The other problem with “love” as a subject is that that’s what pop music is about most of the time. And Arstiđir, although sounding soft, aren’t making pop music, and their lyrics aren’t pop lyrics. Where’s the difference, you might ask. Well, pop music portrays life as stupidly and unrealistically simple, as black and white. In addition, the unambitious lyrics are accompanied by an unassuming tune in a loop. In the lyrics and music of Arstiđir nothing is simple. Relationships are complicated, circular, dysfunctional, crazy, dangerous even – the way life is. And the music reflects that complexity.
The first track While this way, for example, is about a relationship where one person opens up completely, takes a huge and bold step forward resulting in them “falling off the edge of the world”, while the other person, as a reaction, is “checking out” and “runs for cover”. The narrator does not give and take, but “give and borrow”, which means that he ends up with a negative balance.
In the second track titled Lover you can hear that something is off, even before the lyrics start. There is a jitteriness and a nervousness in the sound, more specifically in the drumming. Then, as the song commences, you’ll hear that jitteriness reflected in the vocals, and you’ll learn that the fantastic lover that “caters to every desire” and “that is better than any other” is not real. The narrator is making her up. He “can have her in the dark” anytime he likes, but that’s only because she is “a spark of his imagination”. He’s probably doomed to never finding a real person that can compare to the imagined lover, because “all of her wrongs they feel so right”.
In Please help me, the third track, the narrator is addicted, possibly to sex and alcohol. He feels driven by an “it”, “It often leads me, it wants to meet you”, he is searching for new experiences, for a “new state of mind”, but finds nothing and is trapped in the vicious circle of addiction, “feeling faded, also jaded.”
I could go on like this, but your listening experience will probably be better if you explore the album and its abysses on your own.
Nivalis is beautiful and calming when you listen to it for the first time. All the band members sing and the compositions very often include a violin and sometimes a cello. But with every additional listen the music gets more complex, more intelligent, intellectual even. A gold mine for introverts and for lovers of rather soft but deeply meaningful and complex sound.