“All through the years of my youth, Neither could have known
Their own thought from the other’s, We were so much at one”
– ‘O Do Not Love Too Long’, W.B Yeats
Minimalism leaves little room for hyperbole. It offers up no place to hide. It leaves both musician and reviewer exposed. No chicanery to smokescreen or dazzle. No scope for canny musical or verbal legerdemain.
This is exactly the position in which, sisters Jófríõur & Ásthildur Ákadóttir of Pascal Pinon have put themselves. In their new album, ‘Sundur‘, they have laid themselves bare on a sparsely decorated expanse none too dissimilar to their Icelandic home.
This is an album with its roots in their sibling relationship, the beating heart from which it stems and flowers upwards, a slight and whimsical delight.
Taken from the Icelandic proverb, “sundur og saman” or, “apart and together”, ‘Sundur’ charts the ever shifting circumstances of a relationship sundered by distance and necessity but welded at its seams by an unbreakable bond formed since birth.
Togetherness in separation is at the heart of both the album and its opening track, ‘Jósa & Lotta’.
A sepia filtered intro flows into a piano acoustic duet of such delightful simplicity the gentle emotion of the vocal is allowed to float to the fore. Listening to the sisters sing is comparable to watching white light shine through a double layer of crystal. Pure, ice-clear iridescence!
External elements only come into play as the song draws to a end. Taking up an outside looking in kind of stance, these never once cross the threshold to break into the continuum of looping piano sequences. Egg shaker percussion, and search and seek synth lines, evolve into an alien interference to close out a song that subtly contrasts old with new, and the simplistic with a futuristic unknown.
While the album opener centres on relationships between the living, the second track in, ‘53‘, is very much about following and reconnecting with those who have died. While the instrumental hinges on a repetitious guitar loop that encircles the mournful vocal, the delicately crafted lyrics centre on a mother-son tragedy.
The deep pain and unbearable loss suffered by the protagonists are carved with such sincerity and understanding as to clearly evince the keen insight into human reaction and emotion with which the Ákadóttir sisters are possessed.
“I wiped the tears that almost fell, in the church, If I was a prayer, I’d pray for her, & hope that she’s found some heaven”
While Pascal Pinon sing in English, their indigenous language is Icelandic, so it should come as no surprise that their vocal is at its most fascinating when they sing in their native tongue. There are two such songs on ‘Sundur’ –‘Skammdegi’ and ‘Ást’.
Icelandic for ‘love’, ‘Ást’, is an enchantment of icy piano notes that fall like tears through raindrops onto the most fragile of vocals. Accessorised with a momentary burst of melodrama and a handful of guitar strums, the minimalism works because of the songs earnest simplicity.
It is through their on-point use of such simplicity that Jófríõur & Ásthildur Ákadóttir exemplify their proficient and intuitive understanding vocal nuance, pertinent pauses, and spaciousness, used to reinforce thematic weight in an instrumental that itself is practically weightless.
‘Skammdegi’, which means ‘midwinter’ , is another twilit mesmerism. Staggered vocal mirroring melds, forming a 3D vocal of strange, Lothlórien loveliness. The sisters’ voices start this dance apart, pirouetting gracefully around each other, but by the end they are dancing together in glorious unified harmony.
Taking up the instrumental mantle of this menagerie are two tracks, ‘Spider Light‘ and ‘Twax’ (such a great word, isn’t it?). The former has a very retro vibe redolent of the early ’80s electro-labs of OMD or Thomas Dolby mashed with some ’70s cabaret bossa nova.
This electronic trip back in time is reined in by a piano sequence with all the force and agility of a strong breeze. The piece ends with the most chillingly fantastical electronic horror … ‘spider light’ sound effects!
As an accordion player myself, it was only natural that I would be drawn to the strains of ‘Fuglar‘, a muddle of accordion and harmonium, played in seesaw staccato reps redolent of a car alarm. An interesting, quirky ditty in which the instrumental sum of random parts punctuates the vocal. It reminds me of my childhood, when I started to learn accordion, and would sit honking and depressing wedges of notes just to make a musical noise.
‘Fuglar’ doesn’t just give us a glimpse of another dimension to Pascal Pinon’s personality – fun and slightly zany with a willingness to not just think outside the box, but to rip holes in it – it also explores their adept musicianship and wildly creative streak, both of which cross a broader spectrum than first listen might assume. Theirs is an imagination with few bounds, moulded by a musical skill that has learnt through experience that restraint can work to its advantage, and that less is often more.
“For nothing ever stays the same …”
How often does one get the chance to name-check Marlene Dietrich in an album review? Once? Twice if it’s a leap year? This is what I love about ‘Sundur’ – its sheer diversity and eccentricity, and I use that term in the most respectful way possible!
“The main themes in ‘Orange’ is wordplay (repeating phrases but changing one word to alter the whole meaning), diary- or a kind of memoir-styled lyrics and imagining you’re in a piano bar in the 50’s singing about your loves and tragedies.”
The album’s lead single, ‘Orange’ is the kind of song Marlene Dietrich would sing if she were hanging underneath the lamplight today.
“He’s still in recovery from my bitterness”
Exquisitely original, ‘Orange’ is about love, lovers, and breakups. Its old music hall piano instrumental accompanies a keenly penned, incisive and droll-humoured monologue that reminds me of Victoria Wood. This is a wonderful modern day twist on vintage!
The album finale is ‘Weeks‘, one of its few contemporary electro-tracks. It’s an interesting quirk to end a predominantly “reserved” ambience with a mad scientist’s cocktail of knob twiddling and electro “divers alarums”. It comprises a musical frenzy over which an insistent vocal gently punches the fraught air, as it struggles with a claustrophobic atmosphere created by the peripheral electronic entanglement.
“I wonder if time will be soothing or malignant or will it take us back to where we were.
You took my sanity a part one shouldn’t give away and with tenacity your grip is locked across the sea.”
By taking a pared back approach to arranging ‘Sundur’, Pascal Pinon have successfully achieved maximum impact with minimal instrumentation. They have skilfully attained a sound as delicate as egg-shell, a whispering and at times idiosyncratic music that effortlessly evokes the deepest sentiments with a grace and eloquence many can only aspire to.
A series of magical moments at times shrouded in mystery, ‘Sundur’ gives us a glimpse into the secret world of siblings, a fascinating phenomenon that transcends the physical.
For more information and to keep up to speed with all releases and news, follow Pascal Pinon on Facebook. They go on tour shortly taking in Poland, Germany, Holland, France and Britain (alas, no Ireland!): again, full details on their FB page. ‘Sundur’ is available to buy via Bandcamp and to stream on Spotify.