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  • Writer's pictureSylvain Lupari

Sverre Knut Johansen Icelandic Highlands (2023)

An album to discover for those who love the orchestral Dark Ambient which floats and floats…

1 Öræfajökull Glacier 6:12

2 Icelandic Highlands 7:12

3 Mýrdalsjökull Glacier 7:18

4 Öræfajökull Glacier Pt.2 (Voices) 3:07

5 Öræfajökull (Low Cello Sample) 8:13

6 Icelandic Highlands Pt.2 (Piano) 7:37

7 Mýrdalsjökull Glacier Pt.2 8:04

8 East of Mýrdalsjökull Covered in Ash 9:59

(DDL 24Bits 57:45) (V.F.)

(Dark orchestral ambient)

Following the meditative lines of Metahuman, but with a much darker vision, Sverre Knut Johansen has concocted a little gem of floating electronic music (EM) with textures that embrace a series of photographs of Iceland's Highlands by photographer Ragnar Axelsson, also known as RAX. The music focuses mainly on the Öræfajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers, and the download offers the chance to admire 3 photos by the Icelandic photographer. From the sart, Sverre Knut informs us that we'll be in an immersive ambient music mode for the 58 minutes of ICELAND HIGHLANDS. No rhythm here. No sequences, percussions or pulsating bass lines! Nothing but synthesizer layers that sound like string ensembles or angelic choirs. The mutation of timbres is an important part of the equation, originating both as a dramatic element and as an ethereal passage where musical poetry takes over our emotions. Although the orchestral envelope is favored by the Norwegian musician-synthesist, synth layers glide and intertwine in fairytale ballets of azure colors and the slightly cooler hues of glacier white. But the opposite is also true, with dark, heavy roars that draw us into the abysses of these glaciers, where everything is black. Black as darkness!

It's a buzzing breeze that opens up the atmospheric dimensions of Öræfajökull Glacier. So much so, that you'd think you were listening to a spacecraft hovering and vibrating in the icy desert setting of Iceland's largest volcano. Obscure, celestial layers of voices mingle with the slow movement of synth layers that subdivide their tonalities between pure, meditative EM and a more orchestral one with a fictitious string ensemble. Between tenderness and drama, the winged movements range from tempestuous drones to the delicate caresses of melancholy violins that float in an unreal waltz with the delicate humming of ice nymphs. The title track follows with a similar opening. Perhaps a little darker, with a nostalgic texture delicately lifted by bluer synth waves. In fact, the fusion of these two contrasts enriches the album's musical envelope. The chill here is lyrical, with layers of synth that seem to gather to float in harmony with the evasive melody of the orchestrations. I hear Matthias Thurow here, with the nostalgic ambiences of his eternal Cornucopia. A beautiful album if you can ever get your hands on it! Then comes Mýrdalsjökull Glacier! The bangings of its introduction is the only source you wiil hear of rhythm in ICELAND HIGHLANDS. They spread an echo, creating the illusion of a giant spinning in circles on this swamp valley glacier. Sound effects radiate from a source where ice revolts and falls in deafening crashes. A celestial trumpet emerges, its tunes are struggling to rise above a mass of black clouds that rumble as if a storm were in Aeolus' plans. These dramatic hums and screeches generate heavy atmospheres that encircle this imaginary giant and his slow race to find refuge under a threatening sky.

We come to the distinctly more orchestral part of this album with Öræfajökull Glacier Pt.2 (Voices), which invites us to a short meditative moment with an ensemble of voices whose timbres vary between low hums, sounding like purrs, and higher pitches, giving a texture more ethereal than sibylline. Öræfajökull (Low Cello Sample) follows with a different take on this introductory track to ICELAND HIGHLANDS. Its panorama is dark and textured with long, slow hums of cello's strings. The higher tones that Sverre Knut Johansen layers over the cello's vibrating laments add a little more lyricism to this panorama of sadness that made me downright melancholy. These string rubbings on a dark body feed the opening of Icelandic Highlands Pt.2 (Piano), where celestial trumpet harmonies also sing. The movement develops slowly, in keeping with the mood of the title track. We follow this fusion of purring strings and post-apocalyptic trumpet tunes, with a slight passage where the piano mumbles its musings in the cold solitude of bluish synth waves carried by icy winds. As I wrote at the start of this review, there are movements on this album that are falling in a kind of dark abyss. The synth layers in Mýrdalsjökull Glacier Pt.2 are one of those! But there's a nice twist. The colors of the timbres bicker with diversity, tending towards black and bright, before reaching a more luminous finale. East of Mýrdalsjökull Covered in Ash ends the album with the same sense of sadness that surrounds the music of ICELAND HIGHLANDS. It's easy to imagine the apocalyptic landscape Sverre wants to compose for our ears. The sadness is there for all to see. If the opening is more silky, less dark, little by little the music takes refuge in these dark spaces that overhang the 8 tracks of the album. You can clearly hear the orchestrations weeping over the fate of these glaciers. And that is the grandeur of this symphony for a still life that would like to live again.

Listening to the music of ICELAND HIGHLANDS, I thought a lot about Stephen Parsick's universe and his long stint in the Doombient. And to be honest, it's not an easy album. The timbre is solemn and the ambiences border on a dark, almost dreary universe. I think the use of cello sampling, which largely dominates the ambiences here, has something to do with it. So, if you like soaring Dark Ambient, you'll love the album! And whatever touch, whatever emotional color Sverre Knut Johansen gives to his structures, there's a corrosive coldness that emanates from the 8 tracks on this album, available only as a high-quality download (24Bits). In the end, there's always something seductive for those who take the time to let themselves be enveloped by the ambiences of ICELAND HIGHLANDS.

Sylvain Lupari (August 7th, 2023) *****

Available at Sverre Knut Johansen Bandcamp

(NB: Texts in blue are links you can click on)

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