The ambient landscape has been dominated in recent years by the superlative output of Erased Tapes, a label with a distinctive aesthetic and an ear for the remarkable. Multi-instrumentalist and increasingly renowned composer Ólafur Arnalds and inventive pianist and producer Nils Frahm have, rightly, garnered the majority of the plaudits. The former specialises in spacious, aching and sometimes unsettling piano-driven atmospherics, while the latter traverses terrain from modern classical right the way through to intense electronica. Both have catalogues deserving of more than casual perusal but does their individual brilliance translate when the two friends work together?
In a word, yes, although the first disc of this set is, by its very nature, quite a disjointed listen. Originally intended as a means by which to collect together recordings released across several EPs and a limited edition 7", the album doubled in size when Arnalds and Frahm improvised a further seven pieces whilst beginning promotional duties. Proceedings commence with a swirling, synth-heavy selection previously released as 'Loon'. The dubbier touches of Frahm's 2013 release 'Spaces' are at play once again, 'Wide Open' a particularly joyous wash of slinky percussion and juddering layers. 'W' and 'M' take a darker turn, with subterranean rumble replacing the wide-eyed delirium of their neighbours.
The three tracks which follow were released for Record Store Day in 2012, demonstrating that the major label reissue cash cow can offer unexpected treats. Titled 'a1', 'a2' and 'b1' in honour of their place on the original vinyl, the 'a' pair are delicate swathes of sound built up over time in both Berlin and Reykjavik, while 'b1' is a lengthy piece given resonant depths by the additional presence of cellist Anne Müller.
The main disc concludes with a pair of tracks recorded in Frahm's studio three years previous, with both artists at the piano. They have the intimate acoustics of 2011's 'Felt', 'Life Story' beginning with the sounds of the space being set up for the ensuing freewheeling performance. While the three movements have their own distinct natures, they deserve the wider audience that this collection will allow.
'Trance Frendz' is the endearingly playful name given to an unexpected burst of creativity recorded when filming a session to promote the compilation. Each piece is named after the time in the night when it emerged and the mood clearly mutates. While '20:17' and '21:05' possess a somnambulant hush, by the time '23:52' comes around the synths are a grandiose presence, building out of droning notes into a buzzing, fidgety crescendo. Once '03:06' rolls around, a bleary haze of nocturnal calm descends.
For a spontaneously hewn collection, the second set is curiously complete, containing as it does two remarkable musicians at the peak of their powers, operating without fear or expectation. With a little over 100 minutes of music spread across these two discs, there is plenty to take in. As a document of four years of on-off collaboration it is fascinating, and for fans of either artist it's pretty much essential.
Words: Gareth James
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