In popular music, tropes recycle themselves extending past simple musical choices to group size, format, name, inter-band relationships and even geographic location. The Beatles standardized the stereotypical four piece. Peter, Paul, and Mary were arranged and visually represented to reach a biblically inclined audience. The White Stripes tried to pass off as brother and sister for marketing appeal. Iceland is known for atmospheric melodic ambient music, New York for punk, Gothenburg for melodic death metal, blah blah blah.
Wildbirds & Peacedrums is a Swedish married couple whose promotional material carry the atmosphere of serious new age themes revolving around duality. Their new album, Rivers , is actually two EPs (Retina and Iris) released together. Another trope we’ve witnessed before: cut and paste yin/yang concepts supposedly aimed at marketing interest. Yawn.
Then you start listening to the music…huh? A reverberant backing choir? A powerful female vocalist with expression akin to wild honey supported only by percussion? Then you move onto Iris and find another intriguing instrumental composed of minimal computerized beats, live percussion, and steel pan for the half of the album. It’s clear at this point that Wildbirds & Peacedrums isn’t a kitsch project relying on specific tropes for marketing appeal within their music. There are some interesting methods inherent in these two projects, concepts both members felt were worth exploring for their own sake.
Based in Gothenburg, Sweden (OK, not just death metal) Mariem Wallentin and Andreas Werllin released their first album, Heartcore in 2008 to rave reviews resulting in the release of the sophomore album, The Snake, the next year to similar reactions. They went on to win the Jazz in Sweden prize for 2008, which happens to be quite the big deal. In regards to Rivers, the production present and the choices the musicians made leave some questions that should be answered. Why maintain such strict sonic continuity for both EPs in instrumentation and recording styles?
Turns out that Retina was recorded completely in a large modern Icelandic church supplying prodigious amounts of Byzantine reverb to the Schola Cantorum Reykjavík Chamber Choir, a 12 piece group also recorded on Bjork’s Medulla. Mariem described the church as containing “a large glass wall behind the altar accompanied by a large cross standing in a green light lit pool.” The choral arrangements were done by Hildur Guðnadóttir, a collaborator of Fever Ray and Throbbing Gristle, and the mixing was done by Valgeir Sigurðsson (CocoRosie, Bjork). Retina is a beautiful set of four recordings that superbly captures the atmosphere the musicians recorded in with Mariem providing the sonic locus. She chants powerful lines such as “Fight For Me” with an elemental soul infused wave around which the vowels issuing from the choir and Andreas’ percussion gather. This tribal transcendence of sound truly paints its birthplace.
Iris shifts the focus away from location to specific instrument: the steel pan. This recording was done in a more malleable environment at Reykjavik’s Greenhouse Studios for the exploration of the instrument that had recently became Mariem’s new passion. The result is an incredibly self-reflective five track EP exploring water based subjects. For instance, the first tune is titled “The Wave” and the momentum and rhythmic direction sounds like the tide coming in slow motion. The pan illustrates the smallest ripples on the shore until a low synth bass and a halved tempo accompanies the chorus with heavier drums at the crest. Track two, “The Drop” features spaced pitter-patter percussion from the drum set and Mariem’s pan featuring one interval of a third or fourth at a time at a near hip-hop pace.
Retina fixates upon a place to consciously envelope oneself in which the music emerges from. Without that location, the music wouldn’t exist. Without steel pan, Iris wouldn’t exist. These experiments not only give hope for a revival of popular situational music but for more conscious involvement of performing specific material made for specific venues. To hear Retina performed live in that Icelandic church would be a truly sublime experience and hearing it performed in a club would be at most curious and at worst a bastardization. Rivers is a set of recordings with an amount of genuine intent that is truly admirable featuring within them the physical elements that first inspired them. And that ladies and gents is quite rare. Hopefully soon it will become less so.