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Ólafur Arnalds @ Church of St. John-at-Hackney, London

For Now I am Winter. Even multi-instrumentalist Ólafur Arnalds amusedly admits that this might have been an odd title choice for the release of his highly anticipated third full-length album and the subsequent European tour in April and June. Indeed, “summer” miraculously arrived yet in London these days, trying to whisk off our sad memories of the never-ending winterish springtime and sending warm rays of sun through the large church windows of tonight’s venue. But hey, I can’t blame him! Hailing from the small Icelandic town of Mosfellsbær, the hibernal season mostly determines local ways of life and is probably a part of the people’s cultural identity. More importantly, to me For Now I am Winter just brilliantly outlines the subtle theme of his most recent work: Everything is a snapshot, nothing remains unchanged.
Quite frankly, I wasn’t really sure about my expectations of the night, despite knowing his discography almost by heart (as far as this is possible with neo-classical music). First of all, the young musician is known to have a great intuition for arranging his live tracks in multifaceted, unpredictable variations and thus generating an entirely different experience time after time. Moreover, the austerely decorated Church of St. John-at-Hackney, amongst other things, serves as an extraordinary music venue throughout the year. Seating is restricted for merely 500 people in the auditorium and on the arcades, which creates an intimate atmosphere between audience and artist in addition to amazing acoustics. All in all, this was definitely far from becoming an ordinary concert night.

After waiting for around an hour (yes, we arrived early to steal away the good seats in the front row!) on this warm Monday evening, I was really excited for the show to finally start with support act Douglas Dare. ‘Hipsteresque’ – That would have been a (stereo)-typical social media description of the guy who quietly appeared on stage. Well, prejudgment is not my cup of tea and instead of just being that well-dressed musical narcissist, he seemed shy, grateful and – most importantly – blew me away with his performance. The latter is indeed extraordinary, as I’ve rarely seen a support act that left such a lasting impression on me. Recently signed on Erased Tapes Records, Douglas Dare did win over his audience from the start with beautiful piano compositions and his fragile voice. After playing six amazing songs about love, loss and sadness, partly accompanied by Òlafur Arnalds for a double piano session and closing with his best-known single ‘Caroline’, he more than deserved the final grand applause. Clearly, watch out for Douglas Dare!

As a great fan of Ólafur Arnalds critically acclaimed last release ‘Living Room Songs’, including one of my favourite tracks ‘Near Light’, I was extremely pleased by his idea to eventually develop new grounds: For the first time, some of his instrumental songs such as ‘Old Skin’, ‘Reclaim’ or his title track ‘For now I am Winter’ include the vocals of friendly Icelandic singer Arnór Dan. Alas, “only” his touring string quartet accompanied him tonight, but the following 1 ½ hours of sheer brilliance definitely compensated for that. Starting off with a sort of musical experiment for his song ‘Þú ert sólin’, Arnalds animated the audience to sing the note ‘C’ to record and integrate it as a distorted loop into his track. Sounds funny and engaging, but unfortunately his device wasn’t working as intended throughout the whole concert. Instead of letting chaos descend upon him, he charmingly managed to talk himself out of a technical disaster, amusing the audience with mischievous, little stories about touring, internet habits and his work as a composer.

Aside from this rather bumpy start, Òlafur Arnalds assembled an amazing setlist, shifting between his strictly classical compositions such as ‘3326’ or ‘Ágúst’ and electronic arrangements like ‘Only the Winds’ or ‘Gleypa Okkur’. This captivating mixture signifies the essence of Arnalds’ work: Blending dramatic emotions full of sadness and despair into heartbreakingly beautiful, bittersweet symphonies. It is remarkable how the young artist arranges his pieces, emphasizing the capacity of each instrument in a meticulous and effortless way at once. Hardly surprising that itv acknowledged his talents by assigning him to compose a soundtrack for their new TV series ‘Broadchurch’, which he partly introduced here at Church of St. John-at-Hackney. After taking me on an emotional rollercoaster ride, Òlafur Arnalds indeed left me with a conjured smile on my face by closing with ‘Poland’ and ‘Near Light’,  two of my absolute favourites! With clear conscience, I can claim that this night did not leave a single person in the audience unchanged.

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