The clarinet’s never been a particularly hipster instrument. In fact, the search for even the most fleeting of clarinet-based contributions to popular music leads to an almost immediate dead end. There’s a handful of appearances to be found on a couple of The Beatles’ albums, admittedly – but after that its next big break (if you can call it that) is on The Style Council’s Come to Milton Keynes. Misgivings can then be forgiven upon coming across Samaris – an Icelandic trio made up of Jófríður Ákadóttir on the vocals, pÞórður Kári Steinþórsson providing electronic production and Áslaug Rún Magnúsdóttir… on the clarinet.
Any concerns, however, are dispelled the minute you hit play on their eponymous debut. Imagine The XX and Little Dragon eloping to that magical forest out of Lord of The Rings to record an album with all the wood elves they could round up, and you might be getting close to this record’s wonderfully paranormal aesthetic.
With opening number ‘Hljóma Þú’, Samaris set out their stall early – the track is saturated with the lush, atmospheric electronics that are their signature sound. As with every track on the LP, it’s a delicate arrangement between a host of distinct elements, that (while individually unobtrusive) quickly coalesce into a strongly formulated whole. Too often within electronic music will a producer lovingly compose a track, and only incorporate a vocalist as a hasty afterthought. Samaris, however, were conceived differently, and it shows in the music. It was Steinþórsson, the electronic producer, that was the late addition to this set-up, and the result is a more elegantly balanced sound, with no one facet claiming hegemony on the others.
Every now and again, you’ll hear a song that will reaffirm your love of music. You’ll want to dance and laugh and cry and play it to your friends and keep it a secret all at the same time, and in the end you’ll probably do all of them. ‘Góða Tungl’ is one of those songs. Wandering bass and snare rhythms lay a disjointed, James Blake-esque foundation, underpinned by the thrum and purr of warm, sun-soaked basslines. Jófríður Ákadóttir’s half song, half incantation vocals lend it an air of the arcane and shamanistic. Concerns that Ákadóttir’s exclusively Icelandic lyrics would blunt the group’s emotional connection to an English-speaking listener are not unfounded – but in any case, the Icelandic lyrics only deepen the aura of otherworldly and unknowable.
It was only on my second or third play of Samaris that I’d realised that I’d yet to hear any clarinet. I played it again – and found that I was wrong. It’s not even used sparingly, it appears on every track of the album – Samaris’s songs are just so cleverly composed and gracefully balanced, that it’s sometimes hard to pick them apart. The clarinet glides in and out of earshot, and seems to be so utterly at home that what I presumed would be a jarring deviation is just one thread within the album’s rich tapestry.
Perhaps we’ve had clarinets all wrong after all – maybe now is the time for these ever-maligned instruments to finally break into the big time. Or perhaps it’s more to do with Samaris; a band with a gift for piecing songs together in a way that makes everything – even the most unfashionable of instruments – feel just right.