It seems that, when it comes to music, the Swedes can do no wrong; while the UK and America fight amongst themselves for the crown of popular music, our continental neighbours are modestly producing some of the finest records of recent times – if you care to turn an ear in their direction. Arriving to further cement this idea are Thus:Owls.
Eclectic in their make up, the ensemble of Thus:Owls started life with Erika Alexandersson, whose CV includes a Swedish Grammy nomination, being one half of the free/improv/electronic band The Moth, and also duties in both Loney Dear and Patrick Watson’s touring line-up. Also present are Cecilia Persson (previously of progressive jazz group Paavo), Martin Höper, Ola Hultgren (Loney Dear), and Montréal’s Simon Angell, a key member with Patrick Watson. Between them they’ve created one of the most dazzling, beguiling and (cliché alert) achingly beautiful records these ears have heard in a long time: Cardiac Malformations.
The first and most arresting strike the album delivers is Erika Alexandersson’s exquisite voice: strong yet fragile, clear yet husky. However, her adorable timbre is twisted before the record’s first line even reaches its conclusion: “My thoughts ain’t lovely, I’m all false modesty” she pines. In cinema, children in horror are used to make an audience feel uneasy; the presence of evil in something so innocent being unnatural, disconcerting. The same could be said of Alexandersson’s voice. Across the record she deploys it with great affect – be it as choral washes of backing vocals, genuinely unnerving guttural screams or fork-tongued beat poetry – never losing sight of her surroundings.
Thus:Owls have taken the adage “It’s not what you play, it’s what you don’t play” and run with it. The bulk of Cardiac Malformations is comprised of delicate compositions, every last note and beat seemingly pored over until everything is perfect. Brass and strings dance with bass and drums; piano lines fall in and out of consciousness. Accepted musical convention and construction is pushed aside in the quest for mood and feel. I’ve not laid ears on anything so perfectly pitched and executed since Efterklang’s Parades.
There are also turns for Alexandersson and Persson’s jazz backgrounds in ‘Sometimes’ and ‘A Volcano in My Chest’. The former builds on upright bass, handclap percussion and subtle off-beat piano before dropping into an honestly toned confession: “I wanted to sing from my heart on your birthday party.” The latter, a beat poem, recounts the journey home after a waking up in a bed that’s not your own: “I feel very dressed up in this crowed on its way to work.”
The cinematic parallels go further than just a vocal comparison to the tone of The Omen: as vocals and music combine, images form. On ‘The Sun Is Burning Our Skin’ a high-pitched, sparse piano line is played almost at random, a vibraphone doing it’s best to mimic its erratic moves. As Alexandersson enters with “The sun is burning our skin, while we’re on your balcony,” it’s hard not to imaging the piano sunlight glinting, dancing on water.
Cardiac Malformations is a record out there on its own. It belies categorisation or comparison. It’s not always an easy listen – at times desperately sad, at times genuinely unsettling – but, as it slowly reveals itself Thus:Owls’ debut becomes so visceral, so tangible, you can almost see it.