Tongues are often fairly loose with words like ‘otherworldly’ and ‘ethereal’ when discussing the more unusual side of independent music. Of course, when steeped in the pop-heavy alternative Western music scene it’s easy to think of less familiar artists as the above, but overuse of these words means that when something truly, otherwise-indescribably ethereal drops into our laps we’re left mouthing comically to find words that reflect just how so it is in comparison to what we’ve previously branded with said words. So it has been with a few particular Nordic artists of the last few years that veer away from that unique brand of pop, and so it is with amiina – once-string quartet that backed Sigur Rós turned unique, multi-instrumentalist six-piece, creating sounds so supernatural it is challenging, within the confines of the standard critical format, to fully convey their intimate beauty.
So often we hear albums that are meant to fulfill some pre-thought-out concept or professed writing device, but the fact that amiina’s The Lighthouse Project was written for ‘small spaces and intimate crowds’ resonates in every bar of this cosy mini-album. We’re told that the project was born of something said to the band by an audience member following the first time the group performed in a lighthouse; the man in question explained that he had felt the music the group played ‘traveling up through the lighthouse structure, and outwards across the ocean, as if the lighthouse were now projecting music instead of light’. Spurred on, understandably, by this heart-melting image, the band set out to explore Iceland’s lighthouses – newborn and soon-to-be-born babies in tow – and over time created arrangements that they felt encapsulated the intimate spirit of their original performances. The result is altogether reminiscent of so many things and somehow, at the same time, quite unlike anything before it.
Most impressively, the haunting centric melodies on the record are played with jaw-dropping range and prowess on the saw, which, theremin-like, gives the whole experience an air of the alien – in a similar strain Portishead‘s Dummy. ‘Leather and Lace’, recorded by Jónsi and Kjartan Sveinsson (Sigur Rós bandmates until recently) at their Sundlaugin studio outside Reykjavík, captures the beauty of its birthplace with gentle babbling of woody harp, lapping back and forth between just such singing sawed melodies, and the murmurings of softly-spun solo strings.
There isn’t a great deal of variation in the six tracks, though – so little, in fact, that it feels like it could be one very long instrumental movement. This record certainly hasn’t got mass-appeal; that much is as immediately apparent as it is integral. This isn’t to say its melodies are complex or atonal, or that it’s rich in outlandish time signatures, but The Lighthouse Project simply isn’t music that is written to ‘grab’ anybody. No, instead, it’s music written simply to be; music so quietly unselfish and organic that it feels that, if no ears besides those of the composers ever heard it, it would still exist in some beautiful corner of the world – as sweet and incorrupt as a newborn and yet as full of weathered wisdom as some immortal inhabitant of the heavens.
For all the uniqueness in its components, there are things of similar thoughtful beauty one can compare The Lighthouse Project to; on the off-chance you were the type of kid who would leave your Legend of Zelda cartridge playing its title screen on loop, for example, just to bask in the heavenly lullaby of the Great Fairy Fountain theme, then this album is about as close as you’ll get to an adult version of that experience. To use a slightly less type-specific example, however, it’s emotionally akin to the swell in your chest as you hear throaty violin soar over the fields of Rohan, the shivers spreading to your fingertips when the towers collapse at the end of Fight Club, and the gasp of relief you let out as you gratefully gulp the water you’ve been longing so desperately for. The Lighthouse Project is an incredible escape from your surroundings, and beyond that, it’s the most magically subtle, sweet, and seductive collection of compositions we’ve heard for a long time.
Like pollen drifting through warm air and weighting your eyelids on summer afternoons, the supreme delicacy of the music throughout is entrancing. With the clinking of muffled xylophone and shimmering of angelic voices that fills it from start to finish – although perhaps most enchantingly on ‘Kola (Lighthouse version)’ – The Lighthouse Project is a stunning representation of the Iceland so many of us have fallen for through the blossoming of its music scene over our lifetimes.