For a country with a population just shy of 300,000 people, Iceland has managed to produce a remarkable amount of world-class music, most of which defies expectations, being both accessible and innovative, but without compromise. The country is one of wide-open, other-worldly spaces, and of constant contrasts and surprises, where the sun never sets in the summer and the aurora borealis play in the sky during cold winter nights. Landscapes often shift and change totally within a scant few miles; and in amongst the ragged mountains, lava fields, and seemingly endless farms, are the odd hints of urban sprawl, with low-rise towns and cities gradually spreading across the land.

Automagic is a reflection of all this, and in itself feels more Icelandic than even the ethereal orchestration of the excellent Sigur Ros. For the most part, this is an album where everything happens in slow motion. Words and grooves glide past, bathed in reverb and echoes, creating an eerie, yet sometimes tranquil space that you can lose yourself in, while silky-smooth textures weave in and out of lazy, playful electronic piano arrangements. Now and again the mood darkens: clattering, spiky percussion breaks through—reminding us of the urban—and haunting vocals manage to provide both a chilling edge to the arrangements, but also a warmth that similar albums often lack, however contradictory that might seem.

But for all of Automagic’s shifts, changes and contradictions, it still feels like a coherent whole. This is a soundtrack to a road movie from another world: a place where spaciousness, emotive, timeless beauty combines with the raw edge of the modern world. The sound both darts around and seeps in slowly, demanding the attention, yet subtly hypnotises.

The opening track, Automagic, emphasizes all these things: electronic beats immediately draw you in, but the sweet, almost looped but slowly evolving melodies keep you there. The effect is nothing short of intoxicating. The trance continues, as night seems to fall with The Robot Has Got the Blues, and we are surrounded by the slowly shifting, smoky rhythms of a tiny club, but still reminded of the “mechanic heart” via a plethora of electronic noises that intermittently return to dance in the background.

Elsewhere, the likes of Undercover and Small Reverb return us to wide-open spaces, echoing voice and instruments alike into the distant, while Drive Thru travels from one to the other, beginning with stark, barren instrumentation, and then exploding into a finale of crunchy percussion and dark, intense, brooding loops of resonating guitars—an atmosphere explored more fully in the menacing Sunday Session 3.04. Outline takes these ideas to their logical conclusion, presenting a conflicting track of claustrophobic, but sensitive vocals and airy, yet forceful instrumental work—evoking feelings of being alone in the wilderness.

A semblance of comfort returns in the musically uplifting and hopeful Morning Song, while the exhilarating standout track, Shine, combining raw percussion, invigorating melodies and subtle, warm vocals, almost becomes a pop song from another world—one where they have better music. Amazing Things finishes the album in fine style, bringing together all the elements found elsewhere in the album, but with a warm and hopeful feel.

The one place where questions and contrasts don’t exist is in the simple fact that Automagic rapidly proves itself to be one the best albums of 2003, and continues to improve upon each listen. The only niggling factor is that some of the band’s current excellent live set isn’t on the CD. However, that just makes us look forward to the next release all the more.

Worm is Green
Automagic (2003)

Genre: Electronica
Record Label: Thule Musik

Pixelsurgeon Verdict

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