So much for the difficult sophomore album, this is a classic!
What a wonderful find this one is. This is a band from Bergen that has been rather casually labelled psychedelic but that would be a potentially misleading definition. Yes, there are echoes here of the psychedelic revival of recent years, but this is mixed with languid progressive rock in the style of Gazpacho or Anathema, and above all the sort of dark atmospheres that the Nordic races so excel at creating. So, forget those thoughts of the ‘60s; what we have here is a decidedly modern album!The album opener Shaping Mirrors Like Smoke – one of those titles that has you wondering endlessly about its meaning – is a fine example of the band’s craft with layers of guitars and keyboards supported by a driving rhythm section creating a massive wall of sound. To compete with that one might expect a death metal roar from singer Aleksander Vormestrand but instead he delivers in an ethereal voice that seems to shimmer magically over the music. He’s been compared to Thom Yorke, although the comparison that immediately came to my mind was Chris Isaak, both for the ease with which he hits those high notes and the compelling timbre of his voice. The track is less than six minutes long, but it certainly packs a big punch. Next comes Heart Listening that is a much more relaxed and pastoral track, with a bit of Radiohead feel to it, and it’s marked by Hein Alexander Olson’s wonderful playing on both acoustic and electric guitar, often with the two intertwining together deliciously.
Blowing Raspberries then comes as a bit of a shock as the atmospherics are cast aside completely and we are presented with a straightforward punkish pop song with strongly marked rhythm and a cleverly catchy hook line. It will get your foot tapping for sure and while it is remarkably different from what preceded it, the track still works. A second attempt at a straightforward rock song, Caligula, later in the album fails to have the same effect though. It is a bit disjointed, less memorable and is the only weak link in the whole album. For the remaining tracks, Normal Scandinavian Atmospheric Service is resumed. Brother is a bit of a slow acoustic dirge memorable for the mournful falling refrain on electric guitar from Olson and yet another extraordinarily other-worldly vocal performance from Vormestrand. It’s possibly the highlight of the album, along with Let The Mother Burn which manages to contain both the moody atmospherics and a catchy chorus line, as Vormestrand repeats the line ‘breathe it in; breathe it out’. That line is more sinister if you are aware of the strong ecological theme in the album that the band have described as being about ‘the impact we humans have on planet earth, and the destruction we lay in our wake wherever we go’. Agafia is perhaps oddly sung in Norwegian but apparently is about the true tale of a certain Agafia Lykova, a Russian woman who lived alone in an inhospitable Russian wilderness for much of her life. Great guitar touches from Olson give this one an epic feel. It also makes you realise how sparing Olson has been with the big guitar moments throughout the album, and just like Lauritz Isaksen’s excellently varied keyboards, you sense the band have dosed the album perfectly.
The title track closes the album. I expected something shadowy and dark, believing it to have something to do with the film of the same name directed by Goran Marković (which tells the gruesome tale of a Smallpox outbreak in Yugoslavia!) but surprisingly we get a three-minute instrumental based on repeated acoustic guitar phrase embellished by delicate keyboards and percussion. You might think it’s just a pleasant bookend to procedings, but it does seem to ease the tension of the bigger epic pieces that precede it and close the album perfectly.
It’s interesting to see how far Himmellegeme have progressed from their well-received debut album. Singing mostly in English certainly helps but now there’s a conciseness and intensity to the music that has created something exceptional. So much for the difficult sophomore album; this is a classic! Oh, and if you’re wondering what Himmellegeme means, it is apparently Norwegian for a ‘celestial body’. Just don’t ask me how to pronounce it….