Published June 6, 2011
The year 2010 was one of transition, with too many bands shuffling around indecisively.
This year seems it will be more of the same, with the off-the-mainstream music still finding its footing while the dreamlike, stripped-down, sliced-up, ’85-’93 inflected sound pulses and drones in the hands of Animal Collective’s dilated pupils.
Last year GusGus seemed equally unsure of where to take their sound, which culminated in ‘24/7’ (2010) which, while not without its charm, proved too cold and unwelcoming on the whole. But this summer, from a tangle of disembowelled ‘80s cassette mixes, ‘Arabian Horse’ rises steely-eyed, eclipsing the sun with its flaxen mane, dumping mounds of steaming passion and professionalism.
During a time for electronic music where half of the bands are faceless, nameless or don unpronounceable names, there’s something refreshingly barefaced about GusGus. They wear a decade of experience on their sleeves, which shows both in the extreme attention to detail in the production and their shamelessly indulgent nostalgia for the early ‘90s pop music that (presumably) shaped them.
Whatever happened between ‘24/7’ and ‘Arabian Horse’, GusGus have let the light in. There is still an element of arctic winds and dusky clubs but they have let in a ray of a sound bright, honest and soulful. If ‘24/7’ was bitter, ‘Arabian Horse’ is bittersweet.
‘Selfoss’ opens the album, a trippy ambient song stroked to a noisy finish and topped off with a Balkan swing. I can confirm that ‘Selfoss’ went down great with a foreign audience tripping their minds off on magic mushrooms (which is the first and last time you will hear me use ‘Selfoss’ and psychedelics in the same sentence as the real-life Selfoss should be avoided like the plague when you’re on anything stronger than paracetamol).
‘Deep Inside’ continues the ambient balkandelia, working in familiar GusGus territory but building towards something new and operatic. Högni Egilsson from the Hjaltalín is paired up for the first time with original member Daníel Ágúst, Högni’s voice is low and hoarse, fairly reminiscent of early Sting or even Seal.
‘Over’ starts off a little decadent with a ‘We R Who We R’ soundalike beat and all three singers on duty but just as they’re about to go off the edge into full-on raver nostalgia Daníel Ágúst pulls the reigns with a tight and clever chorus.
‘Within You’ is by far the strongest song on an otherwise excellent record, a melodramatic string section, haunting vocals from Högni, light but very effective touches in the production and a falsetto refrain somewhere between ‘Walking On A Dream’ and the ‘Neverending Story’ theme. Echoes of Unfinished Sympathy, Hercules and Love Affair, Jamie Woon.
‘Magnified Love’ is the album’s dance hit—sleek, dirty and tight—with bitching synth maracas and Daníel’s voice veering into Bono territory (in cadence more than timbre).
The album concludes with strangely tropical-sounding musical saw in ‘Benched’. The flourishes of accordions and saws, as short and non-essential as they seem really add a new dimension to GusGus’s sound and serve to draw out the individuality of the songs that otherwise would risk getting lost in the synth loop that pounds like a leitmotif through the whole record. More of this please!
Old fans will have a short “huh” moment before being pulled into familiar territory. The new sound could potentially pull in a lot of new listeners, the timing couldn’t be better as far as I can hear with a lot of listeners looking to bands mining that Euro-synth-pop sound. And it’s weird how endearing those kitschy electro-pop songs have turned out to be. ‘100% Pure Love’ by Crystal Waters would have made me cringe back in ’95 but now I would dance to it in a heartbeat. Maybe all that the Euro-techno needed was to age like blue cheese.
Good things come to those who wait, GusGus have crafted a perfect anthemic electronic pop record—it is both their most mature record to date and one that could easily introduce them to a larger audience (*cough* America *cough*). While the Icelandic horse, like the Icelandic music scene, is known for being tough, small, sturdy, resourceful, practical, hairy and cute, GusGus have chosen the ‘Arabic Horse’ as their mascot—sleek, proportional, graceful, beautiful, refined and treading the sands of time like it ain’t no thing.