Sometimes, “dance music” goes beyond its implied mission of moving people’s feet, and moves them in other ways, too. Grapevine’s album of the year 2015—Tonik Ensemble’s ’Snapshots’—does just that. An educated, simmering take on house-techno-pop, it’s a lush production of cello, saxophone and various differing styles of vocals, all laid over a rich base of synth pulses and languid rhythms with a dark, emotional tint.
The album was made through an impressively long-term investment of time and effort from its creator, the mild-mannered and quizzical Anton Kaldal, who’s a graphic designer by day (full disclosure: he’s sometimes jumped in and designed issues of The Reykjavik Grapevine. Keep in mind that our awards panel was wholly unaware of the fact, not that it would have affected their verdict). After a decade-long process of developing his style under the Tonik moniker, Anton expanded his sonic palette considerably for the ‘Snapshots’, resulting in his most ambitious collection to date.
“Snapshots is a turning point,” he says. “It was an evolution over time, but the big difference from what I’d been working on previously was the inclusion of vocals. What I like about using vocals is that you could take the most difficult noise track in the whole wide world, but if you put a vocal on it, all of a sudden you have this bridge to a wider audience. It can almost trick people into listening to something they might not normally listen to. That’s what the human voice does for the listener—it’s very powerful.”
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Anton talks in an almost scholarly style about contemporary music. He’s a voracious and ever-curious listener and follower of new developments, from mass-cultural pop stars to cultish niches and from neo-classical composition to the ever-evolving troposphere of dance sub-genres.
“I’ve always been framed—or framed myself—in the electronic scene,” he says. “But I don’t label myself either as pop music, or not. I’m a huge fan of all music, and some of that is very mainstream. I like catchy music and hooks. Pop has certainly gone into interesting directions lately. When you have someone like Arca producing pop acts like FKA twigs, then we’re in interesting times. There’s always the bland stuff of course, but there’s also substance to a lot of pop music now.”
‘Snapshots’ took several years to create, and Anton watched music change around him during that period. “It’s interesting to see how certain sounds that appeared a couple of years ago can still break into the mainstream,” he muses. “When I started making the album, I was transitioning from synth-heavy electronica into a more retro ‘80s sound, and also into a darker palette. I’d been listening to yacht-rock, disco, post-dubstep… electronic music like Jon Hopkins and Trentemøller. I became very fixated on a cinematic feel, and wanted to take it further.”
As well as expanding his palette of sounds and his range of collaborators, Anton pushed himself in other ways during the creation of ‘Snapshots’.
“I put myself into a playful mode for this record,” he explains. “On the technical side of things, I went out of my comfort zone with song structures… but I was also almost thinking of doing some ‘musical trolling’, by doing things like starting the vocal four minutes into a track. I was reminded of this the other day when I heard that particular track on the radio. The host played four minutes of the song, and started introducing the next track—but at the very moment she was going to push the button, the vocal began.” He laughs mischievously, finishing: “She paused, and said “Interesting! Let’s stick with this…” and just left it running. So I got to hear the ‘trolling’ happening in real time, on live radio.”
But along with the playfulness and experimentation, the album has a dark and at times sombre sound. “I lost a close relative around the time I started writing it,” he reflects. “It coloured the whole album. The lyrics deal with that, and I think it subconsciously slipped through into the sound, as well. One of the reasons for the jazz elements on the album—other than liking jazz—was that the relative was a big fan of jazz, so the saxophone parts were a small tribute.”
Made of solid gold
One of the most striking contributions from Anton’s expanded Tonik Ensemble comes from Hörður Már Bjarnason, also known for his work as M-Band—perhaps not coincidentally, the winner of Grapevine’s album of the 2014 award for his debut LP, ‘Haust’. Hörður’s rich tenor voice brings a spine-tingling spirituality to inner landscape of the album, swirling amongst the strings, saxophone and synth arrangements with artful sensitivity.
Having been impressed by M-Band’s first EP, Anton first asked Hörður to join him onstage at the Extreme Chill festival in Snæfellsnes. “It was a late-night slot,” he recalls, “so I’d made some visuals, and asked Hörður to join me as a surprise vocalist alongside the cello.” He pauses at the memory, his eyes lighting up. “Little did I know his live skills until then.”
“All of the musicians and vocalists on this record brought something that elevates the whole piece to another level,” he continues, “and Hörður did make a big mark on this record, as you can hear on the opening track onwards. His voice has an unusual quality—almost Arthur Russell-like. He also studied piano for a long time, and although he doesn’t really know it himself, his way of working is very impressive—fluid, and natural.”
The homeland success of the album has left Anton pleasantly surprised. “I think the word is humble,” he smiles. “I had prepared myself for it to go totally under the radar in Iceland, because the PR was in the UK, and label was in the Netherlands. So it’s humbling to get some recognition, especially for something as personal about this. Although I might sometimes talk with a design vocabulary about music, it’s a very personal album. It totally reflects what I was going through during that time. And that makes the recognition even more special.”
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