Erki Pärnoja – Album Review:”Leva”

Erki Parnoja LEVA album art

Though the vast majority of artists and bands I’ve featured on this blog have been from the US, UK, or Canada, I always enjoy writing about ones from other nations. In the past week or so, I’ve featured a band from Malta and a music producer from Luxembourg, and am now thrilled to introduce my very first artist from the Baltic nation of Estonia: the astonishingly talented songwriter, composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist Erki Pärnoja. Based in the capital of Tallinn, Pärnoja plays guitar, bass, keyboards and synthesizers, and creates some of the most exquisite instrumental music I’ve heard in a very long while. Using an impressive array of instruments and textures, he weaves lush, dreamy soundscapes that envelop us in layers of shimmery atmospheric gossamer. Seriously, his music is fucking gorgeous!

He’s been recording and releasing music for the past five years, beginning with his late 2015 debut EP Himmelbjerget. He followed that EP with two stunning albums, the guitar-dominant Efterglow in 2017 and more synth-oriented Saja Lugu in 2018, both of which I’ve immersed myself with over the past several days. The track “Ranna I” from Saja Lugu has been streamed more than 2.3 million times on Spotify. All three works are exceptional, and I highly recommend that my readers check them out on one of the music streaming platforms listed at the end of this review.

Now Pärnoja is back with a glorious new album Leva, which dropped on February 12. His previous works have all been instrumental-only, however with Leva, Pärnoja for the first time introduces lyrics and vocals on some of the tracks. Also, while still delivering his signature enchanting melodies and dreamy soundscapes, he now injects a more orchestral perspective, along with more exotic elements that give the album a fresher, more eclectic feel.

The album was recorded in Gothenburg, Sweden in early 2019, and features a number of guest musicians. In addition to Swedish producer/keyboardist Filip Leyman and Danish drummer Ulrik Ording (Pärnoja’s loyal collaborators since his debut album) are Estonian singer-songwriter Anna Kaneelina, Swedish marimba player Love Meyersson, and the string quartet Prezioso. The striking artwork for the album cover was painted by Estonian artist/photographer Riina Varol, and incorporated into a beautiful cover design by Estonian artist Helmi Arrak. Pärnoja has written wonderful little explanations for each of the seven tracks on Leva that provide insight into his creative process, and enable us to more fully understand and enjoy each song. I will quote or paraphrase from them in my own discussions of each track.

The title of the opening track “Maa” is the Estonian word for “land” or “country”, and serves as an introduction to the album, both musically and conceptually. Pärnoja explains: “The whole album is about living and the different lives people lead, and that we can’t really get a look into other people’s worlds. The song gradually reveals a view into one world. It starts off as a harmless dreamy waltz, and moves with baby steps into this vast open field with all the space and possibilities in the world.” His words perfectly describe how the instrumentals and dreamy synths gradually expand into a lush soundscape like a field bursting into color with the first warmth of Spring. Although primarily an instrumental track, he uses his voice almost like an instrument with his lovely ambient background vocals.

The gorgeous Middle-Eastern infused “Fatigue” was inspired by the music of Algerian band Tineariwen, which Pärnoja first heard around ten years ago. It happened to be playing on the sound system in a second hand store in Toronto he walked into, and he immediately loved it. The use of what sounds like a zither or oud, along with Moroccan castanets. give the song it’s enchanting Middle-Eastern flavor. Parnoja states that the song is a kind of tribute to Tineariwen that came to him in one big rush. “The dreamy state symbolizes a need for something more or something better, and the continuous loops are the circles that always try to catch us and take us back to their cycles.”

The title track “Leva” is positively stunning, with layers of strummed guitars, backed by enthralling strings that give the song a haunting, otherworldly feel. The lyrics are in Estonian, a language closely related to Finnish, and beautifully sung by Pärnoja and his wife Anna Kaneelina. Nearly seven minutes in length, “Leva” almost sounds like two different songs, and in fact, the first time I listened to it on my smart phone though earbuds, I thought it was two separate tracks. The first part, which is more gentle and melodic, seems to end at 4:07, then two seconds later the music starts back up with a heavier, electric guitar-driven sound, deeper bass, stronger percussion and more passionate vocals.

About the song, Pärnoja explains: “This is most certainly the song that started it all. It holds the essence of the whole album. It became clear to me that even if you are content with your life, and if everything seems to be in order, you can still be going in circles and not be moving on in life. It might just be that you’re in the same place as you were years ago, and it’s only minor details of your life that have changed. I realised that I want to live more and better and make good use of my time.”

Here’s a lovely acoustic performance of “Leva”. For this version, Pärnoja and Jonas Kaarnamets played guitar, Pärnoja and Anna Kaneelina sang vocals, Peedu Kass played acoustic bass, Kristjan Kallas played drums, and Prezioso played strings.

Island” is a fairly simple, breezy track constructed with recurring cycles of loops, augmented with charming twangy guitars and lots of abstract sounds that convey a sunny, windswept sense of freedom. It’s a wonderful song that just makes me feel hopeful and happy. Next up is “Eha“, a beautiful, sweeping track that reminds me of some of the more atmospheric-sounding songs by Coldplay. The song title translates to “dusk” in English, and Pärnoja states it’s “a dreamy cinematic journey dedicated to a present-day soul. It is a story about the search for inner peace and belonging. It is also a wake-up call to one’s self to take a breath and look around.” He adds that “the occasionally atonal strings symbolise the dissonances we have within just before making a decision for a new direction.” His soft vocal croons are sublime, in perfect harmony with the gently soaring synths and strings as if they’re another component in his colorful instrumental palette.

Another standout track for me is the captivating “Soledad“, which is Spanish for “solitude”. The languid song has a slight Latin sensibility, though in no way does it sound like a Latin or Spanish song. The layered strummed guitars and sparkling keyboards are really marvelous, and this time, the lyrics are mostly in English, and sung by Pärnoja and Kaneelina’s enthralling vocal harmonies. Pärnoja explains the meaning behind the song: “The meaning of solitude has changed a lot for me. Once it used to have a negative meaning, but back then I must have mistaken it for loneliness or abandonment. Now in a time when society is seemingly social to the extreme, I came to re-evaluate the meaning of the word. There is a big contradiction to this, since hidden behind this big socially-connected world, there are a lot of people that are lonely, and not at peace with themselves. Loneliness makes them reach out to another world. ‘Soledad’ is a hymn to solitude – the only place where I personally can grow and make peace with myself.

The artful and compelling video for “Soledad” was produced and directed by  Kärt Hammer, and stars Edgar Vunš as the dancer who interprets the song through his passionate yet graceful movements.

The final track “Saudade” actually has a more pronounced Spanish guitar, which Pärnoja beautifully strums throughout the song. At first, all we hear is his guitar, then he begins to sing in a mournful yet beautiful chant, backed by what sound like his own vocal harmonies. The music gradually grows more animated and the vocals more impassioned as swirling synths are added to create a sparkling, cinematic soundscape. Parnoja states that this track sums up the album, and that the title is basically untranslatable, but represents “the presence of absence. It is a longing for someone or something that you remember fondly, but know you can never experience again.” I’ve experienced such human encounters and moments myself throughout my life, and their memories can elicit intense feelings of joy or sadness.

I feel I’ve used up all the superlatives I can think of to describe Leva, but folks, this is a magnificent work of musical art. With only seven tracks totaling 36 minutes of run time, it’s a bit on the short side for an album, however, each track is so exquisite and powerful that it feels almost monumental in scope. With an EP and three albums to his credit, Erki Pärnoja is without question one of the finest composers and producers of ambient instrumental music around today. I love his music and I love this album.

Catch Pärnoja at one of these upcoming shows:

Friday, April 3 – LEVA release show, Korjaamo, Helsinki, Finland
Saturday, April 11 – Südaöine, EELK Tallinna Jaani kogudus ja kirik, Tallinn, Estonia
Saturday, May 2 – Jazz.ee ja Saare KEK LIVE, SAARE KEK, Kuressaare, Estonia
Thursday, May 7 – Jazz.ee ja Rüki Galerii LIVE, Rüki galerii, Viljandi, Estonia
Friday, May 15 – Jazz.ee ja Haapsalu Jazziklubi LIVE, Haapsalu kultuurikeskus, Haapsalu, Estonia
July 3-4 – VÕNGE 2020. Rändav kultuurifestival, Mulgi elamuskeskus, Sooglemäe, Tõrva vald, Valgamaa, Latvia

Connect with Erki: Facebook / Instagram
Stream his music: Spotify / Soundcloud / Apple Music
Purchase: Google Play / Bandcamp

SKAR DE LINE – Single Review: “In Charge”

Skar de Line In Charge Artwork

Completely by happenstance, I seem to be featuring a lot of new solo acts lately (three just in the past week), and am now pleased to introduce a fourth to my readers: Skar de Line. Born and raised in Sweden and now based in London, England, Skar de Line is the music project of singer-songwriter Oskar Abrahamsson, who’s also frontman and lead vocalist for London alternative rock band Heist At Five (a band I’ve featured on this blog several times). Fascinated by the concept of boundaries and the human obsession for self-understanding, Skar de Line fuses his love for cinematic soundtracks by such composers as Hans Zimmer, Junkie XL and Ramin Djawadi with hip-hop, rock and electronic metal to create dark, unconventional music that takes the listener on a sonic adventure.

Skar de Line close up

With that in mind, Skar de Line has just released his debut single “In Charge“, along with a fascinating video. About the song, he explains: “‘In Charge’ is about the human need to understand and control its surroundings. Even if you can predict your own future, you can’t predict everyone else’s chaotic and unpredictable choices, and therefore the world you know and got worked out in your head is no longer the world you live in.”

The first thing that struck me when I listened to “In Charge” was its big, cinematic sound, with lush, sweeping orchestral instrumentals, so it was gratifying to learn that that’s exactly the vibe Skar de Line was after in writing and arranging the music for the track. He uses dramatic stop-start breaks and melodic change-ups throughout the song, creating tension to symbolize the many twists and turns in life, and our inability to predict or even control our environment, the people around us, and to some extent even ourselves.

Waiting for that day when everything will fall in place
And only by then realise that everything has changed
Because simply no one understand what the fuck is going on
That’s the worlds dirtiest secret you’ve stumbled upon

Devoting all this time
(To make sure no-one would bring you down)

Getting everything in line
(To make sure no-one would bring you down)

But when the bullet pierces your heart
(To make sure that you’re hitting the ground)

Tell me, do you feel in charge?

I love Skar de Line’s deeply emotive vocals that run the gamut from earnest vulnerability to seductive croons to impassioned cries, all with his charming Swedish accent shining through. Assisting him in bringing his gorgeous song to life were David Marvelly on additional production and sound design, Jules Gulon on mastering, and SERENA and Angelica Munkvall with their mesmerizing backing vocals.

The spellbinding video was written and directed by Skar de Line, and filmed by his sister Elin Abrahamsson, who also appears briefly in the video. He explains that the dark and dirty room is a metaphor for the unknown in our lives and things outside of our control. As he breaths in and touches things around him, he understands and starts to shape the world around him, making him the one in control. The influence of others over his life vanishes as his surroundings fall under his control, so that by the end he is everywhere, fully in control, and cutting connection with the rest of the world.

Ultimately, he addresses the viewer directly, breaking the 4th wall. He states “We realise everything we have seen until that point have been going backwards, and as we see everything happening again in its right timeline, we now instead see the progression from control to total chaos, with the viewers themselves being left in the mud in the end, just as how we started. This shows the loss of control from the viewers perspective, and a loss of trust as even our own point-of-view perspective can’t be trusted.”

Connect with Skar de Line: Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream on Spotify / Apple Music
Purchase on Google Play / Amazon

1i2c – Album Review: “Winter”

1i2c

Many artists choose to identify themselves by imaginative names that they feel help to define their sound or the image they wish to project, rather than their given names. Some that I’ve featured on this blog with particularly interesting names include Two Feet, Draft Evader, Ghostly Beard, Puzzle, Swilly, Melotika, Krosst Out, Twintwo, Random…, Infected Sun, DVR, 9fm, Cheddr, Def Star and Manipulant. Today I feature another one – a British composer and producer of instrumental electronic music who calls himself 1i2c (one eye to see).

Heavily influenced by the music of some of his favorites artists like Jean-Michel Jarre, Gary Numan, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Depeche Mode, The Prodigy and Royksopp, 1i2c is an imaginative and innovative composer whose music spans across a wide range of styles within the electronica genre. Born John Whitaker, the man is a prolific artist, having produced a tremendous output of music over the past three years, beginning with the release in January 2016 of his debut album The Great Distraction. In December (2018) he released his tenth album Winter, which, interestingly, also dropped on the 10th.

All of his releases have essentially been concept albums based on an overriding theme, with the sounds and titles of each track reflecting the theme indicated by the album title. For example, Power Struggle contains industrial techno songs with titles like “Electron”, “Incandescent” and “High Tension”, while Horror Show features songs with more of a psychedelic goth and darkwave vibe, titled “Monster”, “Lunatic Waltz” and “Doorway to Hell.” As we would expect, Winter features appropriately-named tracks such as “Cold Season”, “Chill” and “Deep Freeze”.

1i2c is adept at creating music that compels the listener to develop strong mental images of the subjects at hand. The album opens with “Northern Hemisphere“, a hypnotic track with a repetitive driving beat and glittery synths that conjure up images of an icy starlit night filled with Northern Lights. “Cold Season” starts off with a grinding synth that seems to evoke a creaking piece of machinery, struggling to start in the frigid air. One started, everything settles into a smooth soundscape of cool, gently pulsating synths. The stunning video shows sweeping vistas of snow-covered landscapes, gently falling snow and remarkable footage of bubble slowly being overtaken by feathery ice crystals.

Fallen Leaves” is an enthralling melodic track with shimmery synths floating above a sensual throbbing beat, while dramatic soaring synths convey the fearsome power of nature on “Avalanche“. “Memories” features richly textured intricate synths set to an exuberant beat, with lots of pleasing flute sounds and crisp percussion. The majestic “Chill” delivers colorful keyboard synths fluttering above a sturdy foundation of darker beat-driven synths.

On “Winter’s Fury“, 1i2c employs fuzzy echoed synths to evoke the drama of a winter storm raging outside, while delightfully upbeat plucky synths give the feeling of being cozy, safe and warm inside. The track is marvelous, building to an exhilarating crescendo that imparts a sense of joy, making it one of my favorites on the album. The 7-minute long “Blizzard” delivers frenetic swirling synths and galloping beats that capture the danger and terrible beauty of a winter snowstorm that won’t let up.

The melodically complex “Silent Day” is anything but, with a contrasting mix of gritty and crystalline sweeping synths set to a strong drumbeat and deep bass. “Deep Freeze” is more experimental, with elements of rock and jazz that make for quite an interesting track. Harsher industrial sounds are paired with electric guitar and layered over an energetic galloping beat that builds to an exciting finish. The final track “Ebenezer” features fuzzy pulsating synths fluttering above a dense throbbing beat. The music intensifies as the song progresses, with added sounds of bells and what sounds like an advancing swarm of bees. Not sure what that’s meant to convey, but it sounds fantastic.

Winter is a terrific album, filled with well-crafted tracks that should appeal to lovers of electronic music – or anyone moved by beautiful instrumentals. 1i2c is a skilled composer and producer with an impressive catalog of outstanding albums, and I urge my readers to give some of them a listen.

Connect with 1i2c on Facebook / Twitter
Stream his music on Spotify / Soundcloud / Reverbnation
Purchase on Bandcamp / iTunes

STILL OPTIMIST – Album Review: “Velvet Season”

Mysterious. Captivating. Sensuous. Moody. Gorgeous. All words that describe my impressions when listening to the brilliant debut album Velvet Season by the experimental band Still Optimist. Formed in Paris, France in 2017 by Ukrainian artist Bina Timurova (vocals, songwriting, composing, guitar), and Hungarian Mihaly Sipos (keyboards, synthesisers, electronics, programming), Still Optimist creates an arresting blend of electronic/ trip-hop/ ambient/ cinematic music. In their bio, they colorfully describe their major influences: alternative and electronic music bands such as The Cure with its contradictory ambivalent of joy and sorrow; Massive Attack with their dark bass lines and atmospheric synth pads; Bjork and her multi-layered meaningful lyrics and the way she moves with her voice on an extreme scale; Tesla Boy with the whole 80’s synth pop vibe and tunes;  The Chemical Brothers for their outstanding soundscape and constant motion in sounds, and many more, such as Phantogram, Atoms for Peace, Him, Depeche Mode, Underworld, FSOL, and Archive.”

Another strong influence for the duo in the creation of Velvet Season was the 2013 Jim Jarmusch vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive. They state: “The slow, dark melancholy, the constant whispering presence of passion and crunchy guitar tunes somehow beautifully lifted, transformed into a fully coherent album.” But whatever their influences, what’s clear is that their songwriting is exceptional, with intriguing lyrics, complex and unusual melodic structures, and innovative musical techniques.

This is immediately apparent on the opening track “Another Space,” which starts off with mysterious industrial sounding synths, a sharp drumbeat and buzzing reverb. Bina’s unusual vocals are baby-like, yet sultry as she sings “I am raising my eyes to the sky. But I’ll never see all the stars in the space. That one day are destined to meet. And their beautiful light, like a beacon for lost ships, will be mixed in a fatal dance. And those stars are destined to meet.” The tempo then shifts to a strong hypnotic EDM beat, as the industrial synths and heavy buzzing reverb continue. Bina croons “And they will be absorbed in their final farewell ball. They could even collapse, giving birth to a Black Hole.” It’s a mesmerizing track.

The creative visuals and design are also an important aspect of their production, as evidenced in their videos like this one:

Next up is the trippy “Dark Places,” with it’s spooky soundscape of grinding psychedelic synths and sensuous keyboards. Bina’s vocal gymnastics are impressive, reminding me at times of Phantogram’s Sarah Barthel. “Voices” has a Depeche Mode vibe, with lush synths that are mysterious and fuzzy.  Bina’s vocals are enthralling as she sings about her fantasies and desires becoming a reality:  “And these voices around my head they are getting louder. Voices around my head they remind me I like it.”

Here Comes the Sun” is a beautiful triphop song about how natural forces always triumph over humans’ attempt to subjugate them: “Plants overgrown on blocks, drain the strength of concrete, take them into possession.  People are full of absurd in their paltry attempts to transcend over Nature.” This becomes a metaphor for a loved one’s irrepressible nature: “Green sprouts grow through cracks in grey stone. As did your lust for life through all my years.” Bina’s soaring vocals are sublime.

Chance” opens with a bit of surf guitar riff and strong drumbeat, then glittery synths and what sounds like skittering snare drum are layered over the repetitive drumbeat. With breathy vocals, Bina sings “If I only had a chance to feel your presence next to me. It’s more than I could give or take, that’s something that I can’t admit.” Heavy, distorted reverb and psychedelic synths are dominant features of the mysterious “Free Fall.” Bina passionately implores: “Don’t ask me why I’m afraid ’cause I won’t give you the right answer. When you jump out of a plane in free fall there’s no button to cancel.”

Nomad” appropriately has a Middle Eastern feel with a beguiling melody and richly exotic synths that evoke the mystery of the fabled Arabian Nights.  Bina’s sensuously breathy vocals are alluring as she sings to one about not being afraid to embrace their final moments of life: “Tell me all if you can about sorrows in your heart, things that you regret. Spell things out if you can. That you had in life, that you won’t forget. Don’t be afraid of nomad, I won’t hurt you bad. In your place some people would be glad. Don’t be afraid, my virtue, I won’t steal from you. I’m here for one thing that I owed you. Cause I’m your death.

One of my favorites is the dark and haunting title track “Velvet Season.” The song opens with a foreboding piano riff and Bina softly singing. The music and her vocals gradually become more dramatic, conveying a sense of impending danger as the song grows more ominous. The keyboards and other synths are really fantastic. The song lyrics seem to be spoken to the vampire who’s kiss – i.e. bite – has forever changed her existence: “I know that you won’t feel the swelling that sucks the life out of me. / I already miss you, your kiss on my neck. We both know it clearly, there is no way back. / You ask me if I’m scared, yes I’m scared to close my eyes when I’m in bed. I’ll tell you, honey; there’s always a little reason to extend a bit my Velvet Season.” “With You” is a fine triphop song with grainy, otherworldly synths that impart a decidedly psychedelic vibe.

The album closes on a bittersweet note with the hauntingly beautiful “My Shoes.” The complex, layered synths on this track are exquisite, and accompanied by some wonderful guitar work. Bina’s heartfelt vocals are gorgeous, fervently expressing deep sorrow and regret over past sins and transgressions: “There is a time that I want to forget. For the peace of my mind. And if I just could I would erase it all, those horrible things. / Guess, my shoes didn’t fit you. My shoes didn’t fit you as they’re full of broken glass inside. Cause my traumas are full of crime.”

Velvet Season is a truly impressive debut for Still Optimist. Their captivating melodies, outstanding songwriting, and Mihaly’s creative and skillful use of synthesizers, makes for incredible and deeply compelling music. Toss in Bina’s amazing vocal abilities, and the result is a brilliant work of musical art. This is an album that can, and should, be listened to repeatedly, as the complexity of the compositions always offer up new discoveries.

To learn more about Still Optimist, check out their website
Follow them on Facebook / TwitterInstagram

Stream or purchase their music on YouTube / Spotify / Soundcloud / Google PlayApple Music / Bandcamp