When Efterklang traveled abroad to record their fourth full-length release, their situation sounded more like the plot of a horror film than a typical recording session. The band went to an abandoned Russian settlement on Spitsenbergen, a tiny island near the North Pole, and recorded over 1,000 sounds around the area, culling the best ones and incorporating them into the tracks on Piramida.
Those sounds aren’t apparent on the first listen. On the surface, Efterklang has produced another album of tidy, beautiful, orchestra-anchored chamber pop. Some arrangements are sober and reserved, with moments of weirdness like “Apples,” a back-and-forth of crystalline piano, melancholy lyrics (”Run away, run away to those thoughts/You are forgotten”) and overblown brass that sounds like a cruise ship’s S.O.S. Others have a film noir feel—that’d be the standout “Black Summer,” which begins with mysterious tapping and brass blasts, introduces a chilly choir and builds to a climax of sharp string bursts. Violin violence!
And Efterklang are clever at maintaining just the right level of formality. The tracks are somewhat hookless—there are hardly any memorable melodies to be found—but as soon as a song becomes too stark or too self-contained, new elements are introduced and the sound renews itself. If “The Ghost,” loose and percussion-driven, hadn’t arrived at the album’s midpoint, the music would have suffocated itself. It’s not a metal album, but it’s still deceptively heavy stuff—maybe too heavy for someone looking for some gentle violins and soft vocals.
Underneath the cleanliness of the orchestral arrangements are those sounds the band found in the Arctic. They’re sort of subsonic, lurking beneath the layers. Or else they are chameleons, posing as ‘real’ instruments, organ or synths or drum kit. Read the band’s bio and it becomes easier to pinpoint the sources of the sounds: the piano on “Apples” comes from the world’s northernmost grand piano. The first sounds on the album come from metal spikes protruding from an oil drum. Glass lamps and fuel tanks are percussion instruments. If the listener didn’t know the backstory, the black magic of the found sounds wouldn’t be so obvious. Stay in the dark, and those found sounds might still meld into their own layer of uneasiness. They set Piramida off-kilter. Wave a metal detector over the album and there will be ominous beeping, but no way of determining what’s triggering the detector. The music feels radioactive.
In that way, Efterklang have taken the horror movie approach and applied it to their music: here is a house that seems fine, but it’s really haunted. Here is a girl who seems nice, but she’s a monster. Here are songs that sound good, but there’s something not quite right about them. “The Living Layer” begins with Sigur Rós-like mellowness, but by the end there are shrieks of white noise that emerge to scare the shit out of you. Last track “Monument” is all soft synths, and yet it still can’t erase the eeriness of the nine tracks before it.
Knowing the story behind Piramida’s recording process does not ruin the horror movie or give away the ending. It does, however, adds a plotline to the wordless emotions the tracks evoke. The plotline doesn’t change the sounds, but it gives something for the viewer to picture: an empty house in a Russian settlement abandoned overnight twelve years ago, whipped by the wind, waiting for a group of Danish men to hold a tape recorder up to its walls.