Album Review: Amiina – The Lighthouse Project

[Morr; 2013]

Iceland’s Amiina were never a band about making big noise, but over the course of the eight years they’ve been releasing music, they’ve still managed to surprise the listener. On 2009’s Re Minore, they brought electronic textures into the mix, as opening track “Ásinn” buzzed and quivered with promise of new terrain that was explored a bit more thoroughly on the following year’s Puzzle. On their latest release, The Lighthouse Project, the possibility of exciting new terrain and possibilities is gone as the band revert to capturing the sound of a series of live performances they did over the course of tour during the summer of 2009, which had them playing in unusual and unexpected locations.

If the content on The Lighthouse Project was a series of live takes, then it’s hard to tell if it would have been more or less successful, but in trying to capture the sound they made in the past, Amiina struggle to create something that sounds truly enamouring or personal. You might hear the odd shuffle or whisper across the six tracks here, or the timbre of the instrument as it’s picked, plucked and/or hit, but it never really feels live. On a teaser video posted before the EP’s release, we get to see the band performing one of the tracks, and it’s interesting to watch as they go between instruments and also as they play each note delicately like they’re playing with fragile china porcelain. Without the visual cues, some of the magic is gone – but some remains.

In not knowing what a sound is, whether it be a singing saw or some wine glasses, there’s an air of mystery, but this only last so long. The wail of the singing saw in particular is something that can easily get very tiresome after a short while, both in the sense of lulling one into a dreamy state, and also in that its alien warble becomes near-tedious come the end of the EP. Granted, it’s played superbly, and in the absence of another festive album of Julian Koster playing his favourite songs on his own saw, it’s the best playing of DIY tool you’ll hear all year.

Singing saw aside, there’s plenty of other pretty instrumentation to marvel at, if not equally become a little bored of. While the band might not have managed to capture the sound of a live show here, they have managed to capture the sound of their instruments astutely. It’s hard to listen to the electric guitar on opening track “Perth” and not be impressed with how well it just sits there while acting as an essential backdrop without ever protruding. Perth is an interesting location to site also, as the music could easily capture the sunny beachside setting of the Australian city and also the sleepy calm of the Scottish city. “Leather and Lace,” on the other hand, marries quivering and rigid strings, making for a sound that contrasts like the titular materials while the accordion on “Bíólagið” manages to successfully play against the singing saw, if not take the spotlight away from it at times.

A couple of tracks from the band’s debut album also reappear here in different forms. “Hilli” isn’t given too much of a makeover, but it does sound more at ease with the world around as opposed to the slightly more highly-strung plucks of the version on Kurr. The other familiar track is “Kola,” a version of “Kolapot” which here is given an extended intro of slow arpeggios before lightly tumbling into airy wordless cooing. While it would have been nice to see some of the more “electronic” material from Puzzle reimagined here, it does seem fitting that Kurr is a reference point as the huddled together sound of that album seems to fit more comfortably with what the EP is trying to capture.

The thing with The Lighthouse Project is though, like a lot of detractors often claim about Amiina’s music on first listen, there’s very little to say about the music. It’s easy to revert to adjectives like “pretty,” “gentle,” and “delicate,” and while they are perfectly congenial terms to use here, they don’t make up for the lack of substance or even some kind of underlying impetus. The premise of The Lighthouse Project is charming, if not better executed and experienced in a live setting (i.e. a music DVD, or something of that ilk), but the problem is that it sees Amiina trying to strip away the elements of something that is already bare in itself.