Ólafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm are the flag bearers for the neo-classical/indie classical/modern classical genre (it’s yet to settle on a proper name), both recently making the leap from the classical landscape of London’s Barbican to the pop and rock territory of Camden’s Roundhouse.
It is no strange thing – they are both known well for marinating classical styles and instruments with pop and rock elements, and more importantly for just how well they do it. And as their compositions are so perfectly suited to picture, they have been individually increasing their fame through television and film – Arnalds gaining a bigger UK following by scoring ITV’s Broadchurch, and Frahm likewise composing original music for the highly rated, one-shot German film, Victoria (the former scored Arnalds his first BAFTA award, and Frahm winning the German Film Award for Best Score for the latter). Despite Arnalds living in Iceland, and Frahm in Berlin, the two maintain a close friendship and regularly meet in the German capital to collaborate.
Trance Frendz is their fifth release together, and is the music taken from the short film of the same name, in which the two improvise new pieces and eat homemade pizza in Nils Frahm’s flat, which appears to prioritise being a studio above being a home. It’s a charming bit of film, and while the music itself leaves you breathless, it’s very much worth also watching to truly understand just how spontaneously brilliant this album is, considering it was put together between the hours of 8pm and 4am. The video below will give you some idea as to how they put their musical minds together:
Opening tracks 20:17 and 21:05 (yep, you guessed it – the pieces are named after the precise time recording commenced) are both piano pieces, in which one of the pianist-composers sets the rhythm and harmony on one piano, while the other improvises on another. 20:17 is a decent opener, but 21:05 is where the two musicians are just fully in sync, lost in an ecstasy of improvisation and musical understanding. The conversational style of the song is so endearing, and Nils Frahm’s trademark tape recording sound is as wonderful as ever, with every charming bench creak and sound knowingly kept in.
23:17 is the first track to mix things up, with Ólafur Arnalds again underscoring Nils Frahm with relatively simple piano, and the latter playing his ominous sounding harmonium. The use of delay is spot on, and adds a mystical nature to this song, which could easily be licensed for a top film, despite the fact it was totally improvised from two men’s hands and heads. Things become increasingly electronic, as Nils brings his Oberheim synth into play on 23:52. This time it falls on Ólafur to improvise the melody, opting for the harmonium, and despite the never seen before combination of instruments (surely), it’s a song that builds and builds, leaving the listener mesmerised.
As 00:26’s title informs us, the two composers had decided to carry on playing into the early hours, and things become suitably more avant-garde. Said track is the only piece of pure electronica, mellow and dark, while 01:41 opens with gentle celeste playing, before there is a gap in the music and you hear Frahm creating a sample from the celeste recording so he and Arnalds can play piano and harmonium over it. To those who listen only to mainstream music, this sudden absence and music, hearing only creaks and fiddling would be altogether quite outlandish. But for others, it’s a wonderful moment in which you feel almost as if you’re in that flat in Berlin with them at almost two in the morning.
Despite being a fully improvised LP, the album gains some structural integrity by ending where it began, with a piece for two pianos, with the charming addition of Arnalds delicately humming. It’s an album that gets full marks not due to being a certain amount away from perfection, but because it’s such a feat of improvisation and incorporating elements that many would perceive to be flaws. Trance Frendz is as much a meeting of minds as it is an album, a shining outburst of creativity and spontaneity. One minute understated pianos, the next a synth filtering into full fruition. Let us pray that these two never fall out with each other, because these kind of collaborations would be a huge loss to the world of music.
Review by Adam Protz