Olan Mill – Hiraeth (2013)

A few quick words on the new Olan Mill album, which may be appearing later tonight on Music Review Database as part of a collaboration.

olanmill-hiraeth-cd

There are words in the world’s various languages that have no English analogue, no direct translation. Many of them, perhaps unsurprisingly, refer to specific sensations or emotional states. In Welsh, “hiraeth” loosely refers to the sensation of loss, the pain of absence following the loss of something or someone that you know is permanent. It’s a feeling many of us know well, a feeling we often wish we didnt, and something I too have been battling with recently.

We start with the soft ebbs of organ drone ala Stars of the Lid, perhaps the undisputed masters of the comfortable discomfort, with “Neutrino”. They’re assisted by heart-wrenchingly minimal scales of sedentary piano and accompanied by melancholic violin strings and soaring vocals. It’s an ethereal mist, ever present and lightly warming but never able to fully interact with our reality, our realm, much like the neutrality of the particle of its namesake.

“Echo of Tomorrow” turns the tide on the depressing waves of prior drone by instead replacing them with swathes of vaguely hopeful and uplifting alternatives. Billows of voices hover distantly, serenaded by light plinks of piano, eventually becoming increasingly clearer as we remove the background noise and focus down. Extraneous details fall away as life’s little worries and niggles seem to just fall away and pale in comparison to what’s at hand.

As we move towards the mid-album, the glacial “Cultivator” crushes the pace somewhat as it builds desperately sparse melodies from the same fabric as the previous two pieces. Violins chart this slow journey through its most tumultuous phases; periods of dark unknowing and tunnel blindness and anxiety. But these uneasy beginnings shepherd in a new life phase filled with beautifully calm melodies of assured safety in the second half, the development of a new relationship distinct from the old.

Lengthy tracks abound in the following 14 minute “Nature For Equal Rights”, a piece I scarcely know where to begin talking about. Over its extensive time span Olan Mill carves a careful narrative that is, in my currently sleep deprived state, indescribable. Arpeggiated pianos open the story but are quickly accompanied and in many ways overshadowed by the beautiful sequences of piercing, thrumming violin strings that cut right through the heart of the piece. Initially dark and foreboding they slipstream effortlessly into warm bathes of soft light drones to counterbalance the previously harsh and depressing sequences and clear the air.

Eventually we get round to closer “Soft Furnishings”, and once again it lives up to its namesake. Vocal coos not too dissimilar from those of Julianna Barwick’s most recent album form the base of this track; haunting, ethereal tones propped on gauzy drones make a pleasing finalĂ© that has finally come to terms with its loss and is at peace at last. Our feeling of hiraeth has passed for now, until the next time we need to repeat this cycle of emotional duress.

It’s hard to sound gushing and enthusiastic in my current condition, I’ve been physically and mentally drained over the last week due to a field trip, but in some ways “Hiraeth” isn’t an album to gush over, not something that immediately jumps to mind as the epitome of wistful ambient. It is beautiful, for sure, but there’s something rather painfully conventional, even boring, about it. Such, I suppose, is the nature of the emotions at play here. There’s a sad reality here that no matter how much pretending you put in, you’ll never truly hide how you really feel.

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