It’s not often I describe an album as something to be endured, particularly when it is intended as a heartfelt compliment. ‘Play with your soul’ is exactly what this ferociously exquisite and utterly irresistible album will do to you. Listening to it is akin to succumbing to a seduction, a charming immersion in music which is compelling in its beauty and enthralling in the ways in which it effortlessly absorbs you in its sweep.
Yet in spite of the soaring symphonic melodies and the alluring delicacy of the enchanting harmonies which utterly bewitch and beguile, they are, for all their grace and elegance, the springs which trigger a cleverly conceived sleight of hand. Heed well the warning to ‘wait till it’s over’. False Memory Archive is, on the one hand, a piercingly intelligent tour de force and, on the other, a meticulously crafted honey pot where enjoyment and endurance go hand in hand.
The experience being offered once you happily surrender to the musical temptations on offer is built around a series of striking contrasts woven into the very fabric of the vocals, the lyrics and the instrumentation. They are the creative key which unlocks a troubling and unsettling payload at the very point you find yourself swept away in the raptures of the most sublime melodies. Balance is everything. The higher the soaring refrains take you, the more troubling the message being delivered. No pain, no gain.
The warnings are there from the outset. Simen Valldal Johannessen’s mesmerising voice on We, The Drowned (Track 1) lures you in and casually declares; “I surrender to the hole inside of me”. The stirring chorus delights in layers of the most delicious harmonies, yet in the very act of taking your breath away, menacingly whisper “the truth is up for hire, whatever you desire”. By the time the realisation hits, we are already lost, with more yet to come.
Shadows and darkness dance and flicker across the musical landscapes. Essentially, these are songs of dissolution and discovery. The path to dissolution leads precisely to “all you have lost”. Title track False Memory Archive (Track 3) makes it clear that certainty, truth and even innocence are the main casualties. Memories are fickle. The fading image on a photograph taken years ago is not what it seems; tinged with nostalgia, seen through the distorted, hazy lens of time, distance and wishful thinking, what we remember is not how things were.
The music becomes correspondingly austere and mirrors the descent in what we have lost. There is a sombre air of brooding menace, a troubling aura of unsettling disquiet. The usually rampant harmonies are muted. The vocal is intoned, a dispassionate narration, fearful with the doubts that are growing as we struggle to keep a handle on things.
This carries over in Lost Causes (Track 4) where the descent becomes complete. There is no longer intonation; the ‘singing’ is monosyllabic, flat, one dimensional. With the collapse of trust in our memories, everything “feels incomplete”, our “dreams obsolete”, “the way home growing dark and steep.” What follows is a refrain which nods to Oak’s first album The Lighthouse (2016) before even that collapses into amplified discord and distortion.
By the time we reach the Intermezzo (Track 5), we jolly well need it. Time to take a breather, get our bearings and take stock before the journey continues. The feeling of what we have lost is everywhere. There seems little sign of what we have found, particularly as The Lights (Track 6) continues with the same dead voice narration which itself fades into a whisper.
What we have found begins to emerge in There are the Stars We’re Looking For (Track 7) and carries an impressive melodic momentum into the utterly absorbing Transparent Eyes (Track 8) with its engrossing shifting time signatures. Not optimism but not pessimism either. Hope. When transparent eyes drink in everything around us, the confidence of who we are, what we are and where we are going will take us forward. The album’s conclusion in a track tellingly entitled Psalm 51 is a clarion call to all we have found.
False Memory Archive is a stunning and truly magnificent album, on so many levels. The evolution in writing, style and even musicianship since their debut release is remarkable. There are depths and delights here which reward careful and repeated listening. Since it first made itself felt in my life, it has never been far from my player – stationary or mobile. I don’t go anywhere without it.
1. We, the Drowned (05:23)
2. Claire de Lune (07:15)
3. False Memory Archive (04:47)
4. Lost Causes (08:29)
5. Intermezzo (01:42)
6. The Lights (10:33)
7. There are the Stars We’re Looking For (04:18)
8. Transparent Eyes (04:58)
9. Psalm 51 (07:25)
Simen Valldal Johannessen – vocals, piano, keyboards
Sigbjørn Reiakvam – drums, percussion, keyboards, programming
Øystein Sootholtet – bass, acoustic & electric guitars, banjo, keyboards, programming
Ole Michael Bjørndal – guitars (1,6)
Stephan Hvinden – guitar
Steinar Refsdal – sax
Bjorn Riis – lead guitar (4)
Karisma Records – KAR154CD
CD; Digital; Vinyl
19th October 2018