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HJÖRTUR

Hjörtur Blöndal is an Icelandic musician residing in Denmark. I featured some of his earlier albums in past issues, but this hugely prolific artist has since released loads more material. Hjörtur's older albums were released as factory pressed CDs, but CDR technology has now enabled him to release his music quicker; there was a time when he was putting out a new CDR album every month! I have ten more of Hjörtur's albums, covering a variety of musical styles, all out on his own label Around The Corner Records.

First up, Electric Music, an album of electronic pop. This music harks back to the days when electronic music was brand new (Hjörtur names Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream among his influences for this album), and is certainly not to be confused with the sort of inane electronic pop music crowding the charts today. Here, a sense of experimentation is combined with a playful pop sensibility. Robotic vocals and sci-fi noises are brought together with synths that chug and synths that float and soar, creating a listening experience that is retro whilst also having Hjörtur's own distinctive creative stamp on it.

The album Pop Songs is inspired by British guitar-based pop from the 60s onwards. Hjörtur names The Beatles, The Hollies, and Travis as inspiration for this album, and whilst I can hear those influences here, it is unlike Hjörtur to stick to one standard formula; he always adds something of his own to the music. Here there is more use of synths than is the case with any of the album's influences. I'll Be The One is soft rock meets 80s synthpop meets 70s synth spaceyness. What Do You Believe In? has shades of The Beatles whilst also incorporating a folky touch and some synthesized woodwind. What We See is laid-back pop with piano and synthesized strings. Whilst this album is inspired by music more mainstream than I usually listen to, the songs are very well written and show an obvious songwriting talent that makes the music enjoyable.

Broken Walls is another pop album. She Came After Midnight is powerpop with some unusual use of synthesized choral vocals. Lola combines aspects of powerpop and soft rock with brass, and has a strong, catchy chorus. Shine of Sun brings together a melody reminiscent of traditional folk or even a 19th century hymn, optimistic lyrics and piano/synth arrangement. Don't Ever Break Her Heart sets soaring, powerful vocals to a synth and beat driven mainstream style pop arrangement. Henry Ford is a lighthearted, quirky pop song about driving. Humanize is a new version of one of Hjörtur's older songs; synthpop with off-kilter sound effects and a massively addictive chorus with vocal harmonies. A really classic song that still remains one of my favourite tracks of his. You Took Me By Surprise sounds rather like 80s mainstream pop music, which is normally a style I don't have much time for, but Hjörtur is really able to pull this off. The song is well crafted, with another very strong, catchy chorus of the type that burrows itself into the brain. Although it sounds like it's from the 80s, it has the feel of being a classic rather than a dated relic of a bygone decade. This track is actually up there with my favourite songs of Hjörtur's, even though the genre it's from is something I don't normally enjoy. The fact that Hjörtur can make 80s-ish, mainstreamish pop music not only listenable but enjoyable just goes to show how talented he is.

Piano is an ongoing series of albums in which Hjörtur moves away from pop. I have the first five volumes, although he has released more since. The first volume, simply entitled Piano, features twelve tracks, each one named after a month. The music is instrumental and based around classical instruments. The piano of the title is accompanied by assorted string and wind instruments, although they appear to be synthesized versions. The piano is very real though. Some of the more synth-heavy tracks have rather a New Age sound, but in general this is neo-classical music. Sometimes the music is uplifting, sometimes relaxing. Sometimes there's a bleak, melancholic feel, especially on the winter tracks, and the October piece that reminds me at times of Erik Satie. It's all very melodic and very beautiful, and continues to illustrate the musical creativity Hjörtur is capable of. As Hjörtur puts it: "The landscape is Iceland. The sky is the spirit. The music is the result".

Piano II's 12 tracks are named after signs of the zodiac. Again the music is part modern classical piano music, part New Age relaxation music. Piano Gemini has an underlying air of melancholy and some effective use of synthesized strings. Piano Scorpio has a strong tune, showing that this type of music can be engaging as well as relaxing. Part of the melody of Piano Sagittarius reminds me of Vöggusöngur Völu (Bíum Bíum Bambaló), a song by 70s Icelandic folk band Þrjú á Palli - although I imagine most non-Icelanders would be more familiar with the cover version by Sigur Rós. As I understand it, Þrjú á Palli borrowed the tune from a traditional Irish folk song, though I am unsure of its original title.

Piano III has as its theme female names. Piano Stephanie is a modern classical piece with nicely soaring synthesized strings. Piano Xenia is a cheery melody with percussion and synthesized flute and cello. Piano Claire is quite a sombre piece that includes a synthesized choir. Piano Cassandra has more emphasis on synths that sound like synths, rather than approximations of classical instruments, and thus has more of a New Age feel. Piano Emily accompanies a pretty piano tune with grandiose synth orchestration. Piano Sophie combines neo-classical piano music with 70s-ish spacey synth.

Piano IV has the theme of cities. The music has added percussion, and the melodies and overall feel of the pieces seem less classical inspired than the previous volumes. It's perhaps best to classify this album as New Age meets instrumental pop, although there are hints of classical music here and there, such as the synthesized string arrangement in Piano Rom and the piano arpeggios in Piano Paris. Piano Sydney has elements of classical music, but the classical influence is combined with beats and chugging spacerock synth. Piano Copenhagen and Piano London are amongst my favourite tracks on this album; both are instrumental pop with a strong melody and more of that 70s-ish chug-along synth sound. Piano New York is another favourite; another instrumental pop piece, with some quite 'busy' percussion that works well.

Piano V's tracks are named after planets, stars and moons. The music here returns to more of a classical-inspired sound. Despite its overall modern classical style, Piano Uranus has a catchy tune that would fit in just as well within a pop setting. Piano Moon is a subdued and melancholic classical piece. Piano Saturn is laid-back and melodic classical piano music with the addition of synthesized strings. Piano Venus is a slow and reflective piece with touches of synthesized horns and the occasional appearance of some spacey synth burbling which actually works well and doesn't detract from the overall classical sound. Piano Neptune has a melody that sounds like it belongs to a 19th century hymn. This volume is perhaps the best place for classical music fans to start: in the most part, the synths are inobtrusive, there is no New Age influence, and not much pop influence. The only exception to the general classical sound this album has is Piano Jupiter, a very fine piece of spacey instrumental music with lots of 70s-style synth. Whilst the synth in Piano Venus didn't prevent the piece from still sounding like classical music, Piano Jupiter seems primarily inspired by 70s synth bands.

The album Harp follows a similar idea to Piano, only the main instrument is - yes, you guessed it. The harp is an instrument with ancient roots, known in many cultures including ancient Egypt. For that reason, Hjörtur has named the pieces on this album after Egyptian deities. Here the harp is accompanied by synths and occasional percussion to create a kind of music that is relaxing and melodic, often beautifully so. There are elements of New Age, laid-back instrumental pop, and a hint of modern classical. If you enjoyed the Piano albums, you'll probably enjoy this one too.

The album Uno features a diverse collection of styles. Many of the tracks are relaxing electronic instrumentals that fit broadly into the New Age category, but there are also a few exceptions to this rule. Nu is a kind of alternative electronic pop with a touch of jazz; I'm not generally much of a jazz fan but think this is brilliant! Moment is a floaty, spacey piece with wordless vocals. Morning is an inventive piece combining 70s style synth, synthesized pizzicato strings, bell tolls, wordless 'ah-ah-ah' vocals, and (I think) bouzouki. Fridur is an innovative pop song with Icelandic lyrics, hypnotically repetitive riffs and even a touch of accordion. Svifur is a very fine slice of psychedelic pop.

There is no apparent end to Hjörtur's musical creativity. I have lost count of the number of albums this man has made, and no matter what style he is playing, the music is well crafted and engaging. For more info visit www.hjortur.dk

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