Ólafur Arnalds @ Regency Ballroom, SF 9/29/13
It’s not everyday one sees the floor of San Francisco’s Regency Ballroom lined with rows of red velvet chairs and one lonely grand piano on the stage. The legendary theater, familiar to spirited mosh pits and probably more than one metal fan’s bloodshed, was eerily still, like the room held its breath. Icelandic artist Ólafur Arnalds greeted San Francisco on the evening of September 29th with a handful of haunting, subdued piano-driven compositions, accompanied by a two-man string section.
The majority of Arnalds’ set complemented the room’s spooky-still atmosphere – minimal, crystal-clear piano notes echoed through the ballroom, punctuated by moments of orchestral climax; the structure of his songs are reminiscent to post-rock, but instead of metallic bowed guitar and skull-shattering drum sequences, Arnalds’ mostly-instrumental, neoclassical works span from sad, sighing violin and tinkling piano, to heart-swelling intensity via more complex piano and doses of understated electronic beats.
He opened the 1.5-hour set the same way he did at Iceland Airwaves last year (and presumably most of his shows) – by asking the audience to sing a single note while he recorded it to use later in his performance. The result was chilling – Arnalds was visibly surprised by the harmony. He then began with “Þú er sólin” (translation: “You Are the Sun”), a more traditionally-classical and longingly-emotional composition from 2010’s …And They Have Escaped The Weight Of Darkness. Following a polite, restrained round of applause, Arnalds spoke of homesickness and uncertainty of life on the road (in his heavy Icelandic accent, “I hope we get to go home…my agent sometime just keeps booking shows…”).
Happy to be touring where there are legitimate roads between cities, after a short stint in Hong Kong and Taipei early-September, he segued into “Poland,” which was written on a turbulent road between Slovakia and Poland in a wave of sleep-deprived despondency (“there are many kinds of sadness”). This track was a set highlight…it starts out in a brilliant, hollow sadness, interweaves the previously-referenced audience choir, culminates in an anxious violin, and leaves you feeling emptied. The range of emotion he captures with a mere, subtle arrangement of notes is astounding. Even his body language when he plays is full of passion; he is intense, focused, honest.
Arnór Dan of Icelandic alt-rock band Agent Fresco contributed vocals on “For Now I Am Winter” and “Old Skin,” his clear and haunting voice adding to the set’s beautiful, icy darkness. The set ended with an encore of “Lag fyrir Ömmu” (“Song For Grandmother”) – an ode to Arnalds’ most potent influence, his grandmother who forced him in his stormy youth to listen to Chopin when he only wanted to hear death metal. This brought the performance to a chilling close. Arnalds left the stage with an indebted bow and it seemed as if all the air escaped from the room.
Check out more gorgeous photos of one of Iceland’s best HERE!