A few months ago I had the pleasure of spending a couple of days with the three members of Efterklang – Casper, Mads and Rasmus – to chat at no little length about their then-recently-completed fourth album, Piramida. The record is released in the UK tomorrow (September 24), so I thought now would be a good time to publish the result of those conversations: a biography to accompany Piramida, giving writers like myself some essential background information on one of the best albums of 2012 so far.
Forever fascinated by the purest possibilities of sound, since forming in 2001 Efterklang have consistently adjusted their sonic modus operandi to suit very specific inspirations. The results the Danes have produced so far – most notably across three acclaimed albums, 2004’s Tripper, 2007’s Parades and 2010’s Magic Chairs – have each explored different directions, each an end product of remarkably studied songcraft and emotional resonance.
But Piramida is perhaps the band’s greatest achievement: an album bringing the outside in, informed by frozen time and the relics humanity leaves in its expanding wake. Its roots were laid in 2010, when the band first saw photographs of a forgotten settlement lying, slowly dying, on Spitsbergen, an island of the Svalbard archipelago midway between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole. This ghost town, which the trio eventually visited in August 2011 (drummer Thomas Husmer left before Piramida’s commencement), would give their fourth album its title, and comprise the conceptual catalyst for its contents.
Once an outpost for some 1,000 Russians, the former mining facility was abandoned in January 1998, near as overnight. Today the town is in a state of slow decay, as deserted possessions erode and buildings where once people were schooled, fed and entertained return to nature. Between the empty oil drums and fuel tanks, glass bottles and lampshades – and sea birds, and polar bears – the band discovered the world’s northernmost grand piano, standing proudly in a concert hall that once held 400 people. Its notes can be heard on Piramida, perhaps for the first time anywhere in over a decade.
When the band returned home, nine days later, they’d accumulated just over 1,000 field recordings from the many and varied environments they explored in Piramida. The beginnings of this approach can be seen on the band’s 2010 film collaboration with Vincent Moon, An Island. Then the time came to transform these audio snapshots of abandonment, of isolation touched by unique beauty, into songs.
“The idea for this album was to start from scratch, for all three of us to create from the same blank canvas,” says Stolberg, the best part of a year after their trip, in Berlin. It was to the buzzing German city that Efterklang relocated from Copenhagen in 2010, and where Piramida found its final form.
It was Brauer who made sense of the sounds the three had brought home. Returning to his memories of visiting Piramida, he selected noises and carefully treated them to produce incredibly standalone sounds for use in the album’s songs. What might sound like an organ of some kind on the track ‘Sedna’ is actually a combination of recordings from the aforementioned fuel tank and grand piano – but it’s only at an atomic level that these elements remain, so delicately have they been synthesised into a workable instrument.
And it’s this process, of taking sounds found organically in an alien landscape and using them to power ‘traditional’ progressions of notes, of rhythms and melodies, that forms the framework for so much of Piramida. The hollow tones of ‘Told To Be Fine’ are sourced from ornate glass lamps, given new life long after their original use had become redundant. The very first sounds on the record, on opener ‘Hollow Mountain’, are metal spikes being struck, protruding from a bizarre-looking oil drum the band cheerily named Miss Piggy. The synth sounds of ‘Apples’ are created from a microsecond of a wonky piano note – from the aforementioned grand. Throughout, the album contains sounds that quite simply have never been heard before. What you’re hearing is a very singular kind of sonic alchemy.
But just as previous exercises in experimentation, albeit with very different starting points, haven’t compromised accessibility, so Piramida balances its challenging genesis with great immediacy. On tracks like ‘The Ghost’ and ‘Between the Walls’, there are whispers of the majestic orchestrations of Magic Chairs. These moments, however subtle, serve to trace progression without skewing from a path that’s served Efterklang so well already.
Every added element – including contributions from Peter Broderick (violin), Earl Harvin (drums), Nils Frahm (piano), brass from the Andromeda Mega Express Orchestra, and a 70-piece girls choir – owes its presence to the trio’s Piramida visit. “Everything that has gone onto this record is connected with that trip,” says Clausen. Adds Stolberg: “We didn’t really know where we were going to end the record – but the starting point was something we could control. That was an amazing framework for us, and we could constantly put what we were working on in the context of that trip.”
Lyrically, Clausen isn’t telling of empty houses and dusty grand pianos – but his heartfelt performance, more prominent in the mix here than on past albums and all the more affecting for it, is carried by a different kind of isolation, of abandonment. In his words there are glimpses of a relationship splintered, a community of two lost to the winds. It’s thousands of geographical miles away from Piramida, yet becomes the heart of Piramida.
A less-densely layered collection than the electronic-hued Parades, and more direct than Magic Chairs, Piramida is a rare example of a conceptually strong project that never forgets to let the concept serve the song, rather than the other way around. It’s a streamlined sound, but distinct and absorbing too. It showcases a band superbly capable of transitioning experiences shared by a select few into music that can be enjoyed by a wide, open-minded audience.
That Efterklang had to journey to the top of the world to begin their creative process makes for a fantastic story; but it’s just the prologue for what happens now with Piramida. Launching the album at the Sydney Opera House in May 2012, the band completed the first voyage of many in this campaign – from north to south, with their finest record yet crafted somewhere between extreme latitudes. And wherever it lands next, Piramida has the elegant touch to make any vista a memorable one.
See Efterklang live, with the Northern Sinfonia conducted by André de Ridder, as follows:
23. Gateshead, The Sage
24. Edinburgh, Usher Hall
27. Coventry, Warwick Arts Centre
28. Brighton, Dome
29. Manchester, Bridgewater Hall
30. London, Barbican