Rating: 4.1/ 5.0
Label: Fatcat Records
Atmospheric music is a tricky creature; it can be enveloping and uplifting, though it just as easily runs the risk of fading into the walls. Norwegian songstress Silje Nes tends to fall under the former, weaving complex sonic tapestries from the simple layout of her bedroom studio. Her 2007 debut, Ames Room, was hailed for its rich, yet lo-tech production, but on her second album, Opticks, she has created a tighter-knit record – one that cuts through the haze. Nes’ songwriting has taken a fuller, manipulated sound, which occasionally mirrors former labelmates such as Animal Collective, and the varied, complex structuring of this effort leads to songs with a more developed, confident sound. This is the kind of record grey days were made for.
The album title is cribbed from Isaac Newton’s book about the refraction of light and it suits the record perfectly. It is bright-eyed, luminescent and stimulating, but not afraid to be expansive. Much like the complex scattered light image on the album cover, the songs Nes has crafted out of her makeshift set-up are intriguing, occasionally appearing simplistic, but always hinting at a deeper glow. “Levitation” begins with a bouncy synth groove and highlights piano and guitar lines that perfectly sync before reintroducing the synth as a pulse. “The Card House” features a peppy guitar line that spreads across the spectrum, taking Nes’ vocals with it. The song diffuses, using masked vocals; Nes’ voice becomes a siren’s call from the void. It is elegiac and entrancing, dripping with tender sweetness.
Songs like “Symmetry of Empty Space” feature buoyant vocals uplifted by a bubbly piano and guitar combination. Sparse, syncopated triangles in the background give the song an easy, rolling tempo, like waves lapping the shore. While it paints a pretty picture on first listen, “Silver>blue” features Nes in the foreground, supplementing herself with a light bass groove and subtle drum hits. It begs to be listened to with eyes closed. The swirling guitar line subverts hat could have been a monotonous minimal loop and turns it into an essential cut. “Branches” begins with plucking violin strings, cleverly simulating a swaying wind that is then brought on by Nes singing about how “branches will take care of us,” carrying the metaphor further by inserting digital strings to repel the analog ones, suggesting a storm, perhaps a sudden updraft that has blown those very branches off the ground. The song closes on her previously clean vocals now digitally sharpened, which also adds a unique dimension to her otherwise lovely singing voice; here, it calls up the idea of the chaos of nature.
“Hello Luminance” features Nes speak-singing. This unique timbre contrasts with the majority of the album’s vocals, but interplays well with this song’s lilting, haunting piano and synth lines. Closer “Ruby Red” offers up the brightest, most colorful imagery on the record, turning Nes’ voice into a prism that accents the percussion, and is fully realized by a gorgeous violin solo which closes out the album, acting as the last gleam into this rather sublime setting. As the strings get drowned out by the silence, all that’s left to do is to bask in the glow. Opticks proves that Silje Nes has a brighter future than most.
by Rafael Gaitan