Nordic Duo, Gustaf Ljunggren and Skúli Sverrisson, deliver restful and introspective tunes – an emotionally transportive experience
Release Date: 13th May 2022
Label: April Records
Formats: Vinyl / Digital
Sometimes, an album can take you completely by the most pleasant of surprises – something that sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before and takes you so entirely off your guard that you’re left wondering “Whaaat??” Well – that feeling just about sums up the emotional experience I’ve just enjoyed, listening to Floreana, the new album from Swedish guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Gustaf Ljunggren and Icelandic bass legend Skúli Sverrisson.
This is an album that takes its influences from folk, ambient and jazz, mixes them with just a touch of accessible pop, then goes off to find a niche of its very own. Already, Floreana has been described variously as Restful, Introspective, An emotionally transportive experience and An album the wishes to offer the listener private musical spaces in which to dwell for a while. I’d go along with all of those tributes and I’d also add that Floreana is a great album to which the listener can either submit and become fully absorbed within, or can use to provide the backing to any relaxing pursuit of his/her choice. In short, Floreana is, perhaps, the perfect Sunday afternoon album.
The production is sparse; both Gustaf and Skúli are economical in what they play, but I’m sure that any listener will hear something new each time the album is played – as the album’s press release emphasizes: “This music doesn’t seek climaxes as much as it seeks states of presence and attention, serving up gentle melodic patterns and with a strong sense of musical maturity and contentment.” I couldn’t agree more.
Gustaf Ljunggren is a veteran of a number of bands in Sweden and Denmark and his debut solo album, Fractions and Pastures, was released in 2010. Since then, he’s released a string of collaborative albums with Danish percussionist/guitarist Emil De Waal – most recently their 2020 offering, Måne. On Floreana, Gustaf plays baritone ukulele, lap steel guitar, pedal steel, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, mandolin, resonator guitar, drum, piano and keyboards.
The name Skúli Sverrisson, may very well be familiar to At The Barrier readers – he’s a bass player of international renown (as well as being something of a personal hero, as far as Gustaf is concerned…) He’s previously worked with the likes of Lou Reed, Bill Frissell and Laurie Anderson and has appeared on over 100 recordings and he’s the winner of multiple awards in his native Iceland – his 2006 album, Sería, was voted Album of the Year.
The music on Floreana apparently came to Gustaf with remarkable ease – almost from within his being. As he explains: “The melodies came to the surface, and I chose to say “yes” to them, embrace them and carry them forward.” And, likewise for the listener, the best way to enjoy Floreana is, I suggest, is to embrace and reabsorb the melodies.
Palace Prelude, a short, enjoyable, acoustic guitar passage with a stately – almost medieval – feel gets Floreana underway, but this appetizer is, perhaps a little misleading and unrepresentative of the delights to come; in fact, the album’s true prelude comes with Leading Somewhere, a light, airy acoustic guitar tune, underpinned by surges of pedal steel. Skúli’s bass is subtle and respectful – never intrusive – and the overall impact is dreamy, peaceful and easy.
A darker, more ponderous feel predominates on Kongens Mark. Gustaf leads the way with a lap steel figure and provides his own accompaniment of fingerpicked acoustic guitar, whilst Skúli looks after the basement with a plodding bassline. The lap steel seems to take on a violin-like quality that is particularly easy on the ear. The sleepy, dreamlike Bottomless Siestas is one of several real highlights of Floreana. It’s a fascinating piece of music, quite unlike anything I’ve heard before; pedal steel provides the somnambulant melody whilst bass and guitars seem to enact the dreamy chaos below, as the tune moves forward to its slumbery ending.
The vibrant Olive provides a refreshing wake-up call after the slumbers of Bottomless Siestas. Ukelele, mandolin, bass – every instrument is plucked in a fizzy tune that builds in intensity until it reaches its plucky climax. The delightful Isen Bruten, perhaps the album’s most overtly Ambient piece of music, is the kind of soundtrack you’d hear to a film of a flower opening its petals, or a winter scene melting away as Spring makes its presence felt. Keyboard drones mix with guitar chimes to make a sound that is reassuring and full of hope, until an altogether more sinister mood takes hold during the last few seconds…
The loose, jazzy Codimar is, perhaps, the most overtly “Nordic” sounding piece on the album. A mandolin line, reminiscent of Battle of Evermore and a piano theme that recalls The Cars’ Who’s Going to Drive You Home combine wonderfully together. As always, nothing is overdone – the rhythm is fast, but not frantic, and the piano lines are economical and effective, yet the overall feel is one of building excitement as the tune progresses.
As I browsed the track listing before I actually played the album, I imagined that Streams would be a slice of dreamy ambient jazz – and I was, more or less, right. Gustaf explores the possibilities in the space just above our heads with his keyboards, whilst Skúli provides a solid anchor to the earth with a well-chosen, minimal, bass part. Guest Cæcilie Balling enters the fray to add some, delightful, dreamy violin to Gustaf’s electric guitar for Vestegnsromantik, a tune that has an almost hymn-like quality – albeit a very spacy, floaty hymn, before the album inches towards its finale with Maren, a short, chiming pedal steel tune that makes the listener imagine he/she is floating through a brightly-lit cave that is dripping in icicles.
Closing track Vi Overlever is possibly the most immediately accessible tune on the album. Dominated by Gustaf’s acoustic guitar (you can even hear his fingers squeak on the windings on the strings), the tune could almost be described as “poppy,” but it’s great fun, and an excellent way to bring the listener back to earth after the sonic adventures of Floreana. This is, indeed, a wonderful album that will be enjoyed by anyone with a taste for the slightly unusual and an appreciation of genuine musical talent.
Listen to Codimar, a track from the album, here: