A fellow journalist once told me that a good question to ask Michael Gira of Swans would be: “At what point does noise become music, and vice versa?”. It seems that the various residents of Iceland’s Bedroom Community, run by Valgeir Sigurdsson, are asking a similar question: “At what point does noise become beauty, and vice versa?” None has gone so far in balancing the two as Ben Frost did on his Bedroom Community opus By The Throat (when I saw the Australian at the much-lamented Luminaire in Kilburn, he managed to set an amp on fire with the sheer volume of his set whilst all the while retaining the haunting structures of his singular tunes), but Sigurdsson’s Architecture of Loss is a solidly majestic attempt to balance the two.
Architecture of Loss features a series of tracks that oscillate, often within the tracks themselves, between abstraction and melody. Opener “Guard Down” and its successor “The Crumbling” are built around quasi-orchestral string and piano arrangements, and it comes as little surprise that Architecture of Loss was initially inspired by a ballet of the same name. However, on “The Crumbling”, rather than elaborate on the viola drones, Sigurdsson, aided and abetted by violist Nadia Sirota, puts the emphasis on their repetition, but with moody found sounds, silences and frequent scraped-string dissonance surrounding and succeeding one another, like a more restrained Tony Conrad. With track titles such as “The Crumbling”, “World Without Ground” and “Erased Duet”, not to mention the term Architecture of Loss itself, there is a deep emotional resonance behind Sigurdsson’s compositions, and this is duly reflected in the mournful, minor-key atmosphere of both the strings and the sparse piano melodies.
But Sigurdsson stretches out beyond this precisely-applied prettiness, and at the album’s core sits a spirit of almost doom-laden moodiness. Midway through “Between Monuments”, a cluster of rigid, fast-paced beats worms itself out of a haze of Nyman-esque piano notes and sad-eyed viola lines, the piece coming on like a form of baroque techno. “Guardian at the Door” then drags everything underground in waves of compressed sub-bass digital drone. The influence of Ben Frost on both tracks is pretty clear, but at the same time Sigurdsson’s complex orchestral arrangements seem to be fighting with the electronic murk as violins bubble to the surface and then dissolve, like delicate wraiths thrashing in a storm. As the noise dissolves, the delicate melodies re-emerge, the calm after said storm. Even if Architecture of Loss never quite plumbs these exquisite depths again, the memory of “Between Monuments” and “Guardian at the Door” permeates the entire album, with “Big Reveal”, in particular, offsetting minimal string drones with jarring percussive sounds that evoke a ping-pong ball being battered around a basketball court!
On the whole, the focus on Architecture of Loss is certainly the elegantly inter-mingled violins and viola of Muhly and Sirota, who are both perfectly served by Sigurdsson’s pensive, emotionally-resonant compositions. True, at times he lurches dangerously close to by-the-ropes post-rock, or perhaps a soundtrack to a dodgy TV series set in Sweden, but, fortunately, Architecture of Loss is so dense, subtly varied and even ambiguous that to try and tie it down is an exercise in futility. Best to relax and bask in the numerous moments of touching, and troubling, beauty that run through its 10 mini-suites.