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Silje Nes Optiks Review

Album. Released 2010.  

BBC Review

Twilight tinklings from experimental Norwegian chanteuse.

Wyndham Wallace 2010

It’s hard not to draw comparisons between Silje Nes and fellow Norwegian Hanne Hukkelberg, another classically trained musician who flirted with a variety of different musical styles before finding her own path. Both are notable for their hushed, sweet vocals, and both released debuts littered with experimental sounds: Hukkelberg’s 2004 album, Little Things, saw her recording the sounds of pots, pans and bicycles, while Nes’ Ames Room (2009) used technology to manipulate the instrumentation into intriguing shapes. Both then responded to the critical acclaim that duly followed by moving to Berlin to record their second albums.

Clearly, however, they responded to the city in very different ways: Hukkelberg emerged in 2007 with Rykestraße 68, an album full of tension and darkness that was easier to admire than love, while Nes has emerged three years later with Opticks, a far more soothing collection that sounds like it was recorded late at night under threat of eviction. It sees her refine her approach, allowing her seductively reticent voice more prominence amidst the textural details that were a staple of her debut. Now, though, it’s impossible to ignore the similarities with another Scandinavian, Sweden’s reclusive Stina Nordenstam: on Silver>Blue the whispered, double-tracked vocals could almost have been lifted from the Swede’s classic And She Closed Her Eyes, while on Symmetry of Empty Space her hesitant guitar playing, over brushed cymbals and the simplest of drum rhythms requires only the introduction, in the song’s chorus, of soft percussive tapping and a twinkling xylophone to double its weight.

But Nes’ fondness for atmospheric melancholy also has its roots in the softer narcotic haze of the likes of The Velvet Underground and their heirs. Opener The Grass Harp at times recalls their classic Heroin but, rather than bury it under a uncomfortable wall of sound, Nes builds up layers of static that buzz beneath the sparse instrumentation and then float away. The Card House, meanwhile, drifts into the kind of reverie for which Mazzy Star were celebrated, and The Shades – with its treated vocals and guitar effects – recalls both Cocteau Twins and late Slowdive, though with perhaps more emphasis on stargazing than shoegazing.

Perhaps Nes’ weakness is that the album’s defining characteristic is its fragility, making it hard to grasp the emaciated instrumentation and melodies that lie at its heart. But subtle though it is, Tarwater’s Bernd Jestram – who mixed the album – ensures that the imaginative details sparkle, so while Nes’ world may at times sound familiar, it’s still very much her own, a comforting and alluring one into which to retreat.

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