Have you heard Efterklang’s 2004 debut album Tripper? If not, now’s as good of a time as any to look it up. Spotify can help you out on that one if needed. Anyways, back then the Danish band had about 10 members and created atmospheric post-rock soundscapes that effectively brought to mind Sigur Ros with a little more electronic undercurrent. Fast forward to the present, and Efterklang is now a three-piece band that more or less creates beautiful and heartfelt pop songs. The difference is pretty huge, though it helps that they retain small pieces of their earlier selves. You can’t quite blame the band for wanting to find true success, but the way they’ve gone about it sometimes feels like too huge of a sacrifice. A lot of the elements that made them distinctively great have been washed away to make melodies easier to digest and remember. That’s largely what sabotaged their last album, 2010’s Magic Chairs. In preparation for the release of their new album Piramida, the band released a trailer that shows some of the lengths they went to in generating audio samples for it. In short, they traveled to Spitsbergen, Russia, located on the edge of the North Pole and home to Pyramiden, a town that was abandoned in the ’90s and remains as a decaying ruin today. They climbed inside huge, hollow tanks and recorded vocals and noises with the impressive echoes. They ran down boardwalks and plinked glass bottles with the microphones capturing it all – over 1,000 samples used across the album. Such effort is more than admirable, as not many artists would go to such lengths to add such unique charms to their records.
If you give a really close listen to the entire record, the little effects become that much more apparent and make what you’re hearing immensely more impressive. The only percussion on “Dreams Today” is the sound of footsteps across wooden planks. “Told to Be Fine” has a large hollow metal object being struck by something that sounds like but probably isn’t a basketball, while “The Living Layer” makes use of the many ways glass transforms sound when tapped at different angles and levels. Charming and well placed as all these elements might be, if you didn’t know to listen for them you probably wouldn’t notice or care where they came from. Efterklang might well be amateur foley artists, adding sound effects to movies after the fact because camera microphones didn’t pick them up properly. The point being, almost all of it could have been recreated in the studio without the need to go to an abandoned ghost town near the North Pole. That shouldn’t lessen or cheapen the experience of listening to Piramida because clearly the band was inspired by their trip in the right ways, but you are left wondering if they could have done something more or different with what they collected during their journey. For example, to make an atmospheric, post rock record like their earlier work using these sounds would be inventive and set them apart from their peers. Sadly, they didn’t do that. What they did do was create a smart and beautiful pop record that will impress you the more time you spend with it. The intricacies of opening track “Hollow Mountain” begin to reveal themselves once you realize it stacks upon itself by starting with a slow music box-like churn and not even launching into the first verse until two minutes have passed. From there, strings and horns all show up and eventually vanish amid icy synths, martial percussion and Casper Clausen’s relaxed vocal. The song makes for a decent single, but “Apples” which follows it is probably just a touch catchier and more upbeat.
There’s nothing on Piramida that’s intensely happy or toe-tappingly fun, but no matter what mood or shape the songs seem to take, they’re almost all compelling in one aspect or another. “The Ghost” starts innocently enough, but builds with unique percussion and harmonized vocals before entering a hornet’s nest of brass that eerily and enviously recalls Radiohead’s classic “The National Anthem” at its most frenetic point. Ballads like “Sedna” and closer “Monument” stand as particularly strong examples of how measured and carefully plotted arrangements can exude passion and elegance with lyrics that just as equally inspire. If this album has one unabashed highlight though, it comes from the 6.5 minute “Black Summer,” which transforms itself over its run time via intense build ups and releases aided along the way by stark piano work, the South Denmark Girls Choir and a jazzy little saxophone solo at the end. It’s exactly the sort of song you wish was the blueprint for the entire record, best blending the band’s earlier work with their more recent stuff. Alas, they don’t all operate at such a high level even if they’re all successful in one aspect or another.
It’s both a help and a hindrance to Piramida that despite their common elements each track could stand up well on its own. On the one hand, you want each individual track to be as strong as possible so you can drop in anywhere on the album and enjoy it. On the other hand, you also want that sense of wholeness in a record, where the entire thing goes down effortlessly in one 45 minute chunk. Efterklang aren’t quite able to strike the right balance here, which ultimately weakens the album’s overall impact just a touch. A bigger issue is the band’s indecisive nature when it comes to their sound. The atmospherics they’re creating are undoubtedly gorgeous, but they often feel taken down a notch when paired with more standard choruses. If they just surrendered to the melody instead of shoehorning differing structures in, the album would lose a lot of commercial viability but gain a greater sense of exploration and originality. Sometimes it’s more about the risks you don’t take than the ones you do, which is absolutely the case here. Still, what we do get from this record is largely quality, and a marked improvement over their last couple efforts. Let’s hope it’ll only get better from here, and that they won’t have to go to the other side of the world to make that happen.