As is often the case, something unusual yet exquisitely beautiful is coming out of Nordic climes. It’s most likely to have something to do with the long nights and a diet heavy on fish, but Agent Fresco hail from Iceland so you can add a propensity for active volcanoes into the mix too, and it’s that unpredictable edge that flavours this new release.
Formed in 2008, Agent Fresco combine a keen pop sensibility with alternative sounds from art rock, metal and math-rock which makes their music both accessible and complex. I’d not come upon them before but Destrier is their second album, and it has certainly sparked my interest to seek out the first one. As reference points the likes of Mew, A-Ha, Opeth and Leprous come to mind to a greater or lesser extent and, no doubt a result of their Icelandic heritage, there also seems to be a touch of Björk swirling about. All this makes for an enigmatic and unexpected listen, a collision of styles that really shouldn’t go together but are realised supremely well, dense when it needs to be, sparse and cold elsewhere but always an emotional ride. Singer Arnór Dan Arnarson puts it this way: “Agent Fresco has never been about embracing comfort zones. It’s always about pushing our own emotional and musical boundaries”.
Alongside Arnarson’s spectacular voice are Vignir Rafn Hilmarsson’s upright electric bass, Hrafnkell Örn Guðjónsson’s drums and Þórarinn Guðnason’s guitars and keyboards, his piano being another standout feature of the Agent Fresco sound. From a drone intro, the expansive orchestral vistas of opener Let Them See Us emerge over which Arnarson’s voice floats in an absolutely majestic performance, soaring to the heights, as throughout the album to bring an angelic edge to the songs, it becomes apparent that this is going to be a diverting listen.
The harder side of the band comes through on Dark Water, adding Djenty stop/start guitars and an angularity that manages to accentuate the melodic beauty of the voice and Guðnason’s piano. This is quite something. Not just another thin slice of the seemingly never-ending Prog Metal loaf that is being served everywhere at the moment, Agent Fresco taking their multiple influences and injecting a heaviness that makes it all the more mesmerising. The metallic end of their palette is simply another colour to choose from and adds flashes of powerful darkness to the fragile beauty of the songs rather than being the overriding aim. This is not just a technical display, it tells a lk4=e]
very human story that is presented in vivid technicolour and as a contrast, the piano additions here have the jazzy tinge of Esbjörn Svensson about them, and anyone familiar with EST will now how compelling that can be.
Pyre mixes it up again, adding a funkiness alongside a poppier approach that is particularly engaging. The succinct title track continues in a similar vein, A-ha meets Mew with Leprous lurking in the shadows nearby, the brevity making it all the more striking. Arnór adds a fragility to his voice that trembles through the lyrics to Wait For Me hitting some unimaginable notes, an industrial rhythm chugging away in the background until the guitars kick in, but even then the mood at the centre of it all remains restrained, all the parts integrated beautifully. Howls is the other extreme, it could have come off a recent Leprous album with excellent guitar and the rhythm work bang on the money. The real diversion though is again the voice, sweeping keys in the background emerging from the dense sound to stunning effect.
Every track on Destrier has something to recommend it and The Autumn Red pits the melodic topline and disjointed rhythms together into a track that is fascinating and inherently listenable. There is a very enjoyable depth to this release that rewards repeated plays and that is certainly the aim with music of this complexity – melodic enough to hook you in, varied and complex enough to hold your attention. If you like your rhythms raw an angular this track will definitely work for you.
The arrangements present the tracks in the very best light, the brief Citadel having a Mew vibe, in your face but sweet and funky at the same time, the energy building into See Hell where lyrical dexterity is set against a thumping rhythm. Orchestral soundscaping takes over for Let Fall The Curtain, one of a handful of shorter tracks that separate the set pieces and ramp up the variety factor, while Bemoan is driven by a twinkling piano and skittering rhythm, the vocals of the chorus again soaring to the very heights of beauty.
The titles show a bleakness and melancholy that is embedded in the writing, as if carved into a glacier in a wind-swept snowscape, and this is underlined by the well-named+ Angst, the most metallic track here but it still retains the spectacularly moving vocals, and Death Rattle, the feel of which is reminiscent of Opeth in their quieter moments, an oh so emotional vocal supported by sparse piano and heartbeat rhythm, fading out on a lengthy soundscape. Simple but very effective indeed.
Widescreen in feel, Mono No Aware is the lengthy and energetic closer pitching beautiful piano against the pop accessibility of a chorus that finds its way out of the full-on sound. Calm is restored with an oasis of piano that builds with guitar before fading back to the drone finish that opened Let Them See Us.
Destrier is an unexpected and exhilarating listen from a band that are doing their own thing and making it work beautifully.
01. Let Them See Us (3:45)
02. Dark Water (3:38)
03. Pyre (3:33)
04. Destrier (2:20)
05. Wait For Me (4:00)
06. Howls (3:03)
07. The Autumn Red (4:48)
08. Citadel (1:29)
09. See Hell (4:20)
10. Let Fall The Curtain (2:40)
11. Bemoan (4:00)
12. Angst (1:36)
13. Death Rattle (4:55)
14. Mono No Aware (7:01)
Total time – 51:08
Arnór Dan Arnarson – Vocals
Hrafnkell Örn Guðjónsson – Drums, Percussion
Vignir Rafn Hilmarsson – Bass, Upright Bass
Þórarinn Guðnason – Guitar, Piano, Programming, String Arrangements
Viktor Orri Árnason Strings & String Arrangements
Bergur Þórisson – Brass
Record Label: Long Branch Records
Country of Origin: Iceland
Year of Release: 2015