I finally get it… It has clicked with me…
Sometimes these things just take a little time. Certain music doesn’t move you, but this second album by Dim Gray, Firmament, really does – NOW. And I’ll tell you what did it.
It was witnessing their exceptional performance as a trio, with guest musicians, as support to Big Big Train’s mini tour earlier this month. It was superb, and the crowd loved it too, with Oskar Holldorff taking an emphatic lead on vocals and keyboards, ably supported by the beguiling Håkon Høiberg on vocals and guitars and energetic backline drumming and percussion from Tom Ian Klungland. All three members have a wealth of experience in numerous genres, which has led to the creation of the Dim Gray sound. Yes, it could almost be allocated its own genre, and that could very well be their unique selling point in attracting fans as they move forward.
Described by some as ‘chamber pop’ and ‘indie art rock’, it is rather more than that. I’ve been a fan of Norwegian prog for many years, but this is more Scandi than many of my other favourites, due to it retaining symphonic and folk elements; very Land of the Midnight Sun, if you will… Some comparisons have been made with bands such as Radiohead, Steven Wilson and Tears for Fears, but what leapt out at me as the most striking element was Oskar’s vocal similarity to Tom Chaplin of the band Keane. I quite like Keane, but I much prefer the ethereal nature of Oskar’s vocals. And when Håkon takes on the lead vocal duties, on tracks such as Cannons, it really is a head-turner, a perfect marriage of vocal styles with Oskar that gives this whole album real intrigue.
The musical compositions, much like their debut album Flown, have a cinematic theme to them. Oskar studied musicology at university and wrote his thesis on music in contemporary thrillers, and this truly shines through in his compositions, strings and folky undertones playing a major role, particularly in the title track, Firmament. Whilst this 46-minute album has twelve individual tracks, they very much flow into each other to form a coherent whole. The lyrics are clearly important to the band, conjuring visions of the Arthurian legends and the mythical vale of Avalon.
The album opens with Mare, a Høiberg composition that illustrates the Keane comparison from the outset with undertones of U2 in the instrumentals and reverb guitar. It’s a forceful number to set the tone of the album and we immediately get the experience of both vocalists sharing the lead. It flows into Ashes, an uplifting song that builds to a crescendo before instantly going calm; hugely ethereal, like waves crashing on the shore, or witnessing the immediacy of the sun breaking the horizon. The clue is in the lyric “Just a matter of minutes until dawn, Just a matter of minutes until morning breaks”.
Undertow and Avalon – The Tide follow with new themes, the former evoking images of a musical box, growing into a cinematic organ maelstrom. There is delicate piano, almost a sense of some Snarky Puppy in its performance. 52~ is a personal favourite; a beautiful vocal track with keys and delightful percussive element from Tom Ian. Haunting background elements capture the ears, cementing the cinematic sound. On the vinyl release, Abalus – In Time closes out side A, and it is well chosen. One can sense why Marillion chose Dim Gray to support them on their 2022 Swedish weekend. With plenty of reverb guitar, there are certainly Coldplay undertones. We hear Høiberg’s vocals again, and one is compelled to spin to side B; it’s incredibly well curated.
The second act starts with Long Ago, a very uplifting piano start before an interesting electronic guitar sound; there are echoes of Thomas Hardy’s elegiac poems to his late wife, a ghost story perhaps. It’s a delight. My Barren Road is a mystical tune telling the story of a solitary journey of discovery. Cannons epitomises the theme of the whole album with lyrics such as “I’m lost in between dreams and memories, I’m falling down”. The tune is quite bluegrass in style and is the best track to feature Høiberg’s tremulous vocals. He is striking, quite unique and should be very pleased with this symphonic melodic song; it’s another favourite. The tempo reduces somewhat with Iron Henry, a very calm reflective tune, with distinct cello background and elements of fairy tale and folk stories: “The fountain cool in the greenwood shade… The sky above is with me, and always will be.”
As we approach the close of the album, the title track is another fairy tale; one can almost imagine the prince singing this song in Sleeping Beauty. I’m not a fan of theatrical stage songs, but this title track is a winner in that guise. It builds and builds with orchestration and finishes with an impactful flourish. It will bring a tear to your eye before segueing immediately into the final track, Meridian, an almost biblical theme, which is an exceptional coda to the album; lyrics such as “throwing rocks, throwing rocks, may the sea part for me”, as the journey reaches its conclusion. It is a perfect end to an album that has grown on me enormously, and it has been ordered and structured with great thought.
As I indicated at the beginning of this review, it took me a number of concentrated listens to appreciate this second album. That’s a key point; it warrants a concentrated listen, with no distractions. And my conclusion is that Dim’s Gray’s follow-up is a delight. Like a Scandi-dreamscape, or a Munch painting, it deals with the landscapes of loss and longing, conjuring visions of spirits lost in time and legend. A real jewel in the crown.
I have been prompted to revisit their debut album, Flown, and it confirms that a switch of delight has been flicked. I was originally non-committal about Flown, but it means so much more to me now. The band should rightly be very proud of Firmament, as it has all the quality of seasoned and experienced professional musicians. It’s a must-buy, and if you get the chance to catch a live performance, I can assure you that you will not be disappointed. They will be snapped up to support, but I fully expect them to headline in the very near future; I shall be there…
01. Mare (3:59)
02. Ashes (3:14)
03. Undertow (2:48)
04. Avalon | The Tide (4:12)
05. 52~ (4:19)
06. Abalus | In Time (3:55)
07. Long Ago (4:07)
08. My Barren Road (3:18)
09. Cannons (3:43)
10. Iron Henry (3:21)
11. Firmament (2:45)
12. Meridian (4:56)
Total Time – 44:45
Håkon Høiberg – Electric & Acoustic Guitars, Mandolin, Lead vocals (track 9 and parts of 1,6 & 7), Backing Vocals
Oskar Holldorff – Vocals, Keyboards, Electronic Percussion, Programming, Orchestration
Tom Ian Klungland – Drums, Acoustic & Electronic Percussion, Backing Vocals
Ellen-Martine Gismervik – Cello
Hanna Nicoline Krohn Moland – Violin
Halvor Rollag – Electric Bass
Guro Røvik Marstad – Flute (track 4)
Grégoire Blanc – Saw & Theremin (track 10)
Record Label: English Electric Recordings
Country of Origin: Norway
Date of Release: 2nd September 2022