ALBUM REVIEW: Gabriel Ólafs – ‘Absent Minded Reworks’: Icelandic piano prodigy receives very fine electronica rerubs

ICELANDIC composer and pianist Gabríel Ólafs – who wrote his debut LP, Absent Minded, aged just 14 – is always happy to offer his beautiful music for reinterpretation – by himself and others.

After Absent Minded was released to widespread critical adoration on One Little Independent in 2019, he refashioned much of the work therein in even more stripped-back versions, placing you with him at the piano in a graceful intimacy: this reworking was issued as Piano Works in late June.

And now he’s once more offering his original works for refashioning, this time by others, with the exploratory and lovely, digital-only Absent Minded Reworks, which is out on November 13th.

This time he’s swinging in the other interpretative direction, from minimalist to maximalist, and he’s offered his music out to remixing talents including artists such as Hugar, Masayoshi Fujita, Kelly Moran and more.

Gabriel says: “Absent Minded Reworks is a project featuring the artists I listen to, love and look up to, as well as amazing friends and colleagues from my home country of Iceland: Hugar, Kippi Kaninus, Skúli Sverrisson, Katie Buckley, Ásta Soffía.

“Hearing my work reinterpreted by some of my absolute favourite artists has been incredible for me, so this project was a treat to make.

“I wanted it to feel like a record with a partial thread but with more variety in styles; so we had that in mind when curating and mixing it. I did not want to limit the reworkers but instead give full creative control: from Kelly Moran’s stunningly cinematic rework, to Niklas Paschburg’s inspiring danceable uptempo remix, to Masayoshi Fujita’s solo vibraphone performance. 

“It has also been interesting not being able to travel because of lockdown, yet still working with artists from Germany, Japan and the US.”

Gabríel Ólafs, photographed by Anna Maggy

And it’s Kelly Moran, the Brooklyn-based composer of prepared piano and dark IDM, who opens Absent Minded Reworks with her take on “Think Of Home”. She festoons the ghost of the original melody with the technicolour of bright, ASMR electronic bubbling and tones, mid-ground washes, strings – and a yearning slide guitar, bringing out an extra layer of bright swoon.

She’s followed by Gabriel’s fellow countrymen Bergur Þórisson and Pétur Jónsson, aka the fast-rising Hugar, who drape the grace of mournful brass and lowing, subtle drone across “Bára”, taking it elsewhere on the island that’s brought us so much fine music.

Japanese vibraphonist Masayoshi Fujita follows with “Another Fall, Another Spring”, bringing out a Bobby Hutcherson-style clear, percussive roll and shimmer, placing it more at the experimental end of late-60s’ Blue Note; contemplative and aurally delightful. We’ve embedded this one at the bottom so you can go listen in wonder.

In a nice bit of sequencing in terms of tonal palette, Hamburg’s Niklas Paschburg brings the clear melodicism of bell-like ‘tronica ringing and rolling in echo over gentle pulsing to “Lóa”, with Gabriel’s piano picking out sweetly in the centre, before it surges and swells towards an almost deep house energy. It has a certain Susumu Yokota feel, lush, textured and expansive.

It’s Iceland’s Kippi Kaninus, the intriguing and even sometimes musical vehicle of Guðmundur Vignir Karlsson, who take on “Filma”, providing an off-kilter cinemascape of rolling breaks, dramatic synths fleshing out the melodies of Gabriel’s original. It’s very much in a Múm mode, which is absolutely no bad thing to happen.

Skúli Sverrisson, yet another talent on a small island absolutely packed to the rafters with it, is a bassist and composer who’s worked with artists as diverse as Lou Reed, David Sylvian, and impro legend Derek Bailey; the Berklee-educated musician takes the original of “Bára” and, in contrast to Hugar, takes it for a graceful preamble through 142 seconds of arpeggiating strings and moody chordal sustain.

New York’s fabulous piano drone explorer Bing & Ruth, who’s astonishing Species for 4AD is one of the most enthralling works you’ll hear from 2020, lays his characteristic piano and drone shimmer over “Lóa”, taking it into a very, very different space to Niklas Paschburg; piano notes drop like warm rain in a patterning with a complementary, underpinning flurry of harmony; another facet of the track’s beauty shining.

“Filma” sees its second treatment come from Björk’s harpist Katie Buckley, and what more you need know than the grace and beauty the harp brings; it pairs with a pretty accordion take on “Cyclist Waltz” which is lended a French New Wave atmosphere that suits it entirely. 

The album is addended by two more gorgeous reworks by Gabriel himself, namely “Droplets”, reified for piano and strings; and “Staircase Sonata”, which expands as this breath-catching resonance of sustain and little nuances of piano, overtones, acoustic guitar,  backwards masking, &c. It’s a meditative and soul-centring end to a remix album of real beauty, and also a real cohesion – something not always possible to say about the format. 

Reportedly Absent Minded Reworks closes this chapter on Gabriel’s musical life, and I for one am looking forward to where he’s heading with massive expectancy; if the tunes herein at root are the work of a 14-year-old, then where is he at, what has he incorporated and explored since? 

My only caveat with Absent Minded Reworks: no vinyl. But what you have a chance to take away with you here is some of the finest leftfield, experimental and post-classical artists at work today, giving exploratory and also empathetic rein over the lovely oeuvre of a very young talent. The future awaits.

Gabriel Olaf’s Absent Minded Reworks will be released by One Little Independent on digital on November 13th; you can pre-order it now at his Bandcamp page, here.

Follow Gabriel on Facebook, at his website, and on Instagram, Spotify and Twitter.

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