Högni – “Two Trains” (2017)

I find myself once again blogging from a hotel room. It’s been a while since I’ve had to travel for business – I moved to a new employer this summer and there isn’t nearly as much work travel required; in fact this is my first business trip in five months. And tonight I find myself in a hotel room in, of all places, Las Vegas, a nice room with floor-to-ceiling windows that are offering me at this very moment a Blade Runner-esque view of the city at night. I can see a half dozen of the major Strip hotels as well as the broad avenues that lead away from downtown to the grid-like lights of the suburbs that seem to stretch on forever. The perfect setting and mood for something a bit dark. The perfect setting for Two Trains, the new album by Högni.

Högni is Högni Egilsson, best known originally for his work with the Icelandic ensemble Hjaltalín and most recently for his vocals on the two latest albums by Gusgus, the brilliant Arabian Horse and Mexico, on which his high-ranged voices serves as a perfect offset to the smooth tenor of Daníel Ágúst. Two Trains is, I believe, Högni’s first true solo album and first major work in the post-Gusgus era.

The mood of Two Trains is set right out of the gate with “Andaðu”, a Gregorian chant-like composition and an effect Högni uses to great effect in other parts of the album as well such as “Komdu Með” (and later “Óveðursský”, though that song is entirely chanting/choral) which blends the electronic and orchestral stylings from his past projects with an undercurrent of ancient sounding choral vocals. But songs like “Komdu Með” don’t follow the deep house formula of Gusgus, instead moving into more experimental directions that don’t follow the expected beat structures, more of a free-form jazz kind of style that organically flows where it will. At other times, though, we do get the more familiar beats we’ve come to expect, such as on “Crash” which overlays brief bursts of violin onto the percussion to make the entire thing feel charged, like an electric fence you can hear hum on a quiet night.

But as always it’s Högni’s voice that is the key to the whole thing, his uniquely breathless not-quite-a-falsetto delivery that sets him apart from most male vocalists. That, combined with the chant aspects and sparse, non-beat-driven soundscapes given Two Trains a very religious feel, a sort of sonic modern Passion Play as if it’s following a linear story instead of a pattern. The album’s last three songs strike me as being slightly removed from the first seven, though realistically this could just be because I get more comfortable with Two Trains‘ ebbs and flows as it progresses.

Högni challenges us with Two Trains. It’s an album that will best fit very specific moods and environments - while I can’t seen this as driving music, for example, it is an interesting accompaniment to the disjointed and hard-to-reconcile view out my window tonight, seeing an odd city but not feeling a part of it. You’ll have to try it out to see where it fits best into your musical world.

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