Strange Fortune (SF4), 2006
Painter and musician Tor Lundvall turns his thematic talents to the holidays on Yule, an album which examines the tradition of Christmas from a decidedly off-kilter urban perspective. Lundvall has a keen eye and a keen ear, and through his trademark “ghost ambient” style of music, imparts his unique edge to a cultural holiday phenomenon that has a unique feel throughout the world. Yule is unfamiliar, however, in a way that only Tor Lundvall can produce.
Lundvall’s albums often lean heavily upon theme; the source of his inspiration is rarely in question. What makes his music particularly compelling is the strength of his vision and how effectively he gives it voice, while giving us vague yet appropriate vestiges of connection to the central concept. “Busy Station,” for example, is not a light-hearted, artificially optimistic portrait of the holiday bustle, but carries an edge of uncertainty so common to Lundvall’s work. A single looped keyboard chord is surrounded by light noise passes and measured tapping, with a high-pitched whistle wandering to and fro. It’s oddly calming and deeply alienating at the same time, as if the person in the station is simultaneously part of the crowd and utterly alone. “The Train Home” increases the tension minutely, with its mysterious chords, strange distant noises, chimes, and metronome beat. It’s as if the train-traveler isn’t particularly thrilled about the journey, but knows it must happen, and in the back of his/her mind, perhaps it will all turn out just fine eventually…..perhaps. The anticipation is heavy despite the minimal structure; this is familiar territory for Lundvall, and it’s clear he’s been honing his craft over his many releases.
The tone shifts on “Christmas Eve,” a song fraught with tremulous magic, as delicate and captivating as a snowflake. Faint noise structures resolve into a rhythm, juxtaposing with a music-box melody and Lundvall’s plaintive vocals telling of a lonely girl at night alone in the glowing lights of her room. It’s starkly vivid and surprisingly poignant; this is one of Lundvall’s best songs to date. The holidays aren’t always about the joy of family; sometimes it’s moments of isolation that provide the strongest memories.
“12:00 AM” loops jingle bells, but with fringes of noise leaking at the edges; it’s the moment of Santa Claus’ arrival, yes, but it’s also the dead of night. “Snowy Morning” reduces the unease a bit, with looped flutes and warm keys that contain the soft reflected light of new sun playing on the face of flawless snowbanks.
“Yule Song” is another triumphant vocal piece, with Lundvall’s high voice drifting among guitar chords and the strange near-organic cries that often appear in his music. It’s calming, but the peace is an alien one. “Fading Light” belies its title with uplifting wordless song and soothing bells; it’s a celebration of approaching darkness, or perhaps a fond farewell to the beauty of the day. The slow light keys and lonely lyrics of “January” poetically describe the details of a city of rain-soaked melting snow, and “White on Grey” is full of sampled static and distant effects; it’s reminiscent of Lundvall’s album Empty City, but here, the focus is on a quiet city buried in snowdrifts, to the point that electricity has begun to malfunction.
All of these tracks are less than four minutes in length, but Lundvall has a surprise in store with “The Falling Snow (Full Length Version),” a twenty-minute track that showcases his ambient talents with panoramic excellence. One of, if not the, longest track Lundvall has ever released, “The Falling Snow” allows his minimal style to unfold unhurriedly, and the results are stunning indeed. I’d always wondered what Tor Lundvall could do if given some elbow room, and he’s got more than enough space to roam here. Centered around a low repeating wind-loop, Lundvall experiments with distant chords, whistles, crackles, chimes, echoes, wisps of melody; all of it emerging from and fading into the gently drifting flakes like the wandering specters that have populated Lundvall’s music since his first release. “The Falling Snow” is both beautiful and haunting, grounded and floating, but remains between the two extremes, each bleeding into the other with delicate grace until there’s little (if any) distinction. Lundvall may never release an album in this vein, but perhaps he doesn’t need to; this track is as carefully executed and perfectly balanced as any ambient piece I’ve ever heard.
Tor Lundvall is something of a hidden genius. His music consistently dwells in its own places, comfortably between genres, and always recognizable. He doesn’t bash us over the head with technical trickery or dr0wn us in pretension. What he gives us is a glimpse into the world as he sees it – comfortable yet oh-so-slightly unsettling – and in doing so, lets us ponder the nature of everyday things, and urges us to wonder what might lie just beyond our perception. There are things behind things; even something as sacred as Christmas has buried secrets. Yule is a holiday album, but it is not an album of too-bright lights, superficial cheer, tired cliche, and crowded gatherings; it’s a holiday of glimpsed dreams and hidden shades, invisible in plain sight.