New album "II" by Kiasmos is out now

New album "II" by Kiasmos is out now

When Kiasmos started out in the late 2000s, little did they know that their part-time supergroup would go stratospheric. It was the sound of two old friends from neighbouring islands – Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds and Faroese musician Janus Rasmussen – striking out against the stark piano and electropop music that they were individually celebrated for and effusively sharing their love of Berlin-inspired beats. But their pairing blew up into a world-dominating live act whose music went on to define the decade. So what does one of the most dynamic duos in electronic music do next, after all this time? There are clues in their new artwork: Kiasmos’s distinctive diamond motif, up in flames, so it can rise again from the ashes.

Kiasmos are returning, renewed and restored, with II. It’s the triumphant follow-up to their universally acclaimed self-titled debut in 2014, which re-envisioned minimal techno with orchestral flourishes and weightless production. They’d made most of that album in just two weeks; this time it’s been 10 years. The making of II was a test of their friendship, but also testament to how great musical chemistry can always go the distance and be just the same as it ever was. “In the beginning, we hadn’t established any sound, so it was easy to write,” says Janus. “But we’re not the same people that we were back then; we’re older and – hopefully – wiser. We wanted to one up ourselves and to not repeat what we did before.”

Opening track "Grown" is a case in point. It’s a masterclass in delicate atmosphere that sets the tone and pace for II. You can clearly hear how Kiasmos have evolved as sonic architects, in the album’s deeper acoustic textures, atmospheric ambience, restless grooves and ambitious string arrangements. Each song on the album is a mini epic, effortlessly moving between electronic, classical and rave, and then pulling back before you’ve had a chance to take a breath. This is Kiasmos – but more widescreen. “It’s bigger, both in sound and production,” says Janus. “The music has matured yet there’s a playfulness to it.”

“The record sounds fuller,” agrees Ólafur. “The sound design gives you a sense of place and space.”

They worked on a lot of II during the lost year of 2020-2021, including a trip to Ólafur’s studio in Bali. “We spent a month there and wrote a few songs that ended up on the record,” says Janus. The pair sampled traditional Balinese percussion like the gamelan and incorporated Janus’s field recordings of their natural surroundings – the sound of birds, crickets and, on standout track "Dazed", echoing the sunrise over the lush landscape.

“‘Dazed’ holds a special place in my heart,” says Janus. “It was created on a slow dewy morning. To our surprise, we had the framework of the song ready in just a few hours. Ólafur had the piano idea on his voice notes, which we recorded on a charming old upright piano. Then, I added a sleepy beat and recorded some live percussion to provide subtle support. We added a little synth bass and fell in love with the track.”

Kiasmos have an enviable knack for conveying complex emotions and evocative visuals with instrumental music. But this time they’ve got more experience as producers to draw on. The album’s expansiveness can be linked to Ólafur’s intervening years as a Grammy-nominated composer and prominent soundtracker in film and TV. And they’ve subtly shifted from four-to-the-floor to the frenetic broken beats of UK dance music, experimenting more with BPMs, echoing Janus’s time spent DJing in major venues worldwide. There are still those aching melodies that fans know and love but they’re catchier too: tracks like "Laced" and "Bound" have an irresistible, elastic bounce beneath the ethereal palette.

For Janus, it’s the effervescent yet serene "Sailed" – like a ship breaking the horizon, steaming towards the shore, having survived the storm – that best represents the direction of the new record, blending intricate percussion and organic synths. “My favourite part is the big breakdown followed by an epic drop,” he says. “It still excites me after listening to it hundreds of times.”

It’s a drop, but not as you know it. Kiasmos have always pushed the boundaries of genre and played with form, but their new material is full of masterstrokes that flip electronic music on its head. “Usually in dance music the songs will break down and then build up, build some tension, and then the beat lets go,” says Ólafur. “We decided to go the opposite way; you feel like the song wants to go somewhere else but it doesn’t. It’s like an anti-drop.” He also points to “when you release the tension in unexpected places, like on ‘Sailed’, or on ‘Laced’, where the breakdown transitions you into a different space. For me, music is all about that tension. That’s often what makes it interesting.”

Kiasmos welcomed tension in the recording process, too. The making of II was a lot about finding their way back to the spirit of the duo’s lasting bond: just don’t overthink it. “The thing with long friendships is, you don't need to force anything,” says Janus. “Sometimes life just happens, but then you meet again, and it’s just the same.”

The challenge, they say, was how to create something that felt fresh and exciting, considering how music and technology had moved on. If anything felt too easy, they went another way. “We just want to make electronic music that there isn’t so much of right now,” says Janus, “to take you on a great journey that is a little bit unconventional.”

“You have to develop into a new space,” Ólafur adds. But they had to impose limits, too, to keep them both on track and make something memorable (the earworm piano melodies of "Sworn" and "Flown" immediately come to mind). Often Ólafur would refuse to move on to the next idea until they’d perfected a chord progression or beat, to help them stay focused and forge, he says, a “deep understanding of what the song is.”

“The friction is the point,” says Janus. “It’s not all about when it goes well, there’s this romanticism about creative outpourings. But a lot of time, it’s actually the gentle nudges forward that are where the magic starts to happen.”

And II is – to borrow another of their new song titles – ‘Laced’ with plenty of magic. Together, Ólafur and Janus travelled to the north of Iceland to work together for the first time with SinfoniaNord, a division of the North Iceland Symphonic Orchestra, to record the album’s grand strings that ebb and flow among the pair’s complex tapestries.

They’ve never been prescriptive with their music, instead leaving them open to interpretation. Often they wait until the very end to give a song a title, so that it “keeps the creative slate blank,” says Ólafur. “As soon as you put the title on it, you start to subconsciously influence the song.” If there’s one overarching feeling that drives them on II, however, it’s hope. “We surely need some of that lately,” says Janus. “I hope too that people find some refuge for a moment in whatever they are doing with this album, be it dancing, drinking coffee or meditating.”

“It’s emotional rave!” laughs Ólafur. The magic of Kiasmos is also in the cathartic release that can happen at their live shows. “We often talk about the idea of crying on the dance floor,” Ólafur continues. “That’s become our unofficial slogan.” But they also want to keep everyone, including themselves, on their toes. “II is livelier,” says Janus, “but it still retains the signature Kiasmos style of transitioning from a whisper-quiet ambience to an explosive dance beat that can blow your socks off.” Their phoenix is rising from the ashes, and ready to take flight.

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