I distinctly remember beginning a review by saying something along the lines of, ‘You know those times as a listener when a song, or better still, a whole album, comes along and, completely out of the blue, both knocks you sideways and restores your faith and confidence in contemporary music? Don’t you wish it happened more often? Well here, with this album, one of those moments can be yours, as it has been mine.’. I remember bemoaning the rarity of such almost otherworldly experiences. Well, as if you haven’t worked it out by now,Ashes the debut full-length album from Swedish songsmith Albert af Ekenstam provides the opportunity for similarly ample sprinkling of hyperbolic prose. It is wondrous, it is equal parts deeply touching, emotionally resonant and just plain lovely. It features ten songs of such fully-formed and beautifully-presented craft as to appear to emanate from the mind and heart of a battle-scarred veteran. That they are the first solo forays into the world of Albert af Ekenstam makes them all the more impressive.
It all begins with the atmospherically picked guitars and distant falsetto of ‘1996’, which sets the scene beautifully, bringing Af Ekenstam’s confessed influences, Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky, to the fore. As it blends seamlessly into the title track, two things become apparent: firstly, this will be a deeply personal, even serious album, and secondly, the microphone placement and mix of the album, bringing Ekenstam’s vocal so close that it feels like he is sitting approximately six inches from your face. As he begs ‘Please make up your mind, otherwise I will die’, you know that he is definitely telling the truth.
On ‘The Devil Bird’, as he sings "You’re the killer of hopes and dreams we lost, and you’re gonna die" atop a pulsing rhythm that, in the wrong hands, would become a Snow Patrol-like dirge, but here has the mournful life of the best output of Josh T Pearson, the sense of an artist striving for freedom, seeking rest, calm, in the midst of difficult circumstances, comes strongly to the fore. As the song fades, there’s an exciting, brass-adorned coda that it would have been wonderful to see more fully developed.
An undoubted highlight is ‘Made of Gold’, which has the same raw power and authority of the early work of Choir of Young Believers, perhaps the closest reference point for the core sound at play here. The chorus, “Troubles are made of god, try to wake up, wake up one more time, I will hold your hand” (with distinct apologies for my ageing ears if this last line is not correctly transcribed) is perfect for the soundtrack of the darkest moment of some classic film of the future. It is the song that should propel Af Ekenstam to household name status. Its minor to major shifts and strident instrumental passage swell to a searing climax. It is thoroughly beautiful.
Latterly, ‘2006’ another instrumental track, is a highlight, serving notice of the power of the band behind the sound which so graces this record. It is followed by ‘Falling’ which builds from virtually nothing to providing what, on first listen, feels like a suitably epic close to the record. All the best components of Af Ekenstam’s craft are here: powerful melodies which could belong to pop songs but here feel mature and nuanced, deep yet subtle instrumentation and the ever-present threat that things could take off at any moment. Whereas they haven’t thus far, the sense of relief and release when toms drive, hi-hats are opened and a lead riff floats ethereally atop a brief moment of snare-infused chaos, is palpable. And then, as soon as it began, it is all over, and we’re taken down ‘The Avenue’ for the proper close to the album, a suitably naked guitar and vocals take which showcases what it is that truly makes this album so special: Albert af Ekenstam and his collection of vividly alive songs.
8Haydon Spenceley's Score