On Friday, October 14, Albert Af Ekenstam’s debut album, Ashes, came into an already saturated singer-songwriter market. His story, though, is a remarkable one, so much so he brings his own emotional depth to the genre. The seemingly eternal sadness of his story lends weight to his lyrics.
His mother died when he was 12 years old, and his sister had to bring themselves up alone for the most part. It is because of this he can dwell on loneliness with some authority.
He has, also, over the years, learned to become self-sufficient and not rely on others too much. However, singer/guitarist, Sumie Nagano; drummer/keyboardist/producer, Filip Leyman (bandmates with Albert for post-rockers, Tempel) and trumpeter, Max Lindahl, have all helped Albert Af Ekenstam bring Ashes to life.
For those not familiar with Albert he lists Explosions In The Sky, Bon Iver and Mogwai all as his influences.
The year “1996” opens this album, slowly shimmering into existence before sedate guitar searches and rings out. It takes on brief, searching tangents and then soars delicately. It’s definitely tinged with melancholy, and features no vocals whatsoever. Quite an interesting instrumental, indeed. It ends on a fadeout.
“Ashes” sees acoustic guitar and, finally, some vocals. The arrangement might remind one of some of Bruce Springsteen’s latter works. His vocals seem, at times, to stutter as if unsure of himself. A tad insecure, even. It then rises slightly, the vocals either doubled up or inflected with an echoing effect. Again, a fadeout ensues.
The eternally sad “Angel Liz” is a mournful number. At times the vocals are isolated to give it an extra dynamic of pure melancholy and, in turn, this helps focus on the words sung. “My Angel Liz/I hope you will rest in peace” gives the greatest hint as to the content of the song. Is this perhaps someone who looked out for him in life and, now that she’s gone, he, perhaps, feels a bit lost these days? Wayward, distorted lead lines ring out, as if to convey his lost soul now that his guardian is gone.
Then “The Devil Bird” is more of a driving number, though still quite sedate in the grander scheme of things. It’s moody in the sphere of the singer songwriter, like downplayed acoustic power chord rock. The drums lock everything in, but the guitars show a degree of restraint. A light chugging. The closing minute sees delicate, melodic lead lines, ones that ring out set against a light backdrop. A tad of a cacophony ends the track, but is too near the fade to be heard in its entirety.
“Made Of Gold” is grave, the piano ringing with a certain finality. The vocals are mournful, as if to be dead. Then the heavy clap of the drum shakes you from this fatal reverie, as if to be woken from some sort of perpetual slumber. Maybe even it’s the clanking of chains as the dead, or walking undead, follow a line of procession into hell or eternal slavery.
That heavy beat seems to be reprised in “Walking”. It seems to be a bit more in the realms of the living, though. The feel of the track is like the joy of knowing, despite all the toil and heartache, redemption is on the horizon; joy is around the corner. Passionate piano accentuates this feel of suffering being all in good stead for a better future, that trials are, essentially, work before play.
“Blood Of Shame” has a similar echoing effect to that of the title track. It seems to carry on from the previous track, you can feel that hint of hope. The clanking percussion like a multitude of bodies steering an uneasy ship through choppy seas. The closing moments are pared back, giving, like earlier in the album, “Angel Liz”, emphasis to the words.
The year “2006” starts in a similar vein to the opening track, just questing guitars. However, this one has the moody backdrop of the thumping beat of drum. Chiming guitar is also set against lead lines with a tad of grit, though still delicate, light and flighty. A ringing fadeout ends the track on an ever so slight note of mystery.
Then comes “Falling”. This one’s quite bassy, really filling out that low end. That bass drum in the backdrop gives the track an ever so slightly rousing aspect. Certainly the song subsequently builds to a minimal, then highly anticipated, crescendo. This is certainly the liveliest moment on the album. You could argue this is a build up from all the emotional tension in the previous eight tracks. This, though, ends with quite a tame fadeout.
The end comes in the shape of “The Avenue”, and has a melancholy feel yet, on the other hand, has a certain triumphant and heroic feel to it, too. That’s maybe the most succinct way this reviewer can describe it. It’s a simple arrangement, but the way the closing moments come to fruition, with the guitars dropping out to accentuate the song title within those parting lyrical shots, is quite memorable.
The album has an excellent ratio of very good to excellent tracks. These include “Angel Liz”, “Made Of Gold”, “Walking”, “Falling” and “The Avenue”. “Angel Liz”, for instance, with those wayward lead guitar lines suggests a life as a wayward youth, perhaps even into his teenage and adult years. In short, lost without the guidance of someone, whether this be his mother or someone else.
Then “Made Of Gold” shakes you out of the reverie of its initial moments with a heavy clap. Maybe akin to a chain gang, rustling shanks of steel as they walk down a dimly lit prison corridor. Whether this is in real life or the spirit realm is the joy of the listener’s interpretation.
“Walking” seems to continue to evoke a similar feeling, and how you interpret it very much depends on how you view the aforementioned, previous track. The continuity of that beat certainly spurs the imagination on, though hope certainly pervades more in this than “Made Of Gold”. Things are still bleak, but the soundscape suggests a happy ending maybe on the way, that the suffering wasn’t for nothing.
“Falling” perhaps has you thinking the album will continue in a similar vein, then that hint appears. Things get slightly rousing, then they seem to, slowly but surely, build to a crescendo. It’s almost shocking in its execution, and it’s daresay the masterstroke of the whole album as it releases so much of that tension from prior.
Maybe happiness has arrived by the time “The Avenue” kicks in, as certainly a semblance of triumph seems to hang in the air. The hero riding through swathes of evil kind of thing. Maybe he doesn’t believe victory is a given but fights on gallantly, nonetheless.
Even outwith those very good to excellent tracks, there are numerous other, at least moments, in songs to appreciate. Like the continuity between “1996” and “2006”, where the two instrumentals have much in common, though the former, the album opener, is sans drum. When the drums do kick in the latter, you’re almost caught off guard.
Then there’s the titular “Ashes” employing a similar echo-like effect as later in the album track, “Blood Of Shame”. Of a similar aspect is “Angel Liz” and, again, “Blood Of Shame”. These both have notable refrains whereby the vocals are heard in isolation in order to better aid the listener in hearing what Albert’s got to say, whether poignant or gut retching and tragic.
Albert Af Ekenstam has not only put together a project that has a good return in how many of its tracks are very good to excellent, it also flows very well and the tracks pull together in a very cohesive manner. It’s a moody piece that simmers and simmers until, near the end, its boiling point. Albert Af Ekenstam’s Ashes can be bought from iTunes here.
Words by Andrew Watson