Review: Gail Priest – Heraclitus In Iceland

My fantasies about natural landscapes can be relentlessly optimistic. And of course, these places can be invigorating. I’ve never been to the northern Icelandic coastal town of Olafsfjordur, but through the field recordings that bluster and foam through Heraclitus In Iceland, I generate an idyllic picture: boisterous winds rolling across the earth and smacking into hillsides, goading the sea into roars, flooding the space where noise pollution and civilisation din would otherwise be. I acknowledge the strength of nature during these fantasies, but do I consider the way in which this strength would impress upon me? Or the perils of being gifted so much space to self-reflect and spend time alone? Do I acknowledge the cold and the rain? Priest’s treatment of these field recordings doesn’t accentuate the romance of rural Iceland. Rather, it injects emotional and climatic ambiguity back into the frame, shattering the image of rural landscape as an unequivocally utopian place of escape. Through melodies that slur across the skies like dark clouds, or voices that sigh like a lethargic, phantom dawn chorus, Priest turns Olafsfjordur into scenic setting for the mind’s more complex deviations of thought: the threat and promise of technological advancement, the nourishment and pitfalls of extended solitude, the benefits and isolation of examining one’s life from the outside…or even simply the sensation of bitter weather gnawing at the tips of ungloved fingers.

So often I contemplate escapism exclusively in terms of departure. But of course, there’s the matter of arriving somewhere. On “Alien Aeolian Infrastructure”, I hear the strain and whine of unoiled joints (potentially from a piece of abandoned agriculture machinery), while a digital beat creeps in like the jaws of technological obsolescence. And thus, the humble pleasantry of tradition falls victim to the spotless immortality of the 21st Century. On “So Much Water”, Priest uses the pattering of electronics to mimic the inexorable flow of a stream; perhaps as a means of aligning with its constant churn and change, framing it as a conduit for both opportunity and inevitable moments of loss. The album derives its title from Priest’s contemplations on an adage of the philosopher Heraclitus The Obscure: “you cannot step twice in the same river. Everything flows and nothing abides. Everything gives way and nothing stays fixed.” While I’m occasionally swept up in the beauty of this natural landscape, Priest’s framing of this material – be it through sinister reverse-chimes, or ominous choral marches, or loitering ambient smog – means that I never lose sight of my state of turbulence. Rather than offering a place for stillness and balance, these natural forces become analogies to those urgent, inescapable cycles of change and departure.

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