The unpleasant mugginess of a British pre-Summer’s eve that currently envelopes me seems worlds apart from the landscapes that gave rise to married duo Echo Island’s Hivernal. It’s about as subtle as an ice cube down the back of your shirt, teeming with coldness and all of its associations, except with much more presence. The elements have been the subject of song since man first learned to walk upright, and insomuch, there’s something poetically primeval about a record devoted entirely to winter and its charms. It feels awestruck, and the glazed eyes have been frozen in place.
Electronic music is one of the most pliable art forms; you can press it and shape it to fit whichever mould you see fit, and yet it also seems to lend itself especially to the vice grips of cold if only by way of its inherent sharpness. Across the board on Hivernal, Brad Hawes captures synths that ebb and plink like icy water, or breathe the same as an Arctic wind, and there’s no other way to spin it. The bells chatter as teeth do, the drums stutter as we do, and the expanse is as stark as the winter is long.
The pacing of the record seems to mimic the slow pans that accompanied the Planet Earth documentary series, appropriately gradual – the jazz lounge keyboards of ‘The Longest Night’ skulk into the hair-raising shivers of ‘Numb (Like The Snow)’, gliding on the barely uttered vocals akin to the aching drawl of The xx‘s Oliver Sim, before cascading into the oblique fuzz of a harsh, brief blizzard.
Similarly desaturated is ‘A Grey Dream’, which sees the haunting vocals of Kara Hawes permeating the bitter chill of stabbing keys, shuddering cymbals and a quaking bassline. The French language is one that I’m yet to master; it always sounds so ethereal, and here it not only enshrouds the track with mystique but calls upon the history of the Wisconsin terrain that so inspired the duo. By the time you reach Hivernal’s close, you’re bound and preserved in time by the thick ice, and ‘Crystal Trees’ is the frosted ambiance that steers itself around you. It ushers a brittle pulse, the twinkling of sunlight bouncing off the branches, shedding layers until all that’s left is the whistling wind – an ode to the beauty that nature unwittingly founded.