Words and photos by Yousef Hatlani
If appreciation is the currency of success, it’s no wonder why Kiasmos are standing stronger than ever after six years: for a dense ninety minutes at Holocene on Thursday night, the Icelandic dance duo—made up of Ólafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen—were as visibly elated by performing as the teeming room before them. They were grinning throughout, both at the audience and at each other, and motioned with their hands to let ‘er rip right before a drop—usually once or twice per song.
At first glance, that might sound like an all-purpose description of any average EDM set. In reality, this was a special occasion: Kiasmos is the union of ambient/pop crossover prodigy Arnalds—who, along with friend, collaborator and label mate Nils Frahm, is one of the last decade’s most inventive neoclassical composers—and Rasmussen, best known as the mastermind behind electronic collective Bloodgroup.
The symbiotic relationship of these two minds is absolutely apt, with Arnalds’ swelling strings and Rasumussen’s crisp beats proving to be a natural fit for each other—creating a more emotionally intelligent thread in the field of graceful techno; music that inherently ties itself to memories.
Their secret weapon is charming juxtaposition: Arnalds’ Bach-derived melodies lift and glide alongside undercurrents of distorted bass. A warm, dejected piano anchors the stop-start snares around it. Meditative violins counterbalance sharp synths & reversed keyboards. The effect this has in a live setting is euphoric; there was no middle ground in the scope of enjoyment for Thursday night’s spectators—some were bowing their head in thought and reflection, while others were acrobatic. Just about everyone was captivated.
The group stopped by Holocene as part of a small, five-date North American tour promoting their newest release: an EP titled Swept, released just last month. The evening started with an ambient-centric DJ set by Beacon Sounds, followed by an appearance from opener Strategy, the project of local electronic producer Paul Dickow.
Armed with a vintage Roland 606 drum machine, an Electro-Harmonix Memory Man and two other fancy pieces of equipment I can’t pretend to know the names of, Dickow commenced his performance from the floor with the touch of a button and a nod of the head. As the show’s pace-setter, Strategy’s music impeccably combined many of the best elements of dub, house, jungle and ambient in a set lasting about forty five minutes. An imposing crowd had formed early on, upholding an energy that did not let up for the rest of the night.
By the time Kiasmos took the stage, the room had filled with vapors from smoke machines and lights so effervescent that many couldn’t resist touching their rays. When the duo’s silhouettes popped up in front of their projector screen, brooding strings made way for the playful hi-hats of album opener “Lit”—a sensible, levitating track that thumped with youthful poise. What followed was a set that leaned largely on their 2014 self-titled debut, including fan pleasers “Looped,” Thrown,” “Burnt” and “Swayed”—perhaps the most straightforward dance track in the group’s catalog.
Considering how subdued Ólafur Arnalds’ own music is compared to Kiasmos’, it was quite a sight to see the twenty-nine year old composer having so much fun on stage; while in any other setting he would otherwise be crouched over at his piano, delivering brilliantly deadpan banter between songs, both he and Rasmussen were bopping, exhaling and pointing upward with every buildup and breakdown. It was a refreshing sincerity—evidenced by great music.
However, it wasn’t until set-ender “Bent”—a brilliantly melded contrast of introspection and extraversion—that everything climaxed: after one fluid hour of four-on-the-floor dexterity, Holocene seemed to float into a collective rapture. About four minutes into the song, sentimental violins and furious bass clash perfectly. At that point, everything just locked into place: People around me all had their eyes closed. Sweat seemed to drip in tempo. The beat delivered everyone from their inhibitions and fears. And even as I stepped outside when it was all over, only to be greeted by the nimble but unsympathetic rainfall, the music lingered still—carrying with it a sense of warmth and hope.