Polish musicians Stefan Wesołowski and Piotr Kaliński form Nanook of the North. I write with faux authority as I learned this fact but 3 days ago. During those 3 days i’ve have very much been enjoying their eponymous debut album. What first grabbed my attention was that the release was by Denovali. Just about everything coming out of the label hits the spot. The label often occupies the slightly darker end of ambient, try Greig Haines for example.
I love an album with a story behind it. Nanook of the North was initially born of an improvised soundtrack they created to the 1922 silent movie of the same name.
In 2012, for the Sopot film festival, they were asked to soundtrack a silent movie. Finally settling on Nanook of the North, as it was a rare 100 year old silent movie that wasn’t considered laugh a minute. Years after the event, Stefan and Piotr re-recorded the soundtrack in, where-else, but Ólafur Arnalds’ studio in Reykjavik. Over a 7 day period. the result was a multi textured, richly varied but ultimately dark album.
Nanook of the North: A Story Of Life and Love In the Actual Arctic is a 1922 American silent documentary by Robert J. Flaherty. The film showcases the struggles of Nanook, an Inuit man and his family, living in the Canadian Arctic as they try to exist day to day. The challenging nature of the film has led to a score that is both haunting and moving. I say this having not yet seen the movie.
Musically it’s a meld of drone, dub techno, analog synths, piano, strings and field recordings including those of some Inuit guests. Given the harsh landscape the documentary is set in, the soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment. From the start of Siulleq the stark emotional darkness drifts in. It continues to roll on until an Inuit Eskimo chant is heard as the synth drops. It immediately feels cold, bleak and menacing. It is very reminiscent of the Rellik soundtrack created by Clark in 2017 for the BBC. In fact, that comparison is accurate across various points of Nanook of the North.
Tulleq comprises of layers of rich synths slowly building. The pedestrian 4/4 beat and piano threaten to burst open in Pingajoq but again there is a breakdown to reveal the piano section in all its’ glory. Sisamaat is a thing of beauty. Atmospheric and poignant, it is one of the 2 main album highlights. Tallimaat is a simple piano piece, sombre throughout, occasionally promising hope but ultimately not delivering. With Arfernat, the mood changes slightly as dub techno is introduced. Pitch this up and it wouldn’t be out of place in a darker techno DJ set. The nature of the synths in this track make this feel more industrial or even upbeat without changing the overall feel of the album.
The dark ambient drones of Arfineq-Aappaat are at odds with Arfernat. The introduction of a piano does little to lighten the mood created. I’m guessing this soundtracked a particularly difficult section of the documentary. The tone continues into, and throughout, the 8 minute Arfineq-Pingajuat. Inuit drumming enters along with the Rellik-esque synths building to another piano drop half way through whilst the synths continue to rumble on the background. The second half of the track is reserved for a slow build but never a full release of tension. A highly emotive piece of music which is the other album standout. Qulingiluaat is an interlude and hardly registers paving the way for the end. Album closer, Qulingat, created using a Korg PS 3200, makes for a fitting climax, slow and desolate.
This album is dark and moving, as it should be. However, on occasion, there are moments of light. It has only been a short time since the soundtrack release, but i am hooked on Nanook of the North. Now, to watch the documentary. I hope Nanook and his family were alright in the end.