Siinai | Olympic Games
Most likely to: play a show at the top of Mount Olympus.
I’ve come to the conclusion over the past year or so that I greatly respect, and often actively search for, art that demonstrates the skillful use of restraint. I’m still unsure whether my recent foray into ambient and hushed electronic music was the cause or the result of that discovery, but that’s not important. What is important is that “loud” art and I (think M.I.A, graffiti, drum solos, pop art collages, etc.) are like oil and water, never meant to be in the same room with each other. This is why I was rather surprised to find myself listening to Olympic Games, the debut album by Finnish krautrock-revivalists Siinai, earlier this month. If I usually tend to gravitate towards Brian Eno and Stars of the Lid while I work and write, why was I jamming out to what sounded like Vangelis meets Holy Fuck? The answer is much less surprising. Olympic Games is a collection of psychedelic soundscapes and invigorating climaxes that, while in need of an editor, takes you on an evocative instrumental space-rock head trip.
Opening track “Anthem 1+2” is, stylistically speaking, the perfect introduction to what lies within this bizarrely structured album, and with a title like that I would be doing the album a disservice to not discuss it first. The album opens softly and we are greeted by a percussionless fog, shimmering and wreathed with lonely strands of guitar chords. Over the course of the next few minutes, what sounds like a sampled string section slowly crescendos and builds the tension to near-uncomfortable levels. And nearly six minutes later, they suddenly launch into action and begin pounding out a crowd-pleasing melody so unashamedly huge that it would make Zeus himself blush. Penultimate track and clear album highlight “Victory” also uses this method to great effect, exemplified by the uncontrollable urge I get to repeatedly punch the air whenever I hear its final two minutes. However, the steady build and climax of “Victory” are noticeably more dynamic and the payoff is more successful as a result. These are the band’s shining moments, when they admirably encapsulate the raw emotions of the fiery Olympic spirit, both in the profound struggle and the rise to victory.
Interestingly, the use of builds and tension is one of Siinai’s greatest strengths as well as their greatest weakness. They have a habit of creating very lengthy song movements, adventuring deep into the sonic space they create in an attempt to lull the listener into a spiritual trance. Only sometimes, that space is one that was never worth exploring, such as on the tortuously murky “Anthem 3” or the hollow back half of “Munich 1972.” The music here sounds completely directionless, all style with no attention paid to substance. They sound as if they were created with the intention of representing the moral low-points in a mythical hero’s character arc, but instead of raising the stakes it simply left me tapping my watch, waiting on the next track to drag me out of that aural limbo.
Thankfully, such unpleasant segments are few and far between. While “Mt. Olympos” bears some similarities to the aforementioned tracks (percussionless to the point of almost being ambient music), it instead sounds like emerging from a cave and beginning to slowly ascend into the sky. A single harmonized chord is cocooned in reverb and creates a delicate, featherweight atmosphere while arpeggiating synths explode above in a slow-motion lightning storm, whizzing about like fireflies.
Other notable moments include “Marathon,” with its heavy motorik groove and excellent use of shakers, as well as “Finish Line,” the monumental and fist-pumping closer that would sound right at home next to the Chariots of Fire theme. Both of these tracks showcase the band’s skill at creating a thoroughly enveloping atmosphere while keeping the compositions relatively simple. Don’t let that fool you into thinking that they’re amateurs, or worse, lazy—they simply have an excellent grasp on how best to let their songs develop, which in this case is at a near-glacial speed. By keeping the compositions minimal, usually as one or two distinct movements within each song, it makes the transitions all the more visceral and effective. Their ability to do a lot with a little not only emphasizes how much potential they have for future projects (keep an eye out for their collaborative album with Spencer Krug, dropping this spring), but it also neatly exemplifies that theme of restraint that I mentioned previously. Even when they’re making music that sounds like it was lifted from the Rocky credits sequence, they still know when to dial back the intensity and sink into a machine-like groove.
Watch the video for Olympic Games opener “Anthem 1+2″: