Multi-instrumentalist Hildur Gudnadottir is best known as an occasional cellist for Pan Sonic and Animal Collective, a choir arranger for Throbbing Gristle, and a member of múm. Without Sinking, her second solo effort, doesn’t correspond exactly to the aesthetics of any of her erstwhile partners, but like all of them, it puts a premium on instigating an emotional response. In this case, it’s a rather melancholy one; from the foggy cover image to the deliberately paced melodies, she seems intent on evoking a mood congruent with serotonin depletion and Vitamin D deprivation.
Put plainly, this is gloomy fare. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since it’s harder to make a telling artistic statement out of joy than sorrow. But as striking and well played as Gudnadottir’s sounds may be, Without Sinking is ultimately unsatisfying. The whole album feels like it was composed to go with a film chock full of tragic images, or maybe a coffee-table book of black and white tableaux depicting misty moors or icy fjords. It abounds with exquisitely rendered gestures, like the plucked zither that glints from within “Circular”’s layered cellos and electronics, and the higher pitches that ghost her keening lead on “Whiten.” The way “Aether” opens from delicate strings into complex clarinet textures attests to her arranging skills. When she goes for boldness on “Erupting Light,” she only comes up with rather hackneyed melodrama.
The album lacks a center, something strong enough to make it stand alone. It feels more like a calling card advertising her readiness to embark upon a career scoring films than an argument for her actual merits as composer.