Feature: Jack Foley
THERE are fewer locales more awe-inspiring than the frigid recesses
of Iceland’s Western coast, a calm, glacial landscape at
the polar opposite of Jimmy LaValle’s sunny, bustling California.
Mossfellbaer, Iceland, and its surrounding areas are host to
one of the world’s most secluded and spotlighted meccas
of creativity – few outsiders are invited in.
LaValle – a classically-trained and prolific pianist and
musician whose ambitious projects have involved San Diego’s
seminal ambient piano-rock outfit Tristeza, the noise punk of
The Locust, the beat-driven GoGoGo Airheart and the gloomy, brooding
epic-core outfit Black Heart Procession – is one of the
"It was a constant invite. They kept asking me," says
LaValle, who befriended Icelandic sensations, Sigur Rós,
on their first US tour and eventually began occasionally joining
the group onstage several tours later.
Along with Sigur Rós, members of Amina (Sigur Rós’
string section) beckoned LaValle northward until he gave in.
"There was this crazy rolling green countryside with horses
and ponds. It was really surreal. I felt like I was on Mars,"
he chuckles warmly.
Outside of the hustling, bustling confines of his previous environment,
LaValle realised that he was in a profoundly different mental
space, one that would deeply change the very nature of his compositions.
He was in a safe place.
LaValle has released critically-acclaimed
solo work as The Album Leaf (the name comes from a Chopin piece)
since 1999’s mellow An Orchestrated Rise to Fall (Linkwork).
The releases that followed bubbled with moody, contemplative
slow builds and Brian Eno-inspired compositional atmospherics.
Structural drum and bass undertones ground and direct dreamscapes
that are painted with varieties of organic instruments, making
for sonic journeys that are as whimsical as they are epic.
During the realisation of 2003’s Lifetime or More
(Arena Rock) and Seal Beach (Acuarela) EPs, he prepared
himself to take on a new direction by experimenting, merging his
rich, textural documents with minimalist beats.
At the time of 2003’s recording sessions, however, nothing
could have prepared LaValle for the experience he had overseas.
"I’ve always felt that the music I make is perfect
for that kind of (Icelandic) setting," he explains.
Inside Sundlaughin – the name of the studio means ‘swimming
pool’ in Icelandic – and with the help of his hosts,
including members of Sigur Rós, Mum, Amina and Black Heart
Procession, LaValle was able to craft an album that ventures into
new, at times indie-electronic territory.
Chillingly delicate and more pop-based than ever before, In
A Safe Place masterfully negotiates the spaces between minimal
electronic music and melancholy instrumental neo-rock.
The inclusion of vocals from The Black Heart Procession’s
Pall Jenkins, Sigur Rós’ Jon Thor Birgisson, and
LaValle himself is one of the striking new strides that resulted
from this collaborative event.
"If I wasn’t in that environment," he marvels,
"I sure wouldn’t have sung!"
Fans of the album are advised to look for The Album Leaf’s
gorgeous live show, which includes a large touring entourage involving
projection art and live strings, throughout 2004.