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Stein Thor “Skuggaskil”

It is truly exciting for me to review an album by this fellow musician, whom I can easily refer to as my personal master of style.

Steingrimur Thorhallsson's signature sound was the first one that I instantly absorbed, adored and recognized ever since my early involvement with SoundCloud around two and a half years ago. No wonder that Stein’s style is so close to me, as we share similar eclectic musical tastes, both loving Bach, Shostakovitch, Morricone and Sting.

Born 1974 and raised in Húsavík, small town in the north of Iceland, Stein finished music studies in Rome, "Magistero di organo" from the "Pontifitio istituto di musica sacra", and has worked as a professional musician in Iceland. His piano solo works are neoclassical but not limited by any strictly defined boundaries: I felt their original, spacious harmonies as something modern, yet the delicate touch and the passion in them were those only few musicians have. Stein’s music is always fragile, heartfelt and elegant, yet intertwined with passion and stormy dynamics. So, here I am - writing while crying with joy as I listen to masterpieces of a soul-mate musician. I hope you will enjoy the album “Skuggaskil” (“Twilight”) and the review, as much as I did!

The first track of the album starts with spacious intervals and runs, which instantly reminded me of another favourite composer of mine, Michael Nyman, and his famous “Piano” movie soundtrack. Reaching such deep emotions with minimal piano lines alone is the essence of the romantic mood to me, and this effect is perfectly achieved here. Lovely unexpected harmonic moves create tension and release. The ending is just as original and surprising as most of the harmonies here.

Second track, “Skuggaskil 1”, contains a memorable motif that naturally evolves into variations in rhythms and dynamics. The music is delivered with perfect ornaments of trills and repetitive supporting lines. I could hear a shade of Chopin and very much enjoyed it! Stein is using suspended chords that are on the edge of disharmony, creating the perfect balance between the tension and relaxation, offering a treat and not overwhelming.

Coming next is “Næturljóð” (“Nocturne”), starting a quiet storm and then building up to a whole Baroque’s richness of melodies and counter-melodies. I could sense loneliness transformed into a madness, or life becoming too short with bitter nostalgic notes. The album is exquisite not only for its musical aspect, but for the fact that it all started as improvisations, later turning into note sheets (which I can’t wait to try to play soon!).

In the author’s words “Skuggaskil” (Twilight) is one of those Icelandic words that are very dear to him. Stein says in the notes for his album, “It is a very relaxing time, nature seems asleep, but I get inspired to write music”. And so is “Skuggaskil 2”, the fourth track - lovely with twinkling of high note inserts.

The following “Fljóta” (“Floating”) brings to my mind another favourite modern composer and a pianist I admire - Jim Brickman (who is a complete contrast to Nyman or Chopin). This song is a piano solo pop-rock ballad. It is well structured, full of meaningful story-lines in each phrase and move. I especially enjoyed the use of low register sounds.

Skuggaskil 3” is stylish: an almost Baroque type of meditation. I appreciate the phrases being rhythmic, almost abrupt, like icicles. Listening to such music gave me a “time transporting” experience, as I was sensing the touch of a clavier or a harpsichord.

Minning” (“Memory”) is very emotional, deep and melancholic. Amazing edgy passion pouring through the light elegance on this track. Same time, it was not just about the light - this piece has an obvious darker side to it.

Coming next is “Skuggaskil 4”, bringing on vibes similar to the opening track of the album. The mood is spacious, yet loaded with love and amazement. Listening to Stein’s compositions makes me guess that Iceland’s nature is full of miracles and inspiration. One of my favourite parts is around the middle of the track when minor changes into Major through a maze of complex harmony moves.

Mánudagur að vetri” (“Winter Monday") chills me to my bones with cello and flute in a dialogue of shade and light. The piano parts keep it all together, frame it with its pulsing heartbeat. I am lifted by such a mix of full harmonies and melodies, as cello and flute turn their dialogue into a simultaneous “choir” and then back to the dialogue. The orchestration is absolutely beautiful! This track is certainly one of my favourites on this album!

Skuggaskil 5” has an octave based melodic run similar to one of the previous tracks on this album. This piece sounds authentic to the wintry mood. The melody is gallantly dancing, sounding feminine to my ear.

Fararbæn” (“Prayer for your trip”) has a hesitating, worrying and almost complaining quality to it. An epic build up resolves only to start another cycle of cinematic musical story. The surprising Major turn at the end freshens it up too, what a treat!

Skuggaskil 6” is restless in its constant motion, with lovely twists from minor to Major in few bars, making it another favourite track of mine. Amazing speed up as the track becomes even more intense later, when the left hand’s supporting part turns into lower arpeggios. As always, it was truly inspiring for me to hear the marriage between Romantic and modern music.

While listening to the next track, “Lento triste ma non troppo” (“Sad and slow, but not too much”), I almost confused lower piano notes at the intro for another cello opening. It was such a joy listening to such a rich tone of the piano used in the recording. I must say that I truly admire the sound of Stein’s instrument and the recording quality, just as I cherish Stein’s pianistic skills and his composing craft!

Skuggaskil 7” to my surprise reminded me of the sound of the Israeli anthem. The chords are complex and rich, topping up the single note melodic line. It sounds heavenly, like a prayer, when it reaches the deepest and the highest points of each phrase.

Eftir storminn” (“After the storm”) brings in some jazz touch with typical Stein’s empty framed chords, using fifths. Another favourite of mine and I only wished this track to be longer, as it ended too soon, leaving me waiting for more. The flowing tempo and soft runs contrasting with massive chords turn this piece into some kind of a musical theatre, both for entertainment and for the escape from daily routine.

Skuggaskil 8” offers a full, dramatic exploration of melodies, shifting them from one key to another. This aspect of composing, especially while improvising (aka “an instant composition”), is so very close to my own way. Stein himself describes his artistic intention as delivering music ”directly from the heart. And it shouldn’t be too hard on the ears”.

Álfadans” (“Dance of the elves”) is light, flowing, flying with volcanic emotions coming to life at the middle of the track. Then it all settles into arpeggios with an angelic harp effect. Standing ovation for so many colors of a musical rainbow through a single piano tune!

The closing track of the album, “Ave Maria”, is also an exceptional piano piece combined with male vocal.

An outstanding album, without any doubt. And for a wide range of musical tastes and expectations!

Skuggaskil is available to buy now from here:

Album review by Milana Zilnik
Proof-reading by Arty Sandler