Wildbirds & Peacedrums are percussionist Andreas Werliin and vocalist Mariam Wallentin, a Swedish husband-and-wife duo that has produced about three LPs’ worth of material in the last three years. Their debut record, Heartcore, and its follow-up, The Snake, are eclectic, unbridled concoctions of various elements from jazz, soul, folk, and pop music traditions pared down to their barest bones. Arrestingly spare and clear, those albums explore every naked timbre and feel like full, deep breaths of fresh air in a musical environment where sonic obfuscation continues to be the order of the day. Their newest collection, Rivers, is actually a combination of two thematically related, vinyl-only EPs from earlier this year and represents some of Wildbirds’ most bewitching and focused work to date.
Each of its two component releases, entitled Retina and Iris, are composed with an even more limited range of musical elements than were either of their two LPs. Retina, which accounts for the first five tracks on Rivers, exclusively features vocal orchestration and percussion. Recorded in Reykjavik, Iceland in “a modern church,” the EP features Wallentin, Werliin, and the 12-member Schola Cantorum Reykjavík Chamber Choir as directed by múm’s Hildur Guðnadóttir. Deep and dark as its namesake might imply, Retina is adorned in an unbelievable natural reverb that renders every sound somehow mammoth and weightless all at once. Wallentin’s siren voice, stronger and more mature than ever before, runs fluid over Werliin’s propulsive, metronomic drumming and plumbs the hadal reaches of Guðnadóttir’s viscous choral arrangements. On “Bleed Like There Was No Other Flood,” “Tiny Holes In This World,” and “Peeling Off The Layers,” she really comes into her own as a commanding vocal presence, deftly balancing restraint and release with absolute elegance.
The second half of Rivers features the five tracks on the Iris EP. Like Retina, the atmosphere on Iris reflects its namesake. Brighter, warmer, and more flushed with color, this latter EP is sonically characterized by its emphasis on the steel pan. Its unmistakable, shimmering tones introduce Rivers’ first track, and it remains the only melodic instrumental voice for the remainder of the record. Despite this unusual voicing and the EP’s less immediately stunning sense of atmosphere, Iris is a far more accessible collection than the five tracks that precede it. Sweet, fluttering vocal hooks and soulful breaks are here in abundance, and Wallentin sounds more sentimental and sultry as she works over Werliin’s clean, punchy grooves.
My favorite moments on Rivers come when the mix is really spacious and exposed. On songs like “Under Land And Over Sea,” “The Drop,” and “The Lake,” it’s easy to hear not just Wallentin’s voice, but also the way her mouth and tongue form each word, and to get a sense of just the sort of force with which Werliin strikes every drum. It’s unusual to hear songs and sounds that so directly implicate the human bodies that produced them, and it demands a creative leap to pursue such intimate exposure. By the force of their musicianship on Rivers, however, Wildbirds & Peacedrums manage to own that risk as one of their greatest assets.