EP REVIEW
Words: Andrew C. Kidd



Swan/Koistinen ‘Swan/Koistinen’ EP
(Soliti Music)  3rd Match 2019


Astrid Swan and Stina Koistinen star in this free-spoken and weighty musical narrative, which they describe as an “art pop symphony for two voices”. Their collaborative work takes the listener into a world of hospitals, cancer treatments and the gritty realism of living with a life-limiting illness. An in-depth feature in Flow Mag describes the incurable cancers that Stina Koistinen and Astrid Swan both have and the process that led to the recording of this extended play: “cancer brought us together”, the duo put plainly1.

The EP is composed of four tracks of pianos, guitars and subtle electronics that lie beneath crisp, harmonised and electronically edited vocals. Samples even include the mechanical sounds of a magnetic resonance imaging scanner, adding further depth. The string arrangements come courtesy of Canadian violinist Owen Pallett who has previously written compositions for the likes of The Arcade Fire, Frank Ocean and Charlotte Gainsbourg. The accompanying visuals have been filmed in collaboration with Tekla Vály.

The EP opens with ‘Diagnosis’, a track that builds upon a throbbing, modulated synth and crunching beat. The vocals are unabashedly raw: “gimme just one more day”, is the appeal. The visuals on ‘Diagnosis’ are abstract and immersive. A brief glimpse of a snail quickly leads to images of hands coursing over an uneven wall. The stone masonry becomes increasingly complex as footage of lattice brickwork eventually pans across to a bust of a stony head; perhaps these symbols represent cancer growth? Or even maturation of their thought processes as they reach a point of realisation? The hands continue to course over a person lying prostrate before touching toys and eventually broken musical instruments. As the synths and strings filter away, we are left in a grassy field with blood-red flower heads and a lone woman in a dress, making circles with her hands; the latter images are much closer-to-home and sum up the all-consuming and life-altering nature of their respective diagnoses.

‘Hospital’ follows. The reddened filter of a naked person web-laced and alarm-like, key-changing synths and stabs of the strings imbue conflict. The piece builds up to a frenzy before the reverberated vocals expand and filter out in harmony; a metaphor for feelings of anxiety gently soothed by the calming hand of youthful optimism.

“It’s not me”, is the opening line sung on the emotive ‘Symptoms’. The sparse string arrangements, high-pitched arpeggio of the piano and grainy images of a silhouetted-figure dancing in the background allude to a sense of oblivity. The fragile vocals touch upon the temporal: days add up to months, which in turn become years. “I’m no longer invincible”, the duo sing. The contrasting Martelé and tremolo of the strings further these ideas of uncertainty and, ultimately, loss.

The duo concludes with the determined ‘Singing’. It starts as a quasi-reprise of the previous piece. “I’m still here”, is sung over piano and a string section which continually climb the scales, lifting the sounds to lofty and triumphant heights. The colours in Vály’s accompanying visuals are now warmer, more sanguine. Up until this point the EP has been stylistically very free form, suspended somewhere in the murky ambience of the trip hop, chamber pop and electronica sub-genres. The slow shuffle rhythm played out on the drums provides a momentary point of temporal reference for the listener. The EP concludes here.

The external manifestations of cancer are somewhat brash and often visible: a lump, a blemish, and hair loss. The internal impact is much harder to comprehend. People may experience loss or complete devastation. They may even meet it with indifference or a joyless hyperactivity. Regardless, a cancer diagnosis will most certainly be the start of a long and oft-times silent journey spent in the twilight. This is the impression that I got when listening to the Swan/Koistinen EP. They share the trauma and struggle and incertitude of the seemingly irrational paths that they have encountered. As the listener, one could easily become lost in the turmoil and ceaselessness of the situation. Yet, it is through the strength of the duo that the listener is led forward to a place of light and life. It is exactly here, in the broad, blinding daylight of this metaphysical clearing, where Swan and Koistinen connect so strongly and where their voices can be heard the loudest.

1Ylitalo M. Time Heals Not. Flow Magazine, 2019. p21 & 22. Available from: https://www.flowfestival.com/current/uploads/2019/05/FlowMag19_web.pdf





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