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Friday, November 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 19.0° F  Overcast
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Amiina casts a spell in Madison
Souls on ice at Café Montmartre
Amiina spins moody, minimalist music from the crowded stage at Montmartre on Wednesday night.
Credit:Ktinsley Laskin

With Icelandic indie-prog sensations Sigur Ros, the four women of Amiina play a demure backup role, serving on stage as their countrymen's live string quartet. In fact, when Sigur Ros's swelling, wall-of-sound arrangements reach their ecstatic apogee, it's often difficult to discern precisely what Amiina's sonic contributions to this surreal music are. The calm, impossibly pale-skinned ladies certainly aren't window-dressing in this context, but at times they're literally lost in the mix.

When they strike out on their own, it's a much different story, as a capacity, mostly college-age crowd discovered at a steamy Cafà Montmartre on Wednesday. Amiina did sit down together with their electric violins, viola and cello from time to time to play moody, minimalist music that recalled a variety of modern composers.

But mostly, they used a sprawling array of instruments, including electronic keyboards, tuned wine glasses filled with water (a riff on classical music's "glass harmonica"), xylophone, glockenspiel and autoharp, to provide live glosses on the cyclical compositions that appear on the handful of recordings they've released under their own name.

The key to their by turns eerie and charming music is their live use of digital looping. At Cafà Montmartre, for example, the rousing, xylophone-propelled "Seoul" built slowly from a mellow, mystical etude of warbling of electronics to a full-on, percussion-heavy cacophony as curt melodies and rhythmic parts were captured digitally and layered atop one another. More restrained, chiming material like the quiescent "Ugla" benefitted from the same process of layering and looping sonic textures.

Although Amiina were wearing jeans and loose-fitting tops an hour so before the show and looked very much like ordinary college kids, they changed into prim, primary-color dresses for the concert. The costuming was plainly designed to make their performance seem quasi-classical and, well, more serious. And for the most part, Amiina remained in character, which made woozy tunes centered on musical saw or bowed xylophone seem that much more otherworldly.

But the occasional technical snafu (including a keyboard problem that aborted what was apparently the first live run-through of a gauzy cut from their new album Kurr) upset their studious bearing, and frankly, it was a relief to discover that these four ethereal ice maidens could also giggle and blush like mere mortals.

Note: Other persons taking in Amiina's performance at Cafà Montmartre also wrote about the show. Sarah Hing Leadley described the stage laden with instruments, along with the four bow-wielding musicians: "They are magical musical Icelandic elves -- so cute and extraordinarily talented." Ryan Matteson, meanwhile, emphasized the "layers of sound" in their compositions, and concluded, "it was refreshing to take in an act so unique and different from the majority of the artists that swing through town." Finally, Jesse Russell describes the show as a "rare treat."

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