Stockholm duo graduate from Fever Ray's backing band to create an industrial world of light and shadow.
There is a set of promotional photos of Stockholm’s Roll The Dice intended to illustrate their recently released album, ‘In Dust’. Black-and-white and seemingly perfect for a diptych, the images are mud-covered portraits of the duo, Peder Mannerfelt and Malcolm Pardon, whose diametrically opposed initials belie their harmonious, productive synergy. Dressed in workers’ clothing reminiscent of the industrial era or the California oil boom, the photographs are less revealing about the soiled men than they are about the narrative arc of ‘In Dust’ itself. It is a story the two kept in mind during the entire recording process: one of two men, fresh from the vast, open landscape they once foraged for gold or oil, entering a city as labourers and discovering the dense claustrophobia of industry and metropolis.
Mannerfelt is a composer, producer – he’s one-half of The Subliminal Kid with Henrik Von Sivers – and a former member of Fever Ray’s live band. He’s also recently credited for production work on Blonde Redhead’s ‘Penny Sparkle’. Pardon is a composer too, though for film and television. Unfamiliar to complex composition they are not, but Roll The Dice is, perhaps, the two’s first foray into aural storytelling. Composed primarily with analog equipment, their lyric-less soundscapes sound like collages projected from the astral plane. After sharing a studio space for five years, they made the decision to work together: “We see each other a lot every day, but we’d never worked together,” explains Pardon. “The decision was to make something that we didn’t do usually or regularly. If we did anything, it had to be different than what we’ve done before on our own. It came together quite naturally. We had a couple bottle of wines on a Friday night, and just went from there.” This gave them their namesake – their willingness to “just roll the dice” and see what direction the process took.
That Friday night marked the inception of their first, self-titled album, released on Digitalis in 2009, which heralds the beginning of the story of the mud-covered men that ‘In Dust’ continues. For that album, the two restricted themselves in terms of how long they worked on each song so, says Mannerfelt, “we wouldn’t space out and work with one track for five months. Everything that was going to go into the track was going to be recorded in one night. It really helped us to find our voice by narrowing down the instruments we were using and narrowing down how we recorded it. Nowadays, with a computer, you have so many endless possibilities. You can just twiddle and fiddle with stuff forever. So it’s nice to set these rules for ourselves to just finish something.” Months later, when they began ‘In Dust’, they “weren’t slavishly working with rules. We already felt we had our voice. We knew more of what we wanted it to sound [like] this time.” He adds that the sound of ‘In Dust’ “came from the mental picture we had for it.”
Regarding this mental picture, Pardon explains, “We quite like the fact that we can almost create the [narrative] beforehand. It’s easier to add stuff to the song by having a story…On the first [album], the mental picture was two guys going on a journey to the new world, and they ended up looking for gold or striking oil – that kind of exploration. On ‘In Dust’, the mental picture was still the same two guys, but what they wanted to do was kind of a failure, so they had to move into a new area…a more urban landscape, maybe an early industrial situation, where they have to work manually in a factory.”
The first half of the story is as dense as the first – juxtapose a clustered forest to a clanging factory and both appear equal in their impenetrability and necessity for human growth. But the meditative qualities of their first album, that woody, organic warmth (what Pardon describes as a “more round” sound), though still present, now sifts its way through something tougher, clanging, claustrophobic.
The Frode Fjerdingstad directed trailer for ‘In Dust’ foreshadows the somber transition between these two terrains. As the two traverse landscapes by horse and by foot, the voiceover cites, in a way that is both menacing and matter-of-fact, “The plants seem different around here. The moths are darker, the rocks are dusted with soot…and in the midst of darkness” – now we no longer viewing land; instead, it is the image of Mannerfelt and Pardon in their studio, lit only by their machines – “the rising glow of synthetic lights.” The workers have not yet reached the city, but its exigencies have already made their way into the edge of the natural world.
On the album’s second track, Calling All Workers, the two arrive at their destination and their work begins. The clear, clanging bell calling them to duty dissolves in between the rise of a constant, repetitive key; listen and imagine the clink-clank of hammers, the deleterious factory air, and those muddy, tired faces. The pounding bass of Idle Hands is equally ceaseless before it descends into Maelstrom, a veritably dramatic journey of piano and synth and a steady drum, indicating the rhythm of the labourer and the inevitable monotony of his lifestyle.
But is this all so grim? The aforementioned warmth is still there, and even Calling All Workers breaks free of its own cyclicality about four minutes in, when a sharp piano snaps the patterns of the worker out of his lonely headspace, the synth suddenly echoing and beckoning one to daydreams. The title of The Skull Is Built Into The Tool has morose implications about one’s body fusing into one’s work, true. But however troubling the concept, there is also the indispensable idea that there is joy in purpose, relief in repetition, and, always, the ability to separate the mind from the body’s work – whether the skull is indeed attached to the tool or not. When asked if the story of the two men and the overall sound of the album are bleak, Pardon says, “It depends on what you mean by bleak. We’d like to see to see it, in a way, bigger, yet more claustrophobic in sound…It has a harder side to it.”
It is difficult to describe ‘In Dust’ without thinking of it visually. Roll The Dice’s accompanying visuals are as indispensable as their songs. The most obvious example is the black-and-white diptych, but the team of artist friends they’ve assembled builds the mental images the music creates till they become real, concrete. Frode Fjerdingstad directs nearly all of their videos, Julia Hederus creates their stage costumes, Gustaf Von Arbin does their album art – he is responsible for the images that make up ‘In Dust’s accompanying booklet: images of factories in front of mountains and newsboy-hatted men in front of factories. They appreciate the unique take each artist brings to the project; says Mannerfelt, “They’re part of the larger Roll The Dice group. We don’t have all the control of what’s happening. They get to express themselves as well.” Their live shows will be accompanied by Ruben Broman’s visuals; Mannerfelt explains their current goal is for him to “synthesise the images in real-time,” in direct response to the music. Pardon adds, “It’s a bit of a ‘rolling the dice’ scenario there, as well. It’s nice not having control all the time. You just put it out there and see what happens.”
The use of so much visual art and the ability of Pardon and Mannerfelt to let their work naturally unfold allows ‘In Dust’s tracks to transition from songs into works better described as pieces – transcendent, illustrative, as long as short films. Roll The Dice have drawn comparisons to Cluster, Tangerine Dream and Emeralds for their keen ability to create something surprisingly visceral with the use of electronics. But more obvious in their sound are visual and cinematic influences; even the plot of the two men is archetypal at its heart. Mannerfelt confirms, “I think we’re actually more inspired by cinema, in general, than by music and other artists or bands. We speak of [our work] more as cinematic pieces.” Some inspirations, he says, were “Metropolis, of course, or Stalker, by [Andrei] Tarkovsky.” Adds Pardon, “There Will Be Blood, too. The music is almost from some kind of film that doesn’t exist. We’re creating music with that sort of mindset. We’re not listening to other artists and being inspired as such. Obviously, it probably sneaks in without us knowing it, but…we’re kind of more inspired by vision.”