The title character of Icelandic series Stella Blomkvist is a somewhat Chandleresque lawyer who powers the show’s neo-noir ethos. This being Iceland, the land of unbridled gender equality, Stella (Heida Reed) easily engages in the kind of drinking, carousing, law-bending, and overall moral flexibility usually reserved for grizzled, hard-boiled men. It’s a refreshing take on much-trod-upon territory.
The Óskar Thór Axelsson-directed mini-series focuses on Blomkvist’s goal to solve the murder of an assistant to the prime minister, in a bid to get her client off the hook for the homicide. Complementing the story is Helgi Sæmundur, who composes the show’s original series soundtrack, deftly matching the show’s refreshing style and substance and crafting a variously gritty and atmospheric, beat-driven synth score that packs the heft to parlay the depth and breadth of the Blomkvist quest.
Sæmundur has been a part of the Reykjavík scene for years, first making a name for himself as a vocalist and producer for hip-hop duo Úlfur Úlfur, whose elemental synth ferocity and heavy beats Sæmundur has brought with him to Stella Blomkvist.
But Sæmundur draws from other inspirations on his score, too. He has said that after hearing Cliff Martinez’s score for Drive, he got interested in pursuing film score composition. Disasterpeace’s score for It Follows and the Stranger Things score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein truly sealed the deal for Sæmundur.
The result of these influences is compelling — when rinsed through the sentiments of the likes of Martinez, Disasterpeace, and Dixon and Stein, Sæmundur’s hip-hop roots often manifest in a Vangelis-meets-Massive Attack fashion. The Stella Blomkvist score is contemplative, sexy, and entrancing.
Saemundur’s compositions easily move between the heavy intensity of the theme song, “Stella,” to softer, more atmospheric cues like “The Blue Case,” which reveal more closely his Martinez influence. The sharp arps, fuzzy ambiance, and compelling melody on cues like “Trips to Mali” and “New Day” carry the contemplative-but-driving spirit of Symmetry, the instrumental project helmed by Johnny Jewel and his frequent collaborator, Chromatics’ and Desire’s Nat Walker.
But Sæmundur’s score for Stella isn’t derivative of his influences. Instead, it’s a great example of what can happen when an artist synthesizes — pun intended — the various and sundry elements of influential composers and their pieces into something new and engaging. For example, “Taser,” sounds a little like each and every one of the aforementioned, but at the same time is a novel way to help propel the often dark tale of Stella Blomkvist.
The last track, “I’m Ready to Talk,” is a beautiful amalgamation of atmospheric synths, orchestral pronouncements, and kinetic live drums, big enough to fill an arena with a sense of denouement but small enough in intimacy to reinforce a true sense of connection with the show’s characters.
In effect, Sæmundur’s entire score achieves that dynamic. From the biggest, most hard-hitting Attack the Block-style moments to the most crystalline, lightly-touched Martinez reflections, Sæmundur has managed to craft a score that speaks to all moments in a powerful and sensitive way. I’m eager to experience more of what he has in store in the way of film composing — if Stella Blomkvist, his first, is this good, then we’re all in for a treat.
The Stella Blomkvist soundtrack is available now via Lakeshore Records.
Building off his interest in synth-driven film scores, Sæmundur is currently working on his debut solo album, which is heavily influenced by ’80s new wave and modern synthwave. The full-length album will be released this fall, according to reports.