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Johann Johannsson is an Icelandic composer whose stately, slow-building and hauntingly melodic music has been quietly bewitching listeners for the last few years. His 2008 album Fordlandia weaves threads of thoughts together taking the the images of several subjects from an American magnate builds a doomed utopia in the depths of the Brazilian rainforest, a Victorian poetess laments the death of Pan, a pagan rocket scientist blows himself up in his Californian garage and a crippled German physicist draws up the equations which can make faster than light travel possible, unseen by the rest of the world. J¢hann draws these tantalising threads together, weaving a musical tapestry of hypnotic richness.
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Perfect headphone or loud system listening.
Opener "Fordlandia" focuses on Henry Ford and is the reference to the failed rubber plantation that he established in the Amazon in the 1920's. This project was to be Ford's perfect utopia although he did not calculate the risks that he would endure while pursuing. This sweeping track features a 50-piece string orchestra along with a lovely pipe organ and low frequency guitars. "Fordlandia" builds and sprawls throughout combining electronic beats throughout until it reaches its noisy climax.
"Melodia on track 2 & 4" are signposts back toward the main melody of the album and feature a moody clarinet. "Melodia 1" offers an air of mystery about it providing the segue between "Fordlandia" and "The Rocket Builder." The background behind this song is the biography of John Whiteside Parsons: a self-taught scientist who invented the first truly successful rocket fuel.
Parsons was a disciple of Aleister Crowley and the occult. He would often chant pagan sayings while watching rockets launch. Parsons was often at odds with those who worked around him, and died of mysterious circumstances caused by an explosion in his garage. On the track, Johannsson combines electronics with an orchestra ensemble to a stunning effect in this elegiac piece. Johannsson's music effectively conveys the act of discovery followed by feelings of dread
"Fordlandia - Aerial View" takes the listener back on a plane to Brazil. One can picture this single failed outpost in the rainforest as you see it from the air. The isolated strings that resonate throughout the song hint at the grandeur of this undertaking but also illuminate the loss of this endeavor. Johannsson mentions in the liner notes that he recorded this piece in a church in Reykjavik with no edits. "Melodia 3" was inspired by seeing Sunn 0))) play and Johannsson tried to emulate the low multitracked guitars favored by them.
The album builds to a climax on "The Great God Pan Is Dead" which is the first track to feature chorale vocals. Johannsson notes that the sung text comes from a 19th century poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The song conjures the turbulent mood of the lament heightened by the rain effects and otherworldly vocals. There seems to be a bit of social commentary in this song as well, as it examines the mass production techniques of Henry Ford and the disposable economy that is still favored to this day.
"Melodia (Guidelines for a Space Propulsion Device based on Heim's Quantum Theory) was named after an actual research paper. The back-story focuses on Burkhard Heim, a German who devised the theory of faster than light speed space travel. Heim dedicated most of his life to this theory although he was handicapped in World War II. Heim was left with a serious disability, he had no hands, was deaf and blind. This piece provides a little bit of warmth and hope on the album. The track features mostly bittersweet strings mixed with percolating electronic percussion building to a satisfying resolution.
"How We Left Fordlandia" is the epic resolution to this fine album. This vast and mournful song ties all the story threads together and bids goodbye to the troubled utopias. While listening to "How We Left Fordlandia" it is hard not to picture the vistas and peaks as they dissolve from the widescreen.
Having listened to the album several times now, I can say that it's a very moving listening experience. The lush strings paint broad vistas, and the slow tempos and cyclical structures wash over you in bittersweet tonalities that imply the themes of failure, loss, and abandonment inherent to the titular setting. The overall impression is of wandering alone among a vast ruin.
The mood that is created is very precise. If the music were more complex, it would ruin the effect. Johannsson has really struck a perfect balance here. I'd be hard pressed to think of music more appropriate for introspection or winding down. It's simply beautiful.
All that you really need to know is that the experience of listening borders on the transcendent and isn't to be missed. Very highly recommended.
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