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Johann Johannsson Fordlandia Review

Album. Released 2008.  

BBC Review

Supremely calming without being in any way bland.

Martin Longley 2008

Fordlândia was a failed venture of automobile magnate Henry Ford, a vast spread of land in the Brazilian Amazon that he purchased in the 1920s, his aim being the harvesting of rubber for tyres. A combination of technical misjudgement and poor treatment of his workers led to its eventual sale at a loss in 1945. Having laid out such an intriguing scenario, it must be said that the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson's new concept album doesn't particularly evoke images of this unusual place and time. If it's steamy, then it's due to hot springs spurting in cold Northern atmospheres, rather than the humid sweating of South American rubber trees. Essentially, this lack of audio imagery isn't so important, as Fordlândia possesses its own distinct charms as a suite-like sequence of pieces.

Jóhannsson is again recording in Prague, mostly with a 60-piece orchestra. The strings are hardly audible at the beginning of the disc's 14 minute title opener, making their slow and stately progress towards an eventually fully-risen volume that might startle the listener. It makes a choral swell, but with strings rather than voices. Then, it recedes into the distance. There's a character that's reminiscent of Arvo Pärt's gently sawing developments, or more precisely, the steady processes of The Sinking Of The Titanic, when composer Gavin Bryars was in his most contemplative state.

It's sometimes hard to discern individual instruments, as Jóhannsson is concerned with the common compositional purpose. The sound of what might be either guitar, organ or electronic tweaking tends to merge into a single voice, gradually gaining in grandeur. Further comparisons could be made with Popol Vuh, or with the landscaping experiments of Fripp & Eno.

The four short Melodia pieces allow for a smaller chamber sound, with bass clarinet, harp or chimes establishing a quicker pulse, but still set against a brooding string backwash. Piano and churchy organ enter at certain points, subtly tipping the sonic emphasis, and The Great Pan Is Dead actually features a vocal chorus. The strongest release arrives at the climax of Melodia (the main nine minute piece with this title), with its low bass figure, faint percussion and billowing strings. The closing 15 minute How We Left Fordlândia has a theme that's suitably conclusive, entering Michael Nyman territory for the first time. This album might be a Fordlândia-style failure in terms of realising its concept, but its musical stasis provides a most extraordinarily tranquil sense of pleasure, supremely calming without being in any way bland.

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