Acclaimed for film scoring in the past 15 years, Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson has recently become the trusted go-to collaborator for director Denis Villeneuve and his stunning pictures, 2013's Prisoners and 2015's Sicario. Now they have delivered their third collaboration, the sci-fi movie Arrival. It should be noted foremost that Jóhannsson approached the score in a traditional way, recording everything with session musicians in assorted rooms, using the effect of layering to create texture with little use of sequencers, and relying on the processing of acoustics as opposed to digital manipulation. The move has proven to be a bold one, as the score is an entirely unique contribution to the story that it's soundtracking. The opening title track sets the tone, consisting of layer upon layer of piano drones that mesh between one another, some slightly higher in pitch than others, building to one of the most gradual, ominous crescendos you've ever heard. "Heptapod B" introduces the first taste of vocal manipulation. Recorded with vocal ensemble Theatre of Voices, indistinct voices segue, meld, and layer upon one another as distant, rumbling percussion and reverberated bass wash around the central theme. "Sapir-Whorf" largely consists of the same vocals, while urgent violas cut in, giving us Jóhannsson's signature use of discordant bass tones, something that the composer has always done magnificently, transforming a stringed instrument into something that is effectively utilized as percussion.
A key success with this soundtrack is the use of velocity and volume; at one point or another, every element seems to fade away into silence or give way to other instrumentation, only to unexpectedly return at certain points, completely transforming the overall timbre of the track. "First Encounter" exemplifies this well, harking back to Jóhannsson's approach with Sicario; those distinct, queasy bass strings that rise and fall unpredictably give way to a silence that is just as effective as the parts occupied by other sounds. While some tracks encapsulate ambience and awe, others are a bit more concerned with action-oriented scenes, and the overall sonic palette is something quite different and never boring. Penultimate track "Rise" delivers more of those huge, sweltering, and organic bass notes with portentous strings, while some of the record's final vocal snippets calm the mix in every other bar. Which moves on nicely into the final track, "Kangaru," where listeners are reintroduced to the vocal experimentation from earlier, yet with bright and opulent string suites drifting around the mix. Another testament to Jóhannsson is that he began writing the score as shooting of the film began -- an impressive feat considering how well Villeneuve can trust his composer to soundtrack his vision before it's even left his head. Arrival is a fantastic album and a great piece of film score work, delivering menacing, daunting cacophonies of noise that evoke all types of fear, wonder, and intrigue that are evident within the movie itself.