Jóhann Jóhannsson

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Fordlandia Review

by Heather Phares

The second installment in Jóhann Jóhannsson's trilogy of albums about technology and iconic American brand names, Fordlandia expands on IBM 1401, A User's Manual by chronicling, among other things, the failure of Henry Ford's Brazilian rubber plant with the power of a 50-piece string orchestra. IBM, which included recordings of its titular computer, could have been gimmicky or overly conceptual, but the results were remarkably moving and personal. While Fordlandia is slightly more straightforward musically, its concepts and emotional impact are much more involved and ambitious. Fittingly, ambition is one of the album's major themes, along with failure, mortality, immortality, and technology's potential for creation and destruction. Jóhannsson depicts these dualities with portraits of great heights and, mostly, deep losses. Ford's doomed project -- which he envisioned as a utopia but ended in disaster, with rioting workers and the development of synthetic rubber, ultimately costing him millions of dollars -- provides the thematic backbone for the album's major pieces. "Fordlandia"'s strings and subtle electric guitars are never less than majestic, but move gradually and naturally from hope to bittersweet doubt over the course of 13 minutes, keeping the intimacy that Jóhannsson's work has shown since Englaborn. That bittersweetness wells into sorrow on "Fordlandia -- Aerial View"; recorded in a Reykjavik church with no edits, its aching strings and low-rumbling percussion sound equally devastated and beautiful.

Fordlandia also tells equally fascinating stories of creation and destruction that are less well known than Ford's: "The Rocket Builder (Lo Pan!)" takes its inspiration from self-taught chemist, rocket propulsion researcher, and occultist Jack Parsons, building from strings to precise electronics that overtake the track with a tense, slightly sinister beauty that deepens into dread thanks to doomy guitar chords. Its foil is "Melodia (Guidelines for a Space Propulsion Device Based on Heim's Quantum Theory)," inspired by German physicist Burkhard Heim, who, despite being blind, deaf, and having lost his hands in a World War II accident, devised a theory for space travel faster than the speed of light. Named after a research paper based on his work, the piece soars skyward on a looping pipe organ melody and streaming synths and strings, offering some hope among the rest of Fordlandia's gloom. "The Great God Pan is Dead" -- which alludes to Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poems about the demigod who embodied creation and destruction for her -- crystallizes these dualities, as well as the album's profound sense of loss, with choral vocals and rain.

Fordlandia's shorter pieces are nearly as heady and substantial as its major tracks: "Chimaerica"'s title blends the monster of Greek mythology with America, and its mournful pipe organ melody underscores the feeling that this album is a funeral service for the American dream. Variations on the "Melodia" theme tie the larger pieces together, appearing first as a clarinet-driven piece that evokes Ford's '20s heyday, then augmented with deep guitars inspired by Sunn 0)))'s work, and finally as a ghostly wash of strings and clarinets. Another 13-minute elegy, "How We Left Fordlandia," closes the album by uniting its concepts and musical themes in a somber but satisfying farewell. While knowing the inspiration behind the album reveals its depth, its music is more than powerful enough to be appreciated without the historical context that informs it. Beautiful, thoughtful, and sad on a grand scale, Fordlandia is nearly as ambitious as the stories it tells, but unlike its source material, it's another success for Jóhannsson.

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