Dusted Reviews

Jóhann Jóhannsson - Englabörn

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Reviews

Artist: Jóhann Jóhannsson

Album: Englabörn

Label: Touch

Review date: Mar. 23, 2003

The Iceman Cometh

Englabörn opens with a voice reciting “Odi et Amo,” a Latin poem filtered through a vocoder and backed by a trembling cello. Surprisingly, the voice doesn’t sound treated in the slightest, but rather like a lone echo emerging from behind a mountain of white in Johannsson’s native Iceland. The rest of the album maintains this imaginary panoramic feel, betraying the warm and intimate blues that make up the album’s cover and liner notes. Everything about Johannsson’s work seems as cold as the country of its genesis: the string instruments shiver in every solo; percussion so sharp it sounds like layers of ice shattering on every beat. One can easily imagine the musicians playing while wearing multiple layers, fingers red and numb and patiently watching their breath turn to steam during the recording of Englabörn.

Little information can be found on composer Johann Johannsson or his truly astonishing album Englabörn. I know I first heard it in early December, lying on my good friend’s living room floor in the hazy pre-dawn hours, watching the snowfall over the Maple trees in his back yard. Recently, I was taken by the album again: walking through a deserted Times Square during the recent blizzard, the lights and people gone, stripped down to the stone canyons that personify the landscape. I have listened to the album countless times between these bookends and I find it consistently in my portable twelve disc CD book, while many other great albums have been replaced and their replacements replaced again.

Johann Johannsson is both prolific and eclectic in his artistic endeavors, composing soundtracks, installations, operas and poems, proving that Johannsson has already completed a lifetime’s repertoire. He is also part of the art collective Kitchen Motors whose collaborations have resulted in chamber operas, books and radio programs. Here, his compositions for Englabörn are haunting and lovely – contrasting the notoriously violent play the work is meant to accompany.

The music is as mysterious as the composer himself. The leitmotifs are introduced early as simple, skeletal structures that evolve over the disc’s sixteen tracks. A lone glockenspiel, piano or viola first introduces many of the album’s themes. Later they are combined, often aided by the Epos String Quartet or Johannsson’s subtle electronics, to realize their Technicolor splendor. Englabörn is neither minimalist nor bombastic, but its sounds touch on everything in between. In the world of the soundtrack, Englabörn visits every genre: thriller, romance, drama and comedy. I am not familiar with the plot of the play this work was written for, and chances are that I’ll never see it accompanied by the music on Englabörn. So, I can only imagine the acts and actions that inspired the music – many of the tracks make me recall the ambience of George Sluizer’s film The Vanishing.

Tracks like “Eg heyroi allt an pess ao hlusta” and “Englabörn-tilbrigoi” are two personal highlights, and also two of the shortest tracks on Englabörn. While many classical compositions can be lengthy, but ultimately worthwhile endeavors, here Johannsson’s work often rivals the running time of a Wire tune. Yet, he manages to fit so much in despite the multiple themes and ground he covers. The album is extremely economical; there are enough leitmotifs for a second disc here squeezed into under an hour’s worth of music. Johannsson’s brilliance is that he never spends any unnecessary time developing the tracks; they seem meticulously edited and straight to the point like a Steinbeck sentence. Luckily, the mood and beauty are never neglected and despite their length, each song never feels remotely rushed.

The electronic elements on Englabörn are sparse, but employed appropriately. Johannsson uses only one of the album’s 16 tracks, “Karen byr til engil” to showcase his Múm-like ability to manipulate toy pianos. Despite this contrast to the tracks sandwiching it, “Karen byr til engil” doesn’t stick out, but rather, acts as a logical progression on the album. Elsewhere, Johannsson expertly uses his laptop on Englabörn, employing this technology to punctuate the songs and makes the electronics gel as cohesively as the rest of the traditional instruments. Elsewhere, like on “Salfraedingur,” the electronic elements serve as the percussion, elevating the track to an imaginary espionage soundtrack worthy of a modern Bond film.

It’s been tough finding any words to describe why I love this album. I can’t remark on its lyrics, I know nothing about the play for which it was written, nor can base my opinion on Johannsson’s earlier work. I feel that Englabörn is a real find and I’m now compelled to hunt down whatever else I can find of Johannsson’s. When friends pick up the CD case in my apartment and inquire about the music, I usually just simply tell them that it’s really pretty. My reaction to it was not immediate, but over time, it proved the ideal soundtrack to this cold winter. I highly recommend Englabörn, whatever snowy scenario you imagine to accompany it.

Now, as winter recedes and the warm weather slowly moves in, Englabörn will no doubt stay in my CD book, a souvenir of the season past. It will also, in a strange way, make me look forward to another blistery winter, hopefully with this playing on my friend’s stereo as we watch the first snowfall.

By Addison MacDonald

Other Reviews of Jóhann Jóhannsson

Virthulegu forsetar

IBM 1401 - A User's Manual


Read More

View all articles by Addison MacDonald

Find out more about Touch

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.