Johann Johannsson – Fordlandia (4AD)
Fordlandia‘s scope is massive and praiseworthy, but with ideas of such magnitude (this one is a continuation of Johann Johannsson‘s works exploring consumer relations with big businesses and technology) need to be balanced with the right musical expressions and ideas. For various reasons, Fordlandia does not deliver on the promise of its ideas and its tools. Mostly an orchestral album with occasional choral highlights, it is within the very fibres and nature of its instruments that it’s possible to see fault.
A tired history of over-indulgence and ridiculous bombast is attached to news of rock artists utilising orchestras, and it’s safe to say that Johannsson definitely does not reside on that side of the fence. It is a tasteful and atmospheric affair, but there’s just so much one can do with an ensemble of this magnitude that the epics don’t feel nearly as big as they should, and the minutiae that can make this nature of music so enthralling is bafflingly absent. The opening title track is, essentially, a thirteen-minute crescendo that leaves the listener unfulfilled when it reaches terminal velocity. This could well have been the intention, but for that much tittering, swirling and growth the listener expects a bigger delivery. It’s not so much an error in musicality as an error in decision-making.
Melodia II is, though sweet and (that word again) atmospheric, the palette of instrumentation is restrictive, as is the melodic line. This is not minimalism in that sense that tiny, repetitive ideas are layered and developed slowly, this is just a tiny idea repeated without much wit or evolution. The menace is enviable, though. When the instrumental colour does change, it is too little. Johannsson has at his disposal the potential to create death-defyingly propulsive contrasts in sound, whispers and shouts, but he rarely pokes his head over the fence to complain. There is a hint of Malcolm Arnold sombreness to proceedings, particularly the stately trio of Melodia I, but none of the verve and joy. It’s arguable that this is not a joyful record by an means, but the one-dimensional nature of the expressions and gestures are not the only ones available to convey this.
There are welcome interjections of electronics, of Kevin Shields-esque keyboard work (see his and Patti Smith’s The Coral Sea for more), but little of it diverts the listener. When, finally, we are woken up by said keyboards (softly) on The Great God Pan Is Dead, it’s like a weight has lifted. There’s no change in pace, but the gorgeous choral lines (wisely kept to monophony) add such poise, particularly when weighed against the quivering strings in the background. Only this, and a few other occasions, really satisfy and show Johannsson to be a writer of sensitivity.
The great desire is that he will, for his next opus, just go berserk. There’s much to be said for his purposeful maintenance of mood, but when that mood can no longer affect the listener it’s time to bludgeon us, involve us and really innovate. Let’s just hope he doesn’t pick Northern Rock for his next big business subject.
Fordlandia is available on 4AD records. Myspace.