“This is an album about people who blew themselves up.”
The statement resting quietly and disturbingly above, itself made by a friend of the artist, both literally and figuratively describes the content of Fordlandia, an album of nearly indescribable and exquisite beauty, all revolving around the concepts of failure and the advancement of American technology. The composer behind Fordlandia is Jóhann Jóhannsson, an Icelandic artist, known for his electronic compositions and for being a part of the famed Kitchen Motors collective. The album is the second in a planned trilogy about iconic American technological brands and the inherent sadness and hopelessness that inevitably comes with the folly of striving for a utopian future, the first of which being the critically praised IBM 1401: A User’s Manual.
Hinging a gloriously soaring and emotional orchestral / electronic album on a failed vision of a historic U.S. auto magnate might seem as overreaching and ambitious as the dreams of Jóhann’s subjects, but he ultimately and stunningly succeeds where his muses failed. The bookending opening and closing tracks, “Fordlandia” and “How We Left Fordlandia,” are inspired by the story of Henry Ford, and how he, in an effort to cut out the middleman in creating cheap rubber, had attempted to create a planned work and living community in the jungles of Brazil. The workers revolted, things got ugly, and now the rainforest has engulfed what once was Fordlandia. Jóhannsson’s two Ford-themed songs (there is also a third Ford song, which acts as a centerpiece, and will surely remind some of one of Sigur Rós’ more evocative songs, “Starálfur”) are perfectly symmetrical. One begins so quietly, you have to attain maximum volume to hear the stately 50-piece Prague Orchestra before it slowly builds into an epic wash of miraculous melancholy, while the other does the same, only in reverse. It’s as if Jóhannsson is depicting the acts of the discoveries of science, as well as their intended triumph over nature, only to, in the end, show that nature will eventually always win.
While Ford `blew himself up’ figuratively, losing more than $20 million in his utopian scheme, another Jóhannsson subject did it literally. Jack Parsons is an enigmatic and storied figure to be sure, being a father of American rocketry, inventing solid rocket fuel and founding the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, while also an avid occultist, being one of Alesiter Crowley’s hand chosen disciples and invoking the name of Pan before every American rocket launch. After a life that could only be described as `Lynchian,’ Parsons blew himself up in his own garage, though whether accidental or intentional remains a mystery. The song “The Rocket Builder (Io Pan!)” is more intimate than other tracks on the album, trading the large orchestral sound for his own Icelandic quartet, while the composer plays a delicate piano strain over hypnotic percussion. In two distinct parts, it intensely captures the collision of science and the occult, as well as the tragedy of Parsons’ end.
Jóhannsson elaborates on the themes of science vs. nature by evoking mythology again in both “Chimaerica” (being the name for both a mythological beast and a DNA molecule), and “The Great God Pan is Dead,” a song which a vocal chorus, with lyrics coming from a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The latter signifies the ultimate end of nature, and the oncoming rise of capitalism, sterility and science. Between each thematic composition is one in a series of numbered tracks entitled “Melodia.” Each “Melodia” can act both as musical exercise and primer for the composer’s upcoming melodic themes. All of these “Melodias” and Jóhannsson’s textual themes dramatically come together in “Melodia (Guidelines for a Space Propulsion Device based on Heim’s Quantum Theory).” The story of Burkhard Heim somewhat mirrors that of Jack Parsons. Heim, working on explosives during the Second World War, lost three of his senses when he became blind, deaf, and lost his hands in a lab explosion. However, Heim continued to work on theorizing a unified theory of everything, a theory that vastly gains support in the scientific community with each passing day. As opposed to most of the tracks on the album, the last “Melodia” is a true blend of science and nature, with the Prague Orchestra meeting headlong with crisp and sterile electronic percussive beats. The crescendo is truly something emotive and transforming.
Fordlandia, the astounding and far-reaching work of Jóhann Jóhannsson, is an album that makes me wish I had heard it slightly earlier. It was one of those records that snuck in at the last minute of the year, when in all fairness it was easily one of the year’s best and should be heralded as such. The magic of Fordlandia is that it requires your attention and can be dissected on several levels, as well as merely being an amazingly listenable piece of classical composition. Literary themes collide with musical themes, and all come together in a way that only the composer could have imagined. I’ve always found that the best film scores are such that they evoke images even without the accompanying film. In that way, I think that Fordlandia could easily stand alongside Philip Glass’ The Hours, Michael Nyman’s The Piano or Gattaca, and Thomas Newman’s Revolutionary Road. The stories that Jóhannsson portrays with his music is part Tucker, The Mosquito Coast and The Hours, and all of it is breathtaking.
Sigur Rós- Agaetis Byrjun
Michael Nyman- Gattaca Soundtrack
Philip Glass- The Hours Soundtrack
MP3: The Rocket Builder