Serves a single purpose and nearly a singular mood.
Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson died early this year, leaving behind a string of remarkable works. At just 48, he may not have even reached his prime yet, raising the usual questions about possibilities that untimely artist deaths provoke. Jóhannsson’s career showcased a remarkable talent to blend ostensibly dissimilar components, whether mixing traditional classical music with electronic experimentation, or creating broad, icy sounds that became inviting or even taking a more pop approach to ambient composition (often uniting more than one of these dichotomies in a single work). This year has seen the release of two of his final pieces, the scores for Mary Magdalene and for Mandy. The latter, a Nic Cage revenge-horror pic, allows Jóhannsson to go to some of the darkest places he could find.
The soundtrack takes some cues from Jóhannsson’s minimalist side. Pieces like “Death and Ashes” move slowly, playing with time and evoking shadowy reds. The pacing throughout the album draws out the horror of the movie, more attuned to threat than to loss, but “Death and Ashes” finds unlikely meditation in its tones. Aside from its creepiness, this piece could fit in well with the composer’s more patient works.
That creepiness, though, is everything. The opening rumble of “Seeker of the Serpent’s Eye” never dissipates. The score, unlike the film, never quite gives into its violence, but it rarely relents from inducing fear. This opener pulses, gradually adding layers of sound until eventually dying away. “Starling” relies on a similar structure, but with more restraint in its delivery, more “Nic Cage walking down a dark hallway” than Nic Cage, well, doing anything else. It’s Jóhannsson’s ability to work subtle shifts in this throbbing gloom that allows the album to shift uncomfortably for its length.
Key tracks introduce important changes. “Mandy Love Theme” replaces the expanse with a subtle melodic line. The synthetic quality of the track keeps the odd tone of the entire score at the fore, while offering something more linear with the melody. The strange effect gives out not long after. “Horns of Abraxas” starts to turn darker until “Black Skulls” and its drone-like doom falls completely into the pit. From that point on, the soundtrack offers little breathing room outside of, oddly, “Death and Ashes.”
Played loudly enough, the album has more to do with metal than might be expected from Jóhannsson, and discovering Stephen O’Malley’s guitar credit comes as no surprise. The percussive elements are nearly industrial at times, offering variation within a disc of sonic heft. That variation helps the album from going too long in a singular direction. The soundtrack, fittingly, serves a single purpose and nearly a singular mood, reveling in that focus. That Jóhannsson does so much work within one eerie mindset is a testament to his compositional skills and a reason to stay in his vibrating caves. That we’re hearing his own final music makes the soundtrack that much more difficult to take in.