Jóhann Jóhannsson
WaterTower Music
When I first heard Jóhann Jóhannsson‘s soundtrack to Prisoners, I forgot that I have heard it once before. I was sitting in a theater in Seattle, watching this thriller by Denis Villeneuve about an abduction of two young girls. The bleak environment surrounding the sorrow, dread and a peculiar discomfort was punctuated by the orchestral strings transcending tension, angst and heartache. The atmosphere of the music was haunting and even frightening at times. The numerous variations on a prevalent melody were wrought with worry, turmoil and suspense. The textured ambiance took me to a place that I’ve attempted to escape. Except there was no place to run, the sonic storm was moving fast and soon it was upon me. It was only after the film ended that I spied Jóhannsson’s surname in the credits. Ah, but of course! A few weeks prior, this Icelandic composer of neo-classical, electronic, and cinematic music sent me a promo copy of his latest work. In my rushed preparation for a week-long immersion in Seattle’s Decibel Festival, I dropped the files on my iPhone, and listened to the music on my flight to the West Coast. So once the melody broke down and the instruments have wept, back in that theatre in Seattle, I have felt that melancholic touch. And I have felt at home again… In the past decade, besides his critically acclaimed full length releases on labels such as Touch, 4AD and FatCat, Jóhannsson has composed numerous scores for feature films and stage works. The soundtrack to Prisoners is available from WaterTower Music on CD, and via Jóhannsson’s own label, Kitchen Motors, on vinyl.

Steven Price
WaterTower Music
Gravity was perhaps one of the few truly ambient films that I have ever seen. Relying heavily on visual queues and sonic environments, the viewer is very much alone… in space… left to his own devices. Although there is no real sound in space (because there are no molecules to vibrate), some minuscule waves exist around equipment and compensate for perceived pressure levels. The soundtrack for Gravity by Steven Price is a whole other story. Price has worked as a music editor for two of The Lord of the Rings entries, and composed the scores for The World’s End and Fury (currently in post-production). But Gravity withstands alone. There is a malevolent synthetic theme with various oscillations, quivers and throbs. The score completely lacks percussion, and thus the suspense and drama are built up with variations in tempo, thick layers of textures, and incredible dynamic crescendos. Although the score is mostly dominated by synthesized and DSP-heavy sound, there is a ray of sunshine in the form of stringed orchestra and even a distant voice. “Virtually everything we did was designed to morph between electronic and organic,” Price said. “The droning sound is actually derived from human voices that are pitched down and stretched out.” The surrounding void is conveyed through psychological motifs, occasional machinery bleeps, and finally intense explosions that end in tinnitus and silence. This is an emotional ride, with the sounds circling, approaching and retreating in every direction. If Gravity represents the new sound of space music, then consider me on board! Highly recommended, especially if you’re new to soundtracks!

Ben Frost
Black Marrow
Ben Frost‘s 2009 album on Bedroom Community, titled By The Throat, introduced his followers to a growling sound of the unknown. On this self-released original score, commissioned by Erna Ómarsdóttir and Damien Jalet the beast is back. The rhythmic abstraction of distorted pulses and tones is submerged in sub-bass frequencies, industrial drone and the din of singing bowls. The animal that haunted many of my nightmares is heaving, growling and retching in the spasms of dying throes. If I’ve ever used an adjective such as “unnerving” to describe his music, than Frost has surely redefined its meaning once again. This is an agitated, turbulent and wild journey, full of static, discord and noise. At one point the creature sounds human, yet I can’t possibly picture its agonized eyes. Somewhere in the foreground some strings brood over the synthetic insects, while the beast is gasping for air. The soundtrack also features the work of Oren Ambarchi, Borgar Magnason, Nico Muhly and Helgi Hrafn Jónson, but amidst the disturbing palpitations I can not possible picture a performance by Chunky Move Dance Company, which Black Marrow is supposed to accompany on the stage. Beyond the adjectives conveying my distress lies the music that simply makes me feel. And when this self-released seven-piece soundtrack ends, I move on to other recent works by Mr. Frost: FAR and Sleeping Beauty. All three are available digitally directly from Frost’s bandcamp.

Peter Peter and Peter Kyed
Valhalla Rising
Having not seen Valhalla Rising by Nicolas Winding Refn, I could still tell that it is a pretty drab affair. This 2009 film follows a Norse warrior, a boy, and a band of Christians in pursuit of a Crusade set in 1,000 AD. The soundtrack, released by Milan Records almost four years after the film, features fifteen tracks, alternating between short soundscapes by Giles Lamb and Douglas MacDougall; and longer cinematic pieces (sometimes approaching the ten minute mark) by the actual composers of the score, Peter Peter and Peter Kyed. The atmosphere rumbles with low frequencies, digital growls, and viking drums. The dark ambient drones are incredibly sinister, sometimes diving into abyssal and infernal depths, where sin and evil suffer in pain. Although I’m missing the visual component of this story, I must admit that its sonic part makes up in full. Auditory images of sacrificial rites, demonology and Norse mythology fill the foreground of this canvas, while track titles, such as “Caged“, “Christians“, and “Into Hell” provide the story behind the film. This is not a piece for the faint-hearted or deep listening at nights, unless, of course, you dare to let the music scare you. If latter is the case, well, come on in, turn off all the lights, turn up you sub (or grab some seriously bass-heavy headphones), and immerse yourself in this cavernous and endless trip, preferably in a horizontal position. Milan Records is a Los Angeles based label releasing favorite scores by Max Richter, Jóhann Jóhannsson and Clint Mansell.