t's a wonder that composer Jóhann Jóhannsson hasn't received more attention. A few years ago it was hip to listen to lengthy instrumental pieces from Iceland; now, it's nearly commonplace. While Sigur Rós and Múm take their influences from pop and post-rock, Jóhannsson comes from a classical tradition, mixing in contemporary approaches to electronics as well as his knowledge of the current scene (both in Iceland and abroad). While those loose connections probably aren't enough to gain him recognition, he should be able to benefit from sharing the same label as successful artists such as Fennesz and Philip Jeck. Considering the critical reception of Max Richter's The Blue Notebooks, perhaps the indie community is ready for a new dose of classical ambience. Jóhannsson's new album, Viroulegu forsetar, provides a solid starting point.
Rather than creating a series of short tracks as on his previous release Englabörn, Jóhannsson offers four longer untitled parts (14-21 minutes each), each similar enough in tone and consistency to maintain a united whole. The Caput ensemble (nine brass musicians, two organists, and a bassist along with various bells and electronics) performs the work. The clean production work is a necessary element of the recording, because Jóhannsson's bases his work around small shifts in sound, allowing his lovely passages to develop patiently over the course of the album. The tempo gradually slows down and speeds back up, and the end of the first track almost brings the disc to a halt. Viroulegu forsetar relies on these subtle shifts, containing melodic inflections throughout, but developing around change itself rather than around a given motif.
It might sound as if listening to this album would require a constant attention, and a scrutiny of fine details and nuances. That approach certainly provides rewarding discoveries, but Jóhannsson's composition pleases just as much without steady focus. Several of his passages are beautiful enough that you'll simply find yourself tuning in, or even responding to them unwittingly. One of the disc's highlights occurs about five and a half minutes into the first track. While a deep electronic sound drones on softly, the trumpets enter with a drawn out melody, counterbalancing the cold turpitude of the bottom end with some light, but without employing anything so quick as a quarter note or as loud as forte.
On one level, the music sounds cautious, but it actually reflects a deeper feeling of fortitude. It's slow, but unhesitating, and it's bright not exuberant. While the album is fairly stunning, fortitude isn't the type of characteristic that typically proves to be engrossing. The disc's all determined loveliness, but more fidgety listeners might have trouble. If you're looking for breakthroughs, though, you've come to the wrong place. Viroulegu forsetar isn't an album to break or restore your heart, but one to sustain it.