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Sicario (Johann Johannsson)

September 19, 2015

Cover_SicarioSICARIO

Jóhann Jóhannsson, 2015, Varese Sarabande
18 tracks, 54:11

Best known for his minimalist, elegiac and very pretty music, does Jóhann Jóhannsson actually have the musical cojones to pull off something as dark and gritty as “Sicario”?

Review by Pete Simons

WINNER 2015 Synchrotones’ Soundtrack Awards

What is it?

Directed by Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners” and earmarked to direct the “Blade Runner” sequel), “Sicario” tells a tale of drugs and corruption. A specialist task force travels back and forth between Mexico and the US, using one drug lord to flush out another one. It stars Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro. Reception of the film has so far been overwhelmingly positive.

The original score is by Jóhann Jóhannsson, who has been scoring movies since the early 2000s. His greatest claim to fame, to date, is last year’s multi-award winning “The Theory of Everything”, which won the composer himself a Golden Globe. Outside of the film world, the Icelandic composer is known for his minimalist, almost hypnotic works; and it’d be tempting (and not entirely inaccurate) to place him in the same category as Max Richter, Olafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm. Jóhannsson’s “Forlandia”, for example, is definitely worth exploring, especially for the two lengthy “Fordlandia” suites.

What does it sound like?

The album opens with “Armoured Vehicle”. At first, nothing seems to be happening, until very slowly an ominous drum beat emerges. Dark “Aliens”-like brass clusters follow. Gradually, things get louder, things get more intense. Okay, this is dark; but things get even darker as “The Beast” unfolds. An ultra-cool and relentless percussive loop comes to the fore – and this rhythm is a central element of the score, returning several times. Equally important (and probably more recognisable) is a cello glissando effect that is just so cool, so evil, so gut-wrenchingly unnerving. The war drums, because that’s really what they feel like, continue in “The Border”, accompanied by nervous string- and brass clusters. By now it’s absolutely clear: Jóhannsson means business. This ain’t no “Theory of Everything”. This is “I’m going to rip your fucking guts out and have them for breakfast”.

“Denis didn’t use temp music while editing, so I began writing the music with a completely blank slate.  This was both daunting and exhilarating,” said Jóhannsson. “Like Prisoners, it’s quite tense and has a certain sense of dread, but the instrumentation is very different. While Prisoners had practically no drums at all, there is a lot of percussion in Sicario; I recorded 5 different drummers and did a lot of electronic manipulation of the recordings.”

This darkness, this nigh sickening darkness continues until “Desert Music” presents something of a theme. It’s a tricky melody, mostly of a descending nature. There’s an ethnic quality to it. Had it been performed on a duduk it would’ve probably evoked thought of the East. As it is, it’s performed by solo cello, and still utilises glissandi very cleverly. The theme is taken over by strings, as woodwinds modulate nervously in the background. It may be an aggressive score, it’s still as hypnotic as Jóhannsson has ever been.

“Target” emphasises on dark cello chords augmented with col legno effects. And just as you thought this score couldn’t get any more interesting… “Convoy” offers a raw ostinato for cello that’s easily one of the coolest things I’ve heard in a long while. Again, it oozes bad-assness.

“I was partly inspired by the spectral writing of composers like Gerard Grisey and Horatiu Radulescu while the percussive aspect of the score was partly inspired by the group Swans – I wanted to capture a kind of relentlessly slow and mournful but still ferocious and brutal energy,” Jóhannsson described. “I used a combination of 65-piece orchestra and individual soloists, combined with extensive electronic manipulation of the recordings, to create the score. The orchestral writing is textural rather than melodic.”

“Reflection” makes great use of panning, as overlapping cello notes pan from left to right, whilst strumming guitar adds a unique colour to “Melancholia”, but don’t you dare expect any hippie or indie type music just because I’ve mentioned there’s a guitar. There’s something Latin about the way the guitar is played, but Jóhannsson still manages to make it sound dark and muted.

Percussion (the war drums) and cello return in “Night Vision” and “Tunnel Vision”, with the former applying the cello ostinato and the latter offering the glissando. In “Soccer Game”, the composer combines the glissando cello and the score’s key percussive loop with overlapping string- and vocal layers (akin to “Reflections”). I may be referring to the percussion as a ‘loop’, but it is actually performed live, and then heavily manipulated and granulated. The score concludes with “Alejandro’s Song” which again relies on these ‘echoing’ overlapping layers; this time orchestrated for strings and high-pitched vocals, accompanied by brooding chords, but no percussion. It’s an unnerving finale to a relentlessly unnerving score.

Is it any good?

Jóhann Jóhannsson’s “Sicario” is one of the darkest, bad-assest scores I’ve ever heard – and it is utterly fantastic for it! What gives it an edge is that most of it (perhaps even all of it) is acoustic. Sure, it is heavily manipulated, particularly the percussion, but at its core this is a symphonic score. The avant-garde writing fills a gap that was once occupied by Elliot Goldenthal. It wouldn’t surprise me if “Sicario” proves to be a tad too dark, too oppressing and too challenging for some. However, I’d say embrace the dark! And let it embrace you – though only for these fifty four minutes. After that, please return to your happy selves! Wouldn’t want anyone getting hurt now, do we?

Rating [5/5]

Tracklisting

1. Armoured Vehicle (1:39)
2. The Beast (3:14)
3. The Border (2:56)
4. Drywall (2:32)
5. Explosion (1:07)
6. Desert Music (5:06)
7. Target (2:01)
8. Convoy (2:55)
9. The Bank (2:03)
10. Surveillance (1:29)
11. Reflection (1:56)
12. Melancholia (4:35)
13. Night Vision (3:44)
14. Tunnel Music (4:39)
15. Fausto (2:16)
16. Balcony (1:35)
17. Soccer Game (4:19)
18. Alejandro’s Song (5:47)

Availability

For more information visit the Varese Sarabande website.

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