Inspired on his commutes to work by the new album from Apparat Organ Quartet, Chris Parkin hails Icelandic Renaissance man Johann Johannsson…
Icelandic musician Jóhann Jóhannsson collaborates with more people more often than an unskilled rapper. Only his chosen projects are rather more artful than those picked by Akon.
To list just a few of them, in the early part of the last decade Jóhannsson worked with choreographer Erna Omarsdottir on a performance dance piece called IBM 1401, A User's Manual, which he then reworked with strings, electronics and a 60-piece orchestra for his 4AD debut in 2006. He’s also teamed up with Marc Almond, Barry Adamson, Finland’s post-techno outfit Pan Sonic, Stereolab lady Laetitia Sadier, and is a founding member of Iceland’s intriguingly (and proudly) bonkers art collective Kitchen Motors. Phew, right?
This year Jóhannsson has been in collaborative overdrive. As well as writing music for a new studio album of his own, he’s composed for symphony orchestras and scored a series of films, including the wonderful The Miners’ Hymns, a project he undertook with filmmaker Bill Morrison.
Morrison’s collage of old archive footage is a moving eulogy to Durham’s coalmining past, taking in everything from proud coalmining families, men in hard hats scurrying about underground and kids messing about in a sea of coal to shabby tenement homes, strikes and decimated landscapes.
For his score Jóhannsson researched colliery brass bands from the area, listened to old Victorian hymns, and eventually recorded with the area’s brass players. The result is a stunning, haunted, tear-stained score that you can now buy as a standalone album. Read an interview with Jóhannsson and Morrison about The Miners’ Hymns here.
After the beautiful rise and fall of brass on The Miners’ Hymns, then, it’ll come as bit of a brick in the face when you listen to Jóhannsson’s other 2011 collaborative project, Apparat Organ Quartet.
The main reason for hailing Jóhannsson in this week’s blog is that this band’s new (second) album Pólyfónia, out a week on Monday, has made this week’s commutes rather frustrating – if only because the Teutonic silver-plated robot-rock powering the whole of this record evokes public transport much faster, more efficient and much safer than the rickety old bus I pootled in on.
Apparat Organ Quartet have released one previous album – their self-titled debut in 2002. The delay in recording a follow up is, in part, down to each of the band’s members – including Trabant’s Úlfur Eldjárn – going off to do their own thing. Or many things in the case of Jóhannsson.
It’s also down to the band improvising and then streamlining their songs into a series of lean, efficient beasts, as well as learning how to play them on an arsenal of electronic weaponry that includes old analog synths, farfisas, hammonds, home organs, mini keyboards, machinery found on rubbish dumps and games consoles. They’ve even been known to incorporate broken radios into their music.
On Pólyfónia, the band – four on keyboard, one on drums – have refined and added to their vision. This is proggy, futuristic and relentlessly surging synth-rock that’s clean-lined, crystalline and euphorically utopian, yet brutal and monstrous in size. Apparat Organ Quartet’s robot world might be a tidier and more invigorating one than where The Terminator came from, but it’s equally (and agreeably) oppressive and terrifying in places. Mostly, though, it’s pulsating, over-the-top future-rock that’ll help you power through almost anything.
I think you’ve earned that tea break now, Jóhannsson.
Apparat Organ Quartet’s new album Pólyfónia (Crunchy Frog) is out on November 14.
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