When rating the respective quality of a soundtrack album there are two fairly obvious criteria against which it must be judged: how well it works as a soundtrack — and how well it works as an album. The latest score from Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (pronounced with two soft ‘J’s, in case you were wondering) passes the first of these two tests with flying colours, fulfilling its role as an accompanying piece of art with aplomb. The second criterion, however, poses more of a challenge for a composition that seems almost symbiotically connected to the visual work for which it was written.
Arrival, the film, is the latest feature from French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, the man who brought the world ‘Incendies’ and ‘Sicario’ (given that both those films were also scored consummately by Jóhannsson it’s fairly clear that the pair share a general artistic vision). The film explores how the world might react to a mysterious alien visitation through the eyes of a bereaved linguist played by Amy Adams. Rather than relying on the typical genre tropes of exploding landmarks and Will Smith’s welcoming fist, however, Arrival touches on such cerebral themes as the fraught nature of inter-human communication and the galactic implications of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It’s a triumph of intelligent plotting over mindless CGI-candy that proves that sci-fi can still thrive on innovation over investment.
Jóhannsson similarly opts for brains over bombast on his accompanying score. The juddering main theme hangs motionless in the air like one of the film’s looming alien ‘shells’. Its single, sustained piano note motif continually crops up over the course of the soundtrack to convey the kind of ceaseless terror our grandparents must have felt during the Cuban Missile Crisis: that feeling of unrelenting dread as the world teeters on the brink of Armageddon. It’s a neo-Cold War score that infers imminent disaster without ever having to follow up on its creeping sense of the cataclysmic. Moments such as ‘Escalation’ that require Jóhannsson to ‘do a Zimmer’, though necessary for any film’s final act, feel unsatisfying and out of place.
The film’s focus on communication is reflected in the composer’s extensive use of the human voice, an instrument he hasn’t properly utilised since his work with the Prague Philharmonic Choir on 2009’s ‘And in the Endless Pause There Came the Sound of Bees’. Working with the revered Danish collective Theatre of Voices, Jóhannsson draws on his knowledge of electronics to stretch and bend human vocals into new, otherworldly shapes. ‘Zero-Sum-Game’ and ‘Kangeru’ effectively repurpose the avant-garde voice work of Joan La Barbara while the all too brief ‘Decyphering’ subtly builds up a beehive of phonic drones before sinking into the hushed silence from which it emerged. For a composer whose work has become noticeably more immediate, if not downright accessible, over the course of the past decade, ‘Arrival OST’ is a welcome reminder that this Oscar contender’s desire to open up new sonic pastures remains undiminished.
Jóhannsson’s latest soundtrack is, in turns, beguiling, emotional and unnerving, yet another pillar with which to prop up his status as one of the greatest emerging film composers of our times. But listening to it without the visual stimulus of Villeneuve’s accompanying film sells the score short. This is no ‘Interstellar OST’, it lacks the kind of standalone cohesion that Jóhannsson mastered back on The Theory of Everything’s score. That was a soundtrack that was equally appropriate to play whether you were racing against a dissertation deadline or attempting to find inner peace at the bottom of a Ben & Jerry’s tub. Despite its originality and powerful execution of atonal techniques, it is too tonally diverse to function properly as a separate entity from its corresponding film. Do yourself a favour and go listen to it in the cinema.
Words: Josh Gray
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