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Jóhann Jóhannsson - Mandy (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) Music Album Reviews

In his final completed film score, the late composer and experimental musician revels in extreme sounds, delving into black metal, menacing ambient, doom drone, and piercing orchestrations.

Film composers don’t always get to decide what their final score will be, whether it will constitute a career-capping classic or just another paycheck. While Bernard Herrmann finished the mournful saxophone score for Taxi Driver just hours before his death, the last entry in Henry Mancini’s mighty filmography is the best-forgotten Son of Pink Panther. The tragic passing, earlier this year, of the 48-year-old Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who seemed sure to have a long and distinguished career ahead of him, was a blow to both cinematic and experimental music. Fans who followed Jóhannsson’s career from his exquisite debut album, Englabörn, to his Oscar-nominated scores for The Theory of Everything and Sicario—and who agonized over what his aborted score for Blade Runner 2049 might have sounded like—can only wonder what might have come next.

To learn that Jóhannsson’s final completed score was for a Nicolas Cage horror movie could give one pause (or make one scream: “Not the bees!”). But Mandy isn’t just any Nicolas Cage horror movie; it’s the second film from Panos Cosmatos, the director responsible for 2010’s hallucinatory Beyond the Black Rainbow. And in Jóhannsson, he had a composer willing to forge ahead to the most extreme sounds possible. “Jóhann went above and beyond, and I suspect to the limits of his sanity, to make the music for this movie,” Cosmatos says in the soundtrack’s liner notes. It’s a visceral thrill to hear Jóhannsson leave the demands of Hollywood orchestral scores behind and move wholly into his element, pushing toward harrowing new sounds. Mandy revels in black metal, menacing ambient, doom drone, and piercing orchestrations in the mode of Italian experimental composer Giacinto Scelsi.

Darkness and despair infuse nearly every moment of Jóhannsson’s score, its atmosphere conjured in part by co-producer Randall Dunn, with Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley on guitar. The heaviness native to their work is palpable from the tectonic bass rumble and low chords of “Seeker of the Serpent’s Eye” to the dread-inducing brass smears of “Starling.” Even the film’s love theme is forlorn, all solemn guitar swells. Mandy bears some resemblance to Dunn and O’Malley’s work with Oren Ambarchi on 2014’s Shade Themes From Kairos, except that the album’s side-long immersions are split into smaller, but no less intense, chunks. This harshness reaches a breaking point with the fierce, lashing noise of “Black Skulls,” its metal scrapes and queasy low frequencies pushing the entire track into the red.

But one of Jóhannsson’s great gifts was his sense of sonic balance: He could make icy, spare soundscapes drip with warmth and locate the human element amid big machinations. Just as Mandy strikes a nerve with nihilistic noise, he sweeps back to a gorgeous, heart-rending theme, like “Death and Ashes.” Similarly, the ambient anxiety that suffuses the early part of the score also gives a rhythmic element to its back half, with the sludgy thuds of “Dive-Bomb Blues” and “Waste” evoking Melvins’ early-’90s run.

Mandy also ventures into some entirely new terrain for Jóhannsson. The glassy ’80s electronic tones of “Children of the New Dawn” evoke the Italians Do It Better roster as well as the work of French house producer Kavinsky; though the piece is an outlier on the soundtrack, it might well have opened up a new sonic world for the composer to explore. It’s tragic that we will never know just what lay ahead for Jóhannsson, but Mandy hints at a future both bright and bleak.


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