4AD has released two of the heaviest albums of the year. The first was Scott Walker’s dark and harrowing The Drift, which has thoroughly divided folks it seems. Indeed, I’ve barely listened to it since I wrote my review, and yet everything else I’ve heard this year exists within its impenetrable shadow.
And now comes along IBM 1401, A User’s Manual, the latest from acclaimed Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannson, and follow-up to his wonderful 2004 album, Virðulegu Forsetar. Conceived as a tribute of sorts to one of the first computers to arrive on Iceland’s shores — which was worked on by Jóhannson’s father, no less — the five long tracks that make up this disc are elegiac and gorgeous.
Sure, it might be for an obsolete computer, but Jóhannson’s swelling strings (courtesy of the Prague Philharmonic) and light electronic elements make us feel the loss of an entire age, as if an entire way of life is passing away right in front of our eyes. There are moments where the compositions are almost in danger of becoming too melodramatic and melancholy for their own good, but some new orchestral twist almost always comes along, bearing a fresh new batch of heartache.
At one point, Jóhannson weaves in recordings that his father made on that old 1401 over three decades ago. The electronic melodies — created by recording the computer’s electromagnetic fields through a nearby radio receiver — are crude and simple, and yet they’re made almost radiant by Jóhannson’s strings. Elsewhere, a recording of an instruction tape for the 1401’s maintenance plays out almost like a religious ceremony, replete with solemn bells.
During the album’s final track, a robotic voice sighs “The sun’s gone dim and the sky’s turned black,” as if the computer is lamenting its own passing; meanwhile, the strings soar like never before, as if Jóhannson thoroughly intends to send the IBM 1401 to mainframe heaven all by himself.