Release Date: May 24, 2011
Record label: Fat Cat Records
The Miners’ Hymns, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s latest effort, is really one-third of a project which is international in its scope: the Icelandic composer and producer collaborated with US filmmaker Bill Morrison on the documentary of the same name which traces the social history of miners in the city of Durham, England. Before you can even begin to make assessments about the quality of the music, you have to make an assessment about what it is you’re assessing: Is this a set of tracks to accompany the film, or does it stand alone? And should it? Undoubtedly, The Miners’ Hymns is a nuanced, moody, and often creepy exercise in ambiance which, if it needs to, holds up as a unique work. But, Jóhannsson’s choice to use brass arrangements, often an archetype of music which celebrates the working class and industry, should tell us something.
In a state where there has for over 20 years been no meaningful political choice, where for more than 30 years the power of the trade unions has been subjected to a systematic programme of attrition, where the Grand Narrative that enshrines weakly-regulated free market capitalism as the only game in town is subliminally and not-so-subliminally stated and re-stated thousands of times a day via every available medium, it’s easy to mislay other versions of the story. But contemporary Britain is as much the work-in-progress of a long tradition of socialism as of the other historical forces that have shaped it. From Marx and Engels, who believed that communism would come first to Britain – and maybe it will – to the late Victorian 'philanthropists' who understood that allowing the working class to remain in poverty and ignorance could bring only disadvantage, the Suffragettes, the early labour movement and the radical 1945 Labour government that invented the modern welfare state to the new generation of freethinkers represented by the likes of UK Uncut, there is a resilient strain of social justice encoded in Britain’s political DNA that it seems no amount of incessant propaganda or periodic police brutality is about to erase.
Jóhann Jóhannsson's The Miners' Hymns is the instrumental soundtrack to Bill Morrison's dolefully spare documentary about the history of coal mining in northern England. As such, it will not make a stellar accompaniment to your next barbecue. Composed for brass ensemble, organ, and a light scrim of electronics, the album takes you places that are woefully ill-suited to early summer; it feels perfect for a grim, drizzly late autumn, when wet leaves are choking gutters and the air carries the threat of pneumonia.
A gorgeous brass-based requiem for northeast England’s former mining community. Spencer Grady 2011 In his book, London Under, Peter Ackroyd notes that the world beneath our feet can "move the imagination to awe and to horror". But, equally, it’s a locus for prodigious triumph and catastrophic ruin, as this collaboration between Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and American filmmaker Bill Morrison unequivocally shows.