Sigur Rós fans take note: although the Icelandic art-rockers get prominent billing on this film soundtrack, they contribute only two songs. The bulk of Angels of the Universe comes from film composer Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, who adopts a suitably melancholy, tormented tone for the most of the disc, as befits the soundtrack to a dark film about mental illness. I haven’t seen Angels of the Universe, but by all accounts it’s a very powerful but relentlessly bleak affair. It’s also become one of Iceland’s most successful films of all time, which probably says as much about the national character of that frigid little island country as it does about the quality of the film.
Since most listeners will skip right to the end for Sigur Rós’ two closing tracks, let’s start the review there, as well. “Blum blum bambalo” finds the band in mournful mode, with the solemn march of a bass drum punctuating the drone of Jonsi Birgisson’s bowed guitar and melancholy, choir boy vocals. Although unmistakably a Sigur Rós track, “Blum blum bambalo” achieves a kind of solemn grandeur I haven’t heard from the band before, and it’s by far the most interesting thing Angels of the Universe has to offer. After a sweeping finish, the track segues into the churchy rock melodrama of “Death Announcements and Funerals”, a noisy instrumental based on a popular Icelandic funeral hymn. It will probably leave all but Sigur Rós’ most ardent fans scratching their heads — they sound less here like the future of Icelandic music and more like the past of British prog rock. Not since Jethro Tull’s heyday has anyone taken folk music themes and puffed them up into such headbanging bombast.
The rest of Angels in the Universe is mostly sobbing strings and the occasional plaintively plucked guitar; Hilmarsson’s music has the quiet emotiveness of all good soundtrack music, but outside the context of cinema it’s simple and fairly repetitive. He does inject some interesting, avant-garde tonalities, the like of which you’ll never hear in a Hollywood soundtrack — the layered strings of “Memory” and “Degradation” echo the work of other maverick film composers like The Piano‘s Michael Nyman. Occasionally Hilmarsson jolts his listeners with something different — “Over the Bend”, for example, erupts mid-way into an ominous rumble of acoustic and electronic percussion that rises and falls in volume against the dark backdrop of those slightly off-key strings that are Hilmarsson’s signature sound. Other tracks that stand out for their sheer disturbingness are “Journey to the Underworld”, in which a single violin saws gnat-like through a series of atonal chords, and “Relapse”, which uses a distorted drum solo to create a very fair sonic approximation of a nervous breakdown. But for the most part the pleasures in Hilmarsson’s music are subtle and small — this is not catchy stuff, even by the offbeat standards of Icelandic music.
Still, Angels of the Universe has its moments. In addition to the mournful majesty of Sigur Rós’ “Blum blum bambalo”, there are at least two Hilmarsson tracks, that surpass their status as soundtrack fragments and stand on their own as striking compositions: the Steven Reich-like “Schiller in China” and the achingly beautiful “Te Morituri . . .”. For fans of this kind of dissonant yet romantic string music, Hilmarsson is certainly a composer worth getting to know, either here or on his other major motion picture soundtrack, Children of Nature. As for fans of Sigur Rós — well, for a band that takes as many risks as they do, one out of two ain’t bad.