For some reason or another, I held off on buying IBM 1401 - A User's Manual right away. The reviews that I read on the piece were somewhat spotty, and while I enjoyed Jóhann Jóhannsson's first two albums Englaborn and Virðulegu Forsetar, his more recent Dis album left me a bit cold. As it turns out, I was a bit dumb for not seeking out this album a little sooner, as it's another gorgeous modern classical entry from Jóhannsson.
The story behind the release is interesting, and definitely worth retelling, as Jóhannsson's father worked for IBM in Iceland roughly 40 years back when they got their first 1401 Data Processing System. Also a musician, his father managed to program the machine so that it emitted electromagnetic waves in patterns that could be picked up by radio receivers. When the machine was put out of commission and replaced roughly five years later, his dad gave it a little ceremony that included playing some of the music he'd written for it.
Those tracks were recorded, and Jóhann Jóhannsson discovered them a couple years back and using them as starting points which then developed into dance pieces in collaboration with choreographer Erna Ómarsdóttir. Eventually, Jóhannsson. developed the pieces even further, filling them out with a full orchestra, and the result is this recorded album. "Part 1/IBM 1401 Processing Unit" opens the release very slowly, with a somewhat gritty sounding eight note melody from the IBM before an elegant string movement both accents the melody and fades away at times to leave it playing by itself. About halfway through, a ripple of cold electronics brings the piece to a high point before it closes in the same manner it began.
"Part 2/IBM1403 Printer" follows, and it's even more sparse and stunning, with ringing bell notes and soft strings juxtaposed with samples of maintenance instructions for the old printer itself. In combination with spectacular pacing, the odd musical pairing (along with some spectral blips and bleeps) makes for what might be the finest track of the release. Both "Part 3/IBM 1402 Card Read-Punch" and "Part 4/IBM 729 II Magnetic Tape Unit" both take on similar feels and find the album at its most grandiose in terms of orchestral instrumentation as huge swells of dramatic strings pull and tug at the listener while odd little electronic effects (like thunderous bass hits, glistening bells, and other scrambled voices) creep into the mix in places and keep things from getting too glossy.
With a vocodored voice, "Part 5/The Sun's Gone Dim and the Sky's Turned Black," not only sounds a lot like "Odi et Amo" from his Englaborn album, but reminds one a bit of the slow, singing shutdown of the Hal 9000 computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's a touching close to the technologically-touched classical release, and finds Jóhannsson back on solid ground after the aforementioned Dis. A great story behind it, lovely packaging, and another outstanding effort from this young composer.