Award-winning Icelandic composer Bardi Johannsson lures us down some dark paths with his spectral score for the 2020 independent film Agony (starring Asia Argento). The music accompanying this compelling modern horror displays a confident maturity while bearing the hallmarks of a classic Johannsson score: eerie delicacy and an unsettling beauty with a deep, dark heart. Above all, Johannsson provides a refreshingly sensitive and often moving contribution to the genre, and his skill for conjuring atmosphere while deftly avoiding cliché has assured his place in the firmament of exceptional contemporary film composers.
Complex and chilling, this score seduces as it unnerves: at times softly mesmeric, at others piercing straight to the soul. Opening with ‘Sabazios O’ (an instrumental track by Johannsson’s longstanding group Bang Gang,) sound creeps in like a fog, exerting an influence both tranquil and uneasy, and unveiling a steely core. The tone is set, and the intuitive musical dialogue that unfolds weaves around the action on screen with equal parts grace and gloom.
‘The famous Nordic melancholia is in my DNA and then I go different paths from there,’ Johannsson explains, ‘Some of the music segments are melancholy, open and calm but with an underlying twist. This reflects the characters in the film.’
Vintage synth echoes of Stranger Things (Kyle Dixon/Michael Stein) make way for a heady three-dimensional lushness that evokes the work of Alberto Iglesias (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). ‘Legacy Kept Alive’ bears subtle shades of John Williams (Jaws), and one can trace similarities with the work of Trent Reznor or Clint Mansell. However Bardi brings something very much of his own to the table, carefully blending metallic industrial atmospheres with strings, electronics, drums and distortion to create a pared-back modern-Gothic world that is ghostly, sometimes paranoid, often romantic and always elegant. It is no surprise that Bardi Johannsson is known as a trusted pair of hands when a special kind of ‘otherworld’ is required.
Johannsson has provided music for everything from features and documentaries to silent movies (Haxan), trailers for Sky Movies’ Oscar season to advertisements for Emporio Armani. In 2012, Bardi and Ladytron’s Daniel Hunt provided the score for horror movie Would You Rather, and it is clear that, while Bardi’s music often takes him into different areas, this is a genre that suits him well. Bardi explains why Agony attracted him as a project:
‘The film has a lot of references in its cinematography to old horror or witch movies. It was inspiring, as I’ve always loved those kinds of movies, especially the visual aspect. I really enjoyed exploring this sound universe, and getting closer to my roots.’
In addition to Bang Gang, Bardi is known for his collaborations – including Lady & Bird with Keren Ann, Tomorrow’s World with Air’s JB Dunckel.