JÓHANN JÓHANNSSON - The Miners' Hymns
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.
So much for the Ladybird Book Of Social History. I’m soapboxing a backdrop to Jóhann Jóhannsson’s soundtrack for Bill Morrison’s forthcoming film The Miners’ Hymns, which deals with the decline and destruction of the coal mining industry in North-East England. The piece was recorded in the majestic stillness of Durham’s huge Norman cathedral by a sixteen-piece brass ensemble (that included members of County Durham’s former mining communities) and organist Robert Houssart, with occasional touches of percussion and electronics. It’s mostly a stately, minimal affair. Being the kind of threepenny cheese-whore who spent most of last weekend scouring charity shops for a copy of ‘Shake It’ by Metro Station (you what? download it? where would be the fun in that?) and whose knowledge of the cornucopia lumpable under 'classical music' extends little further than bits of Philip Glass, The Planets and That One From The Hovis Advert, I’m perhaps not best qualified to judge it. But then I suspect this would also apply to most DiS readers, so we’ll probably just have to put up with each other. Let’s try to locate it alongside 'our' continuum by means of one of those irredeemably crap dadmag 'if you like these…' bullet-point things. Might appeal to fans of: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Earth, Sunn O))), Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, Another Green World, side two of Low. There you go. Useful?
‘They Being Dead Yet Speaketh’ (the titles are slogans from trade union banners) opens with a slow organ pulse that is gradually joined by ghostly peals of brass, becoming stronger, almost triumphant, building to a peak then ebbing back to silence. This is essentially the model for each section: it’s unlikely that Jóhannsson contemplated sticking a jaunty disco number in third before reluctantly concluding that it didn’t really fit. The finale, ‘The Cause Of Labour Is The Hope Of the World’, is a thing of heavenly wonder, one you really should hear. Harmonically thicker than anything preceding it and propelled by the soundtrack’s only use of snare drum as rhythm – always helpful for us pop music thickies – its sublime cycle of chords swells and bursts beautifully, and if you’re paying attention stands a reasonable chance of leaving you with a wet face. But – and this, as they say, is the kicker – what you’re crying for is not just what has been lost and taken, nor just the visceral, emotional pleasure of the noise. There’s a strength, a defiance, a hope in this music that says: we are not beaten, you may break our families and our communities and, if you really insist, our skulls, but a political ideal once conceived cannot be destroyed, and one day – you greedy, cynical, hypocritical, death-dealing capitalist motherfuckers – we’ll be back to claim what is ours, on behalf of all of us in this together. It’s not over, not over, not over yet.