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King of Devil’s Island
  • Composed by Johan Söderqvist
  • Caldera Records / 2014 / 68m (score 40m)

A 2010 Norwegian movie, Marius Holst’s King of Devil’s Island is set in a youth prison where a couple of new inmates witness a guard abusing a young boy who is later found drowned, leading to a rebellion.  Starring Stellan Skarsgård and based on real events almost a century ago, the film has received glowing reviews though it sadly doesn’t seem to have found much of an audience outside Scandinavia.  The music by Johan Söderqvist has now been released by the fledgling Caldera Records, their second album (following the excellent Secret Sharer by Guy Farley).

In recent years “Nordic Noir” has become increasingly popular in the West thanks to books by the likes of Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbø, Håkan Nesser and Stieg Larsson and exceptional television series like The Killing, The Bridge and a couple of different versions of Wallander.  I have become quite the obsessive myself.  While clearly King of Devil’s Island the film is not that kind of thing, listening to the music I am immediately drawn into a similar universe – stark, cold, unforgiving landscapes; extraordinary human resolve simply to get through life; washed-out, monochrome colour everywhere; and somehow amongst it all the most exquisite rays of sunlight, nuggets of beauty.  Söderqvist’s exceptional music makes for one of the most evocative and transfixing film score albums I’ve heard in a long time, his evocations of pale colours so striking.

Johan Söderqvist

Johan Söderqvist

The album opens with the introduction of one of the main themes in the “Prologue”, hypnotically slow and trance-like; from this “The Arrival”  presents the other main theme, full of emotion and tragedy but with a hint of folk music (thanks in no small part to the use of the hardanger fiddle) bringing its uniquely human dimension.  The composer first reveals a device which is to feature to great effect in the score – little pauses, like a tiny break from life as little blocks of innocence are chipped away from young lives.  The vast majority of the score is built from these themes, playing against each other like light and dark, in some ways like life and death.  Fascinatingly, the two pieces do not share the same roles throughout – at times they flip round.

One of the standalone highlights is the action track “The Riot”, the hardanger fiddle at the fore offering a constant rhythmic pulse and seeming to egg on the orchestra behind it, energetic and yet horrific; a kind of distant, otherworldly feel is felt through the throaty punctuations of the massive willow flute, another Norwegian folk instrument.  While the music has a foreground role to drive forth the action in that instance, at other times the composer offers a more withdrawn accompaniment – “The Escape” in particular is like a meditative reflection on the action, certainly not a direct commentary on it.  At other times it’s almost like being in a dream – “Ivar Disappears” is so slow, the pacing making it like a great icy river – you’re not moving fast but you still can’t find a way out – the musical signposting of tragedy quite clear.  This is even more true in “The Soldiers Come”, the music getting gradually larger and larger before the wisp of a melody grows like a sapling in a charred landscape.

The superb album features as a bonus an interview with composer Söderqvist, director Holst and the film’s sound designed Tormod Ringnes conducted by journalist Thor Joachim Haga and offers a fascinating insight into the score and its use in the film.  It’s rare to hear such an in-depth discussion of a film score from its composer and the filmmakers (the interview lasts almost half an hour) and it’s a great idea by the label to include one.  This is such a good album: the music is exquisitely-crafted, continually so evocative; the composer created a compelling atmosphere and executes it perfectly.  Musical storytelling at its finest, there isn’t a single flashy moment and yet the listener is absolutely gripped from start to finish as the story unfolds.  It won’t be for everyone by any means but for me the deep expressions of emotion played against the cold, harsh – sometimes even brutal – landscape are simply brilliant.

Rating: *****

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  1. LeChuck on Sunday 27 April, 2014 at 23:58

    Any idea where this can be purchased? I’m in the states and I’m unable to find this anywhere.

  2. James Southall on Monday 28 April, 2014 at 00:03