Malignant Records (TUMORCD75), 2014
One of my favorite sub-genres of ambient music is what I call arctic ambient. The concept of these albums, such as Sleep Research Facility’s Deep Frieze and Irezumi’s Endurance, is to conjure the desolation and beauty of the frozen wastes; gorgeous and harsh landscapes that are no friend to man. It’s a concept for which dark ambient is well-suited, as the drama, scope, and gradual development so integral to the style can easily characterize the vast spaces, isolation, and starkness of nature at her most ominous.
When I learned that the oddly titled project Skorneg was releasing an arctic ambient album titled Foehn on the celebrated Malignant Records, I looked forward very much to hearing what icy majesty the album might have in store. My intrigue grew when I learned that Frederic Arbour, the head of the superlative Cyclic Law label and sole member of the ambient project Visions, was involved, alongside Christian Corvellec of the duo Skinwell.
Over its four lengthy tracks, Foehn contains exactly what I hoped: broad drones characterizing the grandeur and timelessness of glaciers, whispers of icy wind, and deep groans of ice floes. It’s exceedingly well-done and carefully executed, and never drags, despite the track clocking in between nine and twelve minutes. The music evolves with patience and confidence, as the best ambient often does, but Foehn is not a pure drone record. Where Skorneg differs from similar albums I’ve heard is with its use of treated electric guitar and rhythmic sequences. I was halfway through the opening track, “Skorneg,” before I realized, to my surprise, that one of the interlaced drones was in fact processed guitar. At that moment, the deep thrumming of buried machinery rose in the mix, and the track crossed the border from standard-yet-effective to completely immersing and hypnotic. I began to suspect I was in the grasp of something spectacular.
The rest of the album didn’t let me down. “Serac” took the experience one step further, with a sampled guitar loop that darted through the sub-zero haze, between the chatter of slight rhythms and the bellow and sweep of the drones. The muted tones and buzzing of “Foehn” (named for gusts of wind that trace the downslopes of mountains) give the track an uneasy aura that is enhanced by the swirling echoes. “Sherpas,” the longest track on the album, leads us through blinding sheets of sleet and snow to a repeated sequence at its mystical core, while light static crackles at the edges of perception. It’s easy to imagine a remote temple emerging from an ice-capped peak at the roof of the world; it’s somewhat of a peaceful scene, tinted with a touch of anxiety and anticipation.
When Foehn ended, I was disappointed – not in the music, mind you, but that the album was over. I wasn’t quite ready to leave the vividly realized world created by Arbour and Corvellec, so I immediately started it over. I think, all things considered, that’s high praise for any album. At just over forty minutes, Skorneg might be short on quantity, but there’s no lack of quality. I was pleasantly surprised by the level of craft and atmosphere displayed here. For excellence in the arctic ambient experience, I hold both Deep Frieze and Endurance in high regard, and Foehn is right there with them.