Skorneg – Foehn

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.

Gridlock – Formless

Hymen Records (Y736/CD; Y045/Vinyl), 2003

When Gridlock first appeared on the experimental electronic scene in 1995, no one could predict the status they would eventually earn, nor the music they would produce over their too-short career.  Their first release, The Synthetic Form (Pendragon Records, 1997) was a strict goth-industrial affair, with moody keys and snarling vocals, and distinguished from its contemporaries mainly by the collage of intricate broken percussion that fractured the music with razor-edged grace.  By the time Mike Wells and Mike Cadoo released Formless, their fourth and final album, their sound had evolved tremendously, but at its core, somehow very little had changed.

Formless is a fitting title in more ways than one.  In the two albums released before it – Further (Pendragon, 1999) and Trace (Unit Records, 2001) – Gridlock moved away from the industrial sound of The Synthetic Form and began experimenting with the ambient, glitch, IDM, noise, and technoid genres, reducing the vocal component until it all but vanished, and rejecting convention and structure.  Formless fits no genre, and sounds like nothing else; it is powerfully human in spite of its synthetic foundation.  It is an experiment that was a resounding success.

What, then, does it sound like?  “Pallid” begins with gentle analog synths that follow reverential chords, but the serenity doesn’t last long.  After mere moments, a wave of explosive distorted percussion crashes into the foreground, blasting with a chaos that, paradoxically, follows definite pattern and structure.  The chaos abruptly vanishes, as the warm ambiance enjoys the spotlight, but we’re smart now; we know the peace won’t last.  And it doesn’t.  After a brief respite to catch our breath, the barrage continues, leaving us reeling with its impact.  But underneath, the reverence is still there, if we pay attention.  After a split-second pause, the true identity of the track is suddenly revealed with apocalyptic grace:  booming bass chords unfurl as the percussive assault settles into a groove, and the keys ascend to achingly soaring heights.  Many consider “Pallid” to be a highlight of Gridlock’s lauded career, and it’s easy to hear why: it carries a deft balance of beauty and chaos – something that has always marked the band’s sound – but it’s perfected here.

And this is only Track One.

The rest of Formless follows a similar template of juxtaposing elements fused together with a master’s craft.  The longing echoes of “Return” are opposed by a splintered avalanche that gradually settles into a quiet break backed by vocals contributed by Lynda Mandolyn; one is left imagining what Wells and Cadoo could have done if they’d chosen the downtempo route.  The soft menace of “Song23” is spiked with nervous metallic splits before an airy melody appears like a soothing balm.  “Chrometaphor” features introspective keyboards broken open by blasts of seismic force.  “Re/Module” oozes with organic warmth, while a juddering bass-pound never lets the comfort last too long.  “Atomontage” returns to the specter of “Pallid,” beginning with wondrous ambiance that is soon drowned in a cathartic crescendo of manic percussive sequences that rise and fall in powerful exhilarating waves, only to have the beauty re-emerge from the depths like a parting gift.  “Done Processing” closes Formless in a subdued manner, drifting along a bed of graceful drones that recede into silence.  It’s if Gridlock is rewarding the listener with solace after dizzying turmoil.  It’s aptly named as well as aptly placed, too, for as it turned out, “Done Processing” serves as the final track on the band’s final album.

As a Gridlock fan since stumbling upon The Synthetic Form in 1998, it’s painful and magnificent for me that the band called it quits after Formless.  I can only dream of what they might have done if they’d continued, but somehow, Wells and Cadoo must have realized they’d achieved what they’d set out to do, and decided to go out at their apex.  Both are still active in the scene, but on their own paths.  For four unique, groundbreaking, classic albums, however, Gridlock created timeless classics like few have ever done.  Formless is a cohesive album with a distinct flow (however broken).  It is also a collection of brilliant individual songs, and as always, the tracks are interspersed with brief intervals, as the band has always done.  And like most classics, it doesn’t fit into any established category, but created one all for itself.

If I might be allowed to wax profoundly:  for me, Gridlock’s music reflects the unpredictable beauty and imminent tragedy of the human condition, and Formless is this philosophy at its peak.  The album embodies the joy, sorrow, triumph, disappointment, hope, and morbidity of what it means to be alive.  It runs a complex emotional gamut, touching extremes just long enough to remind us of their existence.  Formless ends with the promise of peace, a quiet end that, hopefully, each of us will be fortunate enough to encounter, as we finish processing everything we’ve encountered since our first day on the planet.

Formless is not just so-called “modern classical,” but is the closest thing I’ve ever heard to an electronic opera.  It’s still as potent, brilliant, and emotionally weighty as the first time I heard it; in fact, I appreciate it more with each listen as I get older.  I’m not given to gushing, but this beautiful, tragic masterpiece deserves every bit.

Caul – The Long Dust

Malignant Records (TUMORCD62), 2013

Some albums fit their concept perfectly.  If you were to hold the CD, read the title of the album and the tracks, and imagine what the music within might sound like, there’s a good chance you’d be close to correct.  The artist must have been in a similar situation at one point, wanting to make an album with a particular sound and specific theme, and gone on to fashion the sound to fit it as closely as they could.  Or, perhaps, they begin with an image or a feeling, and do their best to make it heard.

Caul’s album The Long Dust is a prime example how this idea can succeed.  The album’s artwork depicts a vast swath of orange sky dominated by a swollen, heat-distorted sun, with a few scattered telephone poles barely visible through the haze.  The tracks have titles like “Sea of Fossils,” “Veil of Sand,” and “Dunelight,” and you’re left to wonder, what kind of music might fit such a strongly established identity.

Caul (aka Brett Smith) has crafted a soundtrack for a film that doesn’t exist, except in his (and the listener’s) head.  Not a new concept, perhaps, but one that some are better able to pull off than others.  I’m willing to bet, however, that if you gave this album to someone not the wiser and told them it was music from an independent Western film called The Long Dust starring, say, Guy Pearce, they’d probably look it up on imdb after listening.

The Long Dust isn’t strictly ambient; it’s too well-formed, too structured.  But it’s not instrumental pop either; it’s too complex and experimental.  Caul has a lengthy discography dating to the mid-90s, much of it in the dark ambient camp, so Smith knows how to create and maintain mood, but The Long Dust is more than ambience.  “Wires” begins typically for the genre, as distant synth chords are accompanied by a deep bass pulse, but once the electric guitar – yes, guitar! – kicks in, we’ve taken our first steps into Caul’s desert.  The guitar is buried in the electronics, a simple chord progression reminiscent of Robin Guthrie’s solo work, and has a distinct Western flavor.  A light chime arises, completing the song (yes, The Long Dust is an album of songs, each under five minutes in length), and then things begin to wind down, guided by a piano that mirrors the guitar.  The sand-and-open-sky theme is enhanced in “Relic,” as a twanging guitar is flanked by organic drumming and tympani (with handclaps!), while a mournful voice wails in the background alongside airy keyboards.  The song is anchored by a bass drone that doesn’t allow us to float away; there’s a weight to the proceedings that gives you pause, reminding you that all isn’t quite right here.

“Anointing” builds this sense of unease, with lightly stabbing keys, a metronome beat, and nervous snares, before the whole thing explodes into glorious electric guitar, crashing percussion, and frenetic sequencing; the conflict, whatever it is, has begun.  Things slow down from there, with a series of introspective portraits as we move ahead, but the mood has been firmly established.  It’s up to us to give further meaning to the music, or let Caul bear us along, through the plucking guitars, sweeping keys, and rattling percussion.  The title track is a highlight, with its backwards chimes, echoing guitar chords, and deep bass thrums, and “Red Lightning” is The Long Dust at its most peaceful, with gentle Harold Budd-style piano and tranquil guitar-laced atmospheres.  We’re left to wander a bit too long as things progress – the remainder of the album never quite reaches the dazzling heights of the opening tracks – but the brash and visceral closer, “The Unwept Waste,” ends the album with an arresting bang: screeching guitar, bashing drums, and an ominous drone intertwine with another distant wail, serving as a reminder that our journey was not just memorable, but dramatic.  Closing credits, indeed.

The Long Dust is a triumph of concept, narrative pace and mood.  Brett Smith understands how to shape his music to create such an experience; you’d think he’d been doing this for years.  Smith has abandoned the dark ambient trappings of his previous work to embrace post-rock ambience; not something everyone could pull off, especially so well.  Add the fact that each song clings to a particular theme, and the album becomes all the more impressive when considered as a whole.  Next time I travel to the desert in person, I’m sure The Long Dust will be playing in my head.  In the meantime, anytime I want Caul to be my tour guide through mysterious dunes and under the bloated sun, all I have to do is listen to this magnificent album.

Forma Tadre – Automate

Automate:  Off Beat Records (O-124), 1998 (Germany) / Metropolis Records (MET 106), 1998 (US)

Automate 2.0:  Basic Unit Productions (BU003PROD), 2000 (Germany)

Looking back, I think this is where my love affair with ambient music really started.  In the mid-1990s, I was a die-hard club-frequenting EBM/industrial music fanatic, I’d heard and appreciated Forma Tadre’s 1996 album Navigator for its Lovecraftian and intellectual take on the genre, but when Andreas Meyer released the follow-up, I had no idea that it would have such a lasting impression on my musical tastes.

When I first listened to Automate, I expected something similar to Navigator:  creative, club-friendly tracks with strange lyrics and stark melodic atmospheres.  What I heard was quite, quite different.  The first track, “La Cite”, enveloped me in vast spaces, perhaps full of the unknowable geometry so prevalent in Lovecraft’s stories.  Meyer’s synths wandered peacefully through wide chasms; the first steps on a journey of wonder.  Even when sticking to genre convention, Meyer always experimented, keeping his music on the fringes, never allowing it to become disposable.  Unlike many of his contemporaries, Meyer was a musician first and a composer second, and this is perhaps the top reason his work remains compelling twenty years after release.

Automate was released in two versions.  The first appeared in 1998, and an expanded version in 2000.  The album proper is very close to the same, the most noticeable difference being the complete reworking of the title track in the expanded version.  Automate also includes five bonus tracks not included in the initial release, and, of course, the artwork is completely new.

What, then, makes the album so compelling?  Meyer’s creativity and sense of pace tantalize without overwhelming, easing the listener through the album’s darkly majestic voyage, and his creativity was ahead of its time.  The oddly titled “Sinus Park” opens with what is, at its core, a slow-paced echo-laden glitch pattern, with reverbed melodies floating in the distance.  Then, with enviable ease, the track adopts a sparkling, almost uplifting sequence, while a curious, near-human-voice sample dots the cosmic haze, before everything floats away on delicate pulses.  This track is Forma Tadre at its best, evocative without effort, organic in its flow, chock-full of inspiration, all in less than seven minutes.  The follower, “Lo Rez Skyline,” harkens back to the more structured tracks of Navigator, with a low bass-line, sparse beats, meandering synth work, and Meyer’s distorted voice chanting deep in the mix.  It shouldn’t fit in an ambient album – especially one so minimal – but it does, and perfectly.

Nor is Meyer hesitant to give his tracks room to breathe.  “Le Musee Des Appareils” is a ten-minute affair with a restless pulse that moves gracefully from speaker to speaker, while waves of strings and pipes rise and fall far away.  One gets the sense of walking through a vast dark hall, with dust motes floating lazily through dim beams of light; a sad place, perhaps, but a safe one, waiting to be explored.  Navigator featured its share of beatless ambience, but only hinted at this level of mastery.  “Node Rituals” shimmers and shifts with IDM precognition, and despite its distant thunder, nervous flutters, and heraldic gongs, “Dagon” is peacefully transcendent, containing none of the brain-shattering Lovecraftian horror the title might suggest.  The final track, “L’Exodus”, is perhaps the darkest, with an ominous drone as its backbone, but Meyer does not let it saturate the mood too heavily, and we’re soon climbing out, attracted by an inviting glow.

The extra content in Automate 2.0 continue the foundation laid in the album.  The strange, warped warbles of “Fountains” slide easily into a squelchy live version of “Lo Rez Skyline,” the irresistible and playful “Mocromat” (the melody here will stick in your head for days), and the deft, subtle atmospheres of “Corona Mundi” and “Hologrion.”  It’s certainly worthwhile material, but it feels like the addenda it is; the true genius of Automate lies in the album proper.

Forma Tadre was not a prolific project (and I use “was” with reservation).  To date, Meyer released only one more album, the self-released and digital-only conceptual “The Music of Erich Zann,” with Lovecraft serving once more as muse.  As it appeared in 2008, ten years after Automate, we can’t close the book on Forma Tadre just yet.  Even if Meyer’s recording career is over, he is responsible for two of the most compelling and timeless electronic releases I’ve ever heard.  While Navigator is a classic in its own right, it’s Automate that stands as the pinnacle of Meyer’s unique blend of darkly tinted magic.  I’ve listened to this album countless times, and I my admiration for it has never wavered; in fact, my appreciation for it continues to grow.

Maculatum – The Nameless City

Malignant Records (TUMORCD59), 2012

“When I drew nigh the nameless city, I knew it was accursed.  I was travelling in a parched and terrible valley under the moon, and afar I saw it protruding uncannily above the sands as parts of a corpse may protrude from an ill-named grave.”

So begins the short story “The Nameless City” by legendary horror author H. P. Lovecraft, a tale of one man’s haunting exploration into desolate desert ruins and the ancient terror he discovers there.  Lovecraft’s work has long been an inspiration – directly and otherwise – for artists with a dark slant, and Thibaud Thaunay (who records solo under the named Collapsar) and Kerry Braud (Rasalhague) are no exception, having pooled both their resources and their admiration for Lovecraft into a collaborative effort..  Taking the name Maculatum, the two have produced an album with the same title as Lovecraft’s story; an immersive, album that seethes with much of the same chaos.

Maculatum’s album is composed of six separate tracks – nameless but numbered – and each is filled with unsettling atmospherics that give admirable sound to what the unnamed narrator experienced.  Lovecraft writes of “metallic music,” “a deep, low moaning, as of a distant throng of condemned spirits,” “night-wind,” and “ghastly cursing and snarling of strange-tongued fiends,” and Thaunay and Braud took such descriptions as literally as they could when producing their compositions.  The album is somewhat of a harrowing experience, perfectly fitting the dread of Lovecraft’s tale, but the music is given shape and structure by foundations of tribal percussion that boom and clatter as the chaos swirls from the speakers.  Maculatum doesn’t quite match the organic, ancient aura of R|A|A|N, nor the exhilarating formlessness of the similarly themed Flint Glass, but what’s here is certainly thrilling and well-executed.

Being something of a Lovecraft fan myself, I read the story as the album played in the background, and it was the perfect companion.  If Maculatum’s aim was to create a fitting soundtrack for the tale, they’ve succeeded with aplomb.  It’s clearly evident that both Thaunay and Braud are talented composers and work well together, as Maculatum does indeed sound like a collaboration of their two solo projects, rather than opposing forces struggling to integrate.  The Nameless City is their first joint effort, and it whets the appetite to see what might next be in store….a double album inspired by Lovecraft’s masterpiece “At the Mountains of Madness,” perhaps?  One can dream…..

R|A|A|N – The Nacrasti

Malignant Antibody (TREATMENT*02), 2001

From the very first intonation, you’re steeped in mystery.  A simple sound, it seems, following a three-chord progression, and you wonder if the source is synthetic or traditional instrumentation, or something else entirely (organic?).

What IS that? your brain cries, searching for answers.  The odyssey has begun.

From there, dull chimes wander through the speakers, accompanied by low rumbles and waves of droning, with a smattering of samples that sound, crazily, like some kind of animal, hooting mournfully in the distance.  And the very title of this opening track: “Passage Nacrastan.”  What does that mean, exactly?  A cosmic wormhole?  The first downward slope of a subterranean cave complex?  A carefully hidden pathway through a noisome jungle lost in the veils of time?  You have only scant clues, and your imagination is left to decide.

R|A|A|N is the brainchild of one Stig Berg, and it definitely has its influences.  And lofty influences they are:  raison d’etre, Lustmord, Inade.  But Berg is no mere copycat; rather, he has taken bits from each of these dark ambient powerhouses and fused them into something utterly unique, while adding his own ingredients.  This is a stunning journey into uncharted territory and of the secrets buried within.  It is an experience not to be missed.

The Nacrasti (released on a sub-label of the superlative Malignant Records, called Malignant Antibody) is dark – quite dark – but it is more than that.  The darkness of The Nacrasti is not evil or threatening, but mysterious.  It is the darkness that exists before profound discovery; darkness that comes from lack of knowledge.  Somehow, Berg has injected his synthetic tapestries with an undeniable sense of age.  Whatever or whomever the Nacrasti may have been, they seem undoubtedly to be part of the distant past – a past that has been uncovered for perhaps the first time in millennia, and Berg has invited us to be witnesses.  “Arrival of the Sek” is anchored by a pulsating heartbeat while whirs and pulses announce some unimaginable presence.  “Sandrin” is beautifully contemplative, a realization of time long past.  Other tracks feature similarly nebulous titles –  “Mirivm,” “Lilin,” “Tizh of Runn” – and one can only imagine what these words might mean: places, objects, entities.

Herein lies the genius of Berg: by supplying us with only pieces of the puzzle, he involves us directly, appealing to our sense of adventure, coaxing us to fill in the blanks.  What emerges will vary from listener to listener, but I’m willing to bet each one conjures up a vivid tale, each wildly different from the next.  There’s a strong sense of narrative here, as if each track is the chapter in a tale painted by the mists of history, but it’s up to us to decide.

At its surface, The Nacrasti does not appear to tread new ground for dark ambient.  It is composed of a constantly shifting melange of drones, deep thrums, and hisses.  Most of the tracks feature some sort of percussive element, and several feature traditional wind instruments.  Where Berg excels is how deftly he fits everything together; where he chooses to fade out and bring in, how delicately buried the samples are, the haunting simplicity of the melodies.  When the near-tribal drumming begins in “Circle of Two,” almost six minutes into the nine-minute track, it does not seem arbitrary or forced, but a natural part of the progression that seemed somehow inevitable.  The pipes and horns, when they emerge, give the music added depth that completes rather than distracts.  The repeating blare that dominates the portentous final track, “The Atuvvi Culmination”, could be a distorted horn, a warning klaxon, or the mournful cry of some awakened beast.  It’s up to us to decide, as we flesh out the skeleton Berg has provided.

The Nacrasti has something of a reputation as an underrated dark ambient classic, and for good reason.  Few albums in the genre are this creative and evocative.  It is effortlessly diverse, but cohesive; a sign of Berg’s crystal clear concept and execution.  Its gritty sound only adds to its ancient, organic feel – this is no slickly overproduced affair, to be certain.  Stirring, involving, and timeless, The Nacrasti embodies the potential of ambient music.

Tor Lundvall – Empty City

Strange Fortune (SF3), 2006

Here’s quite a wonderful release from the prolific American painter and musician Tor Lundvall, whose discography is quite extensive and varied, as I’ve recently learned.  My preference in ambient music tends toward the dark, and Lundvall’s output seems to skirt on the edge of the abyss, so to speak, so Empty City was my first exposure to him.  I expected something non-intrusive, creative, and introspective, and I got it, but what I didn’t expect was an experience that lies somewhere between Stephen Sawyer’s superlative L’Ombre project and Par Bostrom’s Cities Last Broadcast – two artists I hold in high regard indeed.  Empty City is relatively short, but that doesn’t mean it’s slight on quality; once I finished my first listen, I immediately started it over and ran through again, which I rarely do.

I’m not sure if Lundvall creates his paintings first (some of which decorate the physical album – I urge you to track down the CD for the full experience) or his music, but I suppose it doesn’t matter in this case, as each reflects the other.  The music is sparse, organic, and very personal, in spite of its electronic roots.  Empty City fits its name perfectly, as it practically drips loneliness and melancholy, but Lundvall never allows it to wallow in self-indulgent obsession.  Cities Last Broadcast’s release The Cancelled Earth captured the remnants of a vanished civilization, and  L’Ombre’s outstanding album Simulations 1.0 distilled the urban landscape and molded it to a trip-hop framework, and Lundvall treads similar ground, but with a hightened emotional edge.  This empty city is full of ghosts still going about their industrial business (“Scrap Yard”, “Platform #3”, “Night Work”), and between the echoes and minimal metallic percussion, you might catch a wail of lament or two as these spirits float through abandoned buildings and along silent streets.  It’s not a place of terror and dread, but of mystery and untold stories, tinged with loss and lined with regret.

Empty City contains a combination of humanity and identity that’s rare in the genre.  If Harold Budd didn’t focus on piano, and was more of the brooding silent type, he might very well create something like this.  Empty City isn’t a dark ambient album, but ambient with a dark bent.  It’s an album for rainy nights alone in a sixth-floor apartment, or for solo skyline drives.  The music here is built on melody, and none of the twelve tracks are very long (just one, “Grey Water,” tops four minutes), but since the theme is so strong, and executed with such confidence, anything longer would feel redundant.  Lundvall knows how to construct his tracks efficiently, and despite their brevity, none of the tracks seem too short.  “Wires,” with its strange buzzing, cuts out just as it’s starting to become familiar, and the title track is a three-minute wonder backed by a brief vocal sample that works its way into your consciousness.  The closer, “Clearing Sky,” is the most beautiful piece on the album, showing, perhaps, the sunrise through the fog and between the silent skyscrapers.  If Empty City has a story, it’s one with a good ending.

Ambient music is often subjective, leaving just enough to the listener to create an almost interactive experience.  Empty City falls on the other side of the spectrum, however, with such a carefully created sense of place that the listener is pulled gently along, guided by Lundvall’s effortless vision  It’s the kind of album that washes over and through you, leaving its mark so deftly, you may not realize it until days later, when an odd melody or percussive sequence bubbles into your mind (I still can’t tell if the sample in “Open Window” is a voice, a sax, or a fusion of both).  Haunting without malevolence, dark without blackness, lonely without despair, Empty City is a work of art, created by an artist at the peak of his craft.  It’s unanticipated discoveries like this that make my musical wanderings worthwhile.