Cities Last Broadcast – The Cancelled Earth

Cyclic Law (21st Cycle), 2009

On one level, dark ambient can be a magnificent example of technological wizardry.  On another, the capturing of specific aesthetic atmospheres.  Many albums achieve one or the other; a percentage achieve both.  And then there are the precious gems that don’t just present a concept, but develop it fully, while presenting both technical and songwriting skills in an accomplished fashion.  It’s the discovery of these rare, high-concept masterpieces that fuel my passion for the genre.

Cities Last Broadcast’s album The Cancelled Earth is a premium example of hitting all three targets dead-center.  Par Bostrom, who’s perhaps better known for his melodic dark ambient Kammarheit project, has crafted something different here.  The Cancelled Earth is darker and noisier; solemn where Kammarheit is reflective, edgy rather than introspective.  The album’s concept is simple: to produce the sounds of a long-lost civilization, as if snatched from the atmosphere of a dead planet, an incomplete and one-sided conversation the crumbled cities once had with themselves.  Drawing from field recordings of his local urban surroundings, Bostrom has filtered, distorted, and processed the audio sources to make them almost unfamiliar, then framed them with drones and waves that he does so well as Kammarheit.

Part of the optional interactivity with music like this is to try and detect what’s source and what is synthetic.  “Cornerstone” has a buried loop of children laughing, perhaps at a park, and “Deadpost” is built around what seems to be the horn of a boat.  Dreamlike fragments of a string quartet rise at the end of “Architecton,” and those with keen ears may catch traces of conversation threaded within “Railroom.”  With hints and pieces like this, it’s easier for the listener to fill in the rest of the tale, as the analyst for this recently discovered recording of ghosts and history.  Typical for Cyclic Law, the packaging is also superlative, with a large-format cardboard sleeve depicting a sepia-toned silhouette of the ruin of a once-proud structure.  One can get a taste of former beauty in the design, which sets the tone perfectly for the music contained within.

As Kammarheit, Bostrom has shown he’s a master at conjuring mood, and The Cancelled Earth is another example of his skill.  The melodies here are slow and expanded, almost to the point of inscrutability; the music is a slow-motion dirge.  Bostrom is also judicious with his samples, dropping synthetic passes at perfect intervals, fading them out, then bringing them back to define each track from the next.  “Antenna” showcases this effect at its highest, with a high-pitched whine that teeters on the very edge of rolling waves of drones – drones that have pattern and shape, and unfold into a low bass rumble capped by a haunting chord sequence and a sampled moan of ancient machinery.  “Bascule Bridge” follows a similar vein, but in a minimal fashion, using an echoed and looped gong to wonderful effect and surrounding it with a repeated series of delicate yet quietly sinister synth passes, before finishing it off with reversed feedback tones that seep through the ether with near-palpable longing.

The Cancelled Earth is an album I return to often.  Bostrom has captured such a strong mood here, and with such enviable ease, that listening to it is much like revisiting a favorite film, short story, or painting.  Consistently remarkable in its tone, inspired in its composition, and accomplished in its production, The Cancelled Earth is conceptual dark ambient at its finest.


Displacer – Moon_Phase

M-Tronic (B5), 2003

Moon_Phase is an odd and nervous album.  On one hand, it’s an ambient marvel, full of an atmosphere that’s equal parts soothing and inspiring.  On the other, it’s a mish-mash jigsaw of chattering, unfocused glitchery.  And mixed into everything is a collection of curious vocal samples that seem to be ripped from 1950s television.  These disparaging elements rarely gel, giving the album a disjointed and schizophrenic identity.  Perhaps that is Michael Morton’s point, but listened to objectively, his first official release as Displacer on French label M-Tronic is a challenging and often awkward listen.

“Beta_Seed” opens the album with a very nice and moody synth line – something that is found on most every track on the album.  The calm is soon broken (rather than enhanced) by random clicks and cuts that spatter across the music like random raindrops.  Morton seemed enamored with glitch patterns; they’re also everywhere on Moon_Phase, and seem to disrupt the mood.  (Hmmmm, perhaps that’s why the project is named Displacer after all?).  I don’t mind glitch when it’s controlled and contained, but it’s seemingly random and incidental here, shifting headphone balance without warning or discernible pattern.  It feels like audio trickery to me, rather than an experiment in rhythm.  It’s noise for noise’s sake, bursting sporadically into the keyboard work in fits and starts, juxtaposing the calm keys with jittery anxiety while failing to gain momentum more often than not.

The rest of the album follows a similar template.  There are often moments of stark beauty – the opening moments of “Wraith” and “Vorago” are wonderfully evocative – but the twitching glitches always make an appearance, instantly making everything edgy.  The anxiety is heightened by the samples; on “Exponent,” we hear what appears to be dialogue from an interrogation:  “We need information.” “I haven’t got any information!”  “We think you have.”  “Information about what?!?”  And we’re left with that unease hanging in the air.  Other samples speak of other stressful topics, such as the imbalance in one’s diet, the biblical apocalypse, or the draining of fossil fuels.  It’s a special and not entirely attractive type of tension.

Moon_Phase is not a beat-based album, but on the few occasions when Morton moves past his stress-addled hesitancy, the results are welcome and notable.  “Bits & Bytes,” the most structured track on the album, has a strong drum-&-bass percussive core coursing through it.  At last, the percussion plays off the backing synths and melodies rather than struggling with them.  The resulting cohesion feels like a safe island in a stormy ocean.  Even the samples – “Well, what have we got here?”, “Deeeee-licious!” – are placed logically and sensibly.  It’s a focused and complete track, and evolves strongly; characteristics that are largely absent elsewhere on the album.  “Bits & Bytes”  is powerful evidence that Morton has songwriting chops, but it’s as if he’s purposefully stifling it under the ever-present barrage of disconnected percussion that dominates Moon_Phase.  “Lying in Wait,” bears further proof of Displacer’s potential, with a shuffling down-tempo beat, lovely minimal sequences, and airy chords that bring a sense of quiet anticipation rather than the manic energy defining the rest of the album.

Moon_Phase is too fractured to be ambient and too tentative to be electro.  It is an album rife with uncertainty, regret, and “paralysis by analysis.”  As a portrait of internalized pressure, it might be too successful.  Therein, perhaps, may lie its charm, but the music isn’t nearly experimental enough to satisfy those seeking something on the fringes.  Displacer has gone on to have a long career, and Morton’s songwriting has indeed improved, but taken on its own merit, Moon_Phase bears the marks of an artist who’s feeling his way…..very, very nervously.

Haiku – Groovorama

Jamendo (#006196), 2006

There’s something timeless and mysterious about haiku, the Japanese poetic form that hides depth and layers of subtlety within its simple yet rigid structures.  It’s appropriate, then, that this French electro project has taken Haiku as its name, for the music produced by this enigmatic one-man band captures the same spirit as the ancient and celebrated poems.

The formula of Haiku’s music sounds simple on paper:  warm IDM keys are backed by sequences of layered and off-beat percussion.  But it’s how Haiku sounds as a whole that separates the project from the ever-growing ocean of bedroom electronica.  Haiku sees rhythm as the means and the end, and is somehow able to fit the disparate pieces together to create a cohesive whole; each Haiku track uses percussion to break up space in ways that seem natural, yet new.

Groovorama, the band’s second self-released album as part of the digital Jamendo Collection, refines the formula begun in 2004 with Synthese, Haiku’s debut on Parametric.  Each track has identified only by a number; the entire Haiku catalog has been numbered consecutively from its inception, and Groovorama contains numbers 18 through 26.  A simple lo-fi melody begins “18,” with soothing tones rising and falling in simple succession.  These atmospheric components are an integral part of the Haiku experience, and serve as the foundation upon which the core is built.  Before long, a misleadingly simple bass-drum and snare beat begins to fill in the space, and gradually, additional rhythmic elements are added – cymbals, light distorted hits, chimes – until everything comes together as one glorious tapestry of separate rhythms working together to produce a glimmering piece of order, sequence, timing, and space.

“19” begins with a down-tempo bassline, upon which cymbal strikes, echoing bleeps, and metallic scratches are deftly arranged, each playing off the other like raindrops upon neon pavement.  “20” is full of fitful stops and starts, with carefully measured flurries of dizzying clicks separated in precise intervals; it’s a wonderful showpiece of relaxed mania.  “23,” perhaps Groovorama’s strongest track, starts with a slow trip-hop beat, slowly uncovering each layer of sequence, melody, and drum, before a crowning touch of chimed melody materializes, and all moves together as one, like the finest piece of clockwork.  When the new elements appear, it’s as if they’ve been there all along; Haiku is showing us the beauty that occurs when things mesh.

There’s something undeniably profound and magnetic about rhythm, and Haiku knows this.  Music can be a celebration of controlling and fitting together, while also honoring the organic rhythms that govern us all.  Haiku is keenly aware of the similarities present here, and appears to see the world as a ragtag collection of disparate parts that yearn to find companions and collaboration.  If only all things could work together so well – even the unexpected.  Groovorama appeals to the sense of rhythm that moves the ever-ticking hand of time, and to our craving for order, but it also reminds the listener that there’s still room for the second hand to play, even while it moves closer to inevitable midnight.  Like the poetic form that inspired the name of its creator, Groovorama is deceptively simple and deeply satisfying.


NIMP – Development Concept for Formulation of NIMP

Parametric (0.16q), 2004

I’m not exactly sure what it is about French electronic music, but it always seems to carry a certain atmosphere, regardless of the time of release or genre.  If music is an attempt to create an idealized portrait of reality, then I can only imagine what a French-made electronic world might be like; completely strange would be a good place to start.  Not ominous, mind you; just odd.  In the meantime, all I’ll need to do to get a glimpse into the bizarre window of French culture is listen to NIMP’s Development Concept for Formulation of NIMP.

Not exactly a straightforward title, is it?  Fitting, as this is anything but a typical electronic album.  Even the packaging is unusual: a simple metal case with the CD inside, and a small sticker on the cover with track info and a silhouette of a rather bewildered-looking robot.  That’s it.  French label Parametric has a reputation for releasing excellent electronic music that’s decidedly off-center, and NIMP’s effort might be the furthest-off of the lot.

NIMP, the creative moniker of Guillame Eluerd, fuses IDM, glitch, and electro to produce a collection of minimal and quirky tunes that hang together in spite of the diversity on display.  “Open” starts things off with a straightforward 4/4 dancefloor beat sequence, but it’s not long before a bassline and chopped samples bring an air of nervous unease to the proceedings.  It’s like discovering there’s a mischievous child at your party:  keep an eye on that one; who knows what he might be up to.  As the track draws to a close, we get the sense that things are skewed in NIMP’s world in a delicious manner, and our strange journey is just beginning.

“Hopalong” is well-named, for it is grounded by a wobbling, stabbing, jumping synth melody, high-pitched beeps, and a simple glitch-laced beat.  “The Unexpected” slows things down, with atmospheric keys over clicks and knocks and another bleeping melody.  The meaning of “Contest,” a track full of playful music-box chimes, is not readily apparent, but that’s the way Eluerd appears to operate.  One of the album’s oddest and most memorable tracks is “Mm”, which uses a double “mm-mm” sample at various pitches as its core melody.  “Progress Report 1” is wonderfully ironic, because it is deliberately skeletal and unfinished.  When vocals break in during the second half of the darkly gleeful “Creeps” and proclaim “I’m truly sorry to hunt you down like this/I’m truly sorry if I give you the creeps,” it fits, because it doesn’t.

This is not to imply that Development Concept is just random weirdness.  For all its intentionally odd structure, the album is the work of a talented musician and composer who possesses a strong sense of rhythm and melody.  He could very probably record a straightforward album, and it would probably be quite good, but he can’t bring himself to submit to the normal.  “The Final Boy,” for example, is a droning ode with orchestral strings, horns, and flutes that would fit perfectly into a film score, but it’s not long before Eleurd has had enough mundanity.  The track ends with a series of synthetically generated sounds that gradually reveal themselves to be water, the thudding of oars, and the creaking of a boat.  Things take yet another abnormal turn as the waterborne journey segues smoothly into “La Balancoire Americaine”, where the not-quite-aquatic sounds form swaths and rhythms of the music (yes, music) of the album’s closer, while what sounds like a distorted ship’s horn cranks out a forlorn little melody.

French electro can require a certain mindset to fully appreciate.  In NIMP’s case, it can take a few tries before giving oneself over to Eluerd’s unique brand of peculiar electro-glitch-IDM.  Even when it clicks (if it does), it’s not always fitting for one’s mood.  When everything lines up, however, an album like this slips into your consciousness with ease.  It’s really too bad that NIMP (along with Parametric) seems to be done making music, because this kind of wide-eyed, open-minded experimentation is always welcome.  Those seeking something off-kilter but accomplished need look no further.

Phaenon – Submerged

Malignant Records (TUMORCD30), 2007

Inside the digipak for Phaenon’s album Submerged, there’s a liner note that really got me thinking: “recorded live in one take.”  Before I even began listening to Szymon Tankiewicz’s debut, I wondered what this might mean.  Not just recorded live, but in one take.  Was Submerged completely improvisational, the result of meticulous planning, or a bit of both?  Being a fan of physical presentation, I also pondered the artwork, which looked to me like burning orange clouds or nebulae; interesting for an album titled Submerged……drowned not in water, perhaps, but in the experience?

Like the majority of outstanding ambient, the answers are not always apparent.  Submerged contains only one track, a continuous flow of dark ambient that’s squarely in the drone sub-genre, but Tankiewicz is careful to not let his music fit into any other well-established category.  Unlike many other releases on Malignant Records, Submerged is neither heavy nor unsettling; most of its drones are higher in pitch and lighter than the subterranean rumbling that characterizes much dark ambient.  There’s no question that Submerged is dark, but it defines its darkness in a different way.  Rather than describing a harrowing journey through deep caverns or starless voids, Submerged is like watching a full moon through a stained-glass window.  As the minimal drones evolve and shift, a calming melancholy defines the sound, bringing to mind things lost and paths never taken.  There’s a sense of wonder present too; the contemplation of what might have been.

Tankiewicz doesn’t give the listener much of a framework to define the listening experience; perhaps he just wants us to become submerged by his work.  He certainly gets our attention early, as the album begins with a series of dramatic synth washes carrying an undercurrent of pending tragedy, but it’s not long before the tension drains away.  Before long, we’re drifting peacefully on a serene bed of subtle melody and soothing tones, adopting a quiet introspection that never reaches the brashness of the opening moments.  Submerged may have only one track, but it has distinct sections; Tankiewicz handles the transitions so smoothly, we don’t really notice the shifts until they’ve happened.  At over 66 minutes, Submerged is lengthy, and its slow, drawn-out nature can cause the mind to drift during deep listening sessions, but perhaps that’s intentional.  There’s always the sense of what might be coming next, of where (and how) Tankiewicz will guide us.  It’s this consistent expectation and wonder, combined with the gentleness with which Tankiewicz detaches us and reels us in, that gives Submerged its unique aura.

Submerged is not the kind of album that can be fully appreciated in one listen, nor can its effect be measured by short samples; it really must be listened to in its entirety, and given full attention, before its depths are revealed.  At the risk of sounding elitist, listening to Submerged is an intellectual exercise as well as an emotional one, and I can’t help but think it’s all been done intentionally.  Whether Submerged is an act of spontaneous inspiration or planned in advance doesn’t matter – what does matter is that it offers an ambient experience few albums can match.

Roger Rotor – Malleus Maleficarum

ant-zen (ant154), 2003

New ideas.  They drive growth and invention.  There’s certainly something invigorating about finding a niche (or creating one) and calling it one’s own.  As much as I love innovation in the experimental electronic music field, there’s something refreshing about examining the basics; the roots from which everything else has sprung.  I think it was Ayn Rand who stated that “imagination is rearrangement,” and while I’m not sure I agree wholeheartedly, I do think the idea has merit.

Roger Baumer of Switzerland, who records music under the moniker Roger Rotor, appears to have a love affair with old-school electro.  When I say “old-school,” I’m talking about Kraftwerk, DAF, Nitzer Ebb – that camp.  While early Roger Rotor material was composed of noisy landscapes, he took a startling new direction in 2003, when he released his album Malleus Maleficarum on the famed German power-noise label ant-zen.

Malleus Maleficarum isn’t powernoise.  It’s a stubbornly wonderful throwback to the days when everything was analog: a minimal collection of repeated sequences powered by 4/4 beats.  It’s not intricate, mind-blowing, or emotionally stirring, but a rock-solid collection of industrial techno that delivers the old-school experience in all its glory.

Malleus Maleficarum is formulaic and repetitive, but these are strengths.  Each of the ten instrumental tracks is structured in exactly the same way:  six or seven different electronic rhythms that drop in and out at precise intervals.  Boring?  Perhaps.  Most of the tracks seem to have the same metronomic BPM; this is the foundation upon which everything else is built.  But I’d argue there’s something deeply satisfying about how everything fits; what Baumer has done is shown how each sequence is a part of the larger whole.  As each track progresses, he adds a layer, then removes a previously established one; each part gets a moment in the spotlight.  It’s almost a manual for how to make a great electro track.  There’s something innately appealing to following the construct/destruct method, leading the listener to wonder what new rhythm might crop up and when it might fall away.

Unlike most of ant-zen’s roster, Roger Rotor’s music is not massively distorted, bass-heavy, or laden with piercing frequencies.  The music moves along at a head-nodding pace, rather than a head-banging one, and isn’t doom-laden or coldly clinical.  Whenever it starts to drag, things change just enough to keep your ears engaged, and its calm but persistent energy keeps your interest.  There’s a certain quirkiness to the sound that reminds me of French electro, such as Gilles Rossire’s Oil 10 project or the sadly defunct Parametric label.  Malleus Maleficarum is focused, no-nonsense, blue-collar electronic music, and therein lies the secret to its appeal.

S.K.E.T. – Baikonur

Hands Productions (D097), 2006

I’m all for contemplative and inspirational experiences where music is concerned, but sometimes you just need to blow the roof off and get things charged up.  There’s a great deal of electronic music built around pure energy, with straightforward 4/4 dancefloor beat structures as the means and the end, with little else to disrupt the flow, but the list of electronic dance albums that also succeed at engaging the mind isn’t quite as robust.

Presented as evidence:  Baikonur, the second album by German trio S.K.E.T.  It’s an album that falls somewhere in between the established genres of electronic body music (EBM), intelligent dance music (IDM), and powernoise.  I applaud crossover attempts like this, because they allow the artists to push the envelope and experiment, and once in a while, everything falls into place beautifully.

Baikonur is also a concept album (more applause) celebrating the groundbreaking forays into space by the Soviet Union.  The music (and artwork) seems to embrace the pioneering spirit of the first cosmonauts, channeling the inspiration into the music; Baikonur is the middle of three albums S.K.E.T. has released to date on Germany’s Hands Productions, but neither of the others click with such satisfaction.

After a relatively uneventful opener, “Sputnikshock,” Baikonur announces its true identity with the sublime “Luna (Isolator 4 Edit)”, a careening journey bristling with rocket-propelled impetus, centered around a driving beat and a distorted percussive pattern that spits from the speakers with machine-gun rapidity.  The track harnesses the energy of EBM, the complexity of IDM, and the rawness of powernoise to intoxicating effect; it strains like a greyhound at the starting blocks, all lean explosive potential.  And yet, the music contains startling versatility:  you can dance to it, you can head-nod to it, and you can analyze its dizzying layered sequences.  It engages the blood, the heart, and the mind.

The next three tracks pay homage to Yuri Gagarin: titled “Vostok 1”, “2”, and “3”, each with the subtitle “Gagarins Flight,” and showcase S.K.E.T.’s sense of melody and ambiance, along with more precisely controlled sequences of noise.  Every single sound has its place within the mechanism; I’ve rarely heard electro with such a strong sense of rhythm and such a mastery of fast-paced layered sequencing.

Baikonur continues building momentum, and hits its full stride beginning with track 7, “Proton-K,” with an ominous synth line flanked by a chopped vocal sample and driving percussive passages.  “Zond,” perhaps the album’s most energetic track, features off-kilter rhythms that never follow the same groove for long that gradually add layers of complexity, finishing off with truly wonderful keyboards.  “Progress” shadows the darkness of “Proton-K” while adding high-pitched whistles and meandering chords, while the beat chugs and glistens.  S.K.E.T. cools the jets a bit with the almost downtempo “Meteor 2-5”, built around two repeating vocal samples and a slowed thumping beat, as distorted incidentals sizzle and flare.

There are seventeen tracks in total here, which is a lot for an album as tightly focused as Baikonur.  It’s expected that it loses itself in places – which it does following such a strong core – but the inspiration returns for the two final tracks.   “Fobos” buzzes and pulses at stratospheric heights, and “Soljaris” uses breaks in the sequences of noise to catch its breath as the synths haul it beyond gravity’s reach one final time.

Baikour is confident, kinetic, relentless, and precise; there’s not a tentative moment from start to finish.  Everything is moving forward, often at a breakneck pace.  As such, it can be a little exhausting and frazzling to listen to entirely in one sitting, as your brain can struggle to keep up with its hectic level of activity.  It’s understandable that S.K.E.T. couldn’t quite maintain the same insane level of ingenuity and energy through all seventeen tracks, but the fact that Baikonur doesn’t dissolve into frenetic and shapeless chaos is a testament to the technical skill and unifying concepts with which it was produced.  Heavy without being weighty, dancing along the edge of darkness, Baikonur is a brilliant exercise in experimental rhythm and synthetic momentum.  Onward and upward, comrades!