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.