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.