Cyclic Law (20th Cycle), 2007
Space is, as far as the human ear is concerned, a realm of silence. The interstellar chasms are anything but empty, however: stars flare and hiss, nebulae drift and hum, comets seethe, and black holes yawn. If air existed in this place, one can only imagine what it might sound like.
Tholen, the dark ambient project of the musician known as Eisen, has an idea. The title of his debut release on Cyclic Law, Sternklang, translates from the German to “star sounds.” This is a well-traveled theme in dark ambient, with artists approaching the concept from many different angles. Lustmord, for example, interprets the void as gulfs of gaping emptiness on The Place Where The Black Stars Hang, while Delerium uses extensive vocals samples and EBM-style programming on Spheres and Spheres II. Sternklang reflects these influences, but Tholen is not just going where others have already been.
Sternklang consists of a single seventy-one minute track. Like other concept albums (Phaenon’s Submerged), this decision enhances the immersion, while making one wonder if the composer recorded everything in one take. The album begins with familiar electronic sweeps and passes, with crackling and whispering drifting to our ears. Four minutes in, a new sound emerges: a tone that rises and falls in gentle waves, much like a drawn-out, down-pitched siren. It gives the impression of magnetic signals moving through the void, or of the delicate tug of gravity that fluctuates upon the proximity of a celestial body. It is equally calming and enticing. Eisen knows how to shift the mood gradually and delicately; it’s remarkable that he has such a clear grasp of this on his first release, and it’s a talent he evolves masterfully on his follow-up, Neuropol.
At the seventeen-minute mark, a dramatic low melody, following a four-chord sequence that is reminiscent of Lustmord’s masterpiece; it’s the perfect method to unveil the awe one must feel as a star is approached in surrounding murk. When Eisen injects elements such as chimes and bells, they do not seem out of place. The siren-like drone emerges once again, as it does several times throughout Sternklang, along with distorted washes and brief bursts of feedback-drowned vocal samples. High-pitched stabs become audible thirty minutes in, shattering the solace; perhaps we have veered dangerously close to a heavenly sphere. Soon, however, we are drifting safely once more, and forty-eight minutes into our voyage, we discover structured keyboards and percussion. The outer realm can be beautiful as well as threatening. Another light melody finishes the trip, while we can still hear the echo of the gulf we have left behind.
With so many similar albums available, one might wonder why Sternklang should be considered. It is a viable question. At the time of release, Eisen was a newcomer to the scene, and perhaps he had not yet learned to fully exploit his talents. Sternklang lies somewhere between space noise and space music; it has elements of both, fused together seamlessly and gracefully. Yes, it’s probably too long, and yes, it’s certainly derivative, but while Eisen doesn’t break new ground with Sternklang, it’s abundantly clear he understands what makes ambient music work.