Tholen – Sternklang

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.

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Herbst9 – The Gods Are Small Birds, But I Am The Falcon

Loki Foundation (LOKI 48), 2008

First of all, this is easily one of my all-time favorite album titles.

Germany’s Herbst9 (Henry Emich & Frank Merten) is quite an interesting dark ambient project.  Several of its releases, of which Gods is one, focus on Sumerian and Babylonian mythological figures and themes as central concepts.  The sound design reflects this, but filters it through a futuristic lens; Herbst9 is not interested in representing history as it was.  Gods is, atmospherically speaking,  perhaps not quite as dark as the theme might suggest; it’s certainly not on the same level of blackness as Lustmord, for example.  The vocal samples scattered throughout the album range from spoken word to sparse bits of chanting and singing, and many tracks use tympanic percussion to enhance the mood, but it’s not a relentless onslaught like This Morn’ Omina.  In fact, if one is familiar with TMO’s quieter moments, consider Gods to be an extension.

As Gods is a stubbornly concept album, the tracks all contain identical characteristics.  “The Lament Begins” sets the stage with a deep bass drone that follows a simple chord pattern, as a female vocal sample wails at looped intervals, gongs sound from the deep, chimes clatter, and static-twisted voices wind from the speakers.  The formula has been established, and the remainder of the album follows suit.  Many of the samples, on this track and elsewhere, seem suited for a deep-space ambient album; they’re unintelligible bits of distorted speech snatched from the ether.  Combined with Herbst9’s minimal yet effective electronic treatments, and then augmented by the chanting and traditional percussion, the result can be astonishing.  Gods is never threatening, but is full of awe and mystery – at what exactly, we are never quite sure, as the paradoxical elements don’t always blend together seamlessly.  When things do mesh naturally, however, as on the moving “Must I Die? (Because of My Holy Songs)” and the sublime “…And Everything Around Him Answered,” Gods leaks into places few albums go, conjuring a vision of ancient yet somehow steampunk rituals.  If only it moved into these realms more boldly.

While Gods never reaches the poetic chasms of R|A|A|N, and doesn’t have the wild energy of This Morn’ Omina, it provides a solid ambient experience.  It never strays from its strongly established themes; I wish there was a bit more variety from track to track.  After a few listens, adventurous listeners may soon find themselves craving more provocative and immersive spaces.  Herbst9 has made ritual music for electronic ghosts, but Gods treads its sacred ground a little too cautiously.

 

SleepResearch_Facility – Nostromo

Cold Spring Records (CSR34CD), 2001 (resissued 2007)

Although he’s never come out and said it, to my knowledge, Kevin Doherty’s SleepResearch_Facility ambient project might be the product of insomnia.  It’s easy for me to imagine Doherty, in the grip of a sleepless night, deciding he may as well do something productive.  If he ends up making something to help soothe an overworked mind – whether his or someone else’s – then that would be a bonus.  This is not to say that Doherty’s work is soporific or boring.  While it may seem so, if allowed to play in the background without one’s full attention, that is missing the point.

I was immediately intrigued about SR_F’s first release on the UK’s Cold Spring Records, just from its title and concept.  Nostromo is dedicated to the deep-space freighter from Ridley Scott’s classic film Alien, which is a personal favorite of mine.  Upon learning that Doherty’s album was meant to be an extension of the film’s first few minutes, my interest grew quickly.  Scott’s film opens with a series of slowly panning shots through the interior of the Nostromo, while the crew is deep in hypersleep.  We see dark corridors, hear the hums and whispers of relaxed technology, and see lazily scrolling screen displays at abandoned workstations.  While the visuals set the tone for the claustrophobia and terror that is to come later in the film, these first few moments are oddly calming.

Doherty’s album uses these opening shots as inspiration, giving us an audio tour of the entire ship.  Each of the ten-plus-minute tracks is titled for a different deck of the ship (“A-Deck,” “B-Deck”), while the 2007 remastered version of the album adds an exclusive final track, “Narcissus,” named for the Nostromo’s dropship, and all-new artwork.  Doherty imagines the ship as a near-living thing, full of activity, though calm and watchful, monitoring all of the complex life-support and guidance systems.  What we hear on Nostromo are the sounds of this activity.

Nostromo is a deep-space dark ambient concept album, which means it’s full of gradually evolving synthesizer washes and sampled processed noises.  What makes the album remarkable is Doherty’s sense of pace and progress, and how well it fits the concept he has created.  There are no track breaks; the album is one unbroken tapestry of immersive atmosphere, carrying us through the shadowed bowels of the star-faring vessel with a peaceful yet mysterious hand.  We hear the pulses of generators, the buzz of wires, and far away, the rhythmic thrums of the ship’s massive engines.  Automatic doors hiss, computers click, and storage rooms hum to themselves, all as we pass through, invisible observers.

If this sounds like a framework to let your mind go, it is; in fact, it’s one of the most mentally freeing ambient albums I’ve ever heard.  Sometimes this means I drift off to sleep (or think I have), and sometimes my imagination moves outside the ship into the quiet realms of the void itself, and I see the ship from the outside as I drift about it in vacuum.  Other times, I just let the ever-shifting digital ocean flow through me, carrying me along its ebb and flow with calming complexity.  In any case, Nostromo always, always, distracts me from whatever stresses the days have built upon me, and I emerge from the journey refreshed and renewed…..with the memory of where my mind has taken me, courtesy of Doherty’s inspiration.

Nostromo isn’t music; not really.  It contains no beats or melody.  It’s really, at its core, an electronic noise album, fitted into the ambient genre.  It’s dark, but in a soothing way rather than a brooding one.  It’s the sound of machines, generated by machines.  But this does not mean it’s not an incredible, unforgettable, and brilliantly composed auditory experience; it’s a prime example of what makes “deep listening” such a compelling experience.  Doherty has a talent for conjuring concepts, for transporting us into his concept, and giving our minds – conscious and subconscious, and perhaps even unconscious, should we fall asleep with our headphones on – a release from the pressures of everyday life.  For these reasons, despite not being “music” in the traditional sense, Nostromo is one of my very favorite albums in any genre.

 

Polyspace – Tactual Sense

Funkwelten Records (FW 004), 2003

Collaborations are curious things.  How is it determined which person assumes the bulk of the responsibility, and does someone at all?  From novels to albums, the results are always interesting, especially when one or each of the separate contributors is already familiar.  You may pay additional attention to the work, attempting to suss out traces of the artist you know.  Sometimes, however, it is impossible, because the end result of the creative process is a true joint effort, each artist playing off and inspiring the other, and the collaboration becomes something that would have otherwise become impossible.

Ingo Lindmeier and Sebastian Ullman must have experienced this.  Working together, they produce under the name Polyspace, named as a combination of Lindmeier’s Polygon project, and Ullman’s For A Space.  To date, Polyspace has released just one album, Tactual Sense, on the independent German label Funkwelten in 2003, but it stands as a prime example of both artists combining their strengths in true collaborative fashion, while producing commendable music at the same time.

The music on Tactual Sense can be described as melodic IDM with an electro foundation.  The production is tight and focused, with For A Space’s clean synth lines and echoing sequences mixed with Polygon’s minimal piano chords and meandering slightly glitched percussive programming.  It’s a natural fit, sounding like an extension of each individual project, with neither Lindmeier nor Ullman overwhelming the other, each respecting the talents of his partner while not compromising the unified vision.

Tactual Sense treads very closely to ambient and New Age, with a sense of wonder hanging over the music rather than melancholic isolation or vast threatening interstellar chasms.  The album unfolds with relaxed grace, full of unhurried tempo and casually evolving keyboards.  The initially wobbling “Portable” creates space with breathy samples and scattered electronic noise, only to blossom into Lindmeier’s reverbed piano backed by Ullman’s dreamy synths.  A light beat kicks in, soon followed by the familiar wobble, and we are off on a journey into strangely lit solar systems and nebulae.

There’s a definite “space ambient” feel to Tactual Sense, despite it being a piano-and-beat album at its core.  Even when a sampled telephone breaks into “The Call,” it feels as if the incoming message has floated across immeasurable gulfs from beyond the stars….but it is a welcome communication rather than an menacing one.  A beeping electronic melody and sporadic drum-and-bass percussion anchor “Latenz,” while Ullman provides a window into the glorious night sky once again; the track feels like an interstellar Morse code sequence is being fired into the cosmos, hoping for a recipient light years away.

“Grown Out” is driven forward by delicately distorted drums and classic EBM sequencing, while an irresistible piano line and carefully placed synth washes keep the track from becoming too aggressive.   “Motif” is full of cloudy grace, with intertwining melodies held together by patterns of glitch and trembling percussion.  The Kraftwerkian “Model” (perhaps named in homage to the German legends?) is carried along by a classic electro bassline, while an off-key twinkling melody is offset by lightly broken clicks and gentle swipes.  The album closes with the dub-like hymn “Heaven,” finishing off the journey with a shimmering destination somewhere beyond the galaxies overhead.

It’s unfortunate that Polyspace has not released anything further.  Aside from two excellent exclusive tracks on a Funkwelten sampler (Funkwelten, The Label Compilation 01 – an outstanding compilation, by the way) that would have fit on Tactual Sense like a second skin, the project has fallen all but silent.  Perhaps it was viewed as a one-off experiment, yes, but Lindmeier and Ullman collaborated with such effortless elegance, one can only dream what else they might have done.  But for one album, the stars and planets fell into rare alignment.

Tactual Sense lies somewhere between the yawning gulfs of dark ambient, the dream-state of New Age, the minimal lovely piano of Harold Budd, and the edginess of glitch, but ultimately, it can be best identified as the cohesive effort of two artists working together in pure harmony, creating the music they felt compelled to, without paying too much attention to convention or genre.  The result is, quite simply, a gem of an album.

Oil 10 – Arena

Brume Records (BRUME 08), 2003

Tracking the evolution of a musical project is, for me, one of the joys of being a fan.  Hearing a project search for and find its sonic identity is especially fulfilling when the entire discography is considered; or even better, experienced as it unfolds before one’s ears.  The history of Gilles Rossire’s Oil 10 project is a prime example of how the work of a composer hints at the direction it may take before finally reaching its potential.  Looking backward, early Oil 10 albums (In/Out, Blocks) are rough and unformed, while bearing occasional seeds of what was to come (the album Links).  With the 2003 album Arena, however, Rossire and Oil 10 flowered into magnificence, using everything from previous works and pushing the project into completely new – and wonderful – territory.

Oil 10’s music began as experimental beats with the mischievously skewed sensibilities that seem to mark much of the independent French electronic music that was appearing at the time.  Early efforts were certainly solid, but unremarkable.  However, subsequent albums began to show elements of character, such as processed vocal samples and snippets of melody.  The tracks became shorter, less abstract, more focused….more song-like.  On Arena, Rossire moved these elements into the forefront, increased the melodic content, and refined the music even further.  He seemed to finally find his niche, and as a result, Arena is a marvelous ten-track collection of instrumental electro-pop genius, while showcasing the endearing quirkiness that the French seem to do so well.

Arena opens with “Is It Sex?”, a strange yet compelling tune that contains everything that gives Oil 10 its identity:  tight 4/4 beats, light clicks, chirps, and glitches, a collage of beeps that serve both as mood and melody, thoughtful catchy analog-style synth lines and sequencing, and bizarre Speak-and-Spell-ish vocal samples (on this track, they’re repeated plaintive musings – “Is it sex?  Or is…it…love?” – that add layers of tongue-in-cheekiness because they sound the voice of a robot).   It’s a song (yes, that’s what Oil 10 produces at its evolutionary peak:  songs) that typifies the Oil 10 formula, serving as a fine example of what Arena holds in store.

You’ll hear spacey wistful anthems (“Lost in Metropolis”), infectious layers of irresistible robotic joy (“Happy Mondays”), and driving drone-backed neon-drenched journeys (“Le Bar”).  Rossire imparts an extra edge of surreality to “Electric Angels,” a beatless drifting lullaby peppered with truly bizarre vocal samples that appear to be taken from a language tutorial.  A down-pitched voice declares “I am Huge Harry, a very large person with a deep voice.  I can be used as an authority figure,” while a mid-ranged voice says, “I am Beautiful Betty, the standard female voice.  Some people think I sound a bit like a man.”  And then a high-pitched voice:  “My name is Kit the Kid, and I am about ten years old.  Do I sound like a boy or a girl?”  It’s examples like this that make me think Oil 10’s vocal components are really sourced from Rossire himself; they’re just too strange, too perfectly suited for the songs, and too similar in sound to be sampled from anything else.

Pop music isn’t my favorite genre, but it does have its attractions:  repeated melodies, tight structure, and straightforward nature.  Sometimes, especially after experiencing a stretch of purposefully formless experimental music, my brain craves something more uniform.  Oil 10 is in no way mainstream – it’s far too eclectic – but contains enough pop sensibility without becoming disposable.  Arena is much more accessible than most independent French electro, and contains a heaping dose of appeal on multiple levels, but it’s still inventive enough and odd enough to keep me coming back, time and again.  With Arena, Oil 10 and Rossire have reached their apex, and the result is enthusiastic, creative, slick, and downright enjoyable electronic pop…albeit with a distinctive and curious French slant.

Oxyd – Larva

Aliens Production (AP17), 2007

You might not think of Slovakia as a hotbed of electronic music, but Lord Sauron and Ryby would like you to reconsider.  Not only are the enigmatic duo the founders and operators of the Aliens Production label, they are also the frontmen of electro act Disharmony and the dark ambient spin-off project Oxyd.  They describe Oxyd as “dark ambient,” but the music is far too versatile, melodic, and focused to fit into that genre exclusively.  If Delerium – early Delerium, mind you – was the ambient side of Front Line Assembly, than Oxyd fills the same niche when compared to the ominous synths, driving rhythms, and rasping vocals of Disharmony.  Larva, the first Oxyd album to appear on its “home” label, is an instrumental work full of lush harmonies, delicate atmospheres, thoughtful percussion, and in places, genuine beauty.

“From the Outside” kicks off the album with what certainly seems like straightforward ambient:  distant synthetic thunder and sampled chanting, but things soon take an interesting turn.  A spoken sample warns about tourists on the beach and a woman “moving in with your brother,” followed by deft piano touches that foreshadow the attention to melody that threads throughout the album.  “Traveller” is next, with classic EBM-style sequencing outlined by an IDM flair, all enhanced by driving drumwork.  It’s heavy without being stifling, and the backing keys and sparkling sequencing keep things from getting too dark.  More odd voice samples and Gregorian-style chanting finish the track with a flourish.

The next few tracks slow the momentum just a touch.  The center of “Transformations” is a repeated sequence melody with off-tempo percussion that has a strong prelude-type feel, but the track ends before a payoff is reached.  “Unborn” has yet more bizarre voice samples – Oxyd is careful not to overuse the samples, using them to give their music a unique bent – and intertwining keyboards with minimal percussive echoes in the distance.  “Transmission” goes on too long, with its metallic drums becoming increasingly wearing as they clang over and over with little change.

Larva then firmly re-establishes itself with “Suspiria,” which uses muted drums and minimal piano as a wispy core; Sauron and Ryby certainly understand IDM, for this is an outstanding entry into the genre, while maintaining Larva’s uniquely strange and attractive feel.  “Carbon” is thick with windswept drama, with its soaring synths and tribal percussion, and “Voices of Sand” augments the mood with lovely synths that shift into a drum/sequence combination that rivals “Traveller.”  Sauron and Ryby then reach their peak with “Dune,” a mesmerizing showcase of chord-shifting melody and booming bass kicks, and the carefully placed flows, buzzes, and clicks of “Sunlights.”  Larva’s crowning moment, however, is the sublime “The Frozen Moon,” a triumph of pace, feel, atmosphere, and rhythm.  It evolves with a master’s touch, moving forward while never losing sight of each of its components.  Ryby and Sauron are superbly talented songwriters and technicians, and “Sculptures” is undeniable proof.  They’re somehow able to make their machines sound natural.  After the longing keys and layered percussion of “Scupltures” (which soars achingly into the stratosphere at the five-minute mark), “From the Inside” closes Larva with piano and woodwinds rife with all the melodic brilliance featured on this marvelous album.

Aliens Production is not a prolific label, having released about twenty albums to date, in a variety of styles.  Its criminally overlooked discography is full of accomplished electronic music with a particular feel; something commonly inspirational must be in the Slovakian water.  Larva isn’t dark ambient – it’s much more.  It’s a genre-defying yet cohesive work that follows a strong vision, created and composed by two musicians who have a profound understanding of not just genre, but of music itself.  Each track flows into the next, connected by common threads, each a part of the whole.  Larva is the definition of a hidden classic.

Tarmvred – Subfusc

Ad Noiseam (No 4), 2001

It’s been said that everyone is an author or a musician to a certain extent.  To look at it another way, it’s said that everyone has a great story or song inside them, and it’s just a matter of finding it and letting it out.  One has only to consult the list of one-hit wonders for evidence.

In 2001, Ad Noiseam (high on my list for best-named labels) released Subfusc, the strangely named debut album from the also-strangely named band Tarmvred.  Subfusc hit the electro underground with all the subtlety of an anti-personnel bomb, and word quickly spread about a new kid on the scene.  The combination of styles contained on Subfusc seemed to hint at the arrival of a touted talent, and with such a celebrated debut, great things were expected.  However, Tarmvred never released another full album, and what did appear didn’t live up to the wondrously baffling kaleidoscopic precedent set with Subfusc.  This is not to say that the album is a fluke.  Quite the contrary – it deserves every ounce of its status, and years later, there’s still never been an album quite like it.

The mad scientist behind Tarmvred is Jonas Johanssen, a retro-futurist who attacks his machines with all the reckless glee of a kid playing in the mud, unconcerned with rules or consequence.  Admittedly, Subfusc is a mess, but it manages to be a beautiful one.  It shifts styles without warning or reason, moving from thumping electro to drum-and-bass to ambient and back again, from the fringes of experimentation to the straightforward without consideration or apology.  This spastic structure is, ultimately, the album’s greatest strength, and its biggest shortcoming.  And yet, for all its scatterbrained explosiveness, this is an album, defined by its lack of definition, if nothing else.  When one considers Tarmvred’s subsequent erratic releases, it supports the theory that everything fell into place for Johanssen during the recording of Subfusc, which remains, to date, his most wonderful and most fractured gift to the world.

Subfusc has seven tracks, each named only by its length;  the first track is titled 1105.39 (just over eleven minutes in length.  Yes, eleven minutes.  All but one of the tracks are over nine minutes) .  The track begins with ambient-style whirs and buzzes, which drift about harmlessly and whimsically, until a devastating percussive break slowly fades in at the four-minute mark.  Johanssen’s lab is now open for business.  What happens next is a dizzing, exhilarating display of tempo changes, breaks, and headlong inertia through a beautiful and broken landscape Johanssen seems to make up as he goes along (who knows, maybe he did).   A buzzing old-school bass-line soon follows, complemented perfectly by the thudding drums.  And then, just because he can, Johanssen throws in a couple of delightfully old-school sampled melodies taken from 1980s hardware.  A great track just became something else entirely.  Track One is, in my humble opinion, one of the most powerful, visceral, and downright satisfying electro anthems ever recorded; in my book, it’s right up there with classics like Converter’s “Denogginizer” and Imminent Starvation’s “Tentack One.”

The rest of Subfusc doesn’t quite maintain the established momentum (how could it?).  Johanssen throws everything into the grinder and churns out magnificence without a care for genre or convention.  It’s the kind of music that shouldn’t work, but does.  Subfusc is not the work of a suppressed or tortured soul who has at last found his outlet; no, this is a work of joy, of appreciation, of wide-eyed wonder, of experimenting for the sake of experimenting.  I can easily picture Johanssen saying “Let’s see if THIS works!  And I’ll leave it in there even if it doesn’t!”  Given the length of the tracks, and their complexity and schizophrenic nature, Subfusc is not an easy listen, and it is very challenging to experience in its entirety.  It does tend to wander, and the sheer scope of everything can easily overwhelm, but it’s never Johanssen’s intention to drown or oppress the listener.  Subfusc is Johanssen sharing his hyperactive vision, and it’s up to us to process it.  There are passages and instances of brilliance hidden throughout Subfusc – be prepared to catch each as they zip past, because another is sure to replace it when you least expect it.  (Track Five has, of all things, female vocals thrown in.)

Track Seven is a remix by the legendary Converter, whose unexpected shifting template Tarmvred shares in many respects.  I don’t normally care for remixes on albums, as I’m keen on the big picture, but Converter’s work is noteworthy because it shows what Tarmvred might sound like if given focus and direction.  Scott Sturgis adds his trademark distortion and weight, but is careful to maintain the core of the original; he pushes the track ever so slightly towards the ominous without allowing it to redefine Johanssen’s impulsive, attractive brand of insanity.

Even in a genre as niche as experimental electro, the breakneck, uneven rollercoaster of Subfusc is not for everyone.  Its manic, unpredictable identity can be trying and taxing; it is certainly a demanding album.  However, those with patience and/or an adventurous ear may very likely find Tarmvred’s buzzsaw playground a rewarding place to visit.

In any case, you have GOT to hear Track One.