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.