Anhedonia – Destructive Forces

Aliens Production (AP 11), 2006

For those with familiarity, the comparisons are immediate and obvious:  Anhedonia sounds a lot like Gridlock.  The two projects share the same template of broken percussive patterns wrapped in synthetic ambiance.  Anhedonia, the creative outlet of Vojtech Smetana, is clearly influenced (as are many others) by Gridlock’s groundbreaking fusion of chaos and emotion, but Anhedonia does have differences that separate it enough to create its own identity.  In this way, Smetana keeps his music from becoming a mere clone, and instead, Anhedonia becomes an admiring follower, branching into territory that’s obviously inspired, but ultimately of Smetana’s own design.

Destructive Forces doesn’t match the visceral power and haunting profound emotion of Gridlock, but that’s not surprising; I’ve yet to hear an artist in a similar vein that does.  Anhedonia is no slouch in the songwriting and arrangement departments, however, and creates and maintains a rhythmic energy that moves through the music like a coiling cybernetic serpent.  The title track takes the Gridlock formula and fits it into a momentous near-EBM-style anthem, complete with sequenced rhythms, backing synths, and irresistible drum programming.  It’s Gridlock, refitted for the dancefloor, and bears more than a passing resemblance to Wells’ & Cadoo’s debut, The Synthetic Form.

Over the course of Destructive Forces, however, Anhedonia gradually moves away from Gridlock’s deep long shadow into its own territory.  A slow jagged beat is the center of “Malfunction”, while distant noise and clicks orbit melodic keyboards.  Smetana adds percussive elements as the track progresses, increasing the complexity without losing sight of the foundation.  Destructive Forces wears its Gibson-influenced template on its cybernetic sleeve, too; with tracks titled “Bad Sector” and “Chiba City Blues,” it’s easy for Gibson fans to imagine Case threading his virtual way through the geometry of the matrix with Anhedonia’s music as company and guide.  This is a sci-fi album, without apology; it’s Access to Arasaka, but with drive, focus, and direction.

The straining distorted drums of “Neurological Seizure” will put a grin on the face of any IDM fan, while the dramatic backdrop and scattered samples with appeal to those with post-industrial tastes.  The sparseness of “Stir Up the Dust,” which also appears in remixed form courtesy of Aliens Production founders Disharmony, switches into EBM glory thanks to a wonderfully old-school bass synth and pounding drums.  “Icecold” is one of the tracks whose foundation struggles to escape the pull of Gridlock’s ghost, but Smetana keeps the inertia high enough to divert the track from the chasm of copycat-ism.  “Chiba City Blues” is a grit-laden, neon-soaked, magnificently bristling synthetic creature that is one of the album’s more dramatic and effective highlights.  Things slow down and retract just enough on “Whitespace”, but not to the degree of letting Smetana’s honed sense of ambiance gain too strong a foothold.

Clearly, it’s nigh impossible to discuss Anhedonia without mentioning Gridlock.  The two projects share so many common elements, they’re almost related.  Like siblings, however, Anhedonia has followed the example set by its elder brother and managed to demonstrate respect and influence while finding and staying true to itself.  Gridlock’s place as an underground electronic innovator is well deserved, and while many clones exist, Anhedonia’s cyberhymn-laced debut is arguably the best of the bunch.

Iszoloscope – Les Gorges Des Limbes

ant-zen (act178), 2004

It’s always vastly interesting for me when a musical project goes beyond its established identity.  Front Line Assembly is particularly noted for this, releasing albums across various genres under names such as Noise Unit, Delerium, Synaesthesia, etc.  Yann Faussurier has done this with his Iszoloscope project.  Known for its brash distorted percussive onslaught, Iszoloscope albums also contained scattered tracks of ambiance (as well as unusual bits of humor) that I always found more interesting than the barrage of power noise.  Released in 2004, Les Gorges Des Limbes contains this type of dark ambient atmospheric content, albeit expanded across an entire album.

Much less manic and reflective than other Iszoloscope releases, Les Gorges Des Limbes contains five tracks of meditative, slithery dark ambient.  Tracks one, three, and five are titled “Les Manuscrits De L’Invisible,” chapters “Un,” “Deux,” and “Trois” respectively, and are full of nicely fused drones at various pitches that excel at creating an unsettling atmosphere.  There is a decidedly strong sense of rhythm throughout these tracks, and the entire album; not surprising, when most of Iszoloscope’s sound is marked by distorted sequences of meticulously arranged percussion.  The drones are often clearly looped, giving the music an artificial atmosphere rather than the organic feel so prevalent among the best ambient.  That’s not intended as a slight, mind you, but the evolution here is certainly more measured than natural.  This is an album you appreciate consciously rather than one you lose yourself in.  The strange repeated high whine of “Your Dark And Ghostly Guidance” is deliciously creepy, but as it appears in precise intervals, it begins to lose some of its potency as the track progresses, despite being part of an unnerving framework of keys and samples.   “Reaching Out From His Watery Grave” has a strange sequence that sounds like the croaking of frogs, as well as a wonderfully chilling sample from the excellent 1980 ghost film “The Changeling”, buoyed by passes of looping static.  

Most every track has percussion, but it’s not the focus.  “Un” has a clacking that sounds like a wooden metronome, and “Deux” has a drawn-out creaking that rises and falls in the mix.  “Trois,” which is in many ways the strongest track on the album, begins with two high drones intertwining around a shimmering spine, then moves into a stealthily crackling place punctuated by echoing voice samples and a dully thumping heartbeat.  here, Faussurier uses rhythm in a much more subtle manner, while retaining the sense of progression and skewed disturbance that marks the album so strongly.

Originally conceived as a side project, Les Gorges Des Limbes shows instead the versatility of Faussurier and Iszoloscope.  His 2005 follow-up, The Audient Void, incorporated increased elements of ambient into Iszoloscope’s trademark frenzied attack, showing that his indulgence of his beatless side resulted in a more versatile sound.  Despite the new path that Iszoloscope has taken since its release, Les Gorges Des Limbes is the album that changed the band’s sound.  Taken on its own considerable merit, however, it’s also a memorable glimpse into Faussurier’s darker, more deliberate side.  It remains to be seen if we’ll get a follow-up (I cetainly hope we do), but if not, Les Gorges Des Limbes remains a fascinating genre entry that’s one of the best bits of pure dark ambient in the ant-zen catalog.

Vestigial – Translucent Communion

Cold Meat Industry (CMI183), 2008

There’s a good deal of dark ambient music that doesn’t have that certain it – that ingredient, factor, sense of place and myth.  While this music certainly well-done and effective, it lacks that certain element of mix of elements that causes the composition to transcend drone or noise or drawn-out melody and become something else.  Something that dares you to turn away.  Something that thrills.  Something that engages you deeply and on multiple levels, beyond just occupying earspace.  It speaks to you, transports you to places you didn’t know exist, acting as a catalyst and gateway.  It’s for this experience that I roam the shadowed landscapes of dark ambient, and when I find what I seek, it makes the search worthwhile.

Translucent Communion is such an album.  I realize the dark ambient experience can be very subjective, but there’s something magnetic about this album that make other efforts seem sterile.  The anthemic opener “Anthropic Uncreation” contains enough stirring drama to fill entire albums, and yet it moves, drawing us along in its majestic wake.  “The Coming”, with its processed drones and evolving bass, is somehow haunting and revelatory, with just a glimpse of angels in its closing moments.  “The Geometry” moves between silence and sample-studded void; it’s equal parts gentle and looming.  In these three tracks, Vestigial touches upon the transcendent, the profound, and the banal, and does so in both heavy and minimal fashion.  Many dark ambient albums shift over time, but few do so with such conviction and purpose.

A helicopter-like whirring dominates “The Void”, while more distorted vocal samples wax and wane.  I normally find such samples distracting, but here, they give the experience humanity, grounding it by imparting the sense the listener is not the first to enter these places.  There’s a near-palpable sense of otherness throughout Translucent Communion; many albums fit their drones into a concept, but not this one – at least, not entirely.  We have the album title and track names to work with, and that’s it.  I can only imagine what Vestigial must have been imagining when creating these sonic sensations.

“Primordial Communication” dials things down a bit, with a subdued wave flowing sluggishly, bearing along more buried samples.  Before long, booming drums enter the space, making the atmosphere tribal and portentous.  Who is communicating with whom, or what?  “Anthropic Resonance” is the final track, and it wavers between quiet drones and sequences of roiling noise, until a single low tone slowly dissolves into nothingness.

Translucent Communion is an album that might sound standard when described, but it’s anything but typical.  Its success lies in how Vestigial takes the template established by others and then transcends it, doing so in a natural and seamless manner.  This is an album that definitely has that elusive it.

Kammarheit – Asleep And Well Hidden

Cyclic Law (3rd Cycle), 2003

The music of Kammarheit occupies a space between genres.  It contains the ominous exploration of dark ambient and the delicate introspection of ambient, often within the same track.  Par Bostrom produces expressive atmospheres that can soothe and cause unease in equal measures.  There’s always something not quite right in Kammarheit’s world, and it is up to the listener to discern what it is, and why.

Asleep And Well Hidden is a portrait of quiet complexity.   The structure of the music is straightforward; a Kammarheit track typically uses a single synth line as its base, and repeats it while adding subtle layers of detail.  Bostrom is a master of the subtle, never letting his slices of melancholia venture beyond the boundaries he has created.  Like the best ambient, he gives us a partially defined starting point and allows us to flesh out the full meaning.  “Hiding” has a gentle two-chord key sequence that Bostrom surrounds with gentle passes, flutters, and tones; we could be at the shore of an ink-dark sea or somewhere beneath the earth.  What exactly is hiding and why is never revealed, except in our minds (and perhaps not even there).  It’s not frightening – not exactly – but a stirring experience that shows us a glimpse of something that has been sealed away for good reason.

Bostrom uses this theme of duality throughout the album.  Through its repeated drone and low reversed bells, “The Ruins and the Serene” reflects the awe and mystery of something lost with the calm that can be found in isolation.  “For The Innermost” draws things out even further, with its carefully evolving drone and deftly layered keys punctuated by occasional feedback.  At first listen, the level of detail might not be fully apparent.  Even in a track this minimal, Bostrom folds in quite a lot of content, but in a careful and gradual manner; the keenest and most attentive ears will find much during deep listening sessions.

At just under five minutes, “The Poignant” is the album’s shortest track, featuring a repeated sequence that sounds like the coos and stirs of some lonely nightbird, which sends its forlorn call into the surrounding murk.  It’s simultaneously haunting and relaxing, and Bostrom keeps it perfectly balanced.  “Epitome” is similar, with its stark spaces and quiet shifts containing oddly organic sounds that may have come from some unseen animal; not a monstrous thing, mind you, but certainly a strange one with strange emotion.  Perhaps we are given a glimpse into this animal’s restless slumbers with “Dreamhours,” where we are led through a hazy and uncertain landscape with furtive movements just out of sight.

Kammarheit draws the listener inwards, to places of silent regret and isolation.  The music carries none of the bombast found so often in ambient, dark or otherwise.  Its versatility produces a different experience for the imaginative listener, or an inspiring journey through night-soaked landscapes for those seeking something a bit more passive.  Bostrom’s palette is too edgy and nervous to be completely soothing, but never plunges fully into the depths of despair.  It’s remarkable that such an apparently minimal album never drags or bogs down under its own weight, and that its surprising complexity adheres so strongly to a theme while avoiding the too-common trap of sounding like a demo of the artist’s technical skills.  At just over forty-two minutes, Asleep And Well Hidden is not a lengthy album, but it features a level of consistency, artistry, and conjured experience most longer albums never achieve.

Flaque – Mindscapes

Wycombe Music (CDWYC 14), 2007

Even before I heard his debut album, Florian Ziller’s Flaque project had been on my radar for a while, thanks to a series of outstanding tracks on various compilations:  “Black Shadows in the Fog”, “Drifting Stones,” “Darkness is Falling,” and “Voices.”  With these tracks, Flaque showed a rare grasp of several styles, from ambient to glitch-studded IDM, and I always wondered if and when an album might appear.

I got my wish with the 2007 release of Mindscapes on Germany’s Wycombe Music label.  However, I didn’t discover it for a while, because Mindscapes was released as part of a triple-album set which was often cataloged as just one of the albums (CDWYC 13, an album by synthpop group Concise titled Revive).  I don’t believe Mindscapes has had a standalone physical release, but via digital, it’s not difficult to acquire….as long as one knows what one is looking for!

Perhaps I set my expectations too high, or perhaps Ziller is the type of artist who works best with a single track, for as solid as Mindscapes is, it still strikes me as disappointing.  With the creativity and technical skill displayed on his comp tracks – all done post-Mindscapes, mind you – I suppose I was hoping to be blown away by an entire album containing the same level of production.  Mindscapes does waver between straight ambiance, such as the playful “Flares”, the watery “Plankton,” and the soothing nightscape of “Stonehill”, and restrained glitchy IDM (“Northland”, “The Clouds and the Sun”), but it seems tentative, as if Ziller doesn’t feel fully confident to let himself go in the album format; perhaps he was trying too hard to make everything flowing and centralized.

Not that there aren’t some fantastic moments here.  In many ways, Flaque is like Gridlock’s little brother.  The distorted complex percussive patterns aren’t as bombastic, and the atmospheres aren’t as profound, but the formula is very similar to Cadoo and Mike Well’s influential flagship.  “Alive” begins with crowd samples and a minimal glitch sequence, before a lovely warm synth washes over; this is calming beauty, with a little bit of quiet chaos in the background to keep things from getting too floaty.  Flaque does tread very close to New Age in places, but the distorted drum programming keeps  Mindscapes from wandering too far into dreamland.

There are two tracks on Mindscapes that do hint at the dazzling heights set by Flaque’s later comp tracks.  “Acoma” is a sparkling wonder of mood, dancing keyboards, and muffled quietly crashing glitch, but for all its prowess, it never seems to fully take off.  “Deceive” opens in typical fashion for the album, but when female voices appear, courtesy of Katrin Segert of Concise, the track shifts effortlessly into synthpop territory.  I’m not a big synthpop fan, but this song is truly magnificent, soaring to aching heights as it progresses.  Segert’s husky, soulful delivery – instantly reminiscent of This Mortal Coil – is a perfect fit for Ziller’s emotive electronics, and the two bands must have known it, for they’ve gone on to collaborate widely since.  These two tracks alone make Mindscapes worth the price of admission.

I admit that I regret saying anything negative about this release.  Mindscapes is indeed enjoyable, and transporting in spots.  However, Flaque has since done his mood-and-glitch formula much better.  While the mood here is strong, it’s rather static.  Mindscapes sticks a little too close to blueprint; most of the chord changes are too similar, and no track besides “Deceive” really breaks out entirely.  I’m realize I’m musing over Mindscapes here, but since I’d heard the compilation tracks first, I can’t help but compare, despite being aware I’m viewing Flaque’s output in reverse.  From this perspective, only a project as promising as Flaque could make an album like Mindscapes seem disappointing.  It’s certainly good, and even great in parts, but Ziller’s best work is ahead of him.

Niteffect – Electric Waste

Kreislauf (101), 2011

Laid-back trip-hop grooves and glitch-ridden atmospherics are the order of the day on Electric Waste from Polish producer Niteffect.   The album slouches along with sly urban confidence, using slow-paced beats with minimal glitch patterns and distortion, along with mood-setting synthwork and melodic keys.  This is not an instrumental hip-hop album, however, for the electronics themselves leave no room for lyrics, and the listener is not left wishing or searching for additional content.

Niteffect has been at his game for a while – this is his fifth full album – and it’s immediately obvious.  “The hero is dead” opens the album with head-nodding grace; this guy knows how to drive a track.  Dramatic stabs are offset by delicate chime and xylophone, while the beat chugs alongside.  It’s easy to imagine a night-time cityscape, or a stroll through the concrete maze of any downtown city; Electric Waste has a strong and definite sense of identity.  “Vandykes” adds space and wobbles to the mood, and “sobersides” uses a high-pitched melody to introduce just enough tension to the beatwork.

There are sixteen tracks on Electric Waste, but none are over four minutes; Niteffect understands the value of not overstaying his welcome.  He allows each track to develop to the potential he designed, then he cuts it off – sometimes rather abruptly.  There are no drawn-out intros or outros here, and no filler:  each track has its own individual identity, yet each is part of the larger concept of the album.  “Swing swift” motors casually along through pulsing sequences that bring to mind a drive through the city’s heart, while the follower, “zonked out,” stumbles along across an uncertain bassline etched with stabbing glitch and through a haze of dirty urban ambience.  The stabbing drills of “waste my life” seem like a misstep, shifting into blooming keys and piano melody and back again, while an off-key bass sequence fires monotonously.  Not a bad track, just a little precarious.  Niteffect’s smoothness returns on “termination,” washing over with chord-changing deep drones with ambient keys, while the ever-present percussion funnels us through the streets and alleys.  Halfway through the track, an introspective piano melody emerges, giving the track a new face, and a welcome one; this is one of Electric Waste’s most accomplished tracks.

The latter section of Electric Waste take a turn for the bizarre.  The alarming techno stabs of “quick to anger” somehow retain the established atmosphere, as does “power strip”, despite its strange Speak-And-Spell vocal samples.  And “sweet sorrow” focuses on a female voice relating the chemical properties of sugar, while the drums and synths do their thing.  “Binary exponents” then closes the album with a return to Niteffect’s formula of decidedly trip-hop moods with downtempo percussion, until the whole  thing ends rather suddenly, like the whole affair just ran itself off a cliff.

Electric Waste is something of a curiosity.  It seems uneven and erratic, but on close listens, it really isn’t.  Some tracks – “the hero is dead”, “sobersides”, “termination” – work better than others, but Niteffect experiments enough to keep the album from becoming sluggish and formulaic while keeping the structure intact.  The short track times keep my finger off the skip button on repeat listens, as I try to figure out exactly why and how everything fits together as well as it does.  Niteffect’s unusual, unexpected, and downright odd cityscape is one I enjoy visiting….when the particular mood strikes, that is.