Ambiguous – Stone Cross

Aliens Production (AP 22), 2010

Igor Seligna loves old-school dark ambient.  It’s more than evident on Stone Cross, the first major release from his Ambiguous project.  Containing more structure than most albums in the genre, Stone Cross is satisfying to a certain extent, bringing back trends and formulas that were first heard twenty years ago.  However, it doesn’t do quite enough to separate itself from its inspirations, and falls into the trap of following a lead a little too closely.

Stone Cross is heavily cinematic, using basic keyboard chord patterns as its foundation with occasional electronic passes.  With titles like “Cathedral Ruin” and “Ashes,” it’s not difficult to grasp the theme and concept Senigla is conjuring.  The delicate melody of “Red Moon” is offset by high-pitched whistles, distorted passes, and drum echoes – effective enough, yes, but projects like Desiderii Marginis and raison d’etre have done the same, and much better.  Like many albums on Slovak label Aliens Production, piano plays a major role in the music, and Senigla uses slow-paced minimal melodies alongside the dramatic atmospherics to give Stone Cross character and progression.  It works particularly well on “Ashes” and  the titular “Stone Cross,” giving the music an introspective and somber feel, but these tracks aren’t quite versatile enough to step beyond the mold that was cast by the previous efforts of more pioneering artists.  “Death Bell”, with its series of hauntingly pitched bell tones, unfortunately comes off as more than a little cheesy.

Stone Cross’ best track is “The Hopeless Life,” an electronic hymn that’s also old-school, but in post-industrial fashion.  With its classic bass synth chords and orchestral keyboard melodies, it’s the most effective and inspired tribute  to the dark ambient days of yore, but like the rest of the album, it’s all been done already.

There’s old-school as homage, and there’s old-school to a fault.  Stone Cross sounds like it came out in 1990, not 2010 – again, this isn’t a bad thing, but you’d hope that an artist would want to put his own stamp on his work rather than simply mimicking the past.  I want to like this album more than I do; Senigla appears to have a strong sense of his equipment, and he clearly knows what works, but he seems unwilling to step out of the shadow of those who came before.  Perhaps he’ll find his way on subsequent releases.  Despite its best intentions, Stone Cross doesn’t do quite enough to remain engaging.

 

Irezumi – Endurance

Snowblood Records (snow01), 2008

In 1914, polar explorer Ernest Henry Shackleton led an ill-fated expedition that attempted to cross Antarctica from sea to sea, across the pole. The ship became frozen in ice, and the crew had to attempt to continue on foot, or perish. Incredibly, the entire crew made it out, without a single loss of life. The name of the ship: Endurance.

Manuel Mesdag – also known as deep-house artist Manuel M – has paid homage to this expedition and its survivors on his ambient album named for the ship. While the frozen wastes is a popular theme in ambient music, and particularly in dark ambient, Mesdag approaches it from a different angle. Recorded under the moniker Irezumi, his album Endurance pays homage and tribute to the irrepressible spirit of the men of Shackleton’s mission, focusing on uplifting and inspiring atmospherics rather than doom-laden drones. Across its ten untitled tracks, the album delves into the unimaginable circumstances the crew must have faced, as well as the harsh beauty of the terrain in which they found themselves trapped, but it never loses sight of the possibility of triumph and rescue, no matter how small.

Endurance is very cinematic in scope, and seems to follow a definite narrative structure. There are scattered vocal samples, sourced from the several film adaptations of the expedition, and in many ways, Irezumi’s album is a fitting soundtrack. What keeps the album from sliding too far into darkness is a focus on synths, pads, and keys rather than processed drones and waves of noise; almost all of the tracks feature minimal melodies, light sequencing, and underlying bass chords that give each track a strong identity. One gets the impression, however, that Mesdag understands the evocative power of dark ambient; many tracks do feature the brooding arcs so prevalent in the genre. Track IX is the closest Irezumi comes to pure dark ambient, but it’s handled in a delicate and subtle manner, rather than steeping the listener in despair.

Track I does a magnificent job setting the scene, with a slowly progressing bass synth and twinkling sequencing framed by light-yet-ominous sounds of icy winds.  Mesdag also sprinkles in a bit of New Age with some wistful acoustic guitar plucking; this is Endurance’s most versatile track, and serves as the perfect opener for what follows.  Track III takes what sounds like rain and punctuates it with gentle intertwining minimal melody that somehow manage to be soothing and unsettling; here we are shown the fragile balance between survival and extinction in the Arctic’s frozen grip, but in Irezumi’s world, we will survive, regardless of what it may cost. Tracks IV and V increase the drama, giving us a strong sensation of the circumstances the crew must have endured, but as a voice cries “I will not let them die!” we are filled with hope and reassurance. Throughout the album, Mesdag plays off these moments of grandeur with phases of quiet melancholy and introspection, resulting in a listening experience that waxes and wanes, but he keeps the mood consistent and grounded. Endurance, after all, is primarily an album about people.

Endurance is a conceptual work that caters to fans of experimental and straightforward electronic ambiance, directed by a composer who has a keen sense of the overall flow as well as its component parts. Thematically, Irezumi’s lone release to date encompasses the human spirit against severe odds as well as giving character to the brutal glory of the polar regions. (Might I add, too, that the CD features absolutely stunning black-and-white photography of snow-covered mountains and passes, with a tiny group of explorers almost engulfed by the landscape.) Profoundly moving in a manner that few dark(ish) ambient albums are, and assembled with careful craft and a keen sense of detail and mood, Endurance is a conceptual and technical triumph.

Visions – Lapse

Cyclic Law (14th Cycle), 2005

Lapse, the debut album by Cyclic Law founder Frederic Arbour’s Visions project, is pure, unabashed, unapologetic drone.  It’s full of thick slabs of electronic tones, at varying pitches, melded together in waves that rise and fall like swells on a digital sea.  Dark but strangely soothing, Lapse contains precious little besides its drones – there’s a dearth of percussion, static, vocal samples, buzzes, clicks, etc etc.  There doesn’t appear to be any extraneous content such as field recordings either.  Just a series of processed synth passes and washes.

Some might find it boring, to the point of being soporific.  The tracks don’t really shift or evolve; in fact, one could argue that Lapse is one track broken by pauses of silence.  The walls of noise emerge and dissolve, one after the other, with little care for structure or precision, and eventually it all fades out into nothing, until the next begins.  Lapse doesn’t exactly loom ominously, nor drift peacefully, but neither is it neutral white noise; there’s enough layering going on to keep it from sinking into the background.  And yet, it’s an oddly compelling listen; almost hypnotic, like sitting on the beach and watching the tide surge and recede, as time slips by and the planet turns.

Lapse works best when utilizing higher-pitched drones, which reduces the density.  Examples are “Visions,” with its trumpet-like blaring, “Devoid of Shadows,” which is paradoxically very dark, and “Lightless,” which also belies its title by containing the most calming moments on the album.  There’s plenty of darkness to be heard as well – the opening track “Abyssal Gaze” fits its title, with deep doom-laden bellowing serving as its base.  It’s not often when one can listen to thirty-second samples of a dark ambient album and “get the big picture,” but Lapse is an exception.  If you like the excerpts, you’ll find the album is practically identical.

This is a difficult album to expand upon due to its basic nature.  Arbour doesn’t give the listener a theme or framework to fit his music into, but it doesn’t need one.  Lapse doesn’t concern itself with being the soundtrack to a lost civilization, the sound of deep space, or an ode to arctic isolation.  It is what it is, nothing more, and nothing less.  While its minimal structure can be somewhat refreshing, the album’s relative lack of character and complexity can make for a challenging listen.  however, for those who are attracted to the drone in its most stripped-down, pure, and singularly glorious state, look no further.

Inade – The Crackling of the Anonymous

Loki Foundation (LOKI 29), 2001

While there’s nothing quite like the experience of reading a solid novel, a collection of short stories certainly carries merit.  I remember reading a comment by an author – I think it was horror writer Robert R. McCammon – who said that a short story should be like a ride in a fast car: exhilarating, immediate, unmatched, and over too soon…..but compact, so that the thrill doesn’t wear thin.  He’s on to something, I think; short stories tend to have a more concentrated impact, but I prefer the lengthy and evolving experience of a novel.

Here’s why I bring this up:  in my view, Inade’s album The Crackling of the Anonymous is a collection of dark ambient short stories.  The fantastic title of the album is referred to in the liner notes:  “The crackling of the anonymous is a symbol for the experiences, which results from the radiation fields of the immeasurable.  In the levels of the infinity, dissonances are mutated and compressed by divine signs or even by occurring anonymous factors.”  Such metaphysical musings are nothing new to Inade, the brainchild of Germany’s Knut Endlerlein and Rene Lehmann.  The album’s cover art follows a similar bent, with odd forked and weblike shapes, and a disembodied brain hovering over a green whirlpool inside a ghostly broken triangle.  It’s more than a little baffling, and certainly interesting; a great concept for the amorphous unfurling atmospheres of dark ambient.

All well and good, except I find the music itself doesn’t quite match the lofty presentation.  Each track seems disconnected from the others (perhaps intentionally?), and there’s enough disparity in the listening experience to reduce the immersion that is so prevalent in the genre.  Hence my comparing Crackling to a collection of short stories.

The opening track, “Eternity’s Crevice,” is certainly a promising prelude.  It’s classic dark ambient, with its dramatic tones, metallic patterns, and ominous presence.  “Disconnecting States” uses a similar palette, with synthetic swirling and twitching fitted around deliciously haunting keys, but the mood is broken with repeating vocal samples about alternate states of mind.  I find this kind of direction unnecessary in the dark ambient world, and even counterproductive; the music is often about letting one’s mind drift away to alien realms, and I don’t need a signpost to tell me that, much less one that repeats itself.  “Chapel Perilous” isn’t quite as awe-inspiring as the title suggests, using a tribal-style percussive loop and a distorted-vocal couplet that moves the track close to post-industrial territory.  Again, not a bad thing, mind you, but it does shift the listener’s experience.  The strange whip-like sounds and Lustmord-ian, weirdly organic bleats (Inade are truly geniuses at creating distinctly unique noises) of “Caldera” create a journey through a smoke-choked landscape, but again, the journey is diverted by the sampled dialogue of “To Those….”, which is about the spoken words rather than the atmospherics.

Inade can certainly conjure otherworldly experiences.  “Titan in Shivering Sand” is proof, with its evocative haze and bizarrely mysterious clankings that make me think of a huge machine buried in some vast desert, but the sample-riddled “Quartered Conclusion” takes me to a new place just as my mind is getting comfortable.  Once more, perhaps this is the point, but I think dark ambient works best in the slow-burn format of a novel.

The Crackling of the Anonymous feels like an album of separate songs rather then a cohesive album.  What’s here is well-done, without question; Inade doesn’t have the reputation it does for nothing.  The duo clearly understands flow and evolution, along with technical mastery; I’ve never heard such a weird collection of truly alien sounds.  In the end, however, the album sounds like just that – a collection of strangeness, rather than a distinctive experience that follows a concept other than inspired experimentation.  “Breath Like Ground Glass” is one of the straight-up weirdly inventive dark ambient tracks I’ve ever heard, but the album is too fractured to maintain a consistent feel.  Crackling is a collection of dark ambient shorts, with all the peaks and valleys and varying experiences that comparison implies.

Heimataerde – Bruderschaft

Out of Line (OUT 688), 2014

These days, I don’t listen to nearly as much EBM as I did during my heavy clubbing phase.  One artist that has retained my interest, however, is Germany’s Heimataerde, so a new release from them is always welcome.  Marrying classic EBM to medieval instrumentation, Heimataerde’s music is rooted in telling the saga of Ash, a vampiric knight roaming the war-torn and blood-soaked landscape of the Crusades, seeking recruits for his own army.  Over five albums and multiple EPs released since 2005, the concept has never wavered, but the style of the music has changed.  Early work was straight dancefloor aggression, with pounding percussion, powerful bass sequencing, and snarling German vocals, but Heimataerde added new elements with bagpipes and flutes sounding intricate melodies alongside the wonderfully effective and well-written EBM.  It’s a formula that has continued to entice and satisfy, and the band has evolved over time, reducing the angst and adding melody and electric guitar.

Bruderschaft is a single (not many bands release singles anymore, do they?) released in hand-numbered copies of 666 (ha!) and intended to be a preview of the forthcoming new Heimataerde album (huzzah!).  Herein are four versions of the title track, in varying styles that showcase the band’s continuing commitment to changing things up.  The first version features synthpop-style vocals and electric guitars that first appeared in bulk on their 2012 album Gottgleich, and it’s quite interesting that this is the same band that released charged-up rampaging war hymns like “Endlos” and “Die Offenbarung.”  The song still has the energy and pipes and chord-shifting electronics that have always been the band’s backbone, but the vocals are clearer and more confident now, and move through chords along with the synths.  There’s even some light dubstep elements.

The three other versions of “Bruderschaft” (which translates as “brotherhood”) are quite, quite different.  The Kytara version removes the electronics, adds acoustic guitar (!) and traditional hand-drums.  It’s basically Heimataerde acapella, and it works better than you might think, showing the strong songwriting that the band has always featured.  The Choral version eschews the German vocals for emphasis on the backing chorale-style vocals, which follow traditional melodies that the band has often utilized and updated into their modern EBM structures.  Both these versions are combined in the Rueda version, and it’s quite cool to see how Heimataerde has fit these differing styles together.

Of course, no single is complete without b-sides, and Heimataerde is known for including outstanding exclusive tracks on their EPs.  Here we find “Misere Re Mei,” a quietly energetic instrumental that sounds straight from the shadow-lurking introspection of 2010’s Unwesen.  A wonderfully nostalgic bass sequence drives forward a 4/4 beat while a chorus mumbles and murmurs in the background.  It’s medieval EBM as only Heimataerde can do it, firing on all cylinders.  The gem here is “Wir Leben Noch,” nothing less than a fantastic song that shows the band at the height of its powers.  The German vocals are perhaps the best the band has ever done, the guitars are integrated better than on Gottgleich, the sense of inertia and timing are impeccable, and the bagpipes are as evocative as ever.  It’s as finely executed a song, across all elements, as you’ll find in the band’s discography.  Again, it’s so cool to see how the band has grown and evolved since its inception; if you’d told me in 2005 that the band that released Gotteskrieger would release “Wir Leben Noch” nine years later, I’d have been shocked…and impressed.

Heimataerde is a rare band sticks to a formula but varies it just enough to avoid repetition and stagnation.  It’s to the band’s credit that the concept has remained the same since the band’s inception but has yet to become stale.  Bruderschaft does exactly what it should: it whets the appetite for the imminent album, while providing a good haul of content.  This is no mere cash run; Heimataerde takes its music seriously, and has worked very hard on perfecting its craft.  If this EP is any indication, we’re in for quite an installment in the further adventures of Ash when the new album arrives.  Heimataerde is keeping the undead faith, friends, and in my experience there are few modern electronic bands that continue to produce flat-out wonderful EBM with such inspired precision.

Land:Fire – Shortwave Transmission

Power & Steel (PAS 25), 2009

A side project of Herbst9’s Henry Emrich and Frank Merten, Land:Fire features dark ambient with a modern militaristic slant.  While Herbst9’s electronics are steeped in ancient mysticism, Land:Fire’s approach is much more grounded and old-school, resulting in a listening experience that doesn’t quite dive into the depths of other dark ambient projects.

The fifth Land:Fire album, Shortwave Transmission sounds like it could have been released ten years ago.  In the 1990s, many EBM/post-industrial albums had ambient-style opening and/or closing tracks, which served as brief introductions and forays into the rest of the music.  Shortwave Transmission sounds a lot like this material, albeit stretched over an entire album.  It’s full of synthetically generated whistles, pulses, and drones, and every track contains scattered vocal samples related to military operations.  I’m not a big fan of voice samples in dark ambient, as I find that they often break the mood, but they can serve an important purpose if used carefully.  This isn’t the case on Shortwave Transmission.  The samples are the focus here, and are often clearly intelligible, speaking about explosions and troop locations.  Put very simply, it breaks the spell for me, but the electronics behind the samples aren’t quite immersive enough to create a strong spell in the first place.

With a few exceptions, Shortwave Transmission commits the cardinal sin of ambient:  it sounds electronically sourced noise.  Of course, subliminally, I know I’m listening to electronic music, but many artists are able to process and place the sounds so they don’t sound like synths, sequences, and samples.    The buzzes and squelches here sound like buzzes and squelches.  The keys sound like keys.  The static is just that; sampled static.  It’s put together well, and is technically sound, but it lacks the aesthetic sense so prevalent in my favorite dark ambient.

You could argue, of course, that Shortwave Transmission isn’t intended to be dark ambient at all, and that’s a valid claim.  Taken at face value, without applying any characteristics of genre, and the album is a well-done series of beatless militaristic electronic noise, and it’s not necessarily bad.  It’s not nearly as creative or compelling as its dark ambient cousins.

What’s frustrating for me is that the album does have moments where everything clicks, falling into place with eerie precision.  “Circularly Polarized I” is a sparse ode to the Challenger space shuttle disaster, with thematic samples, whispers of static, and a mournful chord sequence.   My favorite track, “Malfunction,” is easily the darkest and creepiest track, and unlike most of Shortwave Transmission, it shows versatility through a jarring and jagged interlude that enhances the opening tension.  It’s a fantastically evocative track that’s marred only by the misplaced military samples, which really stand out like a cluster of very sore thumbs, and the criminally short four-minute running time.  “Malfunction” is the closest Emrich and Merten come to attaining the unsettling mood of their flagship Herbst9 project, but with a colder, mechanically menacing aura – the true mark of a side-project.  If only the rest of the album matched this track.  By the time the interesting”Now I Wait Again” finishes the album with its odd metallic rhythms and garbled bursts of static-distorted speech, we’re cut off just as the momentum has started to build.

Shortwave Transmission struggles to make a lasting impact.  With so many other phenomenal and evocative albums available, it simply doesn’t do enough to compete.  While what’s here is solid, it’s largely unremarkable.  Merten and Emrich are certainly capable – one has only to delve into Herbst9 for proof – but they seem a bit uninspired here.  Stubbornly old-school and strangely superficial, Shortwave Transmission left me wanting.

Hecq – Night Falls

Hymen Records (Y767), 2008

Completely abandoning the manic percussive programming that dominates most of its discography, Night Falls is a curious entry by Ben Lukas Boysen’s Hecq project.  Displaying an emotional aspect not readily apparent on other releases, Night Falls is the product of a musician and composer who bypasses the previous IDM/technoid influences of prior albums to create a soundtrack of symphonic melancholy that delves into many genres, and moves into places beyond.  Night Falls is electronic, but it’s largely beatless.  It’s dark, but not dark ambient.  It’s ambient, but not floating and wistful.  At its core, it is nothing less than deeply affecting, profoundly moving music.

There’s a strong emphasis on melody throughout the album.  “Night Falls” shifts through chords of synthetic strings in a very prelude-like fashion.  “Never Leave” takes a lightly distorted bass hum and surrounds it with keyboards soaked in drama.  It’s beautiful, even uplifting, but tinged with loss and regret, a mournful dirge of symphonic ambiance.

“Dis” and its companion “Dis (Reverberation)” are the only tracks that could be considered true dark ambient.  Structured around drawn-out drones and grand synth passes spattered with electronic fidgeting and buzzing, it’s admittedly a bit of an odd fit when settled among the interlaced chords and introspection dominating the rest of the album.  Still, the way “Dis” starts and stops, drowning us in its murk and drawing us out, along with the unsettling high-pitched strings of its brother, makes one wonder what Boysen might be capable of if he embraced this style throughout an entire album on its own merits.

The grace returns with “Bending Time,” a minimal piano ode that could have come from Harold Budd, but Boysen adds electronic space and angles to give it a modern cinematic slant.  “Aback” (as in “taken”, I assume) is Night Falls’ most haunting entry, with a stirring and somber vocal melody looped through a network of low strings, static, and tympani.  It’s the sound of a woman or child sitting alone by candlelight, giving voice to emotion that cannot be expressed any other way.

The portentous melancholy returns on “Come Home”, as the keys rise and fall between strings and horns, and the ambient sounds of a train gives the track distinctive character.  Coming home, indeed.  “Giants” is as sprawling as the title suggests, with distant flutters, drama-soaked washes, and deep bass drums, but Boysen keeps enough emotion in play to keep the track from gaining the dark ambient edge so prevalent on “Dis.”  “Magnetism” has more Budd-inspired minimal keyboard work; I get the impression the magnetism examined here is the one that sometime exists between people; inexplicable, mysterious, and subtle.  “Red Sky” is a bit more uplifting, with pitched synthetic voices rising, one assumes, into the crimson atmosphere.  It’s stirring, certainly, and just a little bit disturbing.  Flutes and pipes wind over a bass drone on “Above”; if we knew Night Falls was narrative (and it very well might be), we would be soaring through the red-tinted clouds as the sun rose, the planet sprawling beneath us in all its glory and tragedy.

Night Falls closes with the nine-minute hymn “I Am You”, which brings the album back to the chord-shifting keys of the title track, but here, they’re expanded and enhanced, with whispering percussion.  The track rises to a crescendo halfway in, combining all the elements heard throughout Night Falls; it’s a perfect summary to what we’ve just experienced.   Everything falls away then, leaving us drifting on a distant bed of delicate noise until silence returns.

I’ve heard the term “modern classical” bantered about here and there, but was never really sure what it meant.  Perhaps it’s a case of knowing it when you hear it, and I think I’ve found a prime example of it with Hecq’s Night Falls.  It’s built around music rather than around effect, and uses, well, classic elements through electronic means.  Boysen has gone on to record film soundtracks (while returning to his IDM ways on subsequent albums, by the way), which doesn’t surprise me in the slightest; the music here is indeed a soundtrack, though to a film that exists only in his head, and the head of the listener.  Complex enough to avoid being disposable, but graceful enough to remain memorable, Night Falls is the product of a versatile and talented musician who understands the intricacies of being human.