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.

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