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.