Caul & Kirchenkampf – Sleep-Night-Death

Malignant Records (TUMORCD31), 2008

Two veterans of the American dark ambient scene, Caul (Brett Smith) and Kirchenkampf (John Gore) have pooled their assets for Sleep-Night-Death, a collection of minimalistic drone works that is able to create and maintain a sense of mystery and darkness despite its stark and spacious composition.  While not for everyone, even within a genre as niche as dark ambient, Sleep-Night-Death is an experience worth hearing.

It’s always a tricky proposition to preview a dark ambient album through brief thirty-second clips, but it’s warranted in this case.  Each of the seven lengthy tracks begins and ends in basically the same manner, with little evolution taking place in between.  Smith and Gore, each of whom sport extensive discographies, have distinct ideas of what works and what doesn’t, and keep their drones steady but stripped and vacant.  It’s reminiscent of pioneering acts like Yen Pox; I should mention I’m not typically a fan of this school of dark ambient, as I like a bit more variety, but I can certainly hear the appeal.

“And the first as a shadow” is a fine example of the album’s philosophy.  Neatly spaced drones rise and fall from a murky, near-silent sea, and when the high pitches do emerge, their effect is enhanced to near-startling.  “Pit of stars” does not, thankfully, go fully the well-trodden route of space ambient, but paints a gloomy yet gorgeous portrait of a light-speckled majestic void without resorting to the tropes of the tried-and-true interstellar subgenre.  It’s one of S-N-D’s shortest tracks, and because of that, is one of my favorites on the album.  Due to the unchanging formula that Smith and Gore utilize, the longer tracks – most of the album – finds my interest wandering once the foundation has been established.  Those searching for deep-listening, profoundly immersing tones will probably like this a lot more than I do, as I find the active listening experience to be a little lacking during the album’s more motionless stretches.

However, there are plenty of finely done sequences to be had for the more patient and adventurous listener.  The creepily titled “I am the one whom you have hidden from” injects a body of nervous twitches buried among the drones, along with more added detail than is found elsewhere; this is Caul and Kirchenkampf at their most restless.  Likewise, the ominously named “The consummation of the voice of blood” in fact holds the most serenity on the album, with drones lurking murkily just within the range of hearing along with a series of strange muted pulses; this has got to be the quietest apocalypse I’ve ever heard, but it’s also somehow the most dangerous.

“Darkness and water” does not feature any blatantly aquatic sounds, which is odd at first, but eventually, I find my imagination filling in the blanks in the way that the best ambient can coax and direct, and I find myself drifting across the peaceful yet unsettling face of a vast and silent sea, where the depths below melt into the depths overhead.  The elongated chimes and strange fluttering combine to create a sense of character and place that I find absent on most of Sleep-Night-Death, but perhaps it’s my own inability to delve deeper into the bareness of the album’s framework.

I’ve always been interested in collaborative albums in order to try and discern who contributed what, but Sleep-Night-Death is one of those times when I can’t easily tell.  Perhaps I don’t have enough experience with either Caul or Kirchenkampf (probably true), but I suspect that isn’t the entire reason.  Rather, Smith and Gore work so well together, and have both bought so fully into the collaborative vision, that the result isn’t just the product of two separate individuals, but something entirely new: a combination grown equally from each.  For that, and for the effectiveness of their carefully minimalist approach, Sleep-Night-Death is an experiment worth one’s time and attention.  And if you’re a fan of the quieter, drone-oriented, less-is-more type of dark ambient offerings, well, you’ve gotta check this one out.

Abandoned Asylum – Derelicts of Distant Hope

Malignant Records (TUMORCD63), 2013

It’s curious why some dark ambient themes keep recurring time and again.  While the mystery and majesty of the interstellar depths proves a fine starting point for the genre, I’ve heard so many similar albums, I’m starting to feel like I know my way through the nebulae and planetary systems already.  If I were a new artist, too, I’d think that I’d want to separate myself from the wide selection of similarly themed discs already available, at the risk of having my efforts compared at best, or dismissed at worst.

Abandoned Asylum apparently disagrees.  The musical outlet of the composer and digital artist Polish artist Lukasz “Dani” Czajka, AA’s debut album, Derelicts of Distant Hope, firmly plants itself among its myriad fellows immediately, and never deviates.  All the familiar elements are here: deep drones, sweeping tones, crackling static-drowned voices, Gregorian chants, pitch shifts, slow evolution, distant metallic rattling, and so on.  It’s well-conceived and well-executed enough, but as a long-time follower of the genre, I’ve heard it all before – and I’m sorry to say, I’ve heard it done better.

Czajka is obviously a fan, and has studied it closely, but in order to give his project distinction, he’s got to take his tapestries in new directions and experiment.  “Drifting in Constant Eclipse” has a very promising beginning, with a visceral bass hum soon enhanced by tones that sound and feel very much like some empty spacecraft crossing the line from solar brilliance to deep cosmic shadow, but the tired Gregorian chanting that emerges halfway through shatters the mood.  Projects such as Delerium and raison d’etre have had this trick down for years already; there’s really no need to revisit what’s become a dark ambient cliche.

That said, there are moments that show potential.  The atmosphere of desolation on “Echoes of Forgotten Origin” is quite well done; it’s easy to imagine the crew of a starcraft tentatively approaching the burned-out husk of a floating derelict space station and wondering at the mysteries within, but the sudden appearance of the pinging of sonar brings us jarringly back to familiarity.  Such an element breaks the spell in disappointing fashion because it’s unnecessary; it breaks the nicely crafted momentum far too abruptly.

As with many new projects, it’s clear that Abandoned Asylum has promise.  It’s a difficult thing indeed to break free from one’s influences and find one’s own unique creative voice, but Czajka shows enough on Derelicts of Distant Hope to keep me interested in future projects.  I, for one, hope that he finds inspiration from within himself, rather than from what has come before.  This isn’t a poorly done album by any means, but with so many similar options available, it’s hard to imagine choosing this over something with a bit more creativity and originality.  Derelicts is for die-hard deep-space dark ambient fans only.

Beyond Sensory Experience – Faint

Cyclic Law (58th Cycle), 2013

This is an album full of ghosts.  Not menacing or hateful specters, mind you, but spirits wracked with sadness and regret.  It’s as if BSE (Jonas Aneheim, K. Meizter) have accessed the sorrowful realm between life and death and snatched bits and pieces of these lost souls directly, and given them shape.  Or, perhaps more accurately, given them new voice.

Faint is dark, yes, but it’s not the deep black of many of its kin; its darkness comes from the longing and introspective reflection so prevalent in its sound.  Not the lightless gulfs of deepest space or the lowest caverns, but darkness seen through a gauzy haze; the fading light of a gray day filtered through stirring curtains.  BSE doesn’t consign itself to merely giving us a sonic window into grief, but manages to imbue the album with just enough hope and light to convey the sense that the souls heard here are on their way (slowly, slowly) to a better and lighter place.  Faint is the essence of ephemeral despair; conveying the idea that nothing is ever completely hopeless.

Take “Yearning,” for example.  The echoing whispers at the core of the track are rife with desire, desire for something precious that has been forever lost.  The minimal chords, strangely aquatic loops, distant strings, and gentle rhythms are a formula for regret indeed, but BSE lets enough light into the mood to keep the shadows at bay – visible, mind you, but right at the edge of awareness.  Like many of the voices here, language isn’t English (why should it be? the dead are international), but the emotion is clear; sadness needs no translation.

The plaintive piano of “Blank” provides solace for the fragmented and buried whispers, but the tone shifts midway, as deep drones of a more ominous sort emerge to remind us that the dark is rising.  BSE doesn’t indulge, however, and the piano’s return shifts the brightness (tinted) back into focus, and the mutterings seem more hopeful as the track ends.

Each of Faint’s eleven tracks seem to tell a different tale, but Aneheim and Meizter have a strong sense of aesthetic proficiency to keep the sound cohesive.  The half-asleep murmured “one, two, three” of “Bystanders” (the captured voices here all seem to be bystanders) is all we are given for reference, but the spatial keyboards turn the track into a slow-motion somnolent waltz.  Whoever haunts “Sleepwalking” must have met his and her end outside, as we can hear birds behind the cloudy keys.  “Stale” is particularly potent, with the rambling of a sobbing woman sliding through drifting piano chords.  “Legacy” holds perhaps the darkest moments, as dreary drones soar and crumble while snatches of sampled speech speckle the track like cold rain, but it is deftly juxtaposed with the lovely and almost-soothing air of “Stumble”, which is broken only by a series of bangings, akin to someone knocking on a door (or a coffin), but the sharpness smacks of a desperate need to be heard rather than being threatening.

The filtered piano of “Exhausted” seems to be the track’s captured spirit, rather than a human voice, but the emotion is strong nonetheless.  Then we have “Astray,” Faint’s longest track, which is a mist-shrouded journey accompanied by sparse keys, chimes, and subtle guitar.  Someone loved this place, and loved it dearly, but this love is all that remains now.  We are witnesses to the story that the sampled voices wish it could tell us, and BSE has tried to fill in the remainder.  The humanity of “Islanders” is barely audible, but it’s definitely there, pushing against the eerily soaring atmospherics.

Faint is a different kind of dark ambient beast.  It stays grounded, and human, with rare organic sensibility.  It is haunting without being creepy.  Its sense of presence is so strong, you can almost feel it settle on your skin.  Faint gives us a glimpse into the afterlife, and shows us that it’s not such a bad thing after all; it’s a place of sadness, yes, but also a place of rest.  In showing us this, it might give our own lives new meaning before we fade away ourselves.  Death is not the end of life, but an integral part of it.  Beyond Sensory Experience, indeed.

TeHOM – Lacrimae Mundi

Cyclic Law (67th Cycle), 2014

A creature squats before a small bonfire.  Its form bears aspects of the avian and the humanoid.  As it sits in a field of grass, it holds a bowl in one hand; for what purpose, we do not know.  It is an image steeped in mystery; indeed, in mysticism, as it seems something risen out of ancient myth.  This is the cover art for Lacrimae Mundi, the first album from Croatian dark ambient project TeHOM in fourteen years, and its immediate visual impact sets the stage for the sonic odyssey contained within.

Lacrimae Mundi contains extensive liner notes concerning the eternal search of the true self for enlightenment during an age where mankind has lost ancestral memory to the lure of technology.  It’s mystical stuff, to be sure, and the album certainly seems to have taken inspiration from the worlds of the metaphysical, the philosophical, and the transcendent.  Miljenko Rajakovic applies the theme of the lost soul to his dark ambient template; Lacrimae Mundi is dark, to be sure, but it’s not a darkness born of black voids and brain-shattering inconceivable architectures.  No, this is the soundtrack of one who is searching, through whatever far-flung realms might be encountered, for something precious that has been lost for ages.  Perhaps Rajakovic is mourning the loss of former TeHOM member Sinisa Ocurscak, who passed away in 1997, and is seeking meaning for his own loss as well.

Rajakovic has been out of the electronic ambient scene for a while, apparently, but he’s been paying close attention.  Lacrimae Mundi – translated as ‘tears of the world’ – doesn’t sound like a release over a decade in the making.  It’s quite accomplished indeed, with Rajakovic displaying a keen understanding of structure and flow, in addition to a firm grasp of his electronics.   It borrows, yes, but it borrows from the masters of the genre.  And yet, it shows flashes of uniqueness, buried within the waves of synthetic longing.  The result is an album that surprises with its quality and effect.

“Perilous Depth” prepares us for the path ahead, segueing between passing swaths, skittering atmospherics, sampled vocals, and drawn-out melody that is standard dark ambient fare – standard, yet finely tuned and executed.  As the track progresses, Rajakovic introduces elements such as sparse tribal percussion and throat-singing to give the sound an aged edge.  “Darkness Cosmogony of Myths” contains spoken-word readings and field recordings that bring to mind the grassy field and shadowed trees of the album’s cover.  The unmistakably aquatic quality of “Abyss” morphs gracefully into a quiet ode of introspective grief before ominous drums and grandiose synth chords bleed into the edges, and “Amorphous Structure” is clearly cosmic in its orchestral keyboards and marching percussion.

The album slips just a bit with the needlessly repeating voice sample and heavy rhythms of “The World Ended” and the meandering whistles of the title track, before finding its feet again with “The Magnitude of Shaking.”  This completely stunning track combines haunting Japanese voices (there’s a feminine gasp of surprise that’s particularly skin-crawling), the sounds of a busy city street, and field recordings from a nocturnal forest to produce an atmosphere so thick and unique, I’m almost speechless at its evocative potency.  Rajakovic uses his electronics sparingly here, inserting them just enough to maintain form and mood without burying the track’s truly bizarre nature.  An album that kept this level of brilliantly executed strangeness would be incredible to behold.  The follow-up, “Atum,” is almost as accomplished, using a deep Kammarheit-style endless chord offset by Rajakovic’s already deft sense of electronic incidentals.  This is Lacrimae Mundi at its most serene, but the sense of disquiet is just as powerful.  The album closes with “Modality of Cosmic Matter,” in which further spoken-voice can be heard through the shimmering glowing haze of TeHOM’s carefully conjured vision.

TeHOM’s return flirts with greatness.  It teeters on the edge of fictional mythology, but reminds us of its mission a bit too strongly, and a bit too often.  Rajakovic needs but to increase his obvious creativity and his sense of the subtle in order to produce something truly remarkable, but his ability to make an album of this caliber after such an extended absence speaks volumes about his talent.  If Lacrimae Mundi is a prelude of things to come for this reborn project, we have much to look forward to.  I had no idea what to expect when I opened this album, but I soon learned that the bird-man on the cover was, among other things, the herald to a magnificent dark ambient experience.  Lacrimae Mundi isn’t just the surprise release of the year so far, it’s one of the best releases, period.