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.