Geomatic – Blue Beam

M-Tronic (Fe 26), 2008

In Blue Beam, Geomatic (Andre Vasiljev and Serge Marinec) has concocted an odd beast.  A hybrid of modern electronics and sampled traditional Middle Eastern-style elements, it’s a conceptual work of strong evocative power, despite the disparate elements.  Blue Beam is a journey across alien sands; of figures hooded and cloaked roaming sandswept vistas never seen by humans, of rogue nanotech dust storms and hidden temples hiding dormant high-technology behemoths.  It’s heady stuff, and pulled off with programming wizardry and attention to detail that are the work of masters of their craft.

The pace of the music is generally slow, but the activity level is high, with intricate patterns of tympany, chime, and tambourine forming the base without becoming too heavy or too dark.  Blue Beam is definitely not a beat-driven album focused on 4/4 conventions – in fact, EBM-style bass drums are few and far between.  The electronics themselves, composed of buried sweeps and light sequencing, are content to stay in the background, in the shadow of the true focus: a series of sampled pipes, flutes, horns, and strings that waver and tremble with clear eastern influences.  Almost all of the eleven tracks (including three mp3 remixes that can be downloaded off the CD) also feature sampled wordless chants and wails that cannot help but evoke the vast and mysterious deserts of Persia and Arabia.  In addition to these vocal elements, many tracks (“Holographic Messiah” in particular) contain vocoded mumblings that are often unintelligible – the sound of cybernetic intelligence gone haywire – but when the words can be made out, they speak of “gigahertz frequency masers,” “microwave beam weapons” and “subconscious areas of the brain.”  Taken as a whole, it’s a lot to process, but the aura is a heady and complex one; almost paradoxical in its extremes.  Blue Beam is the soundtrack for Lawrence of Arabia, set on a far-flung planet in the distant technology-dominated future; here, the darkness comes from strangeness rather than menace.

While the concept is certainly powerful, there’s a downside: the formula rarely changes.  From the first track to the last, each plays out much like the one before and the one after.  There are shifts in arrangement and detail, yes, but for the most part, the first five minutes of Blue Beam are very similar to the final five minutes.  It’s a lengthy album, too, with each of the eleven tracks running between five and seven minutes (remixes notwithstanding), and it does tend to lose a bit of its considerable potency as things progress.  A few tracks, like “Dark Technology Ghost” and “Alternate Universe” increase the presence of the electronics, but not enough to really shift the effect.

There is one exception, however.  “Beyond the Beginning” is a sprawling work of epic and cinematic scope that breaks the established mold with vivid and welcome flair.  The most focused and structured track on Blue Beam, “Beyond the Beginning” shows what Geomatic can do when it steps outside its comfort zone just a bit.  The voices here are part of the tapestry rather than the dominating element and the traditional and modern elements work together rather than being in juxtaposition. The drumwork is more beat-oriented, and the backing synths carry more melody and drama.  It’s moments like the ones here that show Geomatic in a more diverse light, and the results are spectacular.

In spite of its strict and conceptual nature, Blue Beam is a fantastically realized album.  I find it to be a bit too long and a bit too similar, but the curious theme, unique atmosphere and deft manipulation are more than worth the attention of the adventurous listener.

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raison d’etre – The Empty Hollow Unfolds

Cold Meat Industry (CMI 78), 2000

For fans of dark ambient, Peter Andersson’s seminal raison d’etre project needs little introduction.  Since 1992, raison d’etre has released a plethora of hauntingly beautiful releases mixing traditional vocal chanting with melodic keyboard work and emotive atmospheres.  While raison d’etre has often been grouped into the dark ambient genre, I’ve always found that to be a little misleading, as Andersson’s compositions are, quite simply, often too gorgeous to be termed strictly as dark.  For me, raison d’etre has never fit any genre specifically; while filling the evocative and immersive factors often associated with dark ambient, it rarely features the brooding chaos and majestic menace that typifies much of the genre.

Regardless of labels, what really matters is the quality of the music.  Andersson’s work as raison d’etre has been criticized as being uneven, with some albums regarded as clearly superior to others.  While I wouldn’t necessarily agree with this assessment – I find raison d’etre’s discography to be full of subtle experimentation on its established formula – most fans agree that the project has definitely evolved,  and one important landmark of this evolution was 2000’s The Empty Hollow Unfolds.

Prior to this album, Andersson had begun to experiment with noise elements among the project’s trademark themes of choral chanting and flowing synthetics, but with The Empty Hollow Unfolds, these elements shifted into the aural spotlight.  Andersson seemed to embrace the change, but seemed sensitive to his fans.  Over the album’s five tracks, the choral element is present, but it’s changed.  Reversed.  Downpitched.  Processed.

In the first moments of the opening track, “The Slow Ascent,” we hear an angelic male voice, followed by the clear peal of a bell: this is what we have come to expect from raison d’etre.  But then, there is a period of silence, and as we wait, ears pricked, we are made witness to Andersson’s evolution.  The voices return, but they’re changed.  Warped and distorted, but beautiful nonetheless.  It’s a different beauty now, an alien and surreal one, hinting at unfamiliar realms, following an introspective and oh-so-slightly unsettling melody that Andersson has always excelled at creating.

As the track progresses, we hear the second new element: metallic scraping and rattling, gentle at first, sometimes melding with the now-shifted bells and chimes, and slowly becoming more prevalent.  Andersson has begun to move into post-industrial territory, conjuring the spirit of Einsturzende Neubaten and other innovating pioneers, and the seeming drastic risk actually urges the music into new spaces.  We realize Andersson isn’t experimenting just because he can, but he’s discovered newfound inspiration for his particular brand of gorgeously haunting compositions.  He’s breaking things down, only to build them up again into something new.

The rest of the album is in a similar vein.  “The Hidden Hallows” moves the vocals to a higher pitch and adds slow gongs to the scrapings.  This track changes too, halfway through, with a burgeoning and beautiful wave of synthetic atmosphere that’s among the most stirring Andersson has ever produced.  “End Of A Cycle” increases the metallic chaos as well as the foreboding mood, with the chanting now deeper and more dramatic as the thrashing and crashing swirls about.  “The Wasteland” moves through strange pitches and metallic flailing, but it’s anchored by graceful and careful keyboards that never overwhelm or intrude.

The final track, the twenty-plus-minute epic “The Eternal Return And The Infinity Horizon,” showcases Andersson at the pinnacle of his conjuring powers; raison d’etre has always felt organic despite its synthetic origins, but this track moves things to another plane.  Using a rising and falling series of looped drones as its center, the track guides us along a surreal journey like the best ambient, but Andersson takes us to strange places no one ever has.  It’s equal parts dizzying and awe-inspiring, and features perhaps Andersson’s best layering, sense of structure, and sequencing work, with repeated elements that gradually fit together, only to dissolve before re-emerging in new places.  In the final moments, we catch just a whisper of pure and undistorted voice and bell once more, perhaps for the last time, as it is swallowed by the emptiness left in the wake of the amorphous titan that has just passed us by.

Whether The Empty Hollow Unfolds was a successful experiment will depend on who you talk to.  For some, it symbolized the end of raison d’etre’s treasured “choral phase” and led to a downward spiral of incoherent noise.  For others, it indicated a movement toward a new understanding of composition, flow, and technical expertise.  Taken on its own merit, however, The Empty Hollow Unfolds is a genre-straddling triumph that has a keen sense of emotional weight, sonic experimentation, and technical prowess.  Years later, I’ve still not heard anything quite like it, and I expect I never will.  I find merit in all of Andersson’s work, but for me, this one occupies a surreal space all its own.

 

Oil 10 – Modularium

Funkwelten (FW015), 2014

Ninety seconds in, and it’s readily apparent:  this isn’t the same Oil 10.  Since 1998, Giles Rossire has blended old-school analog electronica with modern flair and quirk, slowly and gradually evolving from experimental beats to whimsical works of fancy enhanced by rhythm and energy.  With Modularium, Oil 10’s first true album in eight years – the 2009 collection Retrofuture notwithstanding – things have taken a turn once more.  This is still Oil 10, mind you – fans will recognize the 1950s-era spacey beeps and swoops, classic EBM structures, and odd vocoded samples – but it’s leaner now; more dramatic and mature, and ever so slightly colder and darker.

Rossire unveils the new incarnation of his project immediately.  “Eternal Sunshine” isn’t a track of wide-eyed wonder and innocence, but a portrait of a midnight sun that’s close to flaring out, painting a burning sky with slashes of crimson.  It begins with the sound of solar wind, similar to the opening of a like-themed dark ambient track, but before long, we’re treated to a classic EBM sequence and Oil 10’s newfound dramatic chords, laced with an off-tempo pulsing beat; Rossire no longer leans on the 4/4 crutch now.  As the track’s melodies unfold (Rossire has always excelled at juxtaposing minimal melodies), we realize we’ve entered new territory.  Modularium is grand where 2006’s Departure was quirky; there’s no anime-inspired moments here, to be sure.  “Eternal Sunshine” is awash with boldness, but threading through are the brightly sparkling elements that have defined Oil 10 since its inception.

“Moonstone” is nothing less than an ode; a wordless poem brimming with beauty, but it’s heard through a shadowed filter despite its brightness.  Rossire blends his IDM-style rhythms with assured practice, and fits them precisely into the flowing synth washes and sequences.  He’s always been able to pull off such assemblages with seemingly little effort, but now, he’s learned to manipulate the flow without jeopardizing the track’s identity.  A wonderfully retro bass synth anchors “Missing Future” while chords and whistles soar overheard, and still, Rossire does not give in to the tried-and-true 4/4 dancefloor foundation.  It’s as if he’s purposefully keeping the leashes taut, allowing the enhanced keyboard work to remain the focus.  When the fantastic high-pitched melody emerges, it’s clear the track has been built around it from the start.

When Modularium finally eases into Oil 10’s comfortable synthetic skin, the result is indeed full of awe: it becomes obvious that up until this point, Rossire has been preparing us for this.  “Human Decision Required” sees the return of standard EBM beats and the bizarre vocal samples that Rossire has often used to unique and memorable effect.  But now, what’s a classic Oil 10 track at its core has become augmented by Modularium’s metamorphosis: it’s darker, moodier, more complex.  It’s familiar, and yet, completely new.

Rossire follows this with another bit of newness:  the beatless ambiance of “Shadowland.”  He’s delved into these waters before (eg. “Counter Clock”) but now, its cinematic boldness isn’t quite the departure it may have been before, fitting perfectly into the album’s sonic palette.  The slow-paced beat of and dark passes of “Spin” are offset by a quiet piano melody and the trademark sweeps.  The crowning moment of Modularium, perhaps, is “Rise From the Styx,” the perfect culmination of traditional Oil 10 elements with its newfound cloak of pulsing shadows.  Bringing to mind past tracks like “High Adventure” and “Grand Illusion”, this is a beat-driven affair with a wonderful synth melody that hints just a touch at the prior quirkiness, along with a repeated sample so integral to the project.  It’s Oil 10, refined and evolved.

“Midnight Radio” also revisits past moments – in this case “In The Gloom” from the 2001 album Links – with its carefully constructed framework of clicks, bleeps, whistles, and wandering voices, all with the backing drama in full effect.  “Things To Come” follows a minimal foundation reminiscent of DAF and Kraftwerk, with a trademark high-pitched melody winding alongside chord-shifting electronic keys and sequences.  “Voyager’s Return” closes the album with analog sequences dancing among keys rife with longing and a touch of sadness and regret.

Oil 10 has quite an interesting and varied discography, but it has always been defined by the strength of Rossire’s songwriting and tinkering with established formula.  Modularium is perhaps the biggest departure yet for the project, bringing new confidence along with more evocative atmosphere and experimentation, all filtered through a wondrous dark tint that shifts the project away from its recent pop-style instrumental formula to something more cinematic and bold.  Of course, one can’t help but wonder where Rossire might take us next, but here;s hoping we won’t have to wait another eight years to find out.

L’Ombre – Medicine for the Meaningless

ant-zen (act 129), 2002

The discography of infamous German label ant-zen doesn’t contain a great number of dark ambient, as most releases lean towards the power-noise side of the electronic spectrum (and powerfully so).  The carefully searching enthusiast, however, might find a hidden ambient gem here and there among the distorted beats and mechanical grinding upon which ant-zen has built its well-deserved reputation.

High on the list is the debut album from Stephen Sawyer’s L’Ombre project: Medicine for the Meaningless.  L’Ombre is a vastly interesting and versatile project that never quite fits ant-zen’s established template; aside from the debut, which sits with its feet dangling in dark ambient waters, subsequent releases revolve around trip-hop beatwork soaked in urban ambience, resulting in some of the truly coolest moments to be heard on the label.  Before Sawyer veered into the buzzing relaxed energy of rain-dappled neon-drenched busy nocturnal streets, he entered the scene with a collection of slow-paced and atmospheric pieces that, in retrospect, hinted at how the project would eventually evolve.

“Nowhere” opens the album with sparse piano chords – an element that Sawyer eventually expanded upon, but its effect is minimal here – drifting in and out of a wrapping of meandering synthetic wind.  It’s lonely and introspective, yes, and perhaps slightly foreboding, but the melody imparts a glimmer of sanctuary.  L’Ombre has never been about oppression, but about the inner workings of the conflicted and uncertain psyche.  The drama here is strictly internal; of the opportunity to ponder, muse, reflect, second-guess, and consider.  “Disappear” follows in the same vein, with spaced, lightly distorted percussion backed by another easy and near-calming synth sequences.  Medicine is definitely an album that does more with less, and Sawyer’s grasp of songwriting is remarkable even in L’Ombre’s early stages.

“Ressentiment” is more typically “ant-zennish”, with warped passes enfolding an echoing web of beats, but as before, Sawyer never revels in the distortion, keeping the leash short.  “Vagrant” turns down the distortion, but not the energy; again, Medicine never fully opens the throttle.  Sawyer is forging ahead, but into quieter, more organic spaces.  Keeping the introspective theme, “On the Beach” has a strong isolationist core, quiet surges and warm keys, but the off-tempo kick-drum adds weight and darkness.

By this point, the identity has been established; it’s certainly dark, but not deeply so.  It does delve the depths, however.  The haunting “Worthless” contains the album’s darkest moments (one gets the sense Sawyer could create quite a disturbing album in this vein if he was so inclined), while “Atheist” adds curious buzzing and shifting, but not enough to make our ears bleed; it’s probably the purest dark ambiance track on display.  But then “Syzygy” defies expectation, veering closer to IDM; Sawyer always likes to keep us guessing, but though the framework shifts, the mood remains unchanged.  “Trailblazer” drags on a bit too long, and has a long period of silence before re-emerging toward the end of its fourteen-plus-minute running time (a method I’ve never liked).

I’ll never be confused for a power-noise enthusiast, but I appreciate what the genre brings to the table.  L’Ombre, therefore, is one of my favorite acts on ant-zen, for its experimentation and versatility.  If one were to skip ahead to L’Ombre’s sublime 2009 release, Letting Go at the Steering Wheel, Sawyer’s growth and progression would be immediately obvious.  But as every flower begins as a seed, the birth began much earlier.  Medicine for the Meaningless isn’t groundbreaking or instantly memorable, but its odd combination of sparseness, introspection, experimental genre-hopping, urban sensibility, and quietly focused energy makes for a compelling and worthwhile listen.

Aes Dana – Pollen

Ultimae Records (inre055), 2012

When I consider trance, I think about concepts like flow.  And when I think about ambient, I think about mood.  By the same token, downtempo brings to mind relaxation.  Admittedly, I don’t listen to a lot of music in these respective genres, but when the chill-out, unwind mood strikes, but I don’t want to necessarily fall asleep, I reach for Pollen, Aes Dana’s sublime marriage of these three ideas.

Aes Dana is the flagship project of Vincent Villuis, co-owner of the famed French label Ultimae Records.  Ultimae is noted for its consistently high-quality releases and attention to fans and supporters (they often send sticks of incense with mail orders), and while a good deal of what I’ve heard from the discography isn’t quite edgy enough for my tastes, Pollen is an exception.  Aes Dana’s past work stuck too closely to the repetition of trance for me; while I certainly hear trance’s merit, I like my beats to have some variety and extra life.  Pollen is heavily beat-based – moreso than most Ultimae material I’ve encountered – but Villuis changes the tempo often enough to keep the inertia high without becoming dull.  “Borderline” is a great example of what I’m talking about; the tempo isn’t strictly 4/4, but there’s enough of that dancefloor staple to retain energy.  Villuis then drapes his erratic-yet-satisfying beatwork with lovely synth waves and looped samples, never letting things become too airy nor too dark.  To my relatively uneducated ear, this is a magnificent experiment in fusing genre, and resulting in something cohesive yet always shifting.

Pollen keeps the concept strong as the album progresses.  “Conditioned” and “Tree.Some” lean a bit heavier on 4/4 trance, but the keys and pads make the mood relaxed rather than manic, with snatches of melody wrapping themselves around the energetic core with gossamer wisps.  “A Carmine Day” adds a classic EBM bass synth to the formula; this is perhaps the most driving track on the album.

Villuis has become too clever to rely on this formula, however.  Tracks like “Jetlag Corporation” and “101 Clouds” eschew the trance structure for off-tempo rhythms, bringing the delicate keyboard work to the forefront.  Pollen isn’t overwhelming or dense, but nor does it float; if it’s the music of rain and cloud, the weather here is made of finely crafted intertwining threads of steel wire – delicate yet unbreakable.  “Riven” oozes with cinematic flair; its atmospherics alternately soar and dive, while a network of clicks keeps things anchored.  Likewise, “The Meeting Point” is full of sly energy, slouching assuredly through a neon-soaked crowd.  Pollen closes with the eleven-minute “Low Tide Explorations”, opening with a largely ambient mixture of beach sounds (of course), and wandering keys before an urban-ish drone and off-set percussion flares in and out.

Pollen isn’t an album I play often, but it fits a certain mood as perfectly as any other.  For that, as well as its wonderfully satisfying combination of relaxed mood and quiet motion, it’ll always be a part of my permanent rotation.  It’s a release of an exhale rather than the tension of dark frantic catharsis.  I have a great deal of respect for Ultimae Records, and while I certainly wouldn’t call myself a diehard fan by any means, it’s albums like Pollen that keeps the label on my radar.

Converter – Exit Ritual

ant-zen (act 163), 2003

In the early 21st century, Scott Sturgis had little to prove.  He’d already released two of the most powerful and influential power-noise albums ever recorded, Shock Front and Blast Furnace; a dual-barrel shotgun blast of mind-numbingly creative barrages of distortion that met with wide acclaim and helped establish ant-zen as one of the foremost power-noise labels on the planet.  When Sturgis announced his third detonation, Exit Ritual, the scene braced itself; would Converter continue its legacy, or had the project overstayed its welcome?

No one expected what Sturgis had unleashed.

Exit Ritual – portentously named, as it was Converter’s last album – was soon discovered to not be power-noise….not really.  It’s an album that lives between spaces, creating a broken cradle for itself.  It answers no questions, and asks for no quarter.  Over a decade later, its power and creativity are as potent as ever; Sturgis seemed to know the project could go no further, and threw everything he had into his virtual meat-grinder.  Using the shattered percussion of Shock Front fused to the experimental atmospherics of Blast Furnace, Exit Ritual remains one of the most versatile records in the ant-zen catalog, and by the same measure, it’s also one of the most difficult to assimilate.

The ritual begins with “dronr(itual)”, a collage of matching drones (of course) that loop and repeat with the obviously mechanical sensibility that has dominated Converter since its inception.  It’s immediately clear that Sturgis could have made an entire album in this subgenre, but that wasn’t quite enough for him.  Despite its beatless departure, the track is still certainly Converter; the malfunctioning-machine whirring and distant, ominously buried vocal samples see to that.  It’s drone, Converter-style, and no one else could make a track like it.  And here’s the catcher:  it’s got a sense of aesthetics and character.  First heard in snatches on Blast Furnace, Sturgis is able to infuse his electronics with personality – warped and bizarre, yes, but personality nonetheless – and they’ve reached a fever pitch.  The track might be the work of a gifted manic depressive; it’s careful yet confident, and carries an undercurrent of hope beneath the broken surface.  Like I said, Sturgis could have made an entire album based on the themes here, but he keeps that at bay, and the ritual continues.

If “dronr(itual)” was Converter’s ode to drone, then “Bloodsex” is its dedication to pop.  Perhaps the most straightforward song in the project’s discography, the track centers around a repeated, sonar-like duo of chords, mixed in with another lovingly churned loop that Sturgis is so adept at crafting.  When the almost trip-hop and undistorted (!) drum-track slides in, along with a high-pitched synth sequence, the track moves together as one, all dirty shadows and smoky primal air; the track is indeed well-named.  Converter has always filled its spaces with offset rhythmic elements as its tracks progress, and it’s still on display here, but it’s more refined and complete.

“Nightmare Machine” is quieter and sparser, treading dangerously close to ambient, but if Sturgis has taught us anything during the first two tracks, it’s that he’s too clever to give in to genre convention.  The spaces here are greater, but the mood is still unsettling, and as the pieces of the machine begin to churn and click, we see it emerge from the murk, piece by piece, and we cannot help but be in awe of its cleverly crafted majesty.  Converter tracks are famous for shifting palettes midway through, and this track is proof that Sturgis can still do this without making the transition too jarring.

Case in point: “Cloud Eye,” which, after a slyly quiet intro, morphs a furious roaring beast rife with screeching percussion – now this is classic Converter – fed with jagged whip-sawed sequences that scrape discordantly together like some kind of massive runaway farming tool.  But halfway through, the abrasion drops away, and we’re left drifting in the eye of the storm indeed, with the memory of our near escape rumbling and echoing just near enough to make us nervous.  This is easily one of my favorite Converter tracks, with Sturgis at the height of his manic rusted-metal powers.  Only Converter can make a hymn out of the sounds of failure.

It would be easy for me to write 700 more words extolling the virtues of this album, but I’ll restrain myself for the sake of saving mystery for the new listener.  Suffice to say, you’ll hear howling buzzing symphonics morphing into cataclysmic eruptions (“In Ruins…”), the sounds of a failing robotic walker somehow made into a dance track (“Order/Creature”), and creepy lurking groans set to minimalistic tribal drumming (“Gateway Rite”).  The final three tracks, “Soulstealer”, “Night Swallows Day”, and “Fallen” don’t seem quite as devilishly inspired as the preceding tracks, but their experimentalism and nihilism see Converter at its most potent, if not its most focused.  Following on the previous tracks, if Converter were to take the route of dark ambient, this final trio would be it.

Is Converter music, and is Sturgis a musician?  The answer isn’t immediately obvious.  Exit Ritual is not a safe album, and it’s not necessarily an easy listen, even after multiple goes over many years (trust me).  If, however, you define music as the capturing of singular mood and successfully converting (ha) it into sound, then no one, and I mean no one, has ever given voice to sensations like this.  Throw out convention and expectation, even those that lie on the fringe, for you’re about to embark on a true classic of warped creation, courtesy of one of electronic music’s most maddest of geniuses.

Streaked with joyfully powerful inertia like the best EBM, as full of yawning awe and looming grandeur as the most evocative of dark ambient; rife with satisfiying spiky slabs of distortion shaped like corroded-steel putty into delicious rhythmic templates as the finest of power-noise; consistently defiant yet cohesive and refined, Exit Ritual is a prime example of boundaries being challenged and shattered.