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.