Integral – Sercosa

Tympanik Audio (TD019), 2014

Far removed from the interstellar glitchery of Rise, their 2008 debut, Integral’s second full-length, titled Sercosa, is among the most nuanced releases I’ve heard in some time. David Rotter and Rafael Milatz have shed the IDM trappings of their prior work and settled into a niche somewhere between ambient and electro, full of wandering washes and tones but with a definite sense of place and identity. For a project with few releases to their credit, Integral has shown a firm grasp of the technical, the atmospheric, and the narrative, and Sercosa showcases their considerable talents crackling at new volumes.

Not that Sercosa is loud or blatant. Quite the opposite. There’s no drama on the level of “Schlaflos” or “Moonwalk” here; Rotter and Milatz have increased the subtlety while decreasing the noise. And yet, for all its hushed beauty, Sercosa – too beat-sparse to be IDM but too structured to be ambient – is rife with activity, with a constantly shifting tapestry of tones and tiny whispers of detail. “Haunting Voices” is a prime example of this, with a foundation that’s so muted as to be almost unheard, only to be brought to attention when it fades out completely.  Enfolding this is a haze of electronic mystery – snatches of speech, clicks and whirs, minute keyboards, distant drums – that serve to involve the listener and expand the hidden mythology that Integral has created.

And yes, I believe there is a definite narrative structure to Sercosa; it’s just that we haven’t been given the entire picture. Unlike, say, the subterranean alien vaults of R|A|A|N, Sercosa takes a different path: that of the unexplored depths of the jungles, rain forests, and swamps that teem with wonder and mystery. There’s a strong Spanish or South American flavor to Sercosa; beyond track titles such as “Madea”, “Scarisoara,” and “Santa Georgia”, not to mention “The Aboriginal River,” there are sequences of wavering plucked guitar and gentle hand-percussion threaded throughout the dreamstuff woven by Rotter and Milatz with such existential care. There’s a certain sense of progression to the album as well, as the sounds move deeper into the steaming uncharted territories of Earth’s green-wrapped realms towards the album’s conclusion.  The ambiance of the rain forest is enhanced on “Fragments of Beauty” and “The Aboriginal River,” with the songs of birds and insects, the flowing of water, the gentle sounds of rain and distant thunder, and chirps of animals becoming the focus, while the electronics begin to fade into the background.  It’s as if the listener initially becomes aware of some singular mystery or goal, and follows it as the album plays, finally reaching the hidden places of Sercosa’s world at the journey’s end.

However, this is no tribal piece of New Age music.  Milatz and Rotter don’t take so obvious a path, but inject a certain darkness into their synthetics; the loops and repeated sequences are just haunting and mechanical enough (“Insight in an Unseizable World,” “Madea”) to keep Sercosa from emerging fully into the light, or becoming too organic.  “Scarisoara,” perhaps the album’s most absorbing track, utilizes a regular but hidden bass drum as its backbone, while sampled drums patter about and portentous passes take shape and dissolve. The rattling snares and near-frantic pulses of “Santa Georgia” hint at something unsettling, but the sense drains away before becoming full-blown anxiety.  Tread cautiously, it seems to say.  And yet, Sercosa is no odyssey of menace; it’s clear there’s no pale amorphous Lovecraftian presence thrashing about in the forested hollows. What the journey actually means, and what is discovered and learned, is left to the listener to decide.

While Sercosa might not feature the same obvious highlights as Rise or the 2011 retrospective The Past Is My Shadow, it’s Integral’s most cohesive and confident work. It’s a concept album – the type of ambient album I love most – but the concept isn’t fully defined.  There is, without a doubt, something unknown buried deep within the untrodden places of the world, and with this remarkable, inspiring, masterfully crafted album, Integral has given us the tiniest of glimpses.  I fully admit that I did not expect this depth of experience from Integral.  Along with TeHOM’s astounding album Lacrimae Mundi, Sercosa is one of the year’s biggest surprises.

Tor Lundvall – Night Studies

Dais Records (DAIS 052-5), 2013

Some albums just sound organic, even when they’re synthetically produced.  It’s as if the composer is able to somehow draw the essence of the music from the environment – air, earth, people – and distill them perfectly for the listeners.  I’d imagine such a process to begin with one being completely open and aware of the exact moment or aura, selecting what sensations to translate, and then being able to produce the sounds that reflect the idea as closely as possible.

Tor Lundvall’s Night Studies is such an album.  Released on CD only as part of Structures and Solitude, a five-album box set courtesy of Dais Records, Night Studies is a collection of eighteen short instrumental pieces based around the theme of the night as a time and place of silence at the edge of the ominous; something to be experienced on one’s own.  Lundvall’s past work has often drawn from a similar concept – that of a time or place observed and interpreted by an individual – and he has been able to insert the listener into his sonic spaces with a gentle and deft ease that’s remarkable.  As Lundvall is also a a painter – his paintings can influence his music, and vice versa – I wonder if his enhanced creative ability allows him to do this so effectively; he painted over a hundred pieces to coincide with this album.  Or, it could just be that he’s just quite talented indeed.

Only one of the tracks of Night Studies runs longer than three minutes.  These are snapshots, but all are part of the same photo album.  Lundvall weaves his nocturnal dreams with the same subtle keyboards and minimal tones from his previous work, but there are new shadows here – not threatening ones, mind you, but the trace of the unknown, all wrapped within the mysterious arms of night.  Some (“Soft Blue Light”, “Night Paths”) contain gentle melody as their foundation, while others (“Disturbance on Wood Street,” “3:00 AM,” “Is Someone There?”) are tiny potent packages of dark ambient that are some of the most deliciously creepy bits in Lundvall’s extensive discography.  Again, the darkness is not hopeless or foreboding, but mysterious.  And yet, I’d argue that you could splice and loop these pieces together and the result would rival anything on dark ambient flagship labels such as Cyclic Law and Cold Meat Industry; they’re that evocative.  And Lundvall is able to conjure these dreams without focusing on layered processed drones or series of dramatic washes; this is the night, stripped to its essence.

Lundvall’s night is populated, too, but only as echo and impression.  “Factory Glow” hints at the ghosts of activity with distant clinks and metallic brushing, and the faint boat-horns and clanks of “Ship Lights” could have slid in very nicely to his 2012 release The Shipyard (also available on CD for the first time as part of this box).  Several of the tracks feature far-off voices; small bits of song that might have been snatched out of the air as they drift from an open window.  “Vacant Lot” has what sounds like the bark of a dog amidst its wind-stirred concrete.  These are places where people have recently passed through, but they’re gone now, and there’s only us, the wandering listeners, to hear the traces of their passage.

“Quadrant Hill,” one of the longer tracks, gives us a glimpse into a sleeping community, with quiet looped drones quietly broken by odd taps, bells, and unknown night-noises.  We pass by the “Red Window” and wonder what is occurring within its crimson glow; it could be anything, and we will never know…except, perhaps, in our dreams.  The cold-yet-warm tones of “Moonrise” segue smoothly into the deep hums and spaced tapping echoes of “Smiling Moon.”  Our nocturnal sojourn ends as gradually as it begins; “Blurred Dream” is a half-remembered haze that fades as we return to ourselves, to be greeted by the warmth of the day with “Waking Light,” but there’s an unmistakable undercurrent of the dark paths we’ve walked tonight – the thrill of the unknown, which makes us realize how little we truly know about the world in which we live.

Best listened to alone, and at night (of course!), Night Studies allows the listener to roam without moving.  Lundvall excels at creating spaces for the listener to explore, and this shadow-soaked collection of darkly brilliant compositions involve the listener’s imagination at a deep level few albums do.  Tor Lundvall might not sport the same notoriety or underground appeal of music labelled as “dark ambient,” but there comes a point when labels don’t matter.  For all its starkness and brevity, Night Studies is, at the very very least, as immersing and inspiring as its more detailed contemporaries, while never becoming overwhelming, intrusive, or dark for dark’s sake.  Lundvall has always done more with less, and he’s at the height of his powers here – both observational and translating.  This group of distilled nocturnal dreams is, very simply, unforgettable.

This Mortal Coil – Blood

4AD (DAD 1005 CD), 1991

Less a band and more a collective concept, This Mortal Coil is the brainchild of 4AD head Ivo Watts-Russell and producer John Fryer.  Using personnel from a variety of sister-bands on the 4AD label, TMC albums are composed of obscure covers linked by original instrumentals, creating thick melodic atmospheres awash with 90s-era reverb, synthesizers, and drum machines.  Blood, the third and final TMC album, differs from its predecessors (It’ll End in Tears and Filigree & Shadow) in that the emotional template has been heightened and focused, and that the album follows a less straightforward path.  The result is a listening experience that changes depending on the mindset of the listener, and one that has not lost an ounce of potency or artistry in the years following its release.

“The Lacemaker” opens Blood in fine fashion, showcasing the TMC formula through mournful keyboards, wordless female lamenting, and beautiful melodies from a string quartet.  While Blood does feature acoustic elements such as guitar, strings and piano, it’s largely an electronic record, shifting effortlessly from ambient to downtempo and back again, never stepping outside the established emotional boundaries set by the first moments.  “The Lacemaker” changes completely halfway through but remains true to its core, something that happens often as Blood progresses.

Vocally, Blood has a more consistent palette than previous releases.  The sweet lilts of Caroline Crawley (“Mr. Somewhere”) are balanced by the earthy croons of Dierdre Rutkowski (“With Tomorrow”), sometimes on the same track (“Help Me Lift You Up”).  There are appearances by other voices as well – Kim Deal, Tanya Donnelly, Alison Limerick – but Crawley and Rutkowski are given the bulk of the spotlight, supported by minimal programming and melodic strings.  The covers often bear little, if any, resemblance to the originals, with extra layers of emotion enhanced by the programming; calling these remixes is superficial.  It’s remarkable how Watts-Russell and Fryer were consistently able to find what they were looking for and bring it out with such exacting attention to their overall vision.

Blood also excels in the experimentalism featured in instrumentals such as “Andialu,” with its looped washes, reverb-heavy vocal samples, and subtle stabs of noise, the playful bass-heavy dub of “Loose Joints,” the deep hums, music-box pluckings, and strange infant babbles of “Baby Ray Baby,” and the light beats and low-light mood of “D.D. and E.”  Not only do these tracks serve as bridges between the cunningly disguised pop structures of the vocal tracks, but also as opportunities to let the listener’s mind wander through the midnight urban streets conjured so powerfully by Watts-Russell and Fryer.  It’s easy to imagine oneself as a bodiless ghost, drifting through a late-night city (TMC just doesn’t have quite the same power during the day), soaking in the ambiance while sinking into the psyches of individuals scattered here and there, before lifting out and moving on to the next.  Previous TMC albums hinted at this kind of experience, but it wasn’t until Blood when the potential fully blossomed.  Aside from the two slight missteps of the too-long and too-abrasive “I Come and Stand at Every Door” and the out-of-place guitar-dominant pop of “I am the Cosmos,” the mood remains strong over the album’s 76+-minute running time.

Equally effective as sensual romantic connection and isolated lovelorn introspection, Blood is an influential and cohesive album that’s as transporting as the best ambient, while remaining true to its theme in spite of its range of moving parts.  It’s hard to pick highlights from an album like this, which is clearly intended to be experienced as a complete work, maintaining a delicate balance between consistency of mood and experimental minimalism from its first moments to its last.  Blood might not click on the same level with everyone, but for those it touches profoundly, there are few albums that can match its atmospheric power.

Kristoffer Nystroms Orkester – Overlook Hotel

Malignant Records (TUMORCD50), 2012

This is an odd duck of an album. Spanning noise, ambient, and post-industrial mayhem, Overlook Hotel has precious little connection to its source material….at least, that’s how it seems on the surface. The product of duo Kristoffer Oustad and Peter Nystrom, collaborating under the moniker Kristoffer Nystroms Orkester, Overlook Hotel is a collection of seemingly improvisational pieces that wouldn’t seem like they’d work together, but they do. You won’t find any samples from Kubrick’s infamous film here, nor any content from Stephen King’s celebrated novel beyond the album’s title, perhaps leading one to wonder exactly how the haunted Overlook fits in to the music.  Maybe it’s up to the listener to make the connection.

Overlook Hotel begins with a short track with a female voice proclaiming “you might find/the night time/the right time” over and over, like a record skipping, with odd synths burbling in the background. The transition to the following track is sudden and jarring; “Cleaning Still Houses” is a pounding barrage of metallic percussion backed by squalling, screeching electric guitar feedback, descending suddenly like a sudden downpour from a clear sky.  KNO has proclaimed itself, defying expectation while guiding the listener through a splintered experience.  Not splintered in a negative way, mind you; while the album leans toward the dark, it’s just more weird than black.

Once “Houses” calms down, we’re next exposed to the thickly accented voice of an old woman telling us a bit of a horror story in “The Tale and the Variation,” before the bizarrely soothing drones and distant pulses of “Industrial Pale Ale” winds through echoes of scraping, flowing water, and assorted rattling.  “Becoming the Green” continues the solitude at first, but out of nowhere, KNO hits us with a buzzing whirlwind of static feedback. We’re left lost and flailing, only to be cast back onto the serene shores of quietude once more.

The percussive/feedback assault is renewed with “Vulgalina Fever”; it’s here where I start wondering if Oustad and Nystrom are giving us their interpretation of the infamous boiler from King’s novel, as well as the cyclone of confusion experienced by the Torrance family amidst the abuse, alcoholism, and dread brought by their snowbound isolation. But once “Helvetesfallet”, with its Scandinavian-language vocal samples (the nature of which I can only guess at), and “It’s A Test,” with its English samples about an experiment concerning the difference between instinct and memory crop up, my brain is taken in another direction entirely.  Who knows, at this point, what KNO is thinking.  “Astronaut 47,” which closes the album with a space-ambient number – someone tell me how this fits into the source material – is a very cool piece of minimalism, with a single repeated drone backed by barely-audible feedback. It’s quite hypnotic and evocative despite its sparseness, and seems to last far longer than its under-five-minute running time.

Overlook Hotel is schizophrenic, eccentric, and eclectic, but it all still seems to fall under the same heading, like a book of haiku of varying subject matter.  It’s a challenging listen, and sometimes an awkward one, but once you get into the flow – no matter how often and how sharply the flow might change – you may very well find this to be an interesting product of experimentalism that changes clothes in admirable fashion.

SleepResearch_Facility – Dead Weather Machine Re:Heat

Manifold Records (MANCD43), 2004

To call this album pointless noise is accurate on the surface, but it’s also dismissive.  All of SR_F’s albums can be superficially described as such, but the two Dead Weather Machine releases run the closest to satisfying such a claim.  Re:Heat is, basically, a remixed version of the previously released Dead Weather Machine album, both of which feature the noises of Kevin Doherty’s malfunctioning heating fan, but processed, sampled, filtered, and resampled until it sounds completely unlike its source.  While the two albums share an origin, they do sound different, but only the patient and attentive listener will understand this, and these are the same listeners who recognize and understand Doherty’s work to be much, much more than pointless noise.

To describe Re:Heat is to tell only half the story.  The album is a single track lasting exactly fifty-one minutes.  There is no melody and no notes, no obvious sequences or rhythmic elements whatsoever.  This isn’t music in the traditional sense.  What you’ll hear is a series of buzzes, clicks, washes, and hums, all merging with one another, rising and falling in organic waves, part of a single whole; there’s really no other way to distill the experience into words.  But this album, and the SR_F listening experience in general, isn’t about the objective or technical experience; oh no. It’s about what happens between your ears while listening.  The impact will be different for each person, and will likely vary for a single person’s particular state of mind or circumstance.

If, for example, you listen to Re:Heat through headphones, in the dark, with your eyes closed, your imagination may very well latch onto the tapestry of sound and create a fantastic mental voyage through the bowels of some enormous ancient machine, parts of which still spark with vestigial power.  Or you might lose your thread of conscious thought and drift into a state of daydream, floating gently on the back of the gentle sonic blanket.  Or you might sit wide awake and let Doherty work his magic on your ears, opening your awareness to everyday sounds in new ways; in Doherty’s world, every tiny sound holds infinite possibilities, if you only take the time to ponder.  At the risk of sounding pretentious, his project is, in a manner of speaking, an exploration of sonic philosophy.

SleepResearch_Facility is, for me, the ultimate in ambient music.  It’s as dark or light as you want it to be.  It is an interactive experience between Doherty’s manipulation and the listener’s mind; it doesn’t direct the experience for you, but makes you a part of it.  Doherty’s not a musician – or rather, his work as SR_F doesn’t show it if he is – but he’s somehow able to construct his compositions in such a manner as to sink into you, should you be open enough to allow it.  Re:Heat is too varied to be mere white noise; there’s definite change and progression rather than just a wall of static, not to mention the completely alien feel of the sounds themselves.  If Doherty didn’t tell us this album was sourced from his busted heater, we’d be none the wiser.  Where Doherty excels is in his creativity and experimentation, and his ability to mold his processed sounds into an album.  It’s jaw-dropping that he’s done this with a mere field recording of a sputtering appliance; there’s an entire hidden universe in there, and he’s drawn it out for us to consider.

SR_F isn’t for everyone. Re:Heat isn’t for everyone. However, those willing to let themselves drown in this ocean of carefully manipulated sound may find something they never expected.

Negative Format – Cipher Method

Sector 9 Studios (S9S003), 2003

For all its inertia and energy, Cipher Method is remarkably subdued.  The fourth album from Alex Matheu’s Negative Format project, Cipher Method blends traditional EBM with trance and techno elements, but it’s not a breakneck ride through dizzying synthetic landscapes.  Matheu doesn’t overload the listener with an abundance of layered programming, relying on strong songwriting and a keen sense of rhythm to buoy the five-plus-minute compositions.  If you were to combine Massiv in Mensch’s wondrous synthetic rhythms with Individual Totem’s high-powered sequencing, the result might sound something like Cipher Method, but with some key differences.

First is the mood.  Matheu has injected Cipher Method with a relaxed, almost down-tempo feel.  While you can certainly dance to it, and dance well, Cipher Method isn’t brimming with dancefloor killers; this is an album perhaps better suited for home listening, where one is able to absorb and appreciate the sequencing and programming driving the music.  This isn’t a turbo-charged affair, but a cruising one.

The lyrical theme is also atypical for the genre, examining the reliance on technology with a cynical edge; we’ve allowed ourselves to have our decisions made for us, but as it’s our choice, it doesn’t have to be this way.  We’re losing something as our use of technology increases; a bold statement from someone who couldn’t have released this album without technology.  This isn’t a new concept for EBM, but it’s an intriguing paradox.  Matheu doesn’t beat us over the head with dogmatic proclamations, but gives us something to think about while our bodies respond to the rhythms.  His lyrics and warped, filtered delivery are clearly secondary to the music, and are often mixed low as an extra layer of rhythm.  Some tracks, such as “Encryption,” have minimal lyrical content (“block out the filtered information/mix in the daydream that our lives are broken” is the extent) rather than the traditional verse-verse-chorus structure.  It’s a smart decision, as the underplayed vocals don’t impede the momentum of the trance-inspired foundation.

Yes, trance.  It’s considered a dirty word by many fans of EBM, but not to fear; Cipher Method is certainly not a trance album, but an album that takes trance’s theory and applies it to EBM.  The trance manifests itself in the smooth, straightforward beats that never stutter or oscillate, keeping time with a pleasing regularity rather than becoming monotonous.  Matheu wraps the 4/4 beats with glittering sequences and near-soothing keyboards with just enough of a techno-influenced tint to make rivetheads curl their lip a tad, not to mention the warm ambient-style synths contained in tracks such as “Cipher” and “Schema.”  Cipher Method isn’t angry or brooding, but contemplative and it soars and dives through the digital ether.  Matheu breaks up the formula just enough, with the drum-and-bass stylings of “Algorythm,” the anthemic pop of “Static,” and the near-ambient instrumental “Packet Filter,” not to mention paying tribute to classic EBM with the harsher vocals and increased aggression of “Downfall (Atmosphere).”

There are plenty of highlights here – the mid-track shift of “Schema,” the particularly wonderful sequencing of “Vertex,” the tightly focused “Transfer” – but Cipher Method is an album best appreciated as a complete work.  It doesn’t drag or feel repetitive during its long, 65+ minute running time, and despite the similar themes both musically and lyrically, there’s enough variety here to keep one’s interest.  If nothing else, it’s worth marveling at how Matheu blends styles seamlessly and keeps one’s rhythmical expectations guessing and one’s pulse pumping with subtle energy.  Cipher Method is the kind of wonderfully effortless experience that sounds both familiar and completely new.  While the brashness of its extroverted, shock-centered contemporaries have faded with time, Negative Format’s quietly pulsating masterpiece of streamlined technophobia is as relevant and effective as ever.