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.