Ten Best Dark Ambient Albums

Yes, a dreaded list.

This is something I’ve been thinking about doing for a while.  While other lists take the ranking very very seriously, I don’t.  At least, not really.  While I’ve done my best to have some semblance of progressive quality from ten to one, this doesn’t mean that number ten is nine places “worse” than number one.  I consider each of these albums a masterpiece in one way or another, and it’s my humble opinion that each is highly worth one’s time.  Essential dark ambient, in fact.  If there are any of these you’ve missed, I urge you to track them down.

I also feel compelled – with hesitance – to explain my own definition of “dark ambient.”  These are electronic albums that are dark in nature, concept, and execution.  They are neither primarily melodic nor rhythmic.  The albums here are focused experiments in mood and atmosphere without using traditional musical structures.  I love dark ambient due to its immersive and involving nature, and for the places it takes me.  Each of the following are the pinnacle of the experience for me, which they provide in very different ways.

Enough preamble – let’s get to it.

10.  Forma Tadre – Automate (Off Beat, 1998)

The underrated Forma Tadre project might be best known for late 90s EBM dancefloor staples like “Looking Glass Men” and “Celebrate the Cult,” but its true genius lies in the Lovecraftian-inspired soundscapes found on Automate.  This is an intricate darkness, carefully arranged with the same attention of Forma Tadre’s EBM work, and its creativity and effectiveness has not wavered one iota since its release.  Automate 2.0 includes a reworked titled track and extra content, but the grandeur of the artistic spaces is the same.

9.  Iszoloscope – Les Gorges Des Limbes (ant-zen, 2004)

Perhaps more well-known for its crushing brand of power-noise, Iszoloscope originally planned to release this beatless wonder as a side project, but instead, it’s the best album in the band’s discography.  Impeccably paced and deftly crafted, this is a journey through a twisted and ghost-haunted place that’s as unnerving as it is satisfying.  Featuring a darkness that’s shades removed from deep black, Les Gorges Des Limbes is nonetheless one of the most deliciously harrowing journeys I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing.

8.  Polygon – Omnon (Polymorph, 1999)

Another underrated project here, and another example of a genre entry that deviates from the band’s other work.  Polygon’s trademark is icy clinical atmosphere and programming so precise it’s surreal, but that same surreality is put on full display in this two-disc epic odyssey through interstellar mystery.  Omnon is guilty of containing melody, yes, but it’s injected with such perfection into the alien auras that it’s an integral part.  Deep space has never sounded so strange, or so wonderful.

7.  Tholen – Neuropol (Cyclic Law, 2010)

Now this is what I’m talking about.  A concept album built around a fictional AI-run city – the Neuropol of the title – where humans are used and hunted in classic Skynet fashion by murderous machines, this is a realm where technology rules without mercy.  Tholen riddles this album with pneumatics, fiber optics, and electric arcs, not to mention voices both human and otherwise.  The opening tracks set the mood perhaps better than any other concept dark ambient I’ve heard.  Ridiculously good.

6.  raison d’etre – The Empty Hollow Unfolds (Cold Meat Industry, 2000)

Considered a bridge between raison d’etre’s chorus-focused early work and its later noise phase, Empty Hollow contains the best of both.  “The Eternal Return and the Infinity Horizon” is the best track in the project’s lengthy discography, and one of the best single dark ambient tracks there is.  Not to diminish the rest of the album, mind you, which is the peak of the project’s experimentation with its own established identity while leaking into new territory; it’s the most accomplished and consistent album that the band has released.  For a project with such a deserved reputation, you can bank on a quality dark experience from its haunting start to its otherworldly finish.

5.  SleepResearch_Facility – Stealth (Cold Spring, 2012)

The first of two SR_F albums on this list, Stealth is sourced from the sounds of a B-2 bomber undergoing tests in a hangar.  If there’s a better concept for a dark ambient album, I haven’t heard it.  This isn’t just a high-level concept, however, but a stunning experiment in field recording and sample manipulation that has an undeniable narrative structure and sense of character among the ocean of drones, buzzes, clicks, whirs, and sweeps.  The ghost in this machine is alive and well, and most definitely aware.

4.  Terra Sancta – Aeon (Malignant, 2004)

This is the best drone I have ever heard.  Huge and epic, while also claustrophobic and oppressive, but it’s gorgeous no matter how you look at it.  The layered beds of static carry an unreal strength of presence as they move and shift like some great beast stalking through a blinding sandstorm.  And there’s beauty here too:  the mind-blowing “Drowned (Desert Earth II)” ends with perhaps my favorite dramatic moment in all of Dark Ambientia: a mournful wordless female voice emerges slowly from the swirling chaos, to give one last song of defiance before the waves of relentless noise overwhelm it forever.  It’s equal parts heartache and catharsis, and is the highlight of an album of pure drone genius.

3.  Cities Last Broadcast – The Cancelled Earth (Cyclic Law, 2009)

The moment I read this album’s description, I knew it would be something special.  Intended as the discovered sounds of a vanished civilization (maybe Earth, maybe not), the only release to date from Cities Last Broadcast carries out its high concept with a master stroke.  There were people here, and thriving industry and culture, but now all that remains are the ragged remnants of both: snatches of speech, tones that seem somehow familiar, and a thick sense of lost glory that combine to produce such a powerful feeling of history, it’s immediately obvious that this is a work of rare dark ambient prowess.

2.  R|A|A|N – The Nacrasti (Malignant Antibody, 2001)

Speaking of projects that release a sole album of singular genius, may I present R|A|A|N’s majestic opus, The Nacrasti.  There’s a concept here, yes, but we’re only given the outline, and the rest is up to us to create.  What (or who, or where, etc) the titular Nacrasti is or was is never revealed except in the imagination of the listener.  The sounds here are deeply alien, deeply dark, and deeply effective, producing such an organic aura it’s almost overwhelming.  And once the sampled pipes appear in the album’s second half, the experience moves into another plane entirely.  If someone told me this album was a pure, untainted field recording from the face of a distant planet, or from some deep network of caverns teeming with undiscovered mythology (and undiscovered life), I’d believe it without question.  The Nacrasti is distilled Otherness.

1.  SleepResearch_Facility – Nostromo (Cold Spring, 2001) 

While R|A|A|N rules my heart, SleepResearch_Facility rules my mind.  Intended as a homage to the sleeping ship Nostromo from Ridley Scott’s brilliant film Alien, this album still surprises me after hundreds of listens.  It works its way into my subconscious (and probably my unconscious too) like no other genre album has ever done.  It frees my mind by becoming part of it, if that makes any sense.  This is a collaboration between artist and listener like no other, and is electronic noise manipulation made into art.  The sense of timing, flow, rhythm, and atmosphere is perfect.  It’s creepy, thrilling, and wondrous, all at once.  Nostromo varies without ever straying from its established identity.  This is the single best electronic album I’ve heard, in any genre, from its accomplished writing to its tapestry of beautiful sound to how dead-on it nails its ambitious concept.  For my money, dark ambient has never been better, and I’m skeptical Nostromo will ever be surpassed.  Every time, without fail, Nostromo gives me something new.  That’s not just something that has never otherwise happened in my years as a music fan, it hardly ever happens in life.  It’s for experiences like this that I love music, and previous few have provided it on the level Nostromo does.

Subterranean Source – Relic

Desolation House (DH-1100), 2008

And to think I initially wrote this album off.

One of the things I enjoy the most about music is how difficult it is – if not impossible – to describe it in words.  For example, let’s consider Relic, the second album from Italy’s Subterranean Source.  It’s fifty-odd minutes of atmospheric drones punctuated by sampled noise and manipulated, filtered detail.  There’s no melody to speak of, and precious little rhythm.

Sounds similar to most dark ambient albums, doesn’t it?

If you listen close and pay attention, however – something I confess I failed to do upon my first listens – there’s more here than may be readily apparent.  Upon my rediscovery, the first thing I noticed is how quiet Relic is.  Not to imply that it’s insubstantial, mind you.  Andrea Bellucci (who also fronts the IDM outfit Red Sector A) goes about his business in a restrained, understated manner; Relic’s aural tapestry shifts and shimmers in a manner so subtle, it could flow right past your ears without your realizing it.  The palette has changed from SS’s 2002 debut, Vivid Circles, and while that album had its moments, Relic is much more consistent.

Relic doesn’t follow the theme of gaping black mystery like many of its kin; its darkness is contemplative, reflective, even gentle.  I’m not even sure I’d call it “dark ambient,” really, it’s more gray than dark.  For purposes of comparison, imagine the near-calming spaces of Kammarheit mixed with the metallic scrapings and web-like details of Metamorphyses-era raison d’etre, and you’re nearing the border of the gauzy half-lit realm where Relic treads.

“Pagan Moon” begins with some snatches of indiscernible speech layered over a muted Terra Sancta-style wall of noise, and begins adding a series of light scrapes and clatters in the distance, along with chimes and bells drawn out to otherworldly proportions.  A subtle percussive loop wanders in, then sinks into the slowly moving synthetic river, and peeks out in random spots for the track’s duration.  “Lux Aetma” flows gradually along, while gentle knocking comes from the shore and sparks whistle overhead.  It’s about here where I realized my attention was engaged, but in a tertiary kind of way; Relic was neither buried in my subconscious nor forced into my every thought.  Where its contemporaries roar and blaze, Relic smolders.

The title track brings back the buried echoes of garbled speech and muffled percussion loop, but neither are overbearing.  There’s just enough character here to charge our imagination – what is the relic?  where is it kept?  was it made or found? – in the way that I find so effective about the genre.  The two remaining tracks, “Perdition” and “From the Deep” follow a similar vein, with what sounds to me like definite aquatic themes.  “Perdition” offsets the rolling grumbles of distant thunder and falling rain with curious clanks, muttering, and dragging, while “From the Deep” is submerged in near-claustrophobic watery depths….but not deep enough to ignore the beauty, masked but certainly present.

Relic doesn’t innovate.  It doesn’t need to, and didn’t try to.  It strikes a pleasing balance; providing depth without overwhelming.  For me, obviously, Relic improves with each listen, with new sounds and details emerging that I’d previously missed as my attention wavered in and out: this is what I’m looking for in this genre.  Bellucci had a theme in mind that wasn’t particularly ambitious, but he succeeded in providing a highly effective dark (or gray) ambient experience that slides neatly between the dark and the light.

If you’ve been looking for a buried jewel, look no further.

Die Sektor – To Be Fed Upon

NoiTekk Records (NTK 023), 2006

For all its psychoses, this is an album of splintered grace and razor-edged lace.  Die Sektor’s debut is electronic aggression scorched by beautiful flames.  With its relentless and frantic energies, wildly distorted vocals, and haunting melodies, To Be Fed Upon conveys dislocation, uncertainty, and power to an unnerving degree.  It’s heady stuff, catharsis that’s powerful to the point of exhaustion; an emotional deluge that is hard to resist.

Let’s get one thing out in the open: musicians and programmers Scott Denman and Alan Smith are ridiculously talented.  For every tortured hymn (“The Beating of Broken Wings”, “When Porcelain Bleeds”), there are moments of almost stunning beauty (“All Turns White”, “Revelation None”, “Through Glass”).  It’s these latter tracks that are the real showcase: they’re slow, delicately spaced instrumentals where the duo’s songwriting prowess is given full focus.  The piano of “All Turns White” is particularly heart-rending, providing much-needed solace from the whirling storm of needles characterizing most of the album.

This is not meant as a condemnation of the vocals.  John Gerteisen’s mangled delivery is something to hear.  Filtered to the edge of misinterpretation in the style of classic Mentallo & the Fixer, the vocals are both a juxtaposition and an enhancement to the music.  They are the bullets fired from the barrel of the music; the smoke rising from the inferno.  Thank goodness for the included lyrics, which might have otherwise been lost behind the veil of distortion.  Most of them fall under the topic of first-person serial-killer poetry; before you groan, here’s a sample from “When Porcelain Bleeds”:  her lips so sweet / every word cuts like knives / i feel the wounds as if self inflicted / broken porcelain beauty / i still long to touch / i prick my finger to paint her lips.  When Gerteisen delivers these mantras, fueled by the driving chord-shifting chaos produced by Denman and Smith, the effect is intoxicating to the point of overwhelming.

Some tracks (“Deathkill”, “To Be Fed Upon”) reduce the tempo to slow-motion intensity without compromising an ounce of the album’s mood.  When all systems are go, however, Die Sektor’s ash-choked wings spread to their fullest.  “Follow the Screams” is a particularly potent example, unfurling in its first few moments with a wonderfully evocative bass sequence that’s soon bordered by a high-pitched techno-inspired melody, crashing percussion, and fractured vocals.  As the track careens forward, elements fall away while others emerge, but the highlight comes around four minutes in:  the beats disappear and we’re left with an echo of the melody, only to have the energy return, one layer at a time, until all is on glorious broken display.  It’s the album’s prime example of what Die Sektor is, and what it’s capable of.

To Be Fed Upon is a draining listen for me.  Cathartic, but exhausting nonetheless.  The effect is like watching Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre:  it’s a film I love, but it makes me feel dirty, in need of something cleansing – a tribute to how well it works.  At eleven tracks, most over five and a half minutes, the album’s a lot to take in during one sitting (I find myself needing a break when watching Texas Chainsaw these days too).  The instrumentals ease the album’s grip, but not quite enough to allow me to catch my breath completely.  (I can only imagine what Die Sektor might be like when seen live.)  I also think the album’s quality drops a bit in the middle, as “Mother Hunger,” “In the Arms of Eternity,” and “Prey to the Razor” aren’t the equals of the rest, but “All Turns White” and the thundering closer “To Be Fed Upon” help bring it back to the rusted heights established by the opening moments.  A bit of lyrical and thematic variety would have helped ease the relentless atmosphere, but that’s my own subjectivity talking:  To Be Fed Upon is a grimly thematic work that just happens to be layered on very, very thickly.

The album’s artwork sums up the awaiting experience nicely: a trio of skulls pierced by spikes rest on a bed of roses, a human heart driven through by rusted nails and a knife, and razor blades and pills resting in the cracked palm of an offering hand.  To Be Fed Upon is an intense and uncompromising electro/EBM experience that surprises with its level of songwriting craft, but its strength really lies in how well it displays its tortured and complex core.  For me, it’s a bit too well.

The Retrosic – God of Hell

Tribune Records (TRIBUNE_003A), 2004

It’s always been a source of amazement for me that some electronic albums sound decidedly organic.  While many electro bands clearly embrace their synthetic sources – e.g. mind.in.a.box and Headscan – there are others that manage, somehow, to make their music not sound like the product of cybernetic intelligences.

The Retrosic is a prime example.  Yes, I’d still consider their music to be post-industrial electro/EBM, but the sound design is so far removed from others, it’s hard to believe that it’s part of the same genre (I would call it such, but others would surely disagree).  On paper, there’s little difference: the music is beat-driven, enhanced by twisting lines of sequences and chord-laden synths and keys.  You can dance to Headscan just as well as The Retrosic, but the feel is different; one is future-oriented slickness while the other is roughly hewn heaviness.

Not to imply that God of Hell, the third album from The Retrosic, is somehow lesser in execution or design; it is most certainly not, to my ears.  It’s crunchy, stompy, dark, heavy, and full of primal presence; just listen to the pounding beat, hypnotic bass line, snarling vocals, odd melody, and layered bell-like percussion of “Maneater” and try to avoid imagining some majestic creature stalking its prey under a smoking sky.  Like the best dark ambient, it’s incredibly evocative stuff.

God of Hell is overflowing with similar moments.  Despite its largely computerized sourcing, there’s a good deal of clearly acoustic instrumentation to be heard – pipes, wordless female vocals, Middle Eastern-style strings and horns – all of which serve to increase the album’s powerful mutated steampunk aura.  “Elysium” and “Passion (1st Sign)” evoke Dead Can Dance with their lamenting vocals, traditional percussion, and dramatic atmospheres; you don’t normally find creations like this in the realms of post-industrial.

Even tracks with a modern bent (“New World Order,” “Total War,” “Antichrist”) have a warped ancient sense about them, while the ode-like “Tale of Woe” and the bone-crushing instrumental “Dragonfire” could easily have been products of some alternate medieval dimension, a la Heimataerde.  Add the irresistible anthem “The Storm,” with its perfect barrage of bass, delicate pipe-like EBM sequencing, and fantastic vocals, and “Sphere,” a triumph of interlocking-gear vehicles steaming across an alien wasteland (it’s miles ahead of most like-minded cinematic pieces), and the album moves into a world all its own, carrying us along through its unique burnished landscape of rusted machinery, streaked by gouts of flame and boiling smoke, and populated with strange folk equally dangerous and artistic.

The album does fall prey to genre cliches.  Most of the vocal samples are unnecessary and disruptive in an album of such crafted power.  Similarly, some may find the band’s vocals – aggressive chants delivered in a rasping, delicately distorted fashion – to be at odds with the music.  I love the understated rage and menace in the vocals, however; they’re powerful without being overdone, and provides a human and thematic connection for us.  God of Hell contains a good number of songs, after all, and vocals are a vital element.  Without the vocals, ragged and growling as they are, God of Hell would lose something; they add to the primal blood coursing throughout the album.  The lyrics themselves aren’t as effective as the confident throaty delivery, mostly concerned with well-worn themes of apocalypse, war, suffering, and conspiracy, but the genre is home to far worse.  Even the slow-paced dirge “Tale of Woe” manages to avoid being completely embarrassing; in lesser hands, it would have been.  Also, the last two minimal tracks are completely throwaway, adding nothing but unnecessary length; God of Hell is better without them.

God of Hell seems to be the pinnacle for The Retrosic, as prior and following releases haven’t come close to its high level of potent creativity and aesthetic sense.  However, for this album, the band conjured a powerful and versatile vision of dark grandeur that also satisfies the high-octane demands of industrial dancefloors across the globe.  God of Hell is one of the few albums that is also able to move beyond the 4/4 foundation to provide a listening experience that surprises with its depth, variety, cohesion, and strength of songwriting.  Such albums are rare in general, but when you consider its genre, God of Hell becomes elevated to classic status.

[:SITD:] – Rot

Accession Records (A 117), 2009

The definition of “industrial music” has undergone many changes over the years.  Nine Inch Nails was the first exposure for many to the subgenre, but there are many who didn’t consider Trent Reznor’s work to be industrial music at all.  The punk-inspired theatrics of Einsturzende Neubaten and Skinny Puppy, among others, eventually seemed to overwhelm the music itself, and the genre itself proved extremely difficult to peg.  Beyond that, the music itself became increasingly predictable, losing the experimentation that marked the genre in its early days.  Subgenres such as noise, IDM, and synthpop began to influence it as well, as did a level of pretension that bordered on comical, with bands straining to present themes of sci-fi, horror, slasher films, and war that seemed more important than the music.

It would seem – at first, anyway – that the trendily named [:SITD:] typifies this 21st-century post-industrial faux-angst.  The titular acronym stands for “shadows in the dark.”  They hail from Germany and use German language in their lyrics and song titles.  But there’s something going on with their music that separates them from the ranks of pancake makeup- and gas mask-wearing contemporaries.

Francesco D’Angelo, Carsten Jacek, and Thomas Lesczenski are certainly guilty of treading paths already established by others, but they ride the edge of EBM, noise, and synthpop with a sense of reverence.  Describing their 2009 album Rot (German for “red,” not the English word for decay) would seem to do little to set them apart:  it’s a collection of 4/4 electronic dancefloor hymns with aggressive German and English vocals, and is their fourth such release.

However, Rot is an example of what makes post-industrial EBM such a potentially fulfilling style.  The beats are the focus, no doubt, and they’re thick and heavy and pummeling, with little distortion.  Wonderfully straightforward, rarely deviating from the martial power of the 4/4 framework, with a relentless mid-tempo speed that I found particularly effective.  The lower BPM also allows [:SITD:] to include all sorts of subtle details between the beats, from minimal techno-inspired sequencing, visceral EBM bass keys, and ambient chord-shifting keyboards.

The vocals, which are done by alternating band members, are also free of distortion, and are somewhat restrained, chanting in the classic style of Front 242 or DAF, with none of the screaming often present in the genre.  In some cases – “Redemption” and “Destination” – they’re sung with little of the manic self-indulgence of the re-emergent synthpop.

Take “Catharsis,” which is built with a magnetic unwavering beat and a fantastic off-beat bass line, and anthemic German vocals that never overwhelm, but enhance the track’s identity.  It’s aggressive, but not overly so, and doesn’t do too much; it’s not trying to overwhelm or impress.  It’s classic EBM, but isn’t just pumped-up beats for mindless clubbing; there’s a good amount of creative songwriting on display.  “Rot” increases the tempo just a bit, and uses a looped sonar tone to augment the turbo-charged bass-line, techno-ish melody, and driving percussion.  The vocals here remind me so much of Massiv in Mensch it’s almost criminal; in fact, Rot sounds very much like a heavier version of MiM’s early work (minus the tongue-in-cheek weirdness) merged with the goth-influenced sensibilities of Project Pitchfork.

Not that Rot is completely free of pretension.  The lyrics of “Stigmata of Jesus” and “Zodiac” are pretty cringe-worthy, but those wonderfully cathartic beats and precise programming do help take the edge off.  [:SITD:] dabbles with noise on these tracks as well, with very respectable results.  I do think, however, that Rot could jettison the vocals and still be exemplary; the near-instrumental “Pride” is proof, with its carefully merged and dramatic chords and piano, all studded by lovely thudding 4/4 magic.  However, the introspective lyrics of “Redemption” and the anti-drug “MK Ultra” help redeem the band’s lyric-writing a bit; these guys are no Project Pitchfork in the songwriting department, but they’re a level above their contemporaries, for certain.

Rot is nothing new, but it’s darn good at what it does.  It’s the most effective and consistent album in the band’s discography to date, changing things up just enough to keep from becoming repetitive or overwhelming.  [:SITD:] wears its influences proudly on its electronic sleeve, and isn’t ashamed of what it is: post-industrial EBM of particularly effective power.  For a prime example of what the genre is capable of – as limited as that might be – it doesn’t get much better than this.

Polygon – Images

Polymorph Records (POLYMORPH 06), 2001

Ingo Lindmeier’s genre-hopping Polygon project spanned ambient, dark ambient, electro, and IDM over its various releases, but Images, released in 2001, is perhaps the most assured.  While Refuge (1995) featured an emphasis on vocals and a a clear electro foundation, and Omnon (1999) was assuredly dark ambient, Images is both of these, spliced together, with the vocal element removed.  Containing the interstellar themes and ice-clear, meticulously mixed electronics that give the project its identity, Images is a transfixing journey through a realm of outer space atmospheres and programming prowess.

“Incoming Distance” opens the odyssey with a series of garbled vocal samples concerning the mind’s inability to accept full reality (a common theme for Lindmeier) while whirs and pulses create an otherworldly sense of unease, and of undiscovered realms.  It’s a step beyond the bizarrely alien ambiance of Omnon, for there’s more direction and variety on display now, while retaining the strangeness that has always marked Lindmeier’s work.

“Isolated Memory” follows – yes, all the track begin with “i” – and is much more structured, with interlocking beeps and lightly glitched percussion, while electro-influenced elements fill in the crystalline space.  There is foundation and purpose here, harkening back to the song-oriented Refuge, and before long, the sounds fall into place and melody emerges alongside a brittle IDM beat.  Images has a powerful sense of space, but dots and dusts its panoramas with minimal points and blushes; there’s a void here, but sparsely and precisely inhabited.  “Irrational Behave” follows a similar template, with staccato stutters and an odd shuffling beat that wobbles uncertainly as a forlorn melody floats in the distance.

The beat-free zero-G ambiance returns for “Introspection” before we’re grounded once again by the frigid aura and particulate beat of the title track, with another trademark minimal Lindmeier melody spiking the EBM base with needles of ice.  The pace is slow, as on most of the record, but this is a vital part of allowing the vistas to gape wide enough for the listener to ascend into with little effort.  “Idealism” is perhaps the most tuneful and hyperactive track on the album, with a hesitant piano edging its way into a mix of splintering fractal fragments sent into the distance in tight formations under Lindmeier’s close attention.  After “Icing,” another ambient foray, we’re treated to the bristling energy and old-school sequencing of “Imprint” before the deliciously frigid loops and head-nodding down-tempo groove of “Illustrated”; this is space-travel gone cool, and not necessarily due to the temperature.  Type finishes the album with a remix of “Image” that is a good deal more mechanical and heavier, not to mention a tad more foreboding, showing how close Polygon’s own work comes to not sliding into that tantalizing pit.

Image is aloof and distant, but it’s not emotionless.  Lindmeier’s fingerprints are all over the clicks, rhythms, buzzes, and synths; yes, he’s got something of a clinical, antiseptic precision about his arrangements – it’s easy to listen to this and imagine wandering through spotless white corridors and featureless rooms – but Images never becomes fully detached.  There’s a sense of the organic throughout Images, because machines could never create something on their own that did not carry the feelings of wonder, purpose, and self-awareness so clearly present.

Various – Cthulhu

Cryo Chamber (CRYO 009), 2014

I don’t normally listen to (or review) various-artist compilations, because they’re often so fragmented due to the, well, variety of artists and styles on hand.  I also consider it a little unfair (not to mention difficult) to write about an artist based on a single track.

For Cthulhu, however, I made an exception.

First and foremost, this collaboration, composed of artists from the Cryo Chamber dark ambient label, is one eighty-minute track.  Nice, right?  Rather than having each of the twelve artists contribute a single track, their work was merged together, fused under the notorious banner of Cthulhu, perhaps the most well-known of H.P. Lovecraft’s ravening alien monstrosities.  This album is even being described by the label as a single; cute.  Now here’s a different kind of collaboration, I thought, and beyond the fact I’m a long-time Lovecraft fan, the unusual format of Cthulhu made me immediately curious.

Here, then, is a list of the twelve contributors:  Alt3r3d Stat3, Alphaxone, Aseptic Void, Atrium Carceri, Cryobiosis, Halgrath, Neizvestija, Ugasanie, Mystified, Asbaar, Dark Matter, and last but not least, Sjellos.  The only artist whose music I’d heard prior to this release was Atrium Carceri (aka Simon Heath, the head of Cryo Chamber), and the only other I’d heard of at all was Dark Matter.  As a result, it occurred to me that without separate track listings, I’d very likely be unable to discern between artists as the single track progressed.  For the record, I’m assuming the artists appear on Cthulhu in the order I listed above, as I took the list directly from the Cryo Chamber website.

However, I can now say that without prior knowledge, I’d have guessed Cthulhu to be the work of a single artist.  Lengthy one-track dark ambient albums are nothing new (Phaenon, Tholen, etc), and while Cthulhu follows the same format, the effect is very different.  Perhaps I’m just not schooled enough to be able to distinguish between the technology or styles in use, but it sounds to me that Cthulhu doesn’t feature very much diversity, despite having a diverse roster of artists on board.  Or so I thought; perhaps the artists here just aren’t as diverse as I imagined (or hoped).  There are lapses into silence during the eighty-minute playtime, too, which makes me wonder if the artist was switching, while also wondering that perhaps Cthulhu really isn’t a single collaborative track anyway, and…..

Perhaps you can guess where I’m going.  The music on Cthulhu just doesn’t hold my attention.  It’s solid dark ambient, true, but it does little to separate itself from the melange of genre norms:  expansive drones, drawn-out bells, flickering atmospheres, and massive slow keys.  If you’ve heard any good dark ambient album, you’ve heard Cthulhu.  Surprisingly, too, Cthulhu doesn’t seem to mirror the cosmic amorphous horror of its namesake; the mood is remarkably tame.  It’s almost peaceful in places, which makes me think this is an album of reverence, but I wouldn’t think reverence of Cthulhu would sound quite so….calming.

Only during its last twenty minutes does the album wander into oppression and chaos, and even then, it doesn’t stay for long.  Cthulhu also has very brief moments of garbled vocals and sampled weirdness – in particular something that sounds like an enraged elephant around the 70th minute – but these are too few and very much far between.  To my ears, acts like Flint Glass and Maculatum are able to reflect the Lovecraftian with a good deal more accuracy.

I want to like Cthulhu more than I do.  When it comes to dark ambient, the concept is right up my alley, and the format is intriguing enough to pique my interest in a major way.  Taken at face value, however, this album is a by-the-numbers dark ambient release that doesn’t involve me enough to keep my mind from wandering….which is the last thing I’m looking for in this genre.