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.

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