Kattoo – Megrim

Hymen Records (Y747), 2005

A kind-faced elderly woman ponders and ruminates on a black background.  She wears a string of white pearls, earrings, and a ring with a black dress; she could be going to the opera or a funeral.  Wherever her destination, she wears an expression of peaceful rumination.

This is the photography adorning Megrim, the second album by Kattoo.  Volker Kahl, also part of the drum-and-bass outfit Beefcake, dazzles with his versatility and musical talent, all in a detached and surreal manner that leaves much to the listener’s imagination.  The twenty tracks of Megrim are untitled; I’m unsure who or what Megrim is, but I’ve always considered it a pet name for the depicted grandmotherly figure.  Perhaps the album is a tribute to her memories, or her dreams.  Whatever Kahl’s inspirations may be, he’s created an album that touches on cinematic soundscapes, trip-hop, ambient, field recordings, IDM, and just about everything in between.  Megrim is a challenging listen, but Kahl makes sure that the disparate parts orbit near a common center.

The main thread on Megrim is musical.  I’m not a musician by any means, nor have I studied musical theory or structure in any depth, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Kahl has.  Several pieces on Megrim feature themes that are similar, if not repeated – I’m talking themes of notes and chords here rather than aesthetic or conceptual – and it’s these connecting bits of music that bring the album together.  You’ll hear vocal samples that sound like some Scandinavian tongue to my untrained ear, commercials, various cries and yells, a Japanese voice that’s been pitch-shifted into pixie-quality, flowing water, creaking doors, cracking ice, storms, birds…..all of it scattered throughout the album while Kahl’s synthetic strings and horns blare dramatically and pluck wistfully.

Megrim is electronic at its foundation, so you’ll also hear various slow-paced IDM and trip-hop beats and classic bass synths as the tracks flow from one to another.  None of the tracks on Megrim are particularly long; it’s got twenty tracks, but the majority run between two and three minutes.  Sometimes there’s a separating break, sometimes not.  Megrim is clearly influenced by modern soundtracks, but it’s markedly more complex than most.  “4” is particularly grand and epic in scope, with dramatic horns and quick strings shifting into a piano melody backed by IDM bass and an offbeat drum track, before vocal samples appear and the grandness returns.  Middle Eastern elements make a sudden appearance on “15,” via a tribal beat and a lamenting vocal sample.  It’s moments like this where Megrim is most effective, but it doesn’t remain completely consistent.

With such a scattered approach, it’s not surprising that Megrim wanders aimlessly in places, its disparate pieces struggling to fit.  “16” struggles to integrate its sharp break-heavy glitchy percussion with the orchestral themes and piano; it’s an experiment that doesn’t work particularly well.  The pitched strings and IDM sequencing of “18” also fails to merge completely, even more so when the techno stabs appear.  For an album this experimental and ambitious, such missteps are more easily forgiven, but sometimes it appears Kahl is trying a bit too hard to shove bits together when they’re at odds with each other.

And yet, when Megrim works, it glows with an odd light that’s really quite unique.  The ghostly reverbed howls and hip-hop drums/voice breaks of “6” somehow move in harmony, and the strings add a layer that changes the entire identity.  “2” is wonderfully ambient, with wandering keys, choirs, and the sounds of the sea all flowing as one; it’s a shame the track isn’t even three minutes long.  Likewise for “3”, with its sparse string plucks and looped bass drone intro that moves into full synthetic orchestral territory until light percussion holds it together; it’s here where Kahl’s musical theme is first revealed.

If there’s ever been a soundtrack for a nonexistent film, it’s Megrim.  It’s a bit too adventurous for its own good, and it’s not entirely consistent, but for an adventure in electronic experimentation that moves around a realized central core, Kattoo’s second release is quirked-out fuel for the imagination.

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Herbst9 – Usumgal Kalamma

Loki Foundation (LOKI 56), 2011

Prepare yourself for a heavy slab of Mesopotamian mysticism, courtesy of Frank Merten and Henry Emich, the duo known as Herbst9 (they also record as Land:Fire, a militaristic dark ambient project).  Since 1999, the duo has released six albums of dark ambient with an ancient Middle Eastern mythological bent, and Usumgal Kalamma (translated as “Dragon of the Land”) is a two-disc odyssey running almost two hours.  That’s longer than most movies these days, and I’d bet this experience is more involving and creative than what you can typically find at your local multiplex.

Herbst9 has had plenty of time to refine their formula, and Usumgal Kalamma sees it reach a new pinnacle.  A step beyond 2008’s excellent The Gods Are Small Birds, But I Am The Falcon, this sprawling masterpiece takes the duo’s trademark sound and steeps it in additional layers of traditional instrumentation and experimentation.  What makes Usumgal Kalamma truly come alive is the increased presence of elements such as bells, chimes, harps, drums, wooden clatters and clanks, and strings; these have always been part of the Herbst9 experience, but now, a perfect balance has been achieved between them and the bold, dramatic electronics and extensive sampled chants that have defined Herbst9 since its inception.

I hear a lot of similarities between Herbst9 and This Morn’ Omina.  Both projects are inspired by ritualistic mysticism, but where TMO wraps their sound in EBM structures, Herbst9 walks the path of dark ambient.  This Morn’ Omina is physically charged and viscerally cathartic – sometimes wildly so – while Herbst9 is contemplative, brooding, and majestic.  Herbst9 is one of the more cinematic dark ambient artists, foregoing the expansive feel of its contemporaries for a more focused identity, and maintains a futuristic feel despite its ancient theme.

Emich and Merten often utilize a deeply blaring drone at the root of their compositions, and shift between simple chord changes as the track progresses.  When this element is present, as on tracks such as “Napissunu Mutumma,” “Eriskegal, Rise From your Throne,” and “Ludlul bel Nemeqi,” it’s business as usual for the duo.  The filtered voices swirl about the drone like ghosts, accompanied by throbbing percussion and synthetic loops and layers.  What’s different now is the increased use of strings, harps, and piano, which impart new beauty, depth, and drama to what was already a highly effective foundation.  Witness the incredibly evocative opening of “Napissunu Mutumma”: a flowing melody of plucked strings that can’t help but wind back the clock and drop you into a dusty stone temple with high ceilings, bubbling fountains, and veiled figures.  As the fifteen-minute track progresses, Herbst9 drowns the strings in drone, only to bring it back again once it’s been forgotten.

The first disc is high-level stuff on its own right, but it’s disc 2 that lifts the album to brilliant heights.  Here, Merten and Emich shed their comfortable skins, moving into new territory with remarkable confidence.  “Kima Suskalli Ukattimanni Sittu” begins with a haunting piano and spaced drums, over which hovers looped drones – there’s just a shadow of the trademark blare – and the voice of a muttering ghost.  Chimes and bells wander here and there, and the piano is always near.  “The Sage Lord Asimbabbar” is completely unexpected, with the dark ambiance dropping away almost completely in favor of meandering sitar-like strings and tinkling chimes; this is awe-inspiring heraldry announcing the presence of one both glorious and learned.  Floating synths and snippets of distorted samples drift at the edges, but the track maintains its incredibly powerful atmosphere from the first chime until the last.  “Ningirsu Usumgal” and “Mutum Kima Imbari Izannun Elisun” shift back into the shadows, but with practiced regality.  By the time “The Great Child of Suen” closes this magnificent epic with a looped string sequence that eventually blooms into the welcome Herbst9 chord-shifting drone and slow-paced percussion, it’s with regret that I depart the conjured time and space…..but it’s there to welcome me back.

I liked Herbst9 plenty before Usumgal Kalamma, but this album has moved the project higher on my list by more than a couple notches.  It’s not typical dark ambient, but that’s what gives it power: it uses the dark ambient platform and adds details and elements in surrealistic and creative fashion.  It’s dark, but not evilly so; its darkness is born from mystery, and the sound design and attention to detail radiate care and craft.  It doesn’t rely on drowning the listener in waves of bleakness and distortion, or layers of technical complexity, but uses its technology and tradition to create an aura of unique aesthetics that engage the heart, mind, and ears on equal levels.  Usumgal Kalamma is Herbst9’s finest hour.  Emich and Merten have moved beyond their dark ambient roots into a place and time all their own.

Flint Glass – Hierakonpolis

Brume Records (BRUME 03), 2002 / Funkwelten Records (FW 005), 2003

Gwenn Tremorin, the man behind the dark electronic instrumental project Flint Glass and the French label Brume Records, is the most talented producer of electronic music I’ve ever heard.  The sounds he comes up with are unlike anything else; I don’t know where this guy gets his stuff from.  It’s as if he’s drawing these bits of sonic bizarreness out of the air and experimenting with them however he sees fit.  The most admirable thing about Tremorin’s innovative productive talents is despite the wide range of creativity on display, his music always sounds like Flint Glass.

Hierakonpolis, Flint Glass’ debut, was released on Brume in 2002 with several remixes, then re-released in 2003 on Germany’s Funkwelten Records with the Dashur EP added in place of the mixes.  Tremorin has often stated that the work of horror author H.P. Lovecraft is a primary inspiration for his music (Flint Glass’ 2006 album was titled Nyarlathotep, and was full of tracks titled for Lovecraftiana), and his music is certainly reflective of Lovecraft’s cloying and amorphous atmosphere.  Flint Glass is formless and difficult to describe, but undeniably powerful; like Lovecraft’s writing, the music gets under your skin and leaves a lasting impression that sticks with you long after you remove your headphones….but it’s strangely detaching, like a half-remembered dream that vanishes upon waking, imparting only a vague but visceral echo.

From the dramatic looped echo and empowering distorted buzz of the title track, to the open spaces and baffling aquatics of “Heliotrop” and the muffled tribal pummeling of “Amenemhat,” and the amount of innovation on Hierankopolis is almost overwhelming.  There’s typically enough rhythm to head-nod (or even dance) to Flint Glass, but the tempo is off-kilter enough to produce a serious challenge.  On the other hand, Tremorin’s ambient sense is extremely keen; it’s deep, dark, and skewed enough to warrant description as the aural equivalent of Lovecraft.  Try on the warped metallic clangor of “Dust Particles,” the bent air of “Throw About,” the sand-choked “Middle Kingdom”, or the various short interlude pieces separating the longer tracks.  Tremorin is indeed a mad scientist of his trade; the best way to describe his music is rhythmical dark ambient, but even that doesn’t tell the whole tale.

My personal choice between the two versions is the Funkwelten release; the Dashur material outdoes the remixes on the Brume original.  Dashur provides a smooth transition, resulting in a 17-track album that’s really an extended Hierankopolis.  The vocal samples of “Al Hasard (Live)” segue smoothly into buzzing percussion and looming ambiance, while “Closer” and “Philae” both contain more strange percussion backed by backing waves and swaths.

Taken on a certain level, the music of Flint Glass is particularly schizophrenic and meandering, and resides within a very limited range of focus despite the range of styles on display.  I should point out it’s less music and more a collection of experimental sounds held together by a common elements; the actual chord progression is either minimal, or completely nonexistent.  Fortunately for Tremorin, the mood remains consistent; Hierakonpolis does have a certain flow and cohesion to it, but it comes from the overarching sound design rather than any narrative quality or sense of progression.  If you took all if Flint Glass’ work – album tracks, remixes, compilation tracks – and mashed them all into one big pile, then chose ten randomly, you’d likely have a listening experience very similar to any other random group.  Listened to attentively for extended periods, the music tends to blur together into one slickly produced mass of sound.

Not surprisingly for a man of his talents, Tremorin is a contributor and a collaborator to many dark electronic projects, most notably the Aztec-influenced project Tzolk’in where he teams with This Morn’ Omina member Nicolas Van Meirhaeghe.  Flint Glass is also an accomplished remixer; many of his best remixes have been released together as an album, titled Circumsounds.  I get the sense Tremorin works very well with the right people; his chaotic foundations are arguably more effective if given additional structure in collaborative projects, or if he applies his unique sense to preexisting material as a remixer.  What Tremorin may lack in direction and songwriting for his own work, he more than makes up for with pure style and awe-inspiring technique.

Sinke Dus – Akrasia

Cyclic Law (19th Cycle), 2007

My dictionary (I still have a bound one, in fact) defines “akrasia” as “failure of command over oneself.”  A sobering idea to contemplate.  I suppose it’s humanity’s nature to destroy itself, despite a wealth of evidence that may suggest otherwise.  To think one way but act the opposite appears to be an innate part of living, knowing that you’ll defy even your own best intentions for reasons that you may never be aware of.

Marcus Lonebrink seems to agree.  Akrasia is his first release (and to date, his only) as Sinke Dus; a project that I misread as “sinked us” the first time I saw it.  It’s a fitting title for dark ambient, which often delves into the inner workings of the mind in a somber, reflective, isolationist manner.  The seven tracks all follow a melancholic path, but there’s a definite feeling of acceptance, as if Lonebrink is saying that we shouldn’t struggle against the tendency to be our own worst enemies.  Perhaps he’s saying it’s a part of the natural order of things, and to resist it is to resist ourselves on a profound level.

It’s something worth pondering, and the music provides an appropriate atmosphere for it.  I ought to point out that Akrasia isn’t what you might think of as typical dark ambient; most of it is straightforward keyboard work following the extended chords that often serve as the foundation of the genre, but Lonebrink has made it foundation and structure.  The distorted swaths of pseudo-noise are passengers, almost afterthoughts, and as a result, Akrasia owes as much to 21st-century dark ambient as it does to 1990s-era Tangerine Dream.  For example, “The Premonition” sounds distinctly like “When It’s Over” from TD’s soundtrack to Miracle Mile.  This isn’t intended to be a criticism in the slightest, but rather an indication that Sinke Dus’ album is less dark noise and more melodic synthwork.  Think Tangerine Dream (I’m a big fan of their soundtracks, by the way) mixed with the mood of early raison d’etre and a heavy dose of Kammarheit, and you’re on your way to Akrasia.

It’s really a simple album, all things considered.  The tracks vary in content, but the theme is the same.  “Acedia” pitches up the tones, “Remnants” increases the noise, and the companion pieces “That Which Was Lost” and “That Which Lies Beyond” are even more reminiscent of soundtrack work than the rest (“Beyond” is a measure darker).  There’s small flutters and scratches here and there, but the focus is on the grand, stirring chords of Lonebrink’s keys and pads (which sound exactly like keys and pads, by the way).  “Fortitude” is the most dramatic track on the album, with the noise brought to equal footing with the slowly evolving chords; it’s easy to slide into introspection with such an effective catalyst.

The lone exception to the mold is “The Abyss,” which is the darkest and most ambient part of Akrasia.  Viscerally sparse, its spaces yawn with a master’s touch, enhanced by a looped bell that once again recalls Peter Andersson’s influential early work.  The synths wander more freely here, not following a set path of transition, and the electronic whispers, scuttles, and tones are arranged carefully and delicately, moving the track into the dim and magical territory between noise and music.  I wish Lonebrink descended a bit more into these places; this is the track I recall most strongly, and it’s a real shame that it’s also the shortest on the album.  “Remnants” comes closest to matching the feel, but even that swerves too close to Kammarheit’s established identity; “The Abyss” is Lonebrink’s own.

Akrasia is something of a lost album.  While it aims to portray man’s internal struggle in admirable fashion, the music itself seems searching for its own voice.  I get the feeling that Lonebrink was still learning when recording this album – the influences are so strongly present, they tend to drown his originality – and the recent compilation track “Dawnchasm” carries signs that he’s finding himself.  Is Akrasia good?  Yes, it is.  But it’s a bit of a hybrid, “The Abyss” aside; the focus on display has been done, and done better.  Hopefully Lonebrink can continue building on his promise, for he’s right on the edge.

Phaenon – His Master’s Voice

Malignant Records (TumorCD 45), 2010

One of the foundations of the work of science fiction author Stanislaw Lem is that if humanity ever did come in contact with extraterrestrial life, it would be so incredibly alien that it might not seem like life to us at all.  Our idea of intelligence, Lem thought, was just one idea of many; we could have proof of intelligent extraterrestrial life right in front of us, but if it didn’t fit our preconceived idea of what intelligence is, we would consider it meaningless.

Lem’s 1968 novel His Master’s Voice speculates on how this may play out.  A group of scientists discover an ancient interstellar transmission that is undoubtedly the product of inhuman intelligence, but due to the group’s efforts to decipher the message using their narrowly focused scientific method and close-minded philosophy, all efforts at decoding it fail utterly.  The fault, Lem seems to state, lies not in the complexity of the message, but in humanity’s failure to think beyond itself.

This is the tale for which Phaenon’s second album is named.  Szymon Tankiewicz has used this philosophical struggle of imagination and attempted to create a dark ambient album reflecting the message, the messengers, and the wider implication of humanity’s place in the cosmos.  A lofty goal indeed.  (The album also features some truly stunning, truly odd artwork courtesy of Eric Lacombe.)

Where Phaenon’s 2007 debut album, Submerged, was one single track recorded in one take, His Master’s Voice takes a slightly different approach.  Its four lengthy tracks contain drifting passages of synthetics, but Tankiewicz has expanded the variety and increased the complexity.  In some ways, the album follows a narrative path much like’s Lem’s novel.  The first track, “His Master’s Voice – Part 1 (Neutrino Radiation)” seeming to portray man’s scanning of the heavens for something beyond himself.  It’s panoramic and involving, with Tankiewicz’s talent of creating unique sounds on full display.  It’s certainly dark ambient – the mood is too strange and introspective to be anything else – but the feel is much different from most albums of its ilk; Phaenon never revels in its shadows.  At the risk of sounding pretentious, Phaenon’s darkness seems almost sentient; it somehow manages to sound like nothing else, both in its execution and its arrangement.  There are no familiar noises, no voice samples, nothing that really sounds like synthesizers, keyboards, or sequencers; it’s all one constantly moving collage of hypnotic bizarreness.

The crazy thing, too, is it’s still music.  “Dark Energy (Silentum Universi)” is beautifully haunting; here Tankiewicz is showing us the wonders of the infinite cosmos, in all their unknowable awe.  It’s a track full of emptiness, fringed by delicate flows and passes that guide us through unimaginable vistas.  This is dark ambient at its potential: to take you to places you’ll never visit.  Its darkness comes from how it humbles, and how it communicates that the unknown can be starkly beautiful.  It’s music without notes.

I think of “Soul Virus (Interstellar Semantics)” as the audio version of the indecipherable transmission of Lem’s novel.  It’s noisy and brash, with a harsh-edged tone that unfurls and retracts in a manner that seems to follow some sense and order…..but like Lem’s scientists, we can’t figure it out the logic.  All we can do is listen and consider the implications.  This is why Phaenon’s work isn’t just random noise; it has purpose and direction.  Tankiewicz is trying to tell us something, but it’s up to us to figure it out.  Submerged did the same thing, but there’s more definition in His Master’s Voice, not to mention more depth.

Perhaps the most emotional part of the album is the final track, “His Master’s Voice – Part 2 (Ignoramus).”  The meaning here seems clear to me: humanity is limited by its own refusal to look beyond itself.  It’s missing the big picture, so to speak.  The tones here are louder and shriller; a wakeup call that soon segues into dramatic keys that certainly seem to show us just how small we are in the universal scheme of things.  There’s much to be seen – a universe’s worth – if we’d only look.

In my opinion, Phaenon is one of the most interesting and unique dark ambient projects we currently have.  Tankiewicz is able to tap into a primal part of our brains, making noise that isn’t noise, and music that isn’t music; engaging our perception and our minds.  If there’s such a thing as intelligent dark ambient, Phaenon is at the head of the class.  Like the message in Lem’s tale, His Master’s Voice is complex, otherworldly, and baffling, but there’s clearly something tantalizing moving beneath the high-detail surface.  Fortunately for us, the nature of the buried truth isn’t the point; our job is to marvel, to wonder, and to imagine.

There’s a quote from Lem’s novel in the CD’s digipak:  “Any object, the simplest object, contains, potentially, an infinite amount of information.”

How true.

Innfallen – Three Days of Darkness

First Fallen Star (ffs004), 2009

The apocalypse is nothing new for dark ambient.  For a musical style that thrives on imminent downfall in all its myriad forms, The End is familiar territory.  How dark ambient artists approach their apocalyptic themes, now, lies the thrill of the listening experience….for those inclined to explore.  Many albums take a subtle and creative route to examine their various means and methods of portraying The End that will eventually claim us all; you could make a convincing argument that dark ambient as a whole is largely concerned with expressing the anxiety of knowing that our time is finite.

Then there are albums that approach this all-encompassing theme with stark directness.  One of the most blatantly apocalyptic albums I’ve heard is Three Days of Darkness by the duo known as Innfallen.  Doyle Finley (aka Invercauld) and Kevin Scala use Catholic doctrine as their inspiration.  The “Three Days of Darkness” is a prophecy stating that the powers of Hell will have two days to wreak havoc among the living, but on the third night, the darkness will lift and the scattered survivors will remain to behold the aftermath of God’s ultimate judgment.

It’s grim stuff, to be sure.  It’s somewhat enhanced by the (very attractive) A5-format digipak decorated with classic artwork such as Ryder’s “The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse)” and Fussli’s equally famous “Nachtmahr.”  What’s interesting, however, is the path the music takes; despite the album’s ominous title, things are not quite as foreboding and nihilistic as they might appear.

The music itself, for the most part, is standard dark ambient fare:  extensive brooding chords, haunting creaking, scattered whispers, fearsome passes, reversed tones, etc.  “Prologue (Inner Locutions)” has some nice touches, such as unfiltered bells and rhythmic pulses, but things are unrelentingly bleak, which makes sense, given the source.  It isn’t until the latter half of the ten-minute “Day Two (Gnashing of Teeth)” that things get really interesting, with lamenting voices and wailing punctuating what is supposed to be widespread demonic indulgence.  This added detail gives the familiar sound much-needed focus and character; I wish we’d heard more of this before this point.  If the denizens of Hell have been unleashed upon the land, I bet it would sound much different than the tones and washes I’ve heard in many other dark ambient releases.  Give me a chorus of souls crying out, from horizon to horizon; flames and smoke; the fear-evoking presence of the Hellbound – that’s what a Catholic apocalypse ought to sound like.

From there, however, things take a turn.  The instant “Day Three (Closing the Well)” begins, the tone has clearly shifted.  Things are no longer dark, but dim, and my interest is piqued: there’s definite narrative structure here.  The atmosphere has expanded, and the mood carries, dare I say it, a glimmer of hope.  Of course it does, given the prophecy.  The following track, “Light Returns,” is, obviously, even brighter, with the chords becoming more prominent and warmer.  This is, ironically, the most effective track on Three Days of Darkness; it feels more natural and less forced; Finley and Scala don’t seem to be trying so hard to lacquer on the blackness as thickly as they possibly can.  It’s still dark ambient, mind you, but it’s handled in a more delicate and aesthetic fashion.

But this newfound aura doesn’t last.  We’re soon sliding back into the abyss for “Epilogue (Scattered Remains),” a highly cinematic piece that can’t help but conjure images of a smoking ruined city, its streets choked with charred corpses.  It’s a little strange that the album returns to the pit from whence it emerged, especially after the shadows were momentarily lifted, and the buried “demonic” laughter doesn’t help (in fact, it’s dangerously close to cheesiness).  By the time the track ends, we’re back where we started, with claustrophobia and hopelessness dominating the scene.  It’s as if Finley and Scala wanted to make darn sure this was dark ambient.  “New Dawn” finishes the album with classic electro keys fringed by the ever-present bed of doom and gloom; the Days are over, but all is chaos and loss.

The concept of Three Days of Darkness doesn’t quite match its execution.  It’s frustratingly close to being a narrative powerhouse, but it can’t quite seem to slip the shackles provided by the producers.  I can’t shake the thought that if Innfallen hadn’t been so bent on making a dark ambient album, they might have really had something remarkable; it sticks so close to genre convention that it ends up failing to separate itself.  Three Days of Darkness certainly has its effective moments, especially when displacing  the shadows, but each time I listen to this album, I find myself wishing it had approached its theme with more creativity and flexibility.

Thermidor – 1929

Thisco Records (Thisk.46) / Brume Records (BRUME 17), 2007

Thermidor’s debut album, 1929, is full of creative quirk even before you play it.  In yet another example of why physical media still trumps digital for me, the album is housed in a slimline DVD case chock full of cool extra stuff.  The CD itself looks like a 45 rpm record.  There’s a booklet, two stickers, and a fake newspaper (the “Kingsport Clarion”) containing delightful fictional articles on Nikola Tesla, a lost Atlantic Ocean survey team, and a review of a live performance by a strange band called Thermidor whose shows cause ‘indignation and are plagued by [a] string of strange occurrences.’  There are even “fake” ads for real-life labels Brume Records (as “Brume Phonograph Recordings”), Thisco Records, and celebrated underground webzine Connexion Bizarre (here described as a “unique and indispensable resource on electrical aural stimulation”).  The whole thing smacks strongly of steampunk (sole band member Jorge Oliveira himself is depicted in period dress, complete with bowler hat and gas mask) and H.P. Lovecraft, and it’s all wonderfully tongue-in-cheek and self-referential; a nice change from the typical somber and serious personality projected by many dark ambient artists.

Oliveira’s actual music as Thermidor features the same creativity, but it’s far from silly.  He throws all kinds of sonic ingredients into the mix:  opera singers, string quartets, music boxes, space-mission voice samples, medieval chants, radio feedback, crickets, touch-tone phones, fax machines….it’s unusual, even for the genre, but it all comes together to produce a dark ambient album that’s one of the most intriguing and off-beat I’ve heard to date.  These sampled elements are woven together with drones, dramatic washes, and melancholic keys that keep things darkly grounded, but you never really know what Oliveira’s going to throw at you next.

The guy’s a talented songwriter, too.  There are twinkling bits of melody strewn throughout 1929, like bright jewels hidden on a black-sand beach, showing themselves briefly before darting beneath the drifting ambiance.  When the music becomes the focus, such as the empowering chords of “Plenum Aquae,” the intertwined synths hidden in “Oceanus,” or the whimsical lullaby-tune of “Sub Levare,” it’s apparent that the album bears the mark of a talented musician as well as a clever producer.

Nor are Oliveira’s dark ambient skills to be dismissed.  “Plenum Aquae,” “Ecclesiastes” and “Oceanus” – the longest tracks on 1929 – feature long passages of masterfully executed dark atmospherics.  Strange tones rise and fall, studded by the quirky flotsam floating throughout the album’s mix.  It’s as effective as any of the best established genre masters, but the difference with Thermidor is there’s more to the experience than just extended drones and encroaching darkness.

Beyond the six tracks proper, there are two excellent remixes by Empusae and Flint Glass, both of which add thunderous tribal percussion to Oliveira’s floating backdrops; these are two of the best remixers that dark electronic music has to offer, and neither disappoint.  Add an included data track containing a promotional video produced by Oliveira, and 1929 provides a hefty amount of quality content.

Some might not call 1929 “pure” dark ambient, and they’re right.  It’s still primarily a genre work, but the overall feel is quite removed from the genre’s established heavyweights.  Nonetheless, 1929 provides a quality listening experience that’s really unlike anything else I’ve heard in the genre.  I, for one, welcome Oliveira’s unconventional approach.  All of the supporting material, together with Thermidor’s slanted and experimental take on the genre, serves only to enhance the experience.  It’s not often when I can describe a dark ambient album as unique, but that term definitely applies to 1929.  Heartily recommended for those seeking a bit of bizarre with their darkness!