Hall of Mirrors – Altered Nights

Malignant Records (TumorCD54), 2012

I confess: I had no idea what to expect from Altered Nights, which was a completely blind and impulsive acquisition on my part.  The third album from Andrea Marutti and Giuseppe Verticchio, dark ambient veterans who also record individually as Amon and Nimh, Altered Nights is an epic two-disc odyssey through swaths of drone that slide from the speakers with hypnotic and inexorable slowness, swelling and collapsing in an organic fashion, very much like the breathing of something vast and unseen.  It’s heady and harrowing stuff, and if you pay attention, there’s quite a lot of expertise to be heard, both technically and artistically.

Marutti and Verticchio are given able assistance by New Risen Throne, Vestigial, Subinterior, and Sil Muir, making Altered Nights something of an Italian dark ambient all-star collaboration.  All of the artists work together seamlessly, with shortwave radio feedback, garbled voices, treated guitar and violin drones, and heavy patient atmospherics merging to create quite a remarkable audio picture: Altered Nights is slow-motion dark regalia.  Just how (and why) these Nights have been Altered is not revealed; I love it when albums leave the details up to the listener’s imagination.

The first disc is four tracks in length, each named for one of four Nights:  “The Meeting,” “Invocation,” “Magmatic Response,” and “Immaterial Bodies.”  Nights 2 and 3 each hover around the twenty-minute mark, and it’s here where Hall of Mirrors’ brand of gradually evolving darkness is strongest: the extended running time really caters to this slow-burn style, creating plenty of space for the ever-shifting collage to explore, discover, and reveal itself. Altered Nights is not in a hurry; waves and tones emerge and dissipate so gradually, you aren’t always aware they exist until they’re going full tilt.  This is the type of drone I find most effective: one that toys with your conscious attention, dropping yourself in and out as it swirls and billows through your ears.  Guitar feedback dominates “The Meeting,” but it’s integrated with such skill into the electronic haze that it’s nearly indiscernible.  “Invocation” seems to feature a call-and-response exchange between sampled radio feedback and high-pitched tones that I’m guessing are sourced by treated violin.  After a commendable start, “Magmatic Response” ventures a bit too far into screeching, near death-industrial territory for my tastes, and the uncertain crackles and moans of “Immaterial Bodies” doesn’t evolve as well as the first two Nights, but the experimentation is a welcome change of pace.  Despite the shift in tone, the vision remains steadfast and uncompromising.

Speaking of change of pace, the second disc, titled “Last Night: Late Summer Ceremony,” is a single track of over forty-five minutes in length that delves even further into drawn-out sequences of squalling guitar; this is Hall of Mirrors at its harshest and its calmest.  It’s eleven minutes before the feedback really goes anywhere, but patience is rewarded by near-soothing warm chords hanging over a bed of gradually rising feedback.  Things dive into deep-tone darkness from there, and for a while, we drift peacefully through a massive chasm of sparsely occupied vastness, before the wall of feedback erupts once again.  Nothing is certain in this Night.  The track unfolds into a lengthy fade-out through varying shades of light static and long quiet chords, before ending with surprising grace, as the static slowly morphs into gentle rainfall and the drones glide easily and peacefully towards the coming dawn…a dawn that is imminent, but never actually arrives.

Altered Nights is a lot to process, especially in one go, but I found it fascinating from start to end.  Verticchio, Marutti, and all their guests have adeptly pooled their resources; this is the kind of collaboration that could have easily been awkward, muddled and uncertain, but Altered Nights is anything but tentative.  I was not expecting this kind of consistent quality and variety from Hall of Mirrors; nor did I expect this effective a sub/conscious drone experience.  It’s rare that I replay an album immediately upon finishing it (rarer still for a double album), but as Altered Nights ended, I wasn’t ready to leave its spaces.  That’s a sure sign of high-level dark ambient.  I’m duly impressed.

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