Gydja – Umbilicus Maris

Mystery Sea (MS36), 2007 / bandcamp

Umbilicus Maris makes one thing abundantly clear:  its muse is the ocean.  Recording under the name Gydja, Abby Helasdottir’s sixth album is a hymn to the beauty and mystery of the vital depths that drown our planet.  Translated as “the navel of the sea,” Umbilicus Maris also carries a powerful sense of the mystical; Gydja’s website describes her work as “dark music for dark goddesses.”  Considered from this perspective, Umbilicus Maris fulfills its concept with enviable ease; its mythical and ritualistic nature is obvious.

This is not a complex album.  Helasdottir certainly understands her machines, and has a clear grasp on how to create and capture mood and flow.  It feels wrong calling Umbilicus Maris simplistic, but neither is it minimal.  For example, “Beyond the Earth’s Edge” has a lot going on: a mid-level drone is punctuated by a constantly moving cloud of detail – voices, percussion, chimes, pipes, bells, and the ever-present sounds of water – but it is all part of the whole, and proceeds with such ease that it’s tempting to call it meandering….which it is, in spots.  I want to point out, too, that the album’s tone consistently falls between dark ambient and ambient; it’s too dark and strange for the New Age crowd, but the lighter tone and prevalent traditional elements may rub dark ambient purists the wrong way.  Helasdottir seems determined to float between genres, and, like the album in general, pulls it off with admirable grace.

“The wave, with red stain running” typifies this approach.  Its looped drone glides effortlessly over a bed of shimmering keys, but the aura here is haunting and full of regret; it’s a portrait of unrecognized majesty.  I get the strong sense that the sea here is injured and bleeding, but still regal and immensely powerful.  “Snakestone” is even more ominous, with its expansive spaces hiding an uncertain fate for the foolish and unprepared, but it seems to lose itself too quickly and too easily.  The wonderfully titled “A Siren stood hymning upon each circle” is my favorite track on Umbilicus Maris; its oddly organic bleats remind me instantly of the bizarre cries of Kammarheit’s surreal track “I Heard It Weeping In The Field.”  Gydja’s take on inhuman characterization isn’t as unnerving, however, but manages to be just as strange, and just as thrilling.  If you’re at all familiar with The Thing from Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels, Helasdottir has created its aquatic sister: savage, primal, childlike, and endlessly mysterious.

Bubbling and dripping dominate “Cold water flowing forth,” and it’s here where I start to pine for the majestic spaces visited earlier.  The tone and content are so similar to what’s come before, but without the same inspired creativity.  Gydja strays from the darkness here a bit too far for my taste, and the Asian string plucking expands this separation.  And although Umbilicus Maris runs around fifty minutes in length, it feels shorter.

It’s surprising to me that Gydja hasn’t appeared to sign with a label.  Helasdottir certainly has deserving skills.  Anyone who can write and produce music as engaging as “The wave, with red stain running” and “A Siren stood hymning upon each circle” is clearly a creative force to be reckoned with.  Umbilicus Maris wears its inspiration proudly, a mystic liquid badge of surreal honor.  Gydja is ambient that deserves more attention.

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