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.

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