Moth Electret – Tocasen

Diophantine Discs (n=19), 2009

Tocasen, the second album from the experimental project Moth Electret, is described as follows on the artist’s website:  an ambient noise project focused on a fantasized byzantine bug culture netherworld.  That was enough to pique my interest alone, but when I found out that the artist behind Moth Electret was none other than Stig Berg, I needed to hear the album immediately.

For those who may not know him by name, Stig Berg is the man behind R|A|A|N, the dark ambient project that released The Nacrasti, which many consider one of the most overlooked and underrated dark ambient albums ever released.  Moth Electret is a side project of sorts for Berg, with three albums to date, all of which are less genre-oriented and more experimental than R|A|A|N, but it’s obvious that the two project share the same creative source.

Some ambient albums feature field recordings as part of their sonic palette, but some attempt to synthesize the field recording experience completely on their own.  Tocasen is such an album.  It sounds like the lost tapes of an explorer who stumbled upon the hidden insectoid realm, a singular recording discovered and available unfiltered; it’s the musical equivalent of a found-footage film.  The album, whose seven tracks flow seamlessly into one another like an uninterrupted dream, is full of buzzes, clicks, flickers, and flutters, all part of the whole, like a hive mind.  It’s hauntingly organic, moving and shifting as a single swarm; crystalline in its fragility and its complex beauty.  Holding this chittering ocean together like the finest of threads is a bed of delicate drones that are unmistakably R|A|A|N-like in feel and design.  If you listened to post-Nacrasti R|A|A|N compilation tracks – in particular “Account of the Salt-Plains Dancers 1936” and “Concubi” – the evolution seems natural; these tracks are very similar to Tocasen tracks such as “Neon Victoria” and “Moon Orfan.”  Moth Electret, however, has ramped up the strange and toned down the dark; it’s still a dark journey through the tunnels and chambers of the chitinous host, but mystery and wonder rule the day rather than bleak lightless depths.

“Anicia” is Tocasen’s crowning moment.  The sounds of multiple wings and jointed legs are everywhere, but there’s a strong sense of space and awe here.  I can’t help but imagine that this is the nest at the center of the hive, and the journey has ended in the presence of the queen of this half-lit insect kingdom.  The layers of noise gently rise and recede, reverentially and protectively, until the ten-minute mark, when the track shifts quite abruptly, phasing into four minutes of darkly beautiful keys with the swarm fading into the background.  It’s similar in narrative structure to Sleep_Research Facility’s masterpiece album Stealth, where the threads of noise gradually fade until only the core of the B-2 remains as the craft ascends.  On Tocasen, the host melts into the shadows and we’re left to witness the ruler of this kingdom in all her inhuman wisdom, winged grandeur, and clacking glory.

I find it strange that Moth Electret has gotten so little attention.  Perhaps it’s not dark enough for genre purists; its aura too alien and strange.  The differences are subtle, however; there’s more similarity between the projects than may be apparent.  In fact, the project’s first release, LiL, originally began as a R|A|A|N album before branching into something else entirely.  And that’s the crux here – Tocasen is something else, something other.  I hold Sleep_Research Facility in exceptionally high regard because of the way Kevin Doherty creates spaces that are both decidedly active and passive listening conceptual experiences.  With Tocasen, Moth Electret comes very, very close to achieving the same level.  R|A|A|N was not the end for Stig Berg.  Clearly, he still has much to give.


Ten Best Post-Industrial/EBM Albums

After making my Top Ten Dark Ambient list in October, I knew I had to make a list for my other longtime favorite genre: post-industrial EBM.  I’m choosing to define this genre as electronic music that has the dancefloor as its foundation, bowing at the twin altars of sequenced rhythms and synthetic percussion, with a bleeding sci-fi heart of darkness.  Born from the angst of punk and the clinical electronica of pioneering acts like Kraftwerk, the actual identity of this genre is still debated to this day.

What you’ll find here are my favorite albums from my days of clubbing, which imparted a love of this type of music that still endures.  I’m an album fan before I’m a fan of singles, so while many of the bands below have done better songs, these are what I consider to be their best complete albums.  These aren’t mere remnants of nostalgia, either; each of these albums are finely crafted examples of why I find the genre so compelling.

I’d like to say, too, that I thought long and hard about this list.  It wasn’t as easy as I initially thought.  There are seven or eight albums I omitted that barely missed the mark, and any of them would slot alongside these ten comfortably….but ultimately, they were left off for distinct reasons.

Without further delay, then:

10.  Heimataerde – Gotteskrieger (Infacted Recordings, 2005)

Here’s an example of how my album-based philosophy trumps individual songs.  Heimataerde is a hybrid conceptual project, blending modern EBM with traditional medieval instrumentation – most notably bagpipes and flutes – to tell the saga of the immortal Templar Ash, who roams Crusades-era Europe seeking undead soldiers for his own army.  Few bands have such a powerful identity and mythology, and the music here creates a unique and powerful aura that’s both modern and historical; this is not just amped-up dark dance music.  Listen to “Die Offenbarung” to get a taste of what makes Heimataerde great, but that’s just a small part of the project’s versatility and talent.

9.  Massiv in Mensch – Belastendes Material (Wire Productions, 2003)

Before MiM went full-on techno, they released Belastendes Material, one of the most energetic electronic dance albums ever made.  Beyond the mind-boggling programming expertise, they infused a healthy dose of light-heartedness, and even humor.  There’s a track called “Hans Gruber.”  They sample German polka.  The vocals are often purposefully overdone (“Strecket”) and move between filters with ease, with many tracks containing untreated female German vocals that are quite beautiful.  MiM isn’t afraid to be quirky, but they go about their strict EBM business with panache and confidence that’s nearly unrivaled.  This album is built to make you move, daring you to remain stationary.  The genre can be faulted for taking itself too seriously, but MiM is one very noted exception.  And “Offensivschock” is still one of the best dance tracks ever recorded.

8.  Negative Format – Cipher Method (Sector 9 Studios, 2003)

Yeah, so it’s trance-influenced.  Big freakin deal.  If there’s one thing Alex Matheu knows, it’s how to channel his cyberpunk muse to produce hyperactive EBM that manages to follow an almost chilled-out groove.  Cipher Method’s lyrics are culturally cynical and even technologically critical – the project is well-named – and shifts between warm, almost ambient keyboards to delicately dancing sequencing that sparkles like a full-powered circuit-board, all driven by head-nodding beats.  “Encryption” is the highlight in this tightly cohesive package, with minimal lyrics wrapped around some of the best sequencing there is.  If there’s ever been a relaxing industrial-dance record, this is it.

7.  The Retrosic – God of Hell (Tribune Records, 2004)

Evocative in a way similar to Heimataerde , The Retrosic reached strange heights with God of Hell.  Oddly organic in its sound design, the album is steampunk heaven, full of crunching energy, snarling vocals, and surprisingly strong songwriting.  Shifting from themes of war (“New World Order,” “Total War”) to introspective despair (“Tale of Woe”) to cinematic instrumentals (“Dragonfire,” “Sphere”) to female-voiced chants that recall Dead Can Dance (“Elysium”), the album retains a common thread from its cathartic beginning to its smoking burning conclusion.  And then there are “The Storm” and “Maneater,” two of the most visceral anthems to ever come from the post-industrial camp.  There’s a lot of so-called “terror EBM” out there, but none of it can hold a candle to this broken retro-future masterpiece.

6.  Headscan – Pattern Recognition (Alfa Matrix, 2005)

I’ve heard that Headscan are some of the best electronic music producers in existence, and when listening to their magnum opus, Pattern Recognition, it’s easy to understand why.  There’s a ton going on in every track, with reams of effects whizzing and whooshing past classic EBM cores.  It’s cold and clinical, but also completely enthralling.  Inspired by authors such as Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, Pattern Recognition is a dark ode to the joys of tech.  Moving from the downtempo ambiance of “Terra Incognita” to the invigorating “Permafrost” and the empowering “Lolife” with enviable deftness, all voiced by chanted lines of cyberpunk poetry, Pattern Recognition flows from track to track like a computer-generated sonnet.  This album, and this band, are both criminally underrated.

5.  Mentallo & the Fixer – Where Angels Fear To Tread (Zoth Ommog, 1994)

There was a time when Texas brothers Gary and Dwayne Dassing ruled the American electro underground scene.  Their debut, Revelations 23, was a triumph of twisted vocals and brutalized energy, but the follow-up, Where Angels Fear To Tread, is a gothic opera.  Exploding with inspired creativity at every turn, the album is one of the few here that isn’t always comfortable on the dancefloor; beyond the staple “Decomposed (Trampled),” you’d be hard-pressed to move to this album in general.  M&TF has never bowed to 4×4 convention, but Angels is still one of the best albums the genre has ever birthed.  Gary Dassing’s classically distorted vox (“Sacrilege”, “Bring to a Boil”) move out of their comfort zone; tracks like “Coward (Submerged)” and “Afterglow” unveil his snarls and croaks for their true self, while the synths soar, pulse, and shift through often-beautiful chords like a darkly tinted stained-glass window.  And the instrumentals – “Virtually Hopeless,” “Battered States of Euphoria” – are soul-stirring works of profound beauty.  Revelations 23 has its supporters, and it is a classic in its own right, but the craft and variety of the operatic Where Angels Fear To Tread is light-years beyond.

4.  Forma Tadre – Navigator (Off Beat, 1996)

Talk about underrated.  Andrea Meyer’s Forma Tadre project is the only one to make both my EBM and dark ambient lists, and with good reason: the guy is a hidden genius.  While Automate is majestically sparse dark ambient, Navigator is beautifully wrought EBM with a Lovecraftian soul.  Meyer is a musician before a programmer, and Navigator is overflowing with songwriting prowess.  The lovely-yet-unnerving opener “Navigator (Part One)” provides not just a glimpse for the ambient direction Meyer would eventually take, but announced Forma Tadre as post-industrial with a classical bent.  And you can dance to it.  After the awesomely provocative “FX on a Human Subject,” with its brilliant sequencing and plaintive whispers, we’re hit between the eyes by the twin salvos of “Plasmasleep” and “Date Unknown,” which take Meyer’s curious take on the genre straight to the dancefloor with staggering power and grace.  On one hand, it’s hard to grasp this is the same guy who would make Automate, but on a subtle level, it couldn’t be anyone else.  Add the grandeur of “Gates,” the floating “Mezoic Tree Ferns,” and the club hits “Looking Glass Men” and “Celebrate the Cult,” and you have one of the most enduring and timeless EBM albums on this planet, or any other.

3.  Nitzer Ebb – Belief  (Mute, 1988)

Nitzer Ebb is a prime example of the single-versus-album criteria I mentioned at the outset.  The band has made a handful of undeniable works of EBM classics – “Join in the Chant,” “Warsaw Ghetto,” “Getting Closer,” “Fun to be Had,” and even “Promises” – but their albums don’t match the sum of their parts….except for Belief.  It’s short, but consistent; even the slow-paced “T.W.A.” fits the mood established by “Hearts and Minds” and “For Fun.”  And it’s got its bits of dancefloor genius itself – the seething “Control I’m Here,” the brash and bellowing “Blood Money,” the chanting anthem “Shame” – among the off-tempo but still excellent “Captivate” and “Drive.”  Douglas McCarthy’s punk-inspired growls, barks, yells, and shouts are in fine form, and Bon Harris’ cool and measured programming belies the apparent basic structure.  I find Ebb’s career to be a series of peaks and valleys, but years down the road, Belief has seen the most full plays for me, by far.

2.  Front 242 – Official Version (RRE/Wax Trax! Records, 1987)

Front 242 electrified dancefloors around the world with its bristling, restless layers, hypnotic vocals, beguiling lyrics, and militaristic sensibility.  It was Kraftwerk, minus the quirk and adding aggression.  Renowned for classic tracks such as “Headhunter,” “Welcome to Paradise,” and “Tragedy >For You<“, the Belgian outfit forever cemented their place in history by coining the term Electronic Body Music.  While their lengthy discography is rife with songs of soaring excellence, it’s the rhythmic experimentation and slick finesse of Official Version that makes this album their masterpiece.  From the incredible energy and burgeoning creativity of “W.Y.H.I.W.Y.G.” and “Masterhit” to the deeply strange hymn-like slow-motion “Rerun Time” and “Slaughter,” the album is a testament to what makes 242 one of the most influential bands in the history of electronic music.  And the album did spawn a dancefloor hit of its own, “Quite Unusual,” which describes an apocalypse like no other.  Official Version is twenty-seven years old at this writing, but it still sounds light-years ahead of the current age.  I can’t imagine any further evidence for classic status.  Not many bands ever create a genre on their own.

1.  Front Line Assembly – Tactical Neural Implant (Third Mind Records, 1992)

It’s really a toss-up between TNI and Official Version for the top spot.  The only reason I give FLA’s epic masterpiece the edge was that for me, it came first.  Without Tactical Neural Implant, which I bought blind at Music Plus because I liked the cover art and title (I still have the cardboard long box), I would never have discovered or traveled the road of underground electronic music.  Did it change my life?  In retrospect, I guess it did.  I was always drawn to the synthpop of the 80s, but I didn’t know I craved more of an edge until I slotted Bill Leeb and Rhys Fulber’s electronic bible.  Two minutes into “The Final Impact,” with its die-hard sci-fi aura, looped bass line, filtered vocals, and slickly produced layers, and I turned my back on mainstream music forever.  Thing is, years later, TNI is still as impressive now as it was then.  “The Blade” has one of the best bass synths you’ll ever hear.  “Mindphaser” is what I play for people who have never heard of industrial music.  “Remorse” is dark introspection.  “Bio-Mechanic” fits its Giger muse perfectly.  “Outcast” is still one of the best anthems FLA has ever made (and they’re still going strong as of this writing).  The midway tempo shift of “Gun” gives me the same thrill hundreds of listens later.  “Lifeline” is a sparse glittering hymn lost in the distant reaches of the matrix.  Fault the band for its shaky lyrics and vocals if you must, but they never fit together better than they did here.  Caustic Grip is phenomenal in its own right (so is Gashed Senses and Crossfire), but with Tactical Neural Implant, Front Line Assembly released an album so full of refined excellence and lasting power, most bands don’t come close to such a level over their entire cumulative careers.

Tor Lundvall – Yule

Strange Fortune (SF4), 2006

Painter and musician Tor Lundvall turns his thematic talents to the holidays on Yule, an album which examines the tradition of Christmas from a decidedly off-kilter urban perspective.  Lundvall has a keen eye and a keen ear, and through his trademark “ghost ambient” style of music, imparts his unique edge to a cultural holiday phenomenon that has a unique feel throughout the world.  Yule is unfamiliar, however, in a way that only Tor Lundvall can produce.

Lundvall’s albums often lean heavily upon theme; the source of his inspiration is rarely in question.  What makes his music particularly compelling is the strength of his vision and how effectively he gives it voice, while giving us vague yet appropriate vestiges of connection to the central concept.  “Busy Station,” for example, is not a light-hearted, artificially optimistic portrait of the holiday bustle, but carries an edge of uncertainty so common to Lundvall’s work.  A single looped keyboard chord is surrounded by light noise passes and measured tapping, with a high-pitched whistle wandering to and fro.  It’s oddly calming and deeply alienating at the same time, as if the person in the station is simultaneously part of the crowd and utterly alone.  “The Train Home” increases the tension minutely, with its mysterious chords, strange distant noises, chimes, and metronome beat.  It’s as if the train-traveler isn’t particularly thrilled about the journey, but knows it must happen, and in the back of his/her mind, perhaps it will all turn out just fine eventually…..perhaps.  The anticipation is heavy despite the minimal structure; this is familiar territory for Lundvall, and it’s clear he’s been honing his craft over his many releases.

The tone shifts on “Christmas Eve,” a song fraught with tremulous magic, as delicate and captivating as a snowflake.  Faint noise structures resolve into a rhythm, juxtaposing with a music-box melody and Lundvall’s plaintive vocals telling of a lonely girl at night alone in the glowing lights of her room.  It’s starkly vivid and surprisingly poignant; this is one of Lundvall’s best songs to date.  The holidays aren’t always about the joy of family; sometimes it’s moments of isolation that provide the strongest memories.

“12:00 AM” loops jingle bells, but with fringes of noise leaking at the edges; it’s the moment of Santa Claus’ arrival, yes, but it’s also the dead of night.  “Snowy Morning” reduces the unease a bit, with looped flutes and warm keys that contain the soft reflected light of new sun playing on the face of flawless snowbanks.

“Yule Song” is another triumphant vocal piece, with Lundvall’s high voice drifting among guitar chords and the strange near-organic cries that often appear in his music.  It’s calming, but the peace is an alien one.  “Fading Light” belies its title with uplifting wordless song and soothing bells; it’s a celebration of approaching darkness, or perhaps a fond farewell to the beauty of the day.  The slow light keys and lonely lyrics of “January” poetically describe the details of a city of rain-soaked melting snow, and “White on Grey” is full of sampled static and distant effects; it’s reminiscent of Lundvall’s album Empty City, but here, the focus is on a quiet city buried in snowdrifts, to the point that electricity has begun to malfunction.

All of these tracks are less than four minutes in length, but Lundvall has a surprise in store with “The Falling Snow (Full Length Version),” a twenty-minute track that showcases his ambient talents with panoramic excellence.  One of, if not the, longest track Lundvall has ever released, “The Falling Snow” allows his minimal style to unfold unhurriedly, and the results are stunning indeed.  I’d always wondered what Tor Lundvall could do if given some elbow room, and he’s got more than enough space to roam here.  Centered around a low repeating wind-loop, Lundvall experiments with distant chords, whistles, crackles, chimes, echoes, wisps of melody; all of it emerging from and fading into the gently drifting flakes like the wandering specters that have populated Lundvall’s music since his first release.  “The Falling Snow” is both beautiful and haunting, grounded and floating, but remains between the two extremes, each bleeding into the other with delicate grace until there’s little (if any) distinction.  Lundvall may never release an album in this vein, but perhaps he doesn’t need to; this track is as carefully executed and perfectly balanced as any ambient piece I’ve ever heard.

Tor Lundvall is something of a hidden genius.  His music consistently dwells in its own places, comfortably between genres, and always recognizable.  He doesn’t bash us over the head with technical trickery or dr0wn us in pretension.  What he gives us is a glimpse into the world as he sees it –  comfortable yet oh-so-slightly unsettling – and in doing so, lets us ponder the nature of everyday things, and urges us to wonder what might lie just beyond our perception.  There are things behind things; even something as sacred as Christmas has buried secrets.  Yule is a holiday album, but it is not an album of too-bright lights, superficial cheer, tired cliche, and crowded gatherings; it’s a holiday of glimpsed dreams and hidden shades, invisible in plain sight.

Robert Rich & B. Lustmord – Stalker

Fathom Records (HS11059-2), 1995

Two ambient legends collaborate on Stalker, widely considered a dark ambient triumph.  The prolific Robert Rich and the pioneering Brian Williams (aka Lustmord) combine their considerable resources and talents to create a bleak, multi-layered, profoundly beautiful album named for and inspired by Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 avant-garde film. Considering its age – almost twenty years old at the time of this writing – Stalker has held up quite well, and still provides a unique listening experience that has, on its own merit, inspired and influenced the genre like few albums have.

Using a template adapted by many since its release, Stalker is composed of Rich’s flowing, looming, grandiose synth chords mixed with Williams’ trademark uniquely sourced and manipulated sound samples.  The water-drops and distant voices of “Synergistic Perceptions” are a perfect complement to the eerie drones, and the disturbingly organic vocalizations that Williams is so adept at creating impart a sinister and alien air.  Rich acts as anchor, with his carefully placed keyboards keeping the darkness at bay, barely, just beyond the deep crackings and boomings conjured by Williams.

“Hidden Refuge” is where the ambiance is purest and strongest, beginning with strange insectoid chattering among Rich’s minimal chords.  The keys soon fade away, and we’re drowned by a sea of white-noise churning while a haunting voice sample loops disturbingly in the background.  I’ve always found Williams’ work far too theatrical, but Rich’s presence enhances the powerful oddness of his sonic manipulations.  Stalker  is easily my favorite of Lustmord’s many releases, and this track is my favorite on the album.  It gets under your skin while freeing your consciousness to wander through its conjured desolation, and does so in a highly effective and immersive manner.  The blares that finish the track serve as a portent to what lies beyond these intricate places, and expand the space from claustrophobic to sprawling.  This is a clinic on how to create effective ambient music, through a glass darkly twisted.

For all its reputation and excellence, however, I find Stalker to be an album I admire for its widespread influence and technical prowess rather than listening experience it provides.  For me, Stalker is a collection of experimental sounds – admittedly jaw-dropping – rather than a cohesive album.  There’s no arguing that Williams is a genius sound designer, but his work has always kept me at a distance, never allowing me to experience his darkness fully.

Stalker’s experimentation also goes a bit too far.  The warped sequencing and processed voices of “Delusion Fields” have always been jarring for me, and Rich’s flutes, both here and on “Omnipresent Boundary,” have always struggled against the distorted waves and distant bleats.  It breaks the spell for me, which is a cardinal sin for a genre that leans so heavily on mood.  “A Point of No Return” sees the re-emergence of high-pitched keyboards and wafting spheres and slivers of crafted sound, but the peak of the journey has been reached and surpassed.

As the prime example of Dark Ambient 101, Stalker has no peers.  The technical skill on display is stunning, its potency undiminished after nearly two decades.  For my ears, however, the magnum opus of these twin giants of ambient music lacks the aesthetic edge honed by those they influenced.  There is no doubt whatsoever that Stalker is an essential and landmark album of not just dark ambient, but electronic music as a whole, but in spite of how much I respect it, its appeal for me – “Hidden Refuge” aside – is almost purely historical.  I respect Stalker far more than I like it.

Frontier Guards – Predestination

Aliens Production (AP 18), 2008

I find Aliens Production to be a fascinating label. Based in Slovakia, its releases are often staunchly old-school in philosophy, but with modern influences. More often than not, this hybrid approach results in a unique electronic sound, and one that I consider quite appealing. Not all of AP’s discography is successful on the same level, but when the label’s formula really works, the results are definitely notable.

One such release is Predestination, the first album by the duo Frontier Guards. Composed of Martin Pavlik and Tom Galle, both late of the latent EBM project H.E.E.L., Frontier Guards’ debut is an attempt to marry 80s-era EBM with 21st-century IDM. The album is heavily rhythm-based, but isn’t aimed for the dancefloor; you won’t find many instances of 4/4 beats. Neither is Predestination introspective IDM; it’s clearly sourced from classic science fiction, horror, and cyberpunk. It’s largely instrumental, heavily laden with voice samples from recognizable movies, full of retro-style analog sequencing, and is just dark enough to maintain an edge of uncertainty.

“Visitors” embodies the goal of Pavlik and Galle. It begins with a looped siren from the film version of Silent Hill (if you’ve seen it, you know what it announces) before sliding into a heavy muted percussion sequence that falls just short of achieving 4/4 inertia. All of these then drop away to reveal a floating core of dark ambiance, with chopped samples and drifting keys. The rhythms come out of hiding, one at a time, before heavily distorted vocals make a brief appearance (one of two such incidents; the other being “Reconciliation”). The tempo stays unsure, the ambiance is always a breath away, and the atmosphere remains steady as the variety of rhythms and filtered effects progress. As the track ends, we hear a sampled voice announce “primary function complete” in what I find to be a pleasing tribute to classic EBM acts like Front 242, Skinny Puppy and Front Line Assembly.

Other tracks follow a similar vein, but with enough variety to keep Predestination from getting repetitive. I find the off-kilter drums of “Betrayed by Light” to be particularly satisfying, especially when accompanied by skeletal sequences and yet more vocal snippets lifted from film. The title track features a provocative piano melody as its heart – many AP albums utilize unfiltered piano as another classic component – while the electronics whir, buzz, and thud around it like a swarm of orbiting robot bees. It’s not overly complex – Frontier Guards never overdoes its layering – but flows from one clearly marked section to the next with a combination of homage and experimentation. “Touch of Divinity” increases the atmosphere, veering closely to the territory of label-mates Oxyd via a melodic synth threaded by a flickering network of clicks and cuts, and with the inevitable voice samples making the required appearance. The delicate piano of “Screaming” fits very well with the buried drum programming, old-school analog bass, and lightly noisy loops

Add three remixes – one each by AP stalwarts Oxyd and Anhedonia, and one by the celebrated Subheim – and a visual track exhibiting Galle’s talent with images, and Predestination has a hefty amount of content. It does move sluggishly in parts – “Abandoned Mind” relies too much on the voice samples and doesn’t have the mid-track shifts of the rest of the album, and “Transcendental Experiment” uses too-harsh metallic percussion and loops its primary sequence too often – and it seems to lose steam during its second half in general, but the overall package is an attractive one. I also think that the movie samples are too prevalent and often too recognizable; if I know where a sample is sourced from, it distracts me from the music. Despite this quibbles, Aliens Production has released yet another quality entry in their old/newschool discography, and Predestination is a prime example of the label’s retro-future vision. Frontier Guards may be too old-school for some, and perhaps even schizophrenic to others, but I consider their music to be an enjoyable and quirky ode to underground electronic days of yore with one foot set firmly in the modern age.

Konau – Speech from the Shadows

Eibon Records (Kon061), 2006

I’ve been listening to a notable amount of Italian dark ambient recently, eg. Hall of Mirrors, Vestigial, Subterranean Source, New Risen Throne. It was my interest in this latter project that led me to Konau, a collaboration between NRT’s Gabriele Panci and Andrea Freschi of the outfit Canaan. I detect a certain rawness to Italian dark ambient; I don’t mean this in a critical way, but in the approach these artists tend to take to the genre. The sound is typically stripped down, reducing the ambience to core components, and I find this old-school approach refreshing in the wake of more complex contemporaries. The directness results in an old-school listening experience that doesn’t attempt to dilute the ominous nature of the genre; what these projects may lack in adventurousness, they make up for with good old basic blackness.

Konau’s debut, Speech from the Shadows, is perhaps the best representation of this primal approach. Released on Eibon Records in 2006, it harkens back to the early days of pioneers like Lustmord and raison d’etre. While some may consider Konau unnecessary given its stubbornly grass-roots philosophy, such an attitude may ignore the fact that Speech from the Shadows, while certainly derivative, is some of the starkest and bleakest dark ambient I’ve come across in some time, and achieves this because of its careful minimalist structure. It makes no apologies, and plays no tricks; Konau dangles you right over the yawning lightless pit before letting go and leaving you to fall.

The first stages of your plummet aren’t particularly foreboding, but serve as a portent of what is to come. “Sadness Embrace” takes the somber minimal chords of raison d’etre and mixes them with muffled churning noise, and the brooding “endless loop” of “Repentance” is actually closer to soothing than ominous. “Contemplation” uses field recordings of rain and thunder to conjure a state of introspection that treads close to the shadows without becoming fully immersed.

It’s at the halfway point when the blackness intensifies. “Speech from the Shadows,” “Deep,” and “Crawling Darkness” are steeped in the same primal void where Lustmord’s Heresy first walked; it is darkness experienced by our ancient ancestors and passed down through the ages until it has settled deep into our modern bones, remaining dormant until drawn forth. These three pieces, which flow together with profoundly malicious glee, utilize cavernous drones and garbled voices – particularly on “Deep” – to create an atmosphere so thick, it’ll make you feel covered in layers of ancient dust. The sense of space is immense, and the vague loops and undefined scrapings and dragging are quite unsettling. If I was asked to provide a soundtrack for a haunted house, I’d loop these three tracks and be done with it, and I bet it would work famously.

Konau’s debut isn’t complex or particularly experimental. It uses dark ambient elements that are tried and proven. But Speech from the Shadows is supremely effective at creating a visceral and haunting listening experience, and it achieves this by relying on the basics rather than overdone effects. Genre enthusiasts may have heard this before, yes, but the sparse approach of Panci and Freschi makes Speech from the Shadows a definitive example of why dark ambient can be such a compelling genre. It’s foreboding, it’s spacious, and it’s satisfying in a basic-yet-profound manner that few genre albums are able to achieve. The Italian formula is proving to be quite an effective one.