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.