Tor Lundvall – The Shipyard

Dais Records (LP, DAIS 031), 2012, (CD, DAIS 052-4), 2013

In the sea of ambient sameness, there are plenty of reasons to appreciate Tor Lundvall. Subscribing to no tradition or genre besides his own expression, he has carved out his own corner in the realm of electronic ambiance, and it’s a place uniquely his. Lonely without being depressive, personal in spite of its apparent coldness, powerfully illustrative, and possessed of a depth that belies its minimalistic design, Lundvall’s work consistently excels, and he’s one of the few artists whose new releases I seek immediately, without a second thought. The world he shows us is our own, but from an alien perspective – or perhaps, a perspective without preconceptions It’s a place we may have visited, but have never seen in quite the way Lundvall does, and he’s presented his interpretation for us to ponder. Throughout his vast discography, his powers of insight and transportation have remained steady, and it’s his instrumental work, like The Shipyard, where his unique brand of ambient is most effective.

The Shipyard was originally released on vinyl in 2012 from Dais Records, and was later followed by a digital release, as well as a CD as part of the Structures and Solitude limited box set on Dais in 2013. Like previous efforts, The Shipyard isn’t really “true” dark ambient; Lundvall’s music has been called “ghost ambient” for its haunting quality, but the music moves between various shades of gray without giving in to full-blown anxiety or profound despair. In Lundvall’s vision, there is strong mystery, which may very well cause unease, but he never shows us the source directly; all he tells us is there might be something over there you’ve never seen. And the strangest part is that he does this to places we find familiar.

Of course, the inspiration this time is obvious: the docks and wharfs of an everyday, normal harbor, but filtered through Lundvall’s ever-so-slightly distorted lens. The sounds of industry churn and crank in the distance, but it’s up to our imaginations to discern the actual work being done. Compared to prior releases, The Shipyard is a bit more mechanical and measured, but that’s by design, given the topic. It’s pleasantly minimal and old-school too; the looped clanks and sonar-like tones are reminiscent of a much less aggressive Nitzer Ebb or Suicide Commando. There’s little percussion here, but plenty of gentle rhythm; you get the sense that this shipyard is being observed from a distance, with only echoes of the vessels and the various tools maintaining them managing to reach your ears. The fog is eerie and thick, and the shapes within are uncertain and wavering. And yet, the detachment is oddly soothing, as if the distance between provides solace while the great outlines of the ships loom through the mist beyond.

The album flows beautifully, moving from space to space with easy washes, chimes, reverbed tones, a few lonely string-plucks, and far-away keys. “Angels at Sea” is a bit of a departure, with twin loops of a plaintive human voice and a winsome horn, but it’s well-placed, changing up the pace just enough without upsetting the balance. The two closing tracks, “Blue Rain Ships” and “Grey Rain Ships,” are companion pieces, each lasting well past the Lundvall-standard three-to-four minute running time, and are the closest to traditional dark ambient, with a darker atmosphere, heavier feel, increased focus on looped samples, and a greater abstraction in structure. The tracks play off each other wonderfully, and are two of the darkest and haunting pieces Lundvall has produced. Also included is an unreleased demo track that was not on the original LP, and it is interesting to see how it influenced the album’s identity.

Tor Lundvall is quietly accumulating an impressive body of ambient work. There are few ambient artists I hold in such high regard. While he’s still relatively unheralded, his music is unique, highly immersive, and provides just enough outline to engage the listener’s imagination without revealing too much. As always, his own acclaimed artwork decorates the album, and is the perfect visual companion to the sounds within. Carefully arranged, with no sound superfluous or out of place, conceptually solid while retaining an experimental edge, The Shipyard is further evidence that Tor Lundvall remains one of ambient music’s hidden masters.

Desiderii Marginis – Hypnosis

Cyclic Law Records (71st Cycle), 2014

Hypnosis, the eighth album from Desiderii Marginis, Johan Levin’s long-running and respected dark ambient/industrial hybrid project, is a two-disc behemoth caught between worlds. Shedding the distorted-beat elements of early works, such as the highly regarded album Deadbeat (2001), in favor of a more classic dark ambient design, Hypnosis aims to express the shadowed corners of the dream-world through a variety of singular pieces.

At the outset, this concept seems to work both for and against the album. On one hand, it would appear to allow Levin the freedom to switch styles to best fit the experienced (or imagined) dream in question, but on the other, it runs the risk of having the album appear disjointed. However, Hypnosis drifts somewhere in the middle. The sound design of Desiderii Marginis has typically adhered to the cinematic side of dark ambient, with recognizable synthesizer pads and washes rather than processed drones of uncertain origin. This identity remains on Hypnosis, and throughout the album, the tracks largely fit the same mold of keyboards backing a single repeated and sampled element.

For example, “Paralysis” uses a sample of plucked guitar strings as its central theme. On “The Ghost Box,” it’s a brief sequence of harmonica, and on “Lazarus Palace,” it’s a single sitar chord. “Black Feathers” (which also samples crows) and “The Monkey God” both utilize a horrific and disturbing distorted animal-like call – a croaking cry that’s never issued from the throat of anything born on Earth. “Rain On Your Dreams” centers around, yes, the sound of rain, while “Unmasked” is inspired by the sound of steady footprints on concrete, and the single chime of “Night Slept On My Arm” opens the track and closes it in measured time. As Hypnosis plays, the trends loop upon themselves, and as there’s little variation in the running time of the fifteen tracks (most of them are six to eight minutes in length), they wind up becoming predictable – the last thing you want in a genre built on the freedom to experiment.

Not every track follows this template, and it’s these cases where Hypnosis works best. “The Fog Closing In” is a foreboding piece of open-sea ambiance, and the thick pads of “Bright Dead City” are adept at creating a thrilling atmosphere. “Drive” is the album’s strongest and most mysterious moment; the grand mood, bold drones, and formless flow are a departure for Levin, and its subtle build follows an exhilarating sense of progression. Here, the dream-sense is particularly potent, and powerfully communicated. The sound of Desiderii Marginis has always tended towards the mechanical, and while most of Hypnosis is no exception, these tracks provide evidence that the project still has plenty of room to expand.

I want to like Hypnosis more than I do. I’ve devoted plenty of time to it, and have always emerged with the same reaction: it feels like a missed opportunity. The sampled elements repeat a bit too often, the tracks feel too similar to each other, and the basic structure of the music doesn’t change often enough. This is solid dark ambient, but Hypnosis will sound familiar to genre fans. I don’t intend to convey that what’s here is poorly done; there’s no doubt that Levin is a talented and capable producer, but he appears to be not quite as experimentally minded as some of his peers. While Hypnosis shows multiple signs that Desiderii Marginis is poised to move beyond its established comfort zone into uncharted territory, it tiptoes close to the borders, unwilling to commit to crossing over.