Moth Electret – LiL

Mystery Sea (MS37), 2007

Some albums sound like they’re alive. While I’m aware of how poetic or even how cliche that statement might be, it’s the best way I know to explain these particular listening experiences. Albums containing sounds that follow no set pattern, and in most cases, feature very little of what would be considered traditional music. Not every piece of music is made up of chords and melody. Neither, however, are these special albums just completely chaotic and random displays of noise. Although this type of music has its place, they often lack the visceral authenticity of what I’m getting at. Sleep Research Facility does this. So does Terra Sancta. And so does Moth Electret.

It’s impossible for me to talk about Moth Electret’s debut album, LiL, without mentioning the follow-up, Tocasen. I heard Tocasen first, and its audio painting of a lost insect underworld completely floored me with its swarming brand of clicking drones and webs of buzzing samples, all grounded in an imaginary bug mythology. It really did sound like a field recording of some massive underground hive crawling with bizarre and majestic multi-legged beings. LiL uses a similar template, but it’s not as grounded; it doesn’t provide any sort of basic description for you, so you’re left to define things (or not) as you like. It’s an intoxicating and freeing experience, and one so mutable, it can slide easily into any frame of mind.

The components of LiL are as organic as the sound. The eight tracks range from around three to eleven minutes in length. They have inscrutable titles like “kalaa” and “cygal.” Who knows what these titles mean; they could have great significance for sole member Stig Berg (also the man behind R|A|A|N), or they could be made-up words. The point is, they mean whatever you want them to mean. Therein lies the secret of LiL.

When reviewing, I always try to provide some kind of description of the sounds a listener might encounter. I try to be objective, rather than resort to lines of poetic inspiration; while this format is undoubtedly effective in the right hands, I aim to provide something a bit more universal. LiL is one of the first times when I’ve encountered a good deal of difficulty doing that, and I have no problem admitting it. After all, language can be restrictive, can’t it? But if you were to ask me “So what does LiL sound like?” my response would, in all honesty, be, “Well, you have to hear it to believe it.” Tacky, I know, but saying that LiL sounds like a singular mass of high-pitched and slightly distorted series of drones mixed with a series of heavily processed sounds is nowhere near sufficient.

So I could tell you that LiL sounds like a school of synthetic not-fish drifting through sunlit depths full of strange aquatic life, but once you hear it for yourself, you might get a completely different impression. Or I can say is that LiL is the sound of some alien organism, recorded on a microscopic level, like you’re cruising through its innards in true Fantastic Voyage fashion, with a high-level DAT deck sticking out of the porthole. You float along, past organs you don’t recognize and the function you could never guess at, through a series of tubes and tracts and blood vessels, completely ignorant about what might come next, but with the sense that everything you’re witnessing is part of the same whole. You’re surrounded by sounds no human has ever heard; the voice of the inner workings of the otherworldly. But I said I wasn’t going to wax poetic, didn’t I?

I’ll end with this: nothing sounds like Moth Electret, and nothing sounds like LiL. I can’t guess at what this album might make you imagine, but I’d bet it’ll be something you’ve never imagined before. This will only happen, however, if you submit yourself to it fully. LiL is an all-or-nothing experience, and as elitist as it might sound, not everyone will be affected on the same level. It might take a while for it to click. And some may not “get it” at all. And that’s fine. LiL is not music in the traditional sense. It’s almost pure distilled impression, the type that works on your mind on a level few albums reach. It’s like that for me, anyway, every time. In my view, Stig Berg is a master, and LiL is a showcase for his particular brand of obscure genius. Don’t sleep on this one, or rather, should it lull you to sleep, dream deeply.

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Opollo – Rover Tracks

Self-released (bandcamp), 2012

While most of the music I listen to is purely electronic, my favorite band is the Cocteau Twins. Something about the combination of Elizabeth Fraser’s voice and Robin Guthrie’s guitar creates an experience for me like nothing else I’ve heard. While the Twins have been defunct for years, Guthrie is still releasing instrumental guitar-pop that retain the roots of the sound he helped pioneer.

I bring this up because I always wondered what Guthrie could do if he applied his signature sound to a more experimental template. He’s hinted at it, particularly in his collaborations with keyboard minimalist Harold Budd, but he’s always seemed hesitant to fully abandon the rock-based structure where he made his name.

Fortunately, others have taken his cue. Jarek Leskiewicz, who has made postmodern guitar-based music across a number of releases with numerous collaborators – most notably Dean Garcia of the celebrated shoegazer act Curve – has released Rover Tracks, a collection of guitar-drone space-ambient music under the name Opollo. Rover Tracks (double meaning duly noted) isn’t going to redefine these well-trodden genres, but Leskiewicz handles it with pace and style, creating a captivating listen that hints at greatness.

There’s a strong soundtrack quality to the album. Opener “kepler-22b” would have fit perfectly into Danny Boyle’s film Sunshine, with its looped guitar chords and distant washes, and the developing crescendo and looped bass chords of “its final resting place” would be ideal for a closing credit sequence. Leskiewicz varies his approach, sometimes using his processed guitars to create a wall of feedback among his keyboard tones (the grandiose “above the rover”), other times resorting to elongated single chords that have been sampled and filtered (the contemplative “subsatellite”). Rover Tracks can fall into periods of harshness, and it’s here where I feel the structure becomes a bit too artificial and strays too far from the peaceful drama defining most of the album, but this rarely happens.

Where Leskiewicz really shines is when he allows his electronics to become the focal point. The glorious twelve-and-a-half-minute “pur-lazarus” is one of my all-time favorite pieces of space ambient music, gliding slowly through the cosmos on the back of a series of gradual pads and keys that conjure a wondrous sense of interstellar awe. The track shifts about halfway through, morphing smoothly into a series of lightly distorted passes and distant guitar buoyed by an endless synth drone. It’s an incredibly elemental track, and I can’t help but be drawn into the embrace of distant stars and nebulae, while moons and comets drift past in the vacuum. The track “tiran reef” is quieter, but no less majestic, thanks to a distant bass pulse and floating bits of guitar and drone. There’s just enough drama to keep things from getting too airy, but neither does Rover Tracks fall into the lightless abyss of its darker cousins.

Rover Tracks is a well-crafted album from an artist who grasps the power of drone and understands how to fuse it with elements experimental guitar. Leskiewicz’ debut as Opollo is a tad rough about the edges, and isn’t always consistent, but it’s full of lengthy passages that showcase ambient skill and adherence to concept. If only Robin Guthrie could escape Earth’s orbit in such an assured manner.

Circle of Pines – Darkwater Pond

Dark Winter (dw030), 2006

The deep drones of Seetyca and the experimental electronic dabbling of Sansa come together as Circle of Pines, and it’s a mystical and dreamlike combination. Darkwater Pond carries a powerful sense of place and a reverential tone as it explores the backwater placidity of an uninhabited and untouched marshland rife with portent. The landscape is tangled and primal, and is equally beautiful and dangerous.

The musical structure is a basic but effective one: Seetyca lays down one of his trademark endless drones, creating a contemplative and somewhat daunting air, and Sansa fills the remaining space with snatches of processed field recordings and samples. The balance is largely well-kept, with neither element overwhelming the other. Seetyca is a practiced dronesman, but his broad walls of synthetics need room to move and breathe in order to maintain maximum effect, and Sansa is sensitive to this. The sacred tone of “Lichen Ritual” is centered around slowly shifting keyboard chords and a looped visceral drum, while an array of whistles, clicks, taps, vocal snippets, and lightly grinding washes enhance the mysticism; it’s easy to imagine the track as a soundtrack of the preparation to an ancient ritual. It’s a ritual that we’re only allowed to view, however; it’s far beyond our comprehension, and we have little idea of its true design, but are certain of its significance.

Much of Deepwater Pond follows a similar thread. The looped chord sequence of “Wasser-Madrigal” quickly works into one’s subconscious, speaking of past mossy aeons and great trees that have seen generations rise and fall as the passing of an hour. Both “Cove Point” and “Cloak of Fog” sees Circle of Pines creep deeper into dark ambient territory, with the desolation and latent ominousness of the ages leaking forth to mar the present with weighted intent. The drones take firm root and waver little, and the array of samples become bleak and muted. It’s thick and heady as the bed of mud underfoot, and one misstep could lead to choking disaster. Take care to keep your footing as you proceed.

“Down to the Dreamy Sky” contains the only blemish on an otherwise thrilling journey. While it begins in fine fashion, a warbling, piercing sequence soon appears, looping on itself in something of an unpleasantly shrill manner, as a sparkling series of notes twist and writhe in the murk, distracting from the damp layers of green, black, and brown. This is the lone point where Sansa’s work drowns the proceedings, and it causes a rift in the album’s darkly spiritual portrait of the ways of the serene and forgotten pools. The fact that the track is close to thirteen minutes long and doesn’t evolve much beyond the first few minutes makes it a tough one to endure, especially on repeat listens.

Fortunately, it’s easily skippable. “Zerfrorones Glas” and “Moosiges Kissen” sees Circle of Pines regaining its composure, returning us to the glades and hollows where hidden things lurk and muse. You’ll be left alone, as long as you don’t linger, and avert your gaze after the first glance. Besides, there are other untold secrets to discover, including some you’ll never see…only feel. The eerie melody of “Fissures” sinks deep into your skin, leaving you with a stark impression of this remote place of dreams; a place that is neither good nor evil, just heavy with the weight of lost time.

Darkwater Pond is a hypnotic and transporting listen, and works on a visceral level of sophistication that’s rare and precious in the genre. Circle of Pines doesn’t dazzle with technical prowess or a complex concept. All it does is lead you through a place you’ve never been, and show you things you’ll never forget. It imprints itself upon you, like the most delicate and benign of spores. As with the best albums, the impression is undoubtedly a lasting one. Darkwater Pond is a work of simple, quiet, profound brilliance.

Aegri Somnia – Monde Obscure

Cryo Chamber (no catalog #), 2015

Monde Obscure is an album of technical overkill. While listening, I’m reminded of an interview where industrial legends Front Line Assembly discussed the recording philosophy for their 1995 album Hard Wired. Bill Leeb and Rhys Fulber challenged themselves to leave no sonic space empty, cramming every byte of their hard drives with some sort of sample. At the time, it was a daunting yet cohesive experience, and a testament to FLA’s skill, but that was twenty years ago, and technology has since advanced a hundredfold.

The debut effort by Aegri Somnia (translated as “sick man’s dream”) follows a similar template, wherein every moment has multiple sounds and effects, fluttering and whirring and clanking and droning, both near and far. I can say one thing for Jurica Santek: he’s a master of sound design. There’s no debating that Monde Obscure is an incredible-sounding album. It’s dark ambient in HD, especially when experienced in FLAC via some capable headphones.

Notice I did say “overkill,” however. This type of structure is a tricky one to follow, because one runs the risk of the audio collage becoming a multifaceted haze, moving so quickly and unexpectedly that it’s nigh-impossible to get a clear vision, much less retain it. Subtraction by addition. FLA skirted around this by using classic EBM drum-and-bass synths as its foundation, but Aegri Somnia uses no such starting point. Each track is a dizzying collection of samples, field recording, and synthwork, cut-and-pasted with manic randomness, unwinding in an infinite fashion to make the mind’s eye gape wide in confusion. I’ll say one thing for Monde Obscure: you never know what’s going to happen next, and you’ll hear new sounds with subsequent listens.

But despite the bristling forest of content, there’s something missing here, something vital to the dark ambient experience. While many albums seek to immerse the listener in carefully executed atmosphere, Aegri Somnia aims to drown you in detail. While this may work for some listeners, it has the reverse effect for me: I’m so caught up in Santek’s frantic hurricane, there’s no room for me to settle in. I’m searching for a common thread, for patterns to recognize, for a place to nest, but I’m borne along, constantly exposed to crystal-clear minute motes of digital dust, fractured and buzzing, until my brain rebels and I’m left struggling to take it all in, to process the slipstream of mental images attached to the sounds. In the end, I’m left with an impression of being overwhelmed.

Aegri Somnia doesn’t use looped keyboard chords to ground the experience, and there’s little, if any, melodic content. There’s a nice bit of piano towards the end of “Les Temps Ont Change” which hints at the power contained here, but its impact is deadened against the walls of samples. The two-part “Sortie” and “Portal” tracks at the album’s close slow things down a bit – there’s some very nice atmospheric work happening at this point – but that’s the exception rather than the rule.

Monde Obscure is one of the most amazing tech demos I’ve ever heard. Santek is indeed a skilled audio producer. But there’s an aesthetic component to music as well, and it’s particularly important in a free-form genre such as dark ambient. Too much, or too little, and the experience is lessened. If Aegri Somnia can reduce the amount of static and provide some variation – or even better, a unifying undercurrent within each track and a clear identity for an album – the immersive interactivity that dark ambient is so adept at creating will be within reach. The tech aspect is down, now it’s time to focus on the art.