Die Minimalistin – Isolator

XS Records (xs 28), 2008

The first in a series of netlabel EPs from Die Minimalistin, Isolator shows a particularly impressive brand of experimental and sparse dark ambient. As a classically trained musician, Tanja Dovens has a firm grasp of structure and flow, as well as a keen eye for finely tuned detail. While her work as Die Minimalistin doesn’t feature the dense technical prowess of many of her genre contemporaries, Dovens establishes mood through careful placement of sound and silence, making sure each piece has a place and a purpose.

Isolator isn’t the type of release where you discover new sounds with each listen. You listen to it for how well it’s put together; for how each of the handful of pieces work with each other to generate atmosphere, feel, and flow. Nothing is buried under a sea of layered samples or coats of synthwork; not a single sound is wasted. What makes Dovens such a remarkable artist is how she is able to consistently impart identity and mood without succumbing to repetition. Containing four tracks that run thirty-one minutes, Isolator uses simple drones as its foundation, but they move slowly through chord patterns like a gliding serpent. Dovens then surrounds the base with a series of samples and experimental electronic noise, making each track a complete and unique whole.

The reversed bell-tones of “Blaukalt” are soon joined by a slithery wrapping of static and a series of high-pitched whistles, with tiny bursts of IDM-style glitches and warm analog touches. There’s not a lot to this track, but it has a natural feel in spite of its icy atmosphere (the track title translates as “blue cold”). It’s something of a throwback track, recalling instrumentals that used to grace EBM albums, but with more confidence. While just as experimental in tone, “Blaukalt” moves through its zero-degree corridors with increased implication and identity.

In fact, the same frozen interstallar scenes dominate Isolator from start to end. The keen and fragile backbone drone of “Fernschreitung” immediately recalls the empty void of deep space, and the suit of details could easily be sourced from fragments of distant signals. The title track is even more tenuous, as the drone is spaced into looped flares, and the waves of delicate noise sputter and spark in and out of existence like the last gasps of a failing fuse-box. We hear the distant occasional clank of some distant machine or what could be a snatch of garbled speech from some misfiring comm-system, but we’re surrounded by the ghosts of sound, rather than hearing sound directly. When listening, I can’t help but imagine myself inside a sealed spacesuit, exploring some long-abandoned station or floating wreck of a ship, hearing only tiny echoes filtered through my headset, along with the small noises of my suit’s systems as they work to keep the harsh environment from killing me. “InducedReversibleComa” creates immediate tension through its pitched swells of drone and what sounds, at least to my ears, a muffled human voice chanting wordlessly, somewhere nearby.

Despite its brevity and sparseness, Isolator is a highly effective listen. While all of Die Minimalistin’s work is worth a listen, this is the most consistent and evocative. Dovens indulges her experimental side while maintaining a strong identity throughout. I am able to both appreciate Dovens’ craft while allowing myself to be immersed by it. While short in length, Isolator loops brilliantly, and its consistency ensures continued quality without breaking the mood. For those unfamiliar with Die Minimalistin, this EP is the perfect place to become acquainted with Dovens’ fascinating project.

Die Minimalistin – Lichttod

Clinical Archives (ca232), 2009

The power of suggestion is a formidable thing. Before the emergence of CGI, movies used to use this to potent effect; horror films in particular. It’s what you don’t see that is the worst, because anything your imagination can create is far more terrifying than anything put together in a special effects lab. This is not an easy thing to pull off, either; without the proper preparation and attention, the audience is likely to miss out completely.

The same rule can be applied to music. What you don’t hear can be just as effective as what you do hear. The minimal genre aims to perfect this, using silence as a tool as much as sound, placing reduced content with a careful ear to the overall design. This carries a good deal of inherent risk, as the decision to focus on basic structure can wind up sounding too sparse, leaving the listener wishing for more rather than being enticed by the combination of sound and quiet.

So when a recording artist calls themselves “The Minimalist,” they’d better be darn sure they’ve got it down. The artist here uses the German-language translation, Die Minimalistin, and if you’re familiar with how the German works, you’ll notice that the article is in the feminine. Justifiably so, as the composer who uses it is Tanja Dovens of Berlin. As a young lady, she was trained in the composition and performance of classical music, and while her work as Die Minimalistin is far from classical, it retains a particularly effective feel and flowing structure that isn’t often apparent in the ambient genre. Minimal music is tricky; minimal ambient even more so, but with Lichttod (“lightdeath”), Dovens shows that she didn’t name her project on a whim.

One of a handful of releases from Die Minimalistin on various netlabels, Lichttod is a five-track EP that runs approximately thirty-eight minutes. It does not overwhelm with layers of drones and samples, but, of course, relies on limited sounds to convey its vision. And what a vision it is. “Visual Reflection” builds its haunting air on a series of simple tones that warp as they loop in and out, while an unusual series crackles, metallic clanks, and whistles fold upon each other in odd but hypnotic timing. Dovens doesn’t have many tracks to work with, but how she handles the flow is immediately impressive; her noises never overwhelm, and sound thicker than they are. It’s like descending into a dust-choked basement for the first time in decades and exploring the long-abandoned corners – there’s not much to be found, but the suggestion of what rests in the darkness is incredibly dense, and teases at your expectations. Die Minimalistin knows how to get your mind involved.

“Schwarzkoerperstralung” is a deeper level of darkness, with tiny snippets of noise flitting around heavier gurgles drenched in delicious reverb. Over its nine minutes, Dovens increases the dread with a delicate touch, moving the distortion closer like a slowly approaching shadow. “Schattengrab” is perhaps the most haunting of the bunch: a bizarre bleat (a processed flute, perhaps?) stabs out of a quiet bed of static, while a female voice (Ms. Dovens herself?) whispers in deftly glitch-treated German. The static builds into a wobbling drone which pitches to and fro, and whispers of noise drift from ear to ear. The voice presses upon you, insistent in its unknown message; is this what mediums hear when under trance? There’s not a lot of sonic material here, but it’s put together incredibly well, and fine-tuned under a cohesive vision. This is one of the best pieces of EVP-ghost ambient I’ve ever heard; it’s unsettling and thrilling, unexpected and memorable.

For all its sparseness, Lichttod is a powerful display of atmospheric prowess and carefully planned composition. Tanja Dovens carries formidable talent into her spirit-haunted halls, and concocts music with weight far beyond the sum of its few parts. It’s no small feat to accomplish more with less, and Dovens proves herself to be quite the master of the understated experience. Die Minimalistin may not be a dark ambient household name, but it’s a project that deserves far more attention.

Seetyca – Das Zubrochene Antlitz

Enough Records (enrmp187), 2008

Until recently, I’d never heard of Seetyca, the enigmatic and prolific one-man German experimental ambient project with some seventy releases to his credit. First learning of Seetyca as part of the collaborative project Circle of Pines, as well as from the album Nemeton on netlabel Winter-Light, I was struck by how easily the project’s deep and expansive drones existed between worlds. Neither fully cloaked in the crawling shadows of dark ambient, nor completely embracing the glittery open air of new age, the work of Seetyca dwells in its own half-lit realm of mysticism, where all is both new and familiar.

Das Zubrochene Antlitz (translated roughly as “the broken face”) is a prime example of why Seetyca’s sound is so effective. The drones here are long haunting echoes that serve as a perfect foundation for added detail; it’s no surprise that Seetyca has released many collaborative albums in addition to his solo efforts. (He also somehow finds time to run his own label, Mbira Records.) To my ears, Seetyca is a master of the evocative, wide-angle, high-definition drone. He uses overdubs and chord combinations in such a way to engage one’s emotions immediately, and his vast discography is bursting with the beauty and the heartache given breath by his machines. The technical scope and gradual pace of the progression only enhance the immersive factor. Listen to the haunting yet soothing tones dominating “Wie Rauch in der Seele” for a hint of how Seetyca casts his spell; it’s just a taste of how deep this project runs.

Beyond this practiced droning is an assortment of sampled incidentals and field recordings that continue Seetyca’s quest to stake his own unique corner in ambient music. Whether it’s the strange aquatic drips of “Eyn Gothischer Athem,” the pitched female vocal loops of “Labsal Durchrinnt Mich,” or the bizarre metallic drags of the aforementioned “Wie Rauch in der Seele,” the audio portrait that’s created is highly unusual and highly creative. If Seetyca relied strictly on his web of drones, his sound would still excel, but he’s not satisfied with that, and is driven to add more depth and detail to his work. The frozen synthetic wind of “Als Ginge Mein Herz Aus” would be thrilling enough on its own, but the off-key melody that slowly creeps into frame turns the track into an unforgettably odd and somewhat childlike experience; it’s darn close to a dark ambient lullaby, all thick foggy innocence and sleeping baby goblins.

“Verlosche Mich” is particularly thrilling, with a perfectly looped drone flanked by a collage of electronic solar flares and distant vocal chants. Like most of the album, it’s a fluid and seemingly effortless production. You’d think, with such a prolific output, that Seetyca would lack inspiration, but that’s simply not the case here.

Let me point out, too, that Das Zubrochene Antlitz is indeed an album rather than a simple collection of tracks. It flows easily and casually from track to track, from start to finish, each part an integral component of the next. Seetyca does have something of a formulaic nature, but when the formula is as rock-solid as this, there’s little room for complaint. Perhaps the unique dark/light atmosphere of Seetyca has caused the project to slip unnoticed between the cracks, but there’s no really good reason for this. Excellence needs no genre label. With such a massive catalog, spread throughout so many labels, Seetyca can be a tough act to break into, but Das Zubrochene Antlitz is a majestic place to become acquainted.

Edge of October – The Death of Days

Dark Winter (dw074), 2010

It starts in a deep place, and then sinks deeper, but never to a place devoid of light. The Death of Days, the second release from Jeff Zvorak’s ambient project Edge of October, is one of the most chilling genre works I’ve ever heard. Inspired by various post-apocalyptic works, Zvorak has channeled the loss, mystery, and bleakness of what remains following global tragedy into an album that drips with a near-palpable atmosphere that is utterly convincing, and in many places, utterly terrifying. And yet, in spite of its apparent hopelessness, there’s a hidden layer that speaks to what has come before.

The single piercing tone that opens “The Inevitable” is soon buried under a grinding crush of enormous presence; perhaps this is the sound of the end. Inevitable indeed. “Exhumation” seems to follow in time, unearthing something long-lost: digging tools clank and rattle, and the bones of the earth shift and groan overhead. It’s a quieter track than its precursor, but just as claustrophobic. Zvorak moves from drone to field recording to sample-collage with enviable and natural ease; The Death of Days shifts and heaves like some massive beast beset by restless slumber.

The album’s most powerful moment is “Memory and Machines,” which contains the most harrowing moans and cries I’ve ever heard put to record. I have no idea what the source of these harrowing intonations might be, and perhaps it’s best I don’t. The grief of whatever entity we’re hearing is perfectly captured, and perfectly enhanced by the surrounding space tailored by Zvorak. Something dear has vanished forever, and what we hear is the sound of unfiltered lament.

In the midst of all this, Zvorak presents a track like “Wind in the Wires,” which shows a rare level of artistic originality. Here, sparse muted keys that sound like a piano being plinked at the ocean floor to create a sense of progress and structure in a beautifully melancholic manner. He underlines it with moving washes so delicate and subtle, you notice them only when they fade to nothing. This is an ideal piece to follow the apocalypse, as it portrays something gone forever….but its essence is forever caught here, for us to contemplate, and perhaps, remember precious things from our own past. Consider the subtitles of two of the three interspersed “Ghost Signal” tracks: “II: Having Weathered the Storm” and “III: Our Last, Best Hope.” There is always light in the darkest places, even if it is only a memory.

Here lies the undercurrent of this work. In order for one to feel loss, that which has been lost must have held meaning. In the midst of The Death of Days, there remains the days; they must have been bright indeed for their end to bring such catastrophe. While the album is indeed monolithic in its darkness, Zvorak has left the light on for us – yes, it’s tiny and guttering, but it endures nonetheless. In fact, its presence makes the darkness that much thicker.

Zvorak appears to take his output seriously, and his expressive talent is formidable. Collapse (2008) came into being as the result of a personal breakdown, and The Death of Days, while more visionary and expansive, is just as raw and unrelenting. The Death of Days is an unnerving listen, but it is an incredibly crafted one. Its brilliant aesthetics are matched only by its execution; it builds something unique from familiar pieces. The Death of Days is not just a vision of devastation, brought to life with stunning expertise; it is a moving tribute to forgotten wonders.