Ananta – Four Ways of Redemption

Rain Records (rain 010), 2005

Friends, this one’s a right doozy.

Four Ways of Redemption is over five hours long. Yes, you read right: five hours.

Consisting of four tracks lasting well over an hour each, the album (or albums, depending on your take) is an extreme experiment in longform ambient. One way (perhaps the only way) to approach this release from Ananta is to consider it four albums that are all part of a single work; like four movements of an opera. “The Forest,” “The Mist,” “The Lake” and “The Abyss” seem to document a journey through four landscapes of different tones. The craziest thing about the album, besides its length, is that it works. As you might expect, longform ambient can easily devolve into boring stasis, but Ananta avoids falling into this pit, though Marcin Drabot dances dangerously along its edge for the duration of Four Ways of Redemption.

Structurally, the tracks are put together in a typical manner. “The Forest” moves between the sounds of footsteps treading on dead leaves and heavy waves of processed drone. It’s well put together, with the lone difference being the length, of course; what may have been an eight- or ten-minute track under normal circumstances is telescoped by many degrees. Drabot brings in sprinkles of new elements here and there – new echoes emerge and recede, the layers of muffled noise increase and fade, smatterings of distant melody or speech fizzle in the distance – but while the track does move and develop over its deeply patient pacing, it doesn’t really change identity.

What does happen, however, is how the track works its way into your consciousness. Dark ambient casts its own particular type of immersion upon the listener, but when longform is executed with Ananta’s level of precision, the experience is magnified. The enchantment is augmented as time flows by. “The Forest” really does sound like the recording of a ninety-minute trek through a haunted wood, rather than a mere fragment of one. “The Mist,” with its looped siren (which brings to mind the Silent Hill games), follows a journey into and out of thickly fogged country. These aren’t distilled, compressed facsimiles, but the real thing. Well, they’re not real exactly, but the length and resulting depth imparts a reality that doesn’t exist in shorter offerings. If you were walking through such terrain yourself, your mind would wander, while also snapping towards each new wrinkle in your environment, and that’s exactly what happens when you listen. With fewer breaks, the effects of Drabot’s rooted spells linger and endure. A heavy time commitment is required, as well as an open mind, but when approached in this manner, Four Ways of Redemption offers a collaborative listening experience that’s unlike anything I’ve heard in the genre.

The last two tracks – it feels strange calling a ninety-minute piece a “track” – have a bit more variety in their content, and move farther into the darkness. “The Lake” and “The Abyss” aren’t quite as minimal as their predecessors, but the powerful narrative structure is still present. “The Lake” has some distant samples that I interpret as insects or water-dwelling animals, but they’re too alien to be certain. This is no normal lake we are skirting. “The Abyss” descends into lightly processed noise, as if we are hearing the echoes of far-off subterranean machines as we progress from tunnel to chamber. The theory and concept of longform are still heavily in place, however; things move at the same glacial pace as before, but there’s a bit more going on in the background, as if the landscape surrounding us features more detail as we edge through it.

Four Ways of Redemption is a mammoth release, but it is one worth experiencing for the patient and experimental-minded listener. It takes time to let it settle into you and take hold, but I’ve never really heard a release that has affected me in quite the same way. It’s the closest thing to a collaborative waking dream I can recall having, and is a profound example of the hypnotic potential of ambient music. I listened to Ananta’s quiet behemoth in four sections and went to deep places few albums have carried me. I can’t imagine what the effect might be if the entire journey was taken in one sitting.

Brian Grainger – The Ambient Tapes

Rain Records (rain 012), 2005

With hundreds of releases (literally) to his credit since 1997, Brian Grainger is one incredibly prolific recording artist. Best known for his IDM/ambient project Milieu, as well as his Milieu Music label and Second Sun Recordings (run with David Tagg), Grainger has also launched over one hundred releases under his own name. The first of these is The Ambient Tapes, a four-track album of experimental and melancholic analog drones that provides the briefest of glimpses into an artist who has had a hand in a truly titanic number of collaborative and standalone releases.

With such a vast discography to his credit, one may very well assume that not every release reaches the same level of inspiration. While clearly driven to produce as much material as he apparently can, Grainger does show a good level of talent on The Ambient Tapes. While the release itself doesn’t contain much variety in terms of concept or structure, it does succeed at providing a pleasing and well-formed series of lengthy, slowly moving, warmly tinted drones that fall somewhere between calming and haunting.

The four tracks are named for specific dates, which hints at intrigue: are these the actual dates Grainger produced them, or are they excerpts from some incomplete narrative, leaving us to fill in the blanks and figure out the puzzle in true Nick Bantock style? Unfortunately, I assume the former, but Grainger isn’t telling; perhaps these are tracks lifted from some unknown location, set at certain times.

“November 21st Tape Two” is the iconic centerpiece of The Ambient Tapes. Over its thirty-minute playing time, the calming and simplistic layered drones slide slowly into one another, creating an organic sense of gradual motion and atmosphere. The drones don’t vary much, and there’s little to no additional samples, but the way in which Grainger manipulates and moves his endlessly drifting minimalism is more appealing than it should be. The tone doesn’t waver, but sticks unobtrusively to a palette that fits a wide range of moods: it can be isolationist, beautiful, depressing, or a highly effective sleep aid, depending on what you feel, and how much you want to lose yourself in it. The track doesn’t really call to any kind of detailed identity or concept; it just floats along, waiting for you to give it meaning and substance. There’s an odd, tinnitus-like whistle at the track’s closing moments, providing something bordering on progression, but it really takes its time arriving.

Two of the remaining three tracks use the exact same method; it’s just that the pitch and meshing of the drones are slightly different. It’s baffling how well The Ambient Tapes dips into your listening brain in spite of how little actually happens over its hour-plus length; it must tap into some primal urge to lose oneself in a bath of repetitive and soothing ambiance. You’ll hear rare samples of speech, which stick out like moldering gravestones, but with one exception, these islands are a rare thing to encounter in Grainger’s peaceful ocean of muted light.

This exception is “September 22nd Tape Three,” which breaks things up with pulses of distorted noise, muffled orchestral dabblings, and pitched mumblings of unintelligible speech. Grainger drinks a deep draught of darkness here, and it’s quite a change of pace, given the floaty tendencies of the bulk of The Ambient Tapes. It’s here that the fiction becomes a stronger possibility, and the way you’re drawn in is much different; it’s the unexpected and the mysterious now, as you strain to interpret the thickly reverbed voices and assign meaning to whatever you can. From my perspective, I’d like an entire album in this mold; Grainger is a skilled ambient tactician here, and I’d be most intrigued in his expanding on the themes explored on this most thrilling of tracks.

If you get the idea that Grainger is putting out every single bit of work he’s ever done, I wouldn’t blame you. The Ambient Tapes seems random, unfinished, and without identity despite the odd attraction of its half-dreamy, half-nightmarish mood. Grainger may have more focused releases scattered throughout his astounding catalog, but it may take some time to uncover them. There is some interesting content here, and during its lengthy soporific stretches, The Ambient Tapes is more magnetic than it has a right to be.

Bluedark – Explorations Far Below

Mirakelmusik (mir010), 2005

A four-chapter dark ambient novella, Explorations Far Below is a brief yet tantalizing creation penned by Bluedark. Clocking in at just under thirty minutes, Erik Glans’ debut EP shows a firm grasp of the mechanics of dark ambient while providing a quality listening experience.

Bluedark may be new at the genre, but has studied it well. Explorations Far Below doesn’t surprise or innovate, using genre staples such as dreary chords, reverse bells and chimes, and whispered speech samples to generate an atmosphere of shadow-haunted mystery. Neither does the concept break new ground; subterranean thrills have been a popular genre since Lustmord first took his equipment deep into the caves of Heresy. With track titles such as “The Old Ship Under the Ground” and “Hidden Words,” Bluedark follows this well-trodden path with an assured hand, easily conveying the feel of empty caverns, claustrophobic corridors, and constant anxiety of discovery that’s marked so many similar releases.

Why, then, is Explorations Far Below worth one’s time? Glans is able to capture the aesthetics of the genre as well as the technical aspect, which not all releases – especially debuts – are able to achieve. Even more impressive is how he is able to do this despite a noticeable sparsity of content; his placement of his limited array of samples is natural without sounding too thin. There came a point for me, halfway though the first track, “Fragments of Things Beyond the Waking World,” where I realized I was no longer actively seeking missteps or breaks in the flow. Bluedark had me fully in its grasp, and I was borne along through its passageways and chambers, fully absorbed in the familiar yet alien world it had conjured. The odd creaks and distant whistles of the strangely named “Tree Propeller” only increased my enticement – what exactly is a tree propeller, anyway? “Hidden Words” is true to its name, with snippets of unintelligible sampled speech thrusting into the web of drones, loops, and weird distant popping sounds. Admittedly, genre veterans won’t find anything here they haven’t heard before, but with such a clear and impressive understanding of the potential of ambient sound, Bluedark is certainly a project to keep on one’s radar.

While I can’t say that Explorations Far Below will replace The Nacrasti or Dismal Radiance in my personal dark ambient list of favorites, it occupied a prime playing slot for far longer than I initially expected. Many were the occasions that I immediately began it anew upon reaching its always premature ending; even after multiple listens, I always wanted more. Without question, Bluedark is a project to pay attention to.

Cisfinitum – Landschaft

Old Captain Records (OCCD05), 2012

Eugene Voronovsky is a classically trained musician and graduate of the Moscow State Conservatory, but his work as Cisfinitum is far beyond classical. A combination of noise, dark ambient, and melodic synth, Landschaft, the project’s fourth release, offers a heady and thrilling combination of styles while incorporating granules of Voronovsky’s training. The result is an album that conjures a startling sense of a devastated territory, much in the vein of Stalker, Robert Rich and Brian Lustmord’s influential 1995 collaboration, but with a murkier sound and a wider scope.

The two middle tracks, “Landschaft I” and “Landschaft II,” are bookended by “Inland” and “District Delta.” I group the tracks this way because there are common elements to each set: the “Landschaft” tracks are long explorations in atmospheric experimentation, while the opener and closer feature more traditional musical structures. Despite this division in stylistic approach, the album follows a consistency in sound that holds it together, and imparts something of a cinematic edge to the proceedings.

“Inland” and “District Delta” are quite beautiful. The layered flowing keyboards are the focus on each nine-minute track, evoking a nostalgic and contemplative aura while layers of noise hiss and swell. One could consider them an invitation and a farewell to the bizarre journey that lies between. The lamenting wails that arise toward the end of “Inland” are a portent to the bleakness that is soon to follow, and as the rising noise and whistles bury the synth lines, it seems that a barrier has been crossed.

The twin “Landschaft” tracks are fascinating pieces of work. They evolve in unexpected ways – you might hear snatches of speech, bits of distorted hymns, or stretches of near-silence – as they bear you along a strange and broken landscape. It’s here that the Stalker comparisons are strongest, as it sounds very much like an audio tour of some unfortunate stretch of blasted and ghost-haunted terrain, but Cisfinitum’s interpretation flows with a bit more focus; no ethnic pipes or strange organic bleats to be found. There’s just the echoes of a lost place, floating in and out of the range of hearing as you drift through. Each track is about twenty minutes in length, allowing Voronovsky plenty of room to examine his themes and structures, but they seem to end far more quickly than their running time might suggest – a tribute to Cisfinitum’s skill and attention to detail. This is an example of traveling without moving, and it’s a journey full of surprising turns and unanticipated corners. You’ll encounter another wandering melody deep within the territory of “Landschaft I,” as a reminder of where the journey began, and it provides a moment of solace within the bleak walls of processed noise and dirty-seeming samples. “Landschaft II” touches upon panoramic and titanic moments of drama, lost-signal whistles, and quiet subterranean reverberations, all with a decidedly non-artificial feel.

“District Delta” must be a safe haven within the wasteland, for its melding tones and practiced emotion are wondrous to behold. Voronovsky indulges his training here, but still within the framework established by his fantastically envisioned trek through the twilit places between. This is a place of rest and recovery, but the shadows are just outside, and must be encountered again, before too much time is lost.

Landschaft is, quite simply, an incredible piece of work. It moves between styles with enviable ease, and neither forces its hand nor delves too far from its core. Voronovsky displays his musical, compositional, and creative talents in a one-hour journey that, in its own way, stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the more acclaimed Stalker. In fact, I prefer Cisfinitum’s strange and melodic foray into a desolate place I’ll (gladly) never visit in person. Cisfinitum has a reputation for excellence in electronic experimentation, and Landschaft shows this rep is certainly deserved. There aren’t many dark ambient albums I’d label essential for anyone beyond the niche, but Landschaft is certainly one of them.