Bleak Fiction – Ghost Picture

m.i.s.t. records (MIST105), 2015

I live in an area where the winters are harsh. Harsh, but somewhat beautiful nonetheless. The ice sheets gleam on the ground, and the snow drifts gently down to glitter in the light like tiny diamonds, beckoning you into temperatures that will be fatal without proper protection. Sometimes, the sky will be a wall of whitish gray, moving through differing filters of translucence, a slowly approaching thick fog poised to dump inches of snow on everything in sight. The best of these are at night, when the moon is visible only as a glowing smudge, fading in and out of sight as the shifting veil slides across it. Despite the stirring spectacle, these moments are also treacherous, for they’re typically an indication of particularly frigid temperatures and the constant threat of more snow to come.

I recently realized that this split sensation is part of why dark ambient music is so attractive to me: the implied wonder and danger carried in many things around me. And one of the strongest expressions of this dichotomy that I’ve heard recently is Ghost Picture by Argentina’s Bleak Fiction. Taking a cue from drone-based noise projects such as Terra Sancta, the album is six untitled tracks of heavily processed waves that feature a heavy and organic palette. I quite enjoy this sub-genre of ambient, for its potential to live simultaneously as music, mood, and noise, particularly when it is done well….as it is here.

Right away, Ghost Picture lets you know you are in the presence of something worthy of awe. The drones are enormous and bold, swelling into existence from zero and splitting into emergent waves that smash and blend against each other with thrilling energy. You begin to hear, too, that in places, Ezequiel Lobo has inserted gradual chord sequences, elevating his work from just noise into the musical sphere. Often, due to its non-specific nature, ambient music leaves you with indirect impression rather than a direct memorable sequence that plays in your head when you’re not listening to it, but there have been many passages from Ghost Picture that have welled into my consciousness hours or days between sessions. This is a sign of a successful exercise.

Beyond that, the album conceives a curious atmosphere. Despite its looming presence, it is not overly dreary or apocalyptic. It is noisy yet delicate; massive though beautiful. Lobo manipulates his drones in unusual ways, as well, sometimes dropping them out completely partway through a track, only to have them re-establish themselves after moments of complete or near silence. It is an odd structural decision, and can impact the flow and immersion, but the level of engagement remains high, as you’re never quite sure exactly how Ghost Picture will move next.

Bleak Fiction is a relatively recent project, but it is an exciting one that is full of potential. Lobo has shown a clear grasp of the genre, and isn’t afraid to experiment. The production quality on Ghost Picture isn’t as high as one might expect, but I believe this helps convey the transitive nature of the sound design; if it were clearer and sharper, it would lose something from its wondrous hazy sound.

This is an ideal album for listening to while watching my smeared blotch of winter moonlight swim behind the portentous cloud-bank roiling overhead, but it is easily versatile to be be applied to any such instance where things are not quite what they seem. An accomplished display of hypnotic noise reaching evocative heights, Ghost Picture is an unexpected discovery for me, quickly becoming one of the most enjoyable ambient albums I’ve heard this year.

The Best Dark Ambient Albums You Might Have Missed In 2015

Fans of dark ambient are no doubt aware of the “biggest” releases the genre saw this year. If this end-of-the-year list was to include those, it would ignore the smaller albums that, in some ways, were just as good. Rather than embark upon the nigh-impossible task to rank and compare all of them, I have decided to adopt a different track: these five albums here are ones that even fans might have missed, but each is well worth your time. Several of them are available for free via netlabels, too.

There are, of course, many, many releases out there, so even in the process of tracking these down, you might find something you didn’t expect. That’s exactly how I discovered these – while searching for something else.

Grove of Whispers – The Wind From Nowhere (Buddhist On Fire)

Here’s an example of an album of such focused and singular power, it’s almost overwhelming. John Tocher’s synthetic hurricane seems ripped from the most alien of shores. Its lack of subtlety can become numbing, but at its apex, the album creates a cosmic sense of awe with enviable ease.

Seetyca – Nemeton (Winter-Light)

On the other end of the spectrum from, you’ve got Nemeton, a meditative collection of melancholic and reflective drones, finely tuned by the prolific Seetyca. Never one to stay quiet for long, the elusive German soundsmith’s discography is a bit uneven, but when it all falls into place, there’s few artists who can match his unfolding sense of the mystic. Calming and visceral, Nemeton is a wondrous journey through a fantastic realm of dreams.

Bleak Fiction – Ghost Picture (m.i.s.t. records)

Ezequiel Lobo is relatively new to the scene, but he’s broken in with a bang. This album is a practiced display of aesthetic noise; not many artists reach this level of careful attention to detail and songwriting aplomb, but Bleak Fiction has already done so early in his career. A surreal collection of haunting distorted dronework that moves in gradual and unexpected ways, Ghost Picture is one of the most satisfying albums I heard this year. Held back only by technical limitations that I’m sure are temporary, Bleak Fiction is a name to watch.

Flowers For Bodysnatchers – Aokigahara (Cryo Chamber)

Cryo Chamber has garnered something of a reputation for releasing dark ambient soundtracks to non-existing films. While this has, to date, met with varying levels of success, this album blew my expectations out of the water. Duncan Ritchie’s second release as Flowers For Bodysnatchers is inspired by the so-called “Suicide Forest” in Japan where an unusual number of people travel to contemplate ending it all. While this is an intriguing concept on its own, Ritchie examines it by focusing on traditional instruments like piano and violin that enhance his electronics, and creates a stunning and unique atmosphere along the way. Also featuring measured drumming and sampled Japanese vocalizations, Aokigahara is perhaps the best example of “cinematic dark ambient” style that Cryo Chamber is becoming noted for. A fascinating, unexpected experiment that is a mournful and touching tribute to the confusion felt by those visiting the forest, Flowers For Bodysnatchers has crafted both an album of accomplished music and one of powerful atmosphere. Don’t let the odd name or the lack of history mislead you – this album is legitimately great.

Tor Lundvall – The Park (Dais Records)

OK, so the esteemed Mr. Lundvall might not exactly qualify as “undiscovered.” He still doesn’t have the reputation he deserves. The Park is his first new instrumental album in three years, and it was worth the wait. Lundvall has always been able to blur the lines between our world and the one he sees, and his ability to do this has increased. Simultaneously stripped down and deeper, The Park is both a refinement of Lundvall’s combination of strange ambiance and sparse percussion, and a new level of aesthetic excellence. Inspired by the real-life parks he frequents, this Park exists solely in Lundvall’s eerie yet familiar territory, and he has invited us to visit. All we need to do is listen.

adamned.age – Transit Berlin

Phonocake Records (phoke93), 2013

There’s something very satisfying about listening to a record that just sounds great. Not everything needs to be draped with meaning or possessed of an unusual high-level concept. While these types of music certainly have their place, every once in a while, there’s nothing quite like indulging yourself with some serious ear-candy.

Hanne Adam has just the ticket. Transit Berlin, her fifth album as adamned.age, is a ninety-minute collection of glitchy downtempo IDM full of slickly produced rhythms and urban cool that makes your speakers seem like a portal to the chic of city nightlife. The album is well-named, for it’s the perfect soundtrack to cruising through the neon-lit bustle of some downtown center, through the crowds and constant activity and stimuli. Cuts like “Sektorengrenze” epitomize the album’s theme: a beat plods forward among a series of busily bubbling glitch patterns, with distant stabs of melody punctuating the backdrop. Imagine yourself in L.A., Tokyo, London, or yes, Berlin, and you can’t help but have this track winding through your system.

Along with the obvious increase in sound design, Adam has increased the beats and the mood. Past releases such as Whiteout (2009), planted the seeds of what would become the kaleidoscopic IDM of Transit Berlin; Adam has found and developed her signature sound here, moving past the experimentation of her earlier work. There are still beatless pieces of ambiance here – the muted reverb-soaked tones of “Im Hinterland” is a highlight – but she’s found her muse in the heart of Germany’s capital city.

And yet, there’s still room to improve. It’s tough to imagine adamned.age progressing any further along the lines of pure production values, as everything here has been pitched, modulated, and processed to a razor’s edge of clarity – I did mention this album sounds phenomenal, right? – but the album still struggles to escape the too-familiar trope of sounding artificial. Where artists like l’ombre and Integral have emerged from their IDM cocoons to take flight on the strength of the aesthetic and the personal, adamned.age doesn’t quite reach the same level with consistency. It’s here, on tracks such as the wonderfully meandering “Alexanderplatz” and the sly bass-driven title track, but it’s the lack of a reliable emotional connection that makes the album something of a chore to listen to actively from start to finish. Transit Berlin is marvelous as background music – perhaps a result of Adam’s involvement in multimedia production, film, and web design. It has a certain detachment in its mood, as if it is missing some series of accompanying images. The urban ballad “Stillsand in Bewegung,” with its mournful melody and sampled winsome saxophone, sounds like a facsimile of an emotive piece, rather than the piece itself. It’s the strongest example, perhaps, of why Transit Berlin remains disengaging in spite of its audio wizardry.

And yet, the album sounds so delectable, so finely tuned, with each piece of glitch like a flawless sparkling chip of ice and each beat a digital slice of perfected rhythm, that it’s almost forgivable. My ears are overwhelmed, but I can’t say the same for my brain. Transit Berlin is an album I want very much to like more than I do, and it is an album that sincerely tries its absolute best to slips the bonds of the synthetic. Adam is, obviously, a talented producer, capable of skipping her digital stones in hypnotic sparkling patterns across her virtual sea, but I still feel like it’s a place that’s only hers, and we’re all kept at arms’ length. I have faith, however, that she’ll learn to match her prodigious sound-design talents to the same level of emotional pull. When this happens, as I believe it will, adamned.age will enter rarified spaces.

Grove of Whispers – The Wind From Nowhere

Buddhist on Fire (BOF-072), 2015

The Wind From Nowhere is a relentless release. Even during its quieter passages, there’s a formidable sense of power nesting within the music, overflowing with potential, like a V8 Dodge Charger imprisoned at a red light, engine straining against the bonds of its brakes. Grove of Whispers lulls you into a sense of peace with its name, but that’s soon blasted clean by the wall of force erupting from the speakers.

John Tocher has asked for no quarter. His titular wind is no soothing mysterious faerie breeze, but a howling maelstrom vomited forth from some unknown chaotic dimension. It’s immediately apparent that Tocher has been inspired by the bolder, brasher side of dark ambient, and projects like Terra Sancta in particular: the sonic concept here is all size and strength, with no melody or minimalism anywhere in sight. The Wind From Nowhere is a dark ambient sledgehammer, single-minded in its purpose and overwhelming in its scope.  We are in the middle of this titanic tornado, and all we can do is ride it out and hope the gods are merciful and spare us. For the entire hour, the assault comes in waves, pummeling us again and again, scarcely leaving us a chance to collect ourselves. This is an exhausting and heavy listen, aiming to drag you under and drown you in its synthetic undertow.

As you may have guessed, The Wind From Nowhere is rather unforgiving. The more weighty passages go on a bit too long; after the initial adjustment to its monstrous presence, I’m eventually left a bit numb. Terra Sancta’s Greg Good avoids this type of sensory overload and detachment with gradual changes and subtle variety that impart a strange organic feel to its looming aura; Grove of Whispers doesn’t carry the same level of grace. Tocher does vary his hurricane; it thins out in parts, perhaps recharging itself for the inevitable return, but these passages feel slightly artificial, and seem to arrive in predictable fashion. No storm, alien or otherwise, would behave this way.

There are also additional sampled details scattered here and there, as if cast carelessly about by the tempest. Strange chirping cries, as if from the throats of birds that have never flown in Earth’s air. Static-choked voices of a transmission snatched from the wind’s borders. Water, dripping from the tattered remnants of roofs. These ideas are good ones, intended to provide extra immersion, but the pieces repeat too often and remain too long. A bit more variety and a bit less reliance would have gone a long way to giving the album’s single lengthy track more momentum.

Tocher seems unsure if The Wind From Nowhere is longform ambient; it doesn’t seem quite committed to the expanded structure of that sub-genre, but it also doesn’t stray very far from its initial mammoth entrance. The looping content steals some of its power, and when power is so blatantly on display, it begins to leak impact. My initial impression of this album was of awe, of being in the midst of the fury of otherworldly elements, the thrill of standing in the storm’s eye but being untouched, but as the album progressed and the repetition began to set in, the thrill started to drain away. Grove of Whispers comes very close to reaching the same type of all-encompassing, brain-blasting, cathartic experience delivered by similar acts, but the wind blows itself out before a truly exhilarating peak is reached.

Seetyca – Urbane Raume

vzusdw.org (vzusdw 0012 amb 006), 2014

Stepping away from the huge drones that dominate most of his work, Seetyca puts an emphasis on field recordings on the 24-track netlabel release, Urbane Raume. Sourced by walking through the German city of Leipzing-Lindenau with recording equipment activated, Seetyca has created something that’s less an album of music and more an experiment in sample manipulation. If you’re looking for the drones of Seetyca releases such as The Luminous Deep, Nemeton, or Bleakscapes, you won’t find them here, but this is undoubtedly his work, and one worth a listen.

Seetyca claims to have added no additional sounds to the field recordings of the city; this is no sample-enhanced urban-ambient study like Cities Last Broadcast. Urbane Raume is a two-hour tour of a city, filtered through an electronic lens; even the cover art shows a recognizable building facade, but distorted. As you might expect, given the concept, this is a hit-and-miss listening experience that is most notable as a technical exercise; it simply doesn’t have the depth or character to engage on a profound level.

That’s not to say, however, that such moments don’t exist here. “The Tunnel” is brought to alien life through displaced echoes and a sense of vastness; this is the closest Seetyca comes in this work to his trademark monolithic drones. Through synthetic processing, the German tunnel becomes a wind-swept corridor in some dreamlike city, and it’s impossible to not get swept away from the mundane into something in the far-flung corners of your imagination. Likewise, the sounds of the underground train on “Bahnhof Lindenau” become a hymn to the triumph of human construction – think of it, a high-speed train that runs underground! Our coal-shoveling, steam-driven ancestors would not believe it.

Unfortunately, most of Urbane Raume does not feature the same level of immersion. Many of the tracks are simply looped samples of common everyday street noise: car horns, barking dogs, the murmur of crowds, distant bells tolling, and so on. These tracks feel mechanical, which may be the point in a critical or metaphorical sense, but for a listening experience, they are somewhat less interesting. Tracks such as “Zoo” and “The Lake” seem like missed opportunities to produce something similarly surreal, along the lines of Tor Lundvall’s album Empty City, but perhaps this approach was not Seetyca’s intent. And yet, Urbane Raum feels surreal while sounding familiar, and despite its lengthy running time, it has enough variety to keep it from feeling overly repetitive.

It is admirable that Seetyca attempts different concepts within his already large and growing catalog of releases. While Urbane Raume does not rank with his best for me, it was an interesting experiment to hear. I wish that Seetyca had done a bit more processing of the samples to move the field recordings into stranger territories, but for those searching for a sound experiment on the fringes, Urbane Raume will be a welcome experience.

Horchata – Isolated House

Dark Winter Records (dw047), 2008

At first, I thought I was experiencing a new classic. Ruins are not a new topic for dark ambient, but Horchata’s offering, Isolated House, examines its abandoned building from a new angle. This is a house that appears to be unoccupied, but as we soon discover, this is misleading.

We approach through the “Yard,” in which we can hear the songs of insects and birds, with the brooding aura of the house itself slowly becoming audible as we near it. The sounds of the yard fade away as we enter the “Hall,” and it’s here where we learn that this is no ordinary abandoned house. There is emotion here, caked on as thick as the dust coating the walls, and everywhere, the echoes of the former occupants and what they did while dwelling within, now reduced to alien snatches of sound, tucked away in the still corners of the house.

Michael Palace has been recording as Horchata since 1998, and in the opening moments of Isolated House he displays a keen grasp of the tools of dark ambient. Palace has also tapped into the eerie sense of place and sonic identity that marks the genre at its most effective. The “Hall,” and the “Kitchen” we visit next, reach a high level of immersion and artistry. Palace’s drones intertwine with enviable ease, but what makes these tracks so unsettling is the series of subtle samples that tap into your imagination and create a near-tangible space that leave you breathless with wonder and anticipation. In these tracks, you’ll hear snatches of the world outside – sirens, vehicles, wind – that is only on the other side of the house’s wall, but you may as well be light years away. Hums, creaks, and tiny rattles surround you; these could be the sounds of the house itself, reacting to your presence, or the quiet motions of the remnants roaming these empty rooms. What Palace has done here ranks among the best examples of the sounds of urban haunting I’ve yet come across.

It was quite sobering, however, to realize that Horchata doesn’t maintain the established atmosphere. “Dining Room” and “Bedroom” try to continue the unnerving tour, but the spell wavers. A piano plinks forlorn notes in the bedroom, but it’s too obvious now, and I can feel the effects of the entrance begin to fade. With “Stairs,” “Basement,” and “Backyard,” Palace had an opportunity to ratchet up the unease to otherworldly heights (or depths), to take us on a narrative journey into the strange heart of the shunned house. He could have increased the supernatural presence drifting through the rooms, perhaps providing insight – implied or otherwise – into what happened to the house, and why it remains abandoned.

Unfortunately, Isolated House does none of these things as it winds toward its end. The final half removes the hypnotic series of samples, relying strictly on expanded drone that don’t really evolve enough to maintain the power of what’s been established. The final three tracks are the longest; curious, as they are the least kinetic. Perhaps Palace is symbolizing a crossing into places unknown, but if so, I’d hope he’d have populated these places with the same kind of character as the opening moments.

For all the excellence of its beginning, Isolated House as a whole is a disappointment. Palace seems to lose his way mid-album, moving away from what made the house’s early rooms such a thrilling place to explore. He clearly understands the genre, and possesses loads of technique, but the initially magnetic concept fizzles before the tour is over. The house begins as an entity unto itself, brimming with portent and complexity, but in the end, it’s just another empty building, its potential unfulfilled.

Daina Dieva & Skeldos – Aviliai

Skeldos Records (SLS-02), 2015

Steeped in reflective reverence, Aviliai is an album for solitary moments of introspection and meditation. A collaboration between two Lithuanian artists, Daina Dieva and Skeldos, Aviliai is three tracks of minimal electronic ambiance and mournful vocals. Skeldos (Vytenis Eitminavicius) and the otherwise unnamed (and presumably female) Daina Dieva work very well together, channeling the more reflective and sacred moments of Dead Can Dance, and combining male and female chants as the synths drone in the background.

All three tracks run longer than ten minutes. There’s little development within each track, but it’s not a major issue; Aviliai is about providing a framework and letting the listener dwell within it, and then preserving it. This seems like an ideal soundtrack for deep meditative states. “Smelio” is particularly effective, presenting a hefty chunk of dark ambient drama over its twenty-one-minute span. The drones swell and break like an angry cloudbank, and the sparse vocals are submerged like angels hidden within its folds. From its luxuriously building emergence to its roaring crescendo to its slow fade, the track mimics the arrival and departure of a massive tornado, its majesty and fury leaving us in a state of exhausted awe. This is reverence of a different sort; the reverence for something vast and just slightly understood.

“Miego” returns to the type of dirge that would make Lisa Gerrard proud. The female vocals appear to be in actual language rather than wordless chanting; there are lyrics (in English, and what I assume is Lithuanian) in the CD packaging, but I advise against reading them; this is the type of listening experience that works best when approached with as little definition as possible. Too much meaning can shape it in ways that could minimize the subjective immersion. If you allow the music to enfold you, and don’t ask too many questions, Aviliai becomes a special type of collaborative listening experience, and one that reaches a rare relationship between artist and listener.

Daina Dieva and Skeldos don’t do anything new on Aviliai, but that’s of little consequence when the quality is so high. It is a bit sparse and singular, and its forty-seven minutes seem short, but that’s likely due to the relative lack of variety. Of course, with an album with such a focused sound, it loops wonderfully, but you may find your ears seeking a new direction; everything loses something over extended exposure. Despite its stubborn character, careful writing and execution gives Aviliai unusual power. Even a handful of notes can sound sublime when delivered with such poise.