Subterrestrial – The City Beneath

Black Drone (13 Series, 13-7), 2010; remaster: Subterrestrial Records (SUB007), 2011

When an album proclaims to be inspired by Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking film Metropolis, I tend to sit up and take notice. The City Beneath doesn’t appear to be directly influenced by the film, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the connection isn’t there. The album examines the undercity of the oppressed working class through a single track of minimal drones and incidental samples. At a mere forty-eight minutes in length, and with a distinct sense of evolution, the album isn’t really pure longform, but does a fine job of mixing styles with a sprinkling of variety.

The majority of The City Beneath is a simple series of gradually evolving drone. It’s conceptually reminiscent of Neuropol, Tholen’s dark ambient portrait of a nightmarish AI-run city, but Subterrestrial uses neither Tholen’s attention to detail nor thick sense of foreboding. The City Beneath is doubtless a place of shadows and vast spaces, but it’s a place one can get lost in without fear of falling prey to roaming automated sentries. Here’s where the longform takes hold; in the lengthy passages where the drones hover and dissipate, it’s easy to slip into a half-awake state of imagined wandering through a labyrinth of abandoned tunnels and chambers. Subterrestrial shows skillful attention here, as the drone moves in barely discernible ways, nudging the listener along without resorting to overt shifts in content. The buried harmonics vibrate in narrow niches, and the tones waver in slight intervals. It’s the type of record that urges you into completely new places without your being consciously aware of when you arrive or when you leave.

Subterrestrial isn’t satisfied with this, however. There are instances, largely in the album’s initial third, of sudden samples splitting the murk with scant warning. Voices gabble in the distance; at least, they sound like voices. The shrill call of sirens echo far away, and a buzzing crackle spits and starts before being cut off with jarring abruptness. Around twenty minutes in, there are some old-school analog keyboard sweeps that are quite out of place; this is an underground world we’re trekking through, not a 1950s outer space romp. I found these piercing tones quite unwelcome, as they represent a break in the mood; even on multiple listens, they can’t disappear too soon.

During the final four minutes, the drones evaporate completely, replaced by singular piano chords that follow melancholy and minimal melodies. This is a surprising conceptual choice, given the nature of the majority of the album, but Tholen (and many others) have used a similar element to impart a feeling of humanity among synthetically generated atmosphere. Simply put, it works, but it’s unusual to apply it to a longform series of minimal drone. Whether it fits in this case is up to the listener to decide.

Taken as a whole, The City Beneath is largely a well-conceived exercise in minimal ambient aiming to convey a certain theme and concept. It doesn’t quite work as a fully immersive ambient experience, as the well-established hypnosis is interrupted by experimental samples, but as a work of cinematic inspiration and tribute along the lines of Robert Rich & Lustmord’s Stalker, it succeeds in exploring its muse from an alternate angle. Subterrestrial’s minimal style is impressively effective, making The City Beneath a fascinating place to explore.

Mika Bjorklund – Risen

Webbed Hand Records (WH066), 2005

Apparently, Mika Bjorklund was an eighteen-year-old student living in Finland when he created Risen in 2005 along with two other albums, Nocturne and Gunkanjima. Two compilation tracks aside, he’s not been heard from since, which is a right shame, for he was a budding ambient artist with an unusual grasp of the genre, especially for one so young.

Risen is composed of two tracks, “Risen” and “Harmaa Hiljaisuus,” each running exactly thirty minutes in length. There’s a powerful sense of an untold story here – something Bjorklund excels at – which gives the album a rare strength of identity. Despite its somewhat muffled audio quality, Risen manages to capture and develop an oddness and deep mystery that stays with you long after its hour plays out.

Both tracks are somewhat minimal and mechanical in structure, but Bjorklund plays with your anticipation, looping elements at unexpected times, defying our sense of continuity even as you fumble for the familiar. On “Risen,” it is the portentous sound of heavy footsteps which are the culprit, lurching about like someone (or something) trapped in your attic. Who (or what) is up there? Is it the risen of the title? Do you dare investigate? Or are you the risen, strapped to a table and unable to move, as an unseen entity circles you with nervous footfalls, unsure of your ultimate fate? Bjorklund isn’t telling, and the album is the better for it.

Encased in swaths of noise which swell and recede with organic ease, the track blossoms into beautiful chord sequences backed by waves radio feedback and clear peals of sound, as those unknown footsteps continue. The feel of the track shifts here, from the menacing to the mysterious; it’s admirable how Bjorklund changes the mood with such subtle shifts in sound, without breaking the immersion. Twenty-two minutes in, when sparkles of synth notes appear, things fall into place with a logic of rhythm you weren’t fully aware was there. The layers of noise begin to fall away until only the keyboard chords are left – yes, there’s music here as well, and it’s just as effective as the ambiance.

“Harmaa Hiljaisuus,” which translates roughly as “gray clouds,” is a bit more ominous, but no less effective. Beginning with a requisite processed drone of noise, the track slowly unfolds into a tapestry of far-off buzzes, deep looped booms, and the beacon of bells, somewhere in the murk; near, but always out of sight. Once again, Bjorklund loops wisps of noise to and fro, gradually reintroducing them until they slowly become familiar; perhaps we are forever lost in this fog, and are retracing our steps, searching for the source of the bell but never finding it. As with “Risen,” the structure of the track is mechanical, and in fact it’s increasingly so here, but with the skillful way in which the sounds merge with each other, it manages to avoid repetition in spite of the long track length and similar feel.

Risen is longform ambient at its most effective. This is a genre that works best with an aesthetic undercurrent that moves below the surface, and Bjorklund uses samples and field recording in a measured but subtle way to tell a story that becomes an integral part of the experience. In fact, the listener is the one that fills in the narrative details. The album is an hour long, but it feels wider and deeper, and when it is done, you emerge from the journey with a sense of adventure and mystery that comes from only the best works of ambient. Mika Bjorklund may have had a short career to date, but it was a brilliant one.