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.

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