Opollo – Of a Distorted Star

bandcamp, 2017

Ambient music is no stranger to space. There have been so many albums examining the cosmic void that it would seem each visible star has its own unique soundtrack. As the universe can be interpreted in multiple ways, there are albums ranging from yawning nameless terror to wide-eyed saccharine wonder, and everything in between.

Opollo has broken the hold of Earth’s gravity before. It’s been two years since Jarek Leskiewicz launched his vessel beyond gravity’s reach, but while his two previous albums, Rover Tracks (2012) and Stone Tapes (2015), focused on our own planet’s lunar phenomena, Of a Distorted Star is destined for uncharted realms beyond our solar system. It’s a fitting shift in theme, for this is a refined and expanded Opollo, poised to navigate the corners of the starry deep with a newfound sense of assurance.

Opollo’s sound revolves around treated guitar drones, vast swaths of sonic layers that move and shift through gradual chord patterns. His earlier work as Opollo hinted at an epic scope, but shorter track times and experimentation seemed to impose limits on the music’s immersive quality. Of a Distorted Star addresses this with a flourish, as seven of the ten tracks are over five minutes in length. In addition, Leskiewicz’s guitars are more balanced with the music’s synthetic elements, resulting in a cohesive listen that retains its singular identity from start to finish.

There’s still variety here, but it’s carefully focused. The gentle twinkling sequence of “Magnitude” slowly expands into slow fuzzed-out guitar chords, but with keyboards equally prevalent in the mix. Slow-burn growth is nothing new for ambient, but Leskiewicz handles progression with confidence. “To Evaporate” is an even stronger example of this technique, with stirring chords that unfold gloriously against the uncertain light of swollen suns. “Recluse” and “The Man Who Couldn’t Breathe” are heavily cinematic, recalling Moby’s majestic track “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” and soundtrack work such as Marc Streitenfeld’s grand theme from Ridley Scott’s film Prometheus. Leskiewicz has followed this sound before, but never with such confidence, or so effectively.

Of a Distorted Star isn’t just guitar run through filters and effects. There are synthetic elements everywhere, from static-buried voices and keyboard beds to scattered samples and sequenced bursts, but these details never make the music too artificial. “Rapid Rotators,” my favorite moment of the album, and perhaps my favorite Opollo track, is almost completely guitar-free, evoking the awe and peace of orbiting a drifting celestial body while a variety of mechanisms buzz and fiddle in the background. This track seems the epitome of Opollo’s new direction, with its influences found throughout the album. Leskiewicz is no longer satisfied with just laying down overlapping drones, but has pushed his own boundaries with carefully planned and executed experimentation. The album’s closer, “Keep Shining the Dark Light,” is similarly dominated by electronics, and at over seven and a half minutes, is the longest track on the album. Its masterful blend of guitar, keyboard, and silence hints, perhaps, at the next stage of Opollo’s evolution; I do not think its title is accidental.

As signified by its closing track, Of a Distorted Star has captured a rare and delicate balance between what haunts and what illuminates. Opollo has always been too graceful to be termed strictly dark ambient, but its sound is also, thankfully, free from the overly earnest and flighty brightness that marks so many similarly themed ambient albums. Of a Distorted Star understands the mystery of the cosmos, in all its wonder and terror, and is a deeply moving soundtrack to a transforming journey into the unknown.


Memoirs – Memories of Old Friends and Days Past…

bandcamp, 2015

I’m not entirely sure how to categorize this one. Boardwalk ambient? Bioshock plunderphonics? Less an original production and more a curated playlist, Memories of Old Friends and Days Past… is a collection of golden-age radio tunes, mostly in their entirety, given the static-bed treatment by director Memoirs.

The album certainly evokes a former age, dominated as it is by tinny 1930s orchestra and distant warbling vocals, levels and fades delicately manipulated. As these tracks are lifted directly from what I assume is the public domain, they could be recognized by fans of the era, whether the titles Memoirs has given them are new or otherwise. “The Age of Reason” is a highlight, with a muted wistful piano backed by light percussion and incidental horns; a perfect backdrop to the submerged utopia of Rapture from the Bioshock video game series. In a similar vein, “Blue Bell Boy (To The Lost)” is just creepy enough to fit in Kubrick’s haunted Overlook Hotel.

The second half of Memories is less soundtrack and more ambient, though the retro melodies, audio tweaking, and grounded identity tend to nudge it from the subconscious into the realm of active listening. The thin reeds of “Margate Sands” seem lifted from a bit of triumphant propaganda, while “Havre de Grace” creates longing elegance through its lonesome and dramatic strings. The changing pace and mood of “The Good Listener” seem a perfect fit for a silent film, and the album closes with my favorite, “The Devil You Know,” a jaunting and haunting piano ditty that sounds as if it’s coming from the corner of a huge dusty mansion through multiple doors, the halls and rooms silent and decadent.

Memoirs has created an original retro radio station, harking back to a past era of history. The variety keeps the album from becoming stale, and it is a perfect audio portrait of a certain age. Perhaps Memories of Old Friends and Days Past… can be faulted for its lack of original production, but it still delivers an impressive listening and conceptual experience. One final note: if you’re into steampunk, you are hereby required to give this a listen immediately!

Kammarheit – Kollektionen

bandcamp, 2016

Kammarheit is a project that needs little introduction. Pär Boström’s flagship project is celebrated in dark ambient circles, and for good reason: it has an elemental and timeless sound that seems drawn directly from some alternate dimension of meditative shadow. There’s little dispute that albums such as Asleep and Well Hidden and The Starwheel are staples of the genre, if not outright classics, but there’s more depth to Kammarheit.

Kollektionen is, as its title suggests, a collection of tracks taken from various compilations, ranging from the mammoth Kalpamantra comps to more obscure oddities such as Compilation for a Cat. In addition to these, there is an unreleased track, “Arch,” all of which have been remastered by Cryo Chamber mastermind Simon Heath. Available only as a download from Kammarheit’s bandcamp site, Kollektionen is a must-listen, as it contains some of Boström’s best work.

It’s not easy to pinpoint the reason why Kammarheit is considered such an enduring and effective project. On the surface, the music follows a simple template: gradually interlaced beds of drone are punctuated by carefully placed loops. Part of Boström’s talent is in his arrangement. He allows silence to voice itself as much as his content; Kammarheit tracks are never overburdened or sluggish, and rarely do they overstay their welcome. Boström is also a gifted sound sculptor, able to draw strange, hauntingly organic, and near-familiar sounds from his machines. He occasionally imparts a musical sense to his compositions; the muted dulcimer-like chime of “Adrift” and the gracefully solemn chords of “Provenience” are of particular note. Regardless of structure, his work as Kammarheit (and as his superlative conceptual side-project Cities Last Broadcast), is ripe with awe and mystery. Kammarheit tracks seem to breathe, slowly and calmly, with natural rhythm. When the volume is cranked, new details are revealed, and the easier it is to fall into the dimensions unfolding from the speakers – quality headphones are recommended.

Take, for example, “I Found It Weeping in the Field.” It paints a stark landscape under a streaked sky, and the alien whimpers and lonely bleats of the curious entity hidden within the tall grass and ancient hillocks. The emotion is palpable without being threatening; it’s one of the finest examples of how Kammarheit’s work is often not dark at all, but hypnotically strange. It is the voice of abandoned places, and here, of the inhabitants who rarely show themselves.

Two of the most recent tracks, “Arch” and “The Excavation Site,” recall the subterranean majesty of Kammarheit’s 2016 album The Nest. Through use of vast echo and meticulous sonic placement and pacing, one feels instantly transported to the depths of the earth, to huge halls supported by grand pillars that dwarf the surface world’s most massive and aged trees. We can only speculate who carved these places, and why; Boström leaves it for us to decide, limiting his vision to the conjuring of atmosphere that envelops the listener. When Kammarheit adopts this concept, the aesthetics and immersion tread boldly through unmarked territory.

Add the arctic landscape of “Tundra,” the void-embracing “Kosmos,” and the dim serenity of “Landfall,” and Kollektionen starts to become a tour of Boström’s personal dreamlands. Taking this into account, and the album is just that – an album – rather than a jumble of randomly assembled tracks. This is an archive of Kammarheit finery that is, in many ways, the equal of the project’s official albums, and in my view, contains more quality than the six-disc Unearthed retrospective set (which is no slouch). Kollektionen is a genre essential, providing further proof that Boström is high king of the half-lit ambient realms.

蜃気楼MIRAGE – Hotel By Night

bandcamp, 1999

Upon first listen, Hotel By Night from 蜃気楼MIRAGE appears to be little more than a nice  collection of moody and relaxing electro-jazz tunes. There are light synths and electronic percussion lounging in the backdrop of subdued saxophone and piano; think of a less spliffed-out version of classic Thievery Corporation and you’d be on the right track. Peel back the slyness, however, and you’ll discover there’s quite a bit more going on.

蜃気楼MIRAGE, which translates roughly as “miragesync,” seems to be something of a prognosticator. The release of Hotel By Night contains the sense of place and personality of vaporwave despite predating the style’s birth by more than a decade. There’s an entire sub-genre of vaporwave based on elevator and shopping mall music, drawing from the numbing ambiance of such “muzak” in a tongue-in-cheek, wink-wink manner – sometimes to the point of being dismissively critical of the consumerism involved. While Hotel By Night resembles this type of ironically subtle music, it focuses on the ambiance and half-told stories that also mark a number of vaporwave releases.

蜃気楼MIRAGE includes a variety of Japanese-language samples in a handful of tracks, adding a human element to the music. The horns are never intrusive or manic; the music is clearly intended to be the sound of a jazz quartet quietly creating a luxuriant atmosphere in a corner of a dimly lit hotel bar. The tracks on Hotel By Night are all under two and a half minutes in length, but this creates the sense of the listener passing through the darkened lobby, glimpsing a couple in hushed and intimate conversation, which catching a snatch of midnight music wafting from the open door of the bar. In this sense, 蜃気楼MIRAGE has created a magnificent piece of ambient music, as the sense of identity and place is unusually strong; it’s not just about the music, as well-done as it is, but about how it communicates a larger and more personal fiction.

One particularly effective example of this is “goodbye,” in which a woman whispers what are almost certainly painful departing words to her forlorn and now-former lover, perhaps overheard in pieces from across a near-abandoned lobby at two in the morning. There are no horns here, just minimal lo-fi keyboards and guitar tracing lonely, highly cinematic melody. At the track’s close, the woman breathes “ciao” with a near-palpable combination of heartache and conviction, and we’re left only with that sensation. Our imagination is required to paint the rest of the picture, if we so desire, or we can just let the emotion define it.

A hotel by night is a place of relaxed luxury, and can also be a place of secrets best kept in the shadows of expensive rented rooms and silent corridors. Within this surprisingly dense twenty-four minutes is a world of lazily curling cigarette smoke, half-empty tumblers of scotch, loosened silk ties, and lipstick-smudged napkins. The horns are perfectly pitched and paced, the electronics suitably mixed down, and the atmosphere as thick as the velvet night outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. 蜃気楼MIRAGE is an anonymous project, but it’s fitting: both the project and its music hint at something beyond the surface. At a mere twenty-four minutes, Hotel By Night may be short on content, but it’s a powerfully realized and densely atmospheric sliver of the hidden corners of urban high-rise nocturnal life.

Opollo – Rover Tracks

Self-released (bandcamp), 2012

While most of the music I listen to is purely electronic, my favorite band is the Cocteau Twins. Something about the combination of Elizabeth Fraser’s voice and Robin Guthrie’s guitar creates an experience for me like nothing else I’ve heard. While the Twins have been defunct for years, Guthrie is still releasing instrumental guitar-pop that retain the roots of the sound he helped pioneer.

I bring this up because I always wondered what Guthrie could do if he applied his signature sound to a more experimental template. He’s hinted at it, particularly in his collaborations with keyboard minimalist Harold Budd, but he’s always seemed hesitant to fully abandon the rock-based structure where he made his name.

Fortunately, others have taken his cue. Jarek Leskiewicz, who has made postmodern guitar-based music across a number of releases with numerous collaborators – most notably Dean Garcia of the celebrated shoegazer act Curve – has released Rover Tracks, a collection of guitar-drone space-ambient music under the name Opollo. Rover Tracks (double meaning duly noted) isn’t going to redefine these well-trodden genres, but Leskiewicz handles it with pace and style, creating a captivating listen that hints at greatness.

There’s a strong soundtrack quality to the album. Opener “kepler-22b” would have fit perfectly into Danny Boyle’s film Sunshine, with its looped guitar chords and distant washes, and the developing crescendo and looped bass chords of “its final resting place” would be ideal for a closing credit sequence. Leskiewicz varies his approach, sometimes using his processed guitars to create a wall of feedback among his keyboard tones (the grandiose “above the rover”), other times resorting to elongated single chords that have been sampled and filtered (the contemplative “subsatellite”). Rover Tracks can fall into periods of harshness, and it’s here where I feel the structure becomes a bit too artificial and strays too far from the peaceful drama defining most of the album, but this rarely happens.

Where Leskiewicz really shines is when he allows his electronics to become the focal point. The glorious twelve-and-a-half-minute “pur-lazarus” is one of my all-time favorite pieces of space ambient music, gliding slowly through the cosmos on the back of a series of gradual pads and keys that conjure a wondrous sense of interstellar awe. The track shifts about halfway through, morphing smoothly into a series of lightly distorted passes and distant guitar buoyed by an endless synth drone. It’s an incredibly elemental track, and I can’t help but be drawn into the embrace of distant stars and nebulae, while moons and comets drift past in the vacuum. The track “tiran reef” is quieter, but no less majestic, thanks to a distant bass pulse and floating bits of guitar and drone. There’s just enough drama to keep things from getting too airy, but neither does Rover Tracks fall into the lightless abyss of its darker cousins.

Rover Tracks is a well-crafted album from an artist who grasps the power of drone and understands how to fuse it with elements experimental guitar. Leskiewicz’ debut as Opollo is a tad rough about the edges, and isn’t always consistent, but it’s full of lengthy passages that showcase ambient skill and adherence to concept. If only Robin Guthrie could escape Earth’s orbit in such an assured manner.

Kave – The Language of Stones

bandcamp, 2015

Although The Language of Stones is a 2015 release, it’s actually a precursor to Kave’s 2012 debut album, Dismal Radiance.  On Kave’s bandcamp site, sole member Bram Gollin states that the content was recorded in 2011 when  he was “experimenting a lot.”  He goes on to say that “the sounds found on this recording completely differ from what Kave has become now,” and he decided to release the early material for historical perspective.  He’s exactly right, of course.  While The Language of Stones isn’t full-blown dark ambient, and doesn’t feature the confidence of Dismal Radiance, it’s still a quality EP that provides interesting perspective on how Kave has evolved.

The Language of Stones centers around field recordings such as trickling water, rain, birds, frogs, and insects.  Coupled with the iconic carved stone figure on the cover, and the connection to mysticism is obvious.  The title track ventures close to New Age territory – it’s similar to Gydja’s Umbilicus Maris in this regard – but the atmosphere is a bit too haunting.  It offers a state of reverence, but to something that’s not immediately apparent; something just out of reach of normal perception, but permeating the surroundings nevertheless.  “The Ancient Gardens” explores this a bit more overtly, with the natural sounds backed by a strange sampled loop, a single drone, and distant bells.  “Lunar Calling” carries a stronger sense of space, and a good deal of added weight, and the sounds of the surf conjure an isolationist and reflective moment on the beach beneath a watchful moon.  There’s not a lot of question about what Kave is trying to accomplish here, and yes, it’s been done before, but it’s handled with admirable finesse despite its minimal structure.

The last two tracks change the approach, stripping away most of the natural sounds and allowing the synthetic ambiance to expand.  It’s here that the bridge to Dismal Radiance is clear.  The rain and forest atmospheres of “Nature’s Last Breath” slowly fade, leaving only a mournful drone; it’s obviously a dirge to what has been lost.  “The Veil” is the EP’s gloomiest track, and follows the Kammarheit school of deep chords surrounded by synthetic wind and sampled crackles.  Like Kammarheit, however, the melancholy is beautiful, reflective, and almost soothing.  It would have been easy for Gollin to drown his compositions with overly eager moods, but he’s studied the genre well, and exercises appropriate restraint.

At twenty-five minutes in length, The Language of Stones is perhaps a bit light on content.  It’s not lacking in talent, however, and as it loops wonderfully, it’s more than well-suited for background listening or for enhanced introspection.  Gollin went from here to record an album that separates itself from its influences, but this EP provides ample evidence of Kave’s evolution.