Tor Lundvall – A Dark Place

DAIS Records (DAIS110), 2018

A new Tor Lundvall album is always an intriguing mystery. His discography runs the gamut from instrumental ambient to vocal synthpop to a combination of the two, but the albums slip between the conventions of genre – a fine fit, considering the shadowed and ghostly template that pervades the music. There has always been something compellingly uncertain about Lundvall’s music; a large part of the listening attraction, as the listener is presented a landscape in which to roam, free to discover secrets and details present only in her or his head.

When word emerged that Lundvall’s new album would mark a return to his vocal style, I’m betting eyebrows were raised. I know mine were. Not in a disappointing way, mind you, but as it had been nine years since the last album in this format, Sleeping and Hiding, the news was a surprise, especially considering that Lundvall had entered new territories of his trademark spectral-minimalist instrumental ambient. I must also confess that I have always preferred Lundvall’s music to his vocals, with the exception of the sublime Yule EP, so when A Dark Place arrived, I approached it with the slightest edge of hesitation.

My concerns quickly evaporated. A Dark Place is not only the best of Lundvall’s vocal work, it is the most emotional music he’s ever produced, and it is a refined display of his amorphous ambient style. In describing the album, Lundvall says:

Finding the words to describe this album is almost as difficult as the past couple of years. There is a lot of pain, fear and sadness wrapped into these eight songs. More so than usual, I think. The loss of my father in 2015 and coping with his absence certainly hangs heavily here.

This is a welcome insight, especially considering Lundvall’s traditionally reclusive nature, and it sets the mood for what is to come.

Lundvall’s lyrics have taken on a new sophistication. They are delivered in rhyming couplets drenched in reverb, and are given ample space by the music. Lundvall’s high voice follows delicate melodies with confident ease; he has never sounded this comfortable. As Lundvall is also a practiced painter, there’s a stark visual quality to his minimal poetry, often using motifs of color and light. However, there’s an added layer to A Dark Place: it appears that in some cases, the words are spoken by one who has lost someone dear, while in others, the spirit itself is the one mourning. The split nature of the ghostly face gracing the album’s cover – Lundvall always creates the art for his albums, and sometimes his paintings influence his music – seems to support such a duality. Whether the face is half Lundvall and half Lundvall’s departed father is open to interpretation, but this two-sided theme is strongly apparent throughout A Dark Place.

Compared to Lundvall’s ambient-leaning work (Empty City, The Shipyard), A Dark Place is much more structured. An unobtrusive beat sets the tempo, plodding away thoughtfully, and Lundvall surrounds it with the vaporous synth washes and odd bits of samples that have always defined his music. The music is more focused and grounded, as it is the foundation for the vocals, but it’s immediately obvious that A Dark Place owes a great deal to the recent albums The Park, The Violet-Blue House, and Rain Studies. The same hazy sense of place and half-lit atmosphere is present, but Lundvall builds on these tropes with electric guitar – a surprise that is included thoughtfully and naturally – and an increased but gentle presence of processed noise (most prevalent on “The Moment”). From the perfectly paced bassline, crackling static, and synth tones of “Negative Moon” to the open pastoral night-space of “Haunted By The Sky”, Lundvall’s music is as evocative as ever.

A Dark Place belies its title. Even when Lundvall sings about “pale fingers sharp as knives”, the music never revels in its darkness, always reaching out from the shadows. Lundvall’s music has been called cold and impersonal in the past, but these critiques cannot be applied to this graceful album. Structurally, it’s a culmination of what has given Lundvall’s music its unique sound; it acknowledges the past while remaining experimental, and has found an ideal balance between music and voice. The poignant longing of “The Next World” would seem to be voiced by both the living and the dead; it’s a celebration of life from the perspective of what comes after, and I’d argue it’s the most touching song Lundvall has ever written. The track is a fitting closure to what is, ultimately, as moving a portrait of loss as we’re ever likely to hear. A Dark Place is a reminder that there cannot be dark without light, and Lundvall has crafted a guide for acceptance.


Tor Lundvall – Rain Studies

Dais Records (DAIS 089.3), 2016

Rain Studies, the second all-new album contained in Tor Lundvall’s 2016 box set, Nature Laughs As Time Slips By, is something of a culmination of styles. While it’s not as cohesive in concept as The Violet-Blue House or Night Studies – the former (also contained in the box set) being the soundtrack to a specific locale while the latter (from Lundvall’s previous box set Structures and Solitude) portrayed the nocturnal identity of a single town – it remains a focused collection of music that’s also a showcase for how Lundvall’s curious and mystical style of ambient composing operates.

Rain Studies is not merely “Tor Lundvall backed by the sounds of rain”, although such examples do exist: “Girl Through Rainy Window,” “Music in the Walls,” “Pastel Sky.” Such tracks typify the recent direction Lundvall has taken: hazy blooming drones and minimal loops that are neither overly dark nor too flighty, and always with one eye fixed on the shadowed realm of the imagined.  His work – both his music and his painting – are haunting without morbidity, mysterious without dread; his music is sometimes labeled “ghost ambient” for good reason. Lundvall has always excelled at evoking the waking dream and the drawing forth the unusual, and he has proven throughout his discography that he has a talent for doing this via the sparsest of frameworks. If the entirety of Rain Studies followed this structure, it would be remarkable, but Lundvall moves beyond his own established concept.

“City and Sea”, with its lonely tapping percussion and vast atmosphere, recalls the parallel-world urban setting of Empty City; so does “Clouds Over Town,” painting the skies with heavy skies that are as beautiful as they are imposing, while the city sprawls beneath, full of people and industry. The metallic loops of “Clouds Over Town” also bring back elements of The Shipyard, one of Lundvall’s most enduring instrumental ambient albums; indeed, traces of that album run strong throughout Rain Studies.

But again, Rain Studies is an album that surprises as often as it satisfies. The music-box melody of “Rain Song”, fringed by calm rain and one of Lundvall’s strange trademark voice-like samples, breaks up the ambience with elegant pacing; it’s a mid-point interlude, a trace of Lundvall’s earlier and more melodic work. The sublime piano of “Blue Glass” combines this with his recent flair for the ambient, and the icy-yet-warming “Melting Snow” could have fit on the Yule EP comfortably and naturally. The subtle drama of “Overlook” and “Distant Silver Light” are reminiscent of the sense of place that has always marked Lundvall’s work, with the album The Park – also included on CD in this box set – being perhaps the best example of describing a setting through music that he has yet achieved. “The Shipyard in Rust” closes Rain Studies on a high note, with the distant hints of machines emerging slowly through tinted haze; it revisits The Shipyard with a welcoming ear.

One detail that occurred to me while listening to Rain Studies is how often Lundvall includes colors in the tracks of his titles. Indeed, five of the thirteen tracks contain a color; six if you consider “rust” as a color. I can’t help but wonder if there’s a connection between his painting and his music; there would certainly appear to be, with one format feeding the other. Lundvall’s music is a soundtrack to his art, and his art gives shape and form to his music; it’s something of a symbiotic relationship, and while Lundvall’s art graces his album covers, you don’t necessarily need to observe both in order to appreciate one or the other. They are related, but live in separate spaces. Rain Studies is an experience that works its way into you slowly, nestling with a sigh into your subconscious, and makes you see the world through its eyes. Such is the effect of Tor Lundvall, who continues cementing his place as one of the quiet geniuses of ambient music.

Tor Lundvall – The Violet-Blue House

Dais Records (DAIS 089.2), 2016

At an initial glance, Tor Lundvall may not be a prolific artist, but he is a dedicated and thoughtful one. As the year closes, Dais Records has once again released a five-disc box set of Lundvall’s curiously hypnotic creations: Nature Laughs as Time Slips By. In the spirit of his previous set, 2013’s Structures and Solitude, this newest release contains a first-time CD version (The Park, a previously LP-only album from 2015) and an expanded version of earlier work (Field Trip, first released on cassette in 2011), but this time, there are three discs of all-new material. Lundvall has been hard at work.

The first of these is a second collection of early ambient material, titled Insect Wings, Leaf Matter, and Broken Twigs, the first volume of which appeared in 2009. The final two albums of Nature Laughs are new, containing the most recent of Lundvall’s themed instrumental music: Rain Studies and The Violet-Blue House.

If this review was to properly explore all of this material, it would be quite a weighty read. (I have already reviewed The Park, which was my Album of the Year in 2015). The Violet-Blue House seems to be something of a centerpiece for this set, as there is a promotional video for it, as well as unique oil portraits inspired by the album available with the set on a very limited basis, painted by Lundvall himself. (Hard at work, indeed.)

Like most of Tor Lundvall’s instrumental ambient, the music of The Violet-Blue House is deceptively simplistic. Taking cues from The Park and Night Studies, the electronic tones, gentle passes of noise, and sparse rhythms are stripped down, when compared to earlier albums such as Empty City. And yet, Lundvall’s ability to create a unique sense of space continues to develop.

The Violet-Blue House is, in a sense, a guided tour of the house itself. And this is a deeply odd and surreal place, existing on the border of dream and reality. Lundvall’s music has always defied easy categorization; while its effect is certainly ambient, its form is elusive. Most of the tracks are around three minutes in length, and many feature loops of keyboard tones and percussive taps, with the calls of eerie voices and whistling drifting phantom-like through the atmospheres that spill from Lundvall’s imagination. The mood is utterly unique: simultaneously detached as if viewed remotely, and deeply immersed. This house is not a dark place, but it is a shadowed one, rife with secrets in every corner and behind every door. It is a place that invites wandering, and we can only guess at its nature and origins.

We approach along a “Garden Path”, accompanied by an analog bass sequence and looped taps that impart a sense of motion. We hear a distant voice, perhaps beckoning us inside the house itself, and the furtive rustles of something unseen. “Her Shadow” is an example of Lundvall’s ambient skill at its height, creating a vivid mental portrait of something intimate and mysterious; twin tones mesh with distant muffled metallic clinks and whistles, building a mood that’s thick and compelling without being ominous. “Night Breeze” provides a glance outside, to an empty porch where wind chimes are disturbed by a stray gust of gentle wind. The footstep-like taps and whistled half-tune of “Wanderer” resolve themselves into the signs of someone in the house; perhaps it is us, perhaps not. “Soft Colors” and “Lavender Twilight” display the half-lit hues Lundvall has draped over the album; the house is in a place of perpetual dusk, comforting and unreal.

The final two tracks, “Paper Hearts” and “Moon Worship”, show Lundvall experimenting with his usual template. Each track runs past the ten-minute mark, aiming to deepen the immersion through drawn-out tones and reduction of momentum. Lundvall has tinkered with longform before, and is skilled in the format; here, his created shadows lengthen to reach beyond the walls of the house, into the uncertain country beyond. Length aside, the tracks follow the same structure as the rest of the album, providing us ample opportunity to remain in one place and drink in the strange and lulling aura enveloping us.

The Violet-Blue House is both warmer and darker than Lundvall’s recent work. It’s easy to apply the “haunted house” template, but Lundvall’s ghosts aren’t harmful, just very, very unusual. The observational portraits of albums like Empty City and The Shipyard have been replaced by an exploration of a place that’s very much unreal; while The Park teased with this dreamlike border, Lundvall has entered this surreal haven fully. He seems at home here, among the apparitions and specters that roam the halls and rooms, and thanks to the depth of his conjuring powers, so do we.

Tor Lundvall – The Park

Dais Records (DAIS 068), 2015

On The Park, his newest instrumental ambient study, Tor Lundvall takes the tiniest of steps into the world we all share. This is somewhat significant, as much of Lundvall’s previous work has dwelt purely in space of his own devising. Prior efforts, such as The Shipyard (2012) and Night Studies (2013), have revealed places only Lundvall can see, and his music serves as a bridge between him, the tour guide of sorts, and us, the visitors.

The Park, however, is somewhere anyone can go to, at any time. Lundvall even lists the locations that inspired him on the LP’s package (Dais Records has also generously included a download code), so for the first time, we can experience these places for ourselves. This seeming down-to-earth and proximal nature is reflected in the music too; Lundvall’s work has always been masterfully sparse, but here, the surreal edge that dominated past releases has been blurred. There’s an increase in traditional instrumentation – pipes in “The Park,” guitar chords in “Slate Blute” and “Open Spaces” – and the noticeable presence of field recordings (birds, rain, wind in trees, scattered voices), sourced from the real-life locales. The analog tones and light percussion that are Lundvall trademarks are still here, as are the slightly eerie atmospherics, but these have taken a back seat. This park is not a strange place – at least, not entirely – but a place for quiet observation and reflection. With its march-like metallic tapping, “Nature Trail” carries a strong sense of pace, undoubtedly intended to convey the hiking experience, while “Rest Area” is formless ambiance, allowing the mind to drift while the body is in respite.

Lundvall’s work has always had a narrative undercurrent, and it’s developed intentionally here, providing the listener with a clearer passage of time and place. We move through the various locales, through a heavy layer of “Humidity” (which shares much, in terms of structure and odd distant mechanical echoes, with The Shipyard….perhaps those selfsame docks are within earshot?) until “Late Afternoon” descends with a sampled sing-song that recalls the chiming of a public clock (and again, the nebulous dreamlike mood is instantly reminiscent of Night Studies). It is time for us to make our way out, and we do, via a “Woodland Path” that is gradually becoming thick with shadow, with the tiniest dollop of tension carried by the echoing loops, strange animal-like calls, and persistent percussion. It’s here that the old surreality begins to show itself; who can say how the park might transform when empty, and what may roam these same paths and fields under the veil of night? We are left to wonder. “Closing Time” ups the ominous factor, with more bits of audible strangeness reaching our ears from the now-dark park interior, the slightly unnerving tones and measured drumming giving us the sense that we’re leaving behind a place that we may have visited, but we barely understood: we saw only the surface.

Only time will tell, but The Park bears the hallmark of a transitional record. Neither as dark in mood nor as experimental in structure as previous releases, and communicating a greater range of mood, it’s a fascinating record that shows Lundvall attempting to shift his established palette. While it’s understandable that some may not welcome his new approach, it’s an experiment whose success far outweighs any perceived inconsistencies. The Park is not as cohesive as, for example, Empty City or Yule, but it’s not intended to be. The more you listen, the more the subtle differences stand out. Partly a place of meditative solace, partly a place of deep velvet mystery, partly a place of things unseen, The Park is undoubtedly worth exploring.

Tor Lundvall – The Shipyard

Dais Records (LP, DAIS 031), 2012, (CD, DAIS 052-4), 2013

In the sea of ambient sameness, there are plenty of reasons to appreciate Tor Lundvall. Subscribing to no tradition or genre besides his own expression, he has carved out his own corner in the realm of electronic ambiance, and it’s a place uniquely his. Lonely without being depressive, personal in spite of its apparent coldness, powerfully illustrative, and possessed of a depth that belies its minimalistic design, Lundvall’s work consistently excels, and he’s one of the few artists whose new releases I seek immediately, without a second thought. The world he shows us is our own, but from an alien perspective – or perhaps, a perspective without preconceptions It’s a place we may have visited, but have never seen in quite the way Lundvall does, and he’s presented his interpretation for us to ponder. Throughout his vast discography, his powers of insight and transportation have remained steady, and it’s his instrumental work, like The Shipyard, where his unique brand of ambient is most effective.

The Shipyard was originally released on vinyl in 2012 from Dais Records, and was later followed by a digital release, as well as a CD as part of the Structures and Solitude limited box set on Dais in 2013. Like previous efforts, The Shipyard isn’t really “true” dark ambient; Lundvall’s music has been called “ghost ambient” for its haunting quality, but the music moves between various shades of gray without giving in to full-blown anxiety or profound despair. In Lundvall’s vision, there is strong mystery, which may very well cause unease, but he never shows us the source directly; all he tells us is there might be something over there you’ve never seen. And the strangest part is that he does this to places we find familiar.

Of course, the inspiration this time is obvious: the docks and wharfs of an everyday, normal harbor, but filtered through Lundvall’s ever-so-slightly distorted lens. The sounds of industry churn and crank in the distance, but it’s up to our imaginations to discern the actual work being done. Compared to prior releases, The Shipyard is a bit more mechanical and measured, but that’s by design, given the topic. It’s pleasantly minimal and old-school too; the looped clanks and sonar-like tones are reminiscent of a much less aggressive Nitzer Ebb or Suicide Commando. There’s little percussion here, but plenty of gentle rhythm; you get the sense that this shipyard is being observed from a distance, with only echoes of the vessels and the various tools maintaining them managing to reach your ears. The fog is eerie and thick, and the shapes within are uncertain and wavering. And yet, the detachment is oddly soothing, as if the distance between provides solace while the great outlines of the ships loom through the mist beyond.

The album flows beautifully, moving from space to space with easy washes, chimes, reverbed tones, a few lonely string-plucks, and far-away keys. “Angels at Sea” is a bit of a departure, with twin loops of a plaintive human voice and a winsome horn, but it’s well-placed, changing up the pace just enough without upsetting the balance. The two closing tracks, “Blue Rain Ships” and “Grey Rain Ships,” are companion pieces, each lasting well past the Lundvall-standard three-to-four minute running time, and are the closest to traditional dark ambient, with a darker atmosphere, heavier feel, increased focus on looped samples, and a greater abstraction in structure. The tracks play off each other wonderfully, and are two of the darkest and haunting pieces Lundvall has produced. Also included is an unreleased demo track that was not on the original LP, and it is interesting to see how it influenced the album’s identity.

Tor Lundvall is quietly accumulating an impressive body of ambient work. There are few ambient artists I hold in such high regard. While he’s still relatively unheralded, his music is unique, highly immersive, and provides just enough outline to engage the listener’s imagination without revealing too much. As always, his own acclaimed artwork decorates the album, and is the perfect visual companion to the sounds within. Carefully arranged, with no sound superfluous or out of place, conceptually solid while retaining an experimental edge, The Shipyard is further evidence that Tor Lundvall remains one of ambient music’s hidden masters.

Tor Lundvall – Night Studies

Dais Records (DAIS 052-5), 2013

Some albums just sound organic, even when they’re synthetically produced.  It’s as if the composer is able to somehow draw the essence of the music from the environment – air, earth, people – and distill them perfectly for the listeners.  I’d imagine such a process to begin with one being completely open and aware of the exact moment or aura, selecting what sensations to translate, and then being able to produce the sounds that reflect the idea as closely as possible.

Tor Lundvall’s Night Studies is such an album.  Released on CD only as part of Structures and Solitude, a five-album box set courtesy of Dais Records, Night Studies is a collection of eighteen short instrumental pieces based around the theme of the night as a time and place of silence at the edge of the ominous; something to be experienced on one’s own.  Lundvall’s past work has often drawn from a similar concept – that of a time or place observed and interpreted by an individual – and he has been able to insert the listener into his sonic spaces with a gentle and deft ease that’s remarkable.  As Lundvall is also a a painter – his paintings can influence his music, and vice versa – I wonder if his enhanced creative ability allows him to do this so effectively; he painted over a hundred pieces to coincide with this album.  Or, it could just be that he’s just quite talented indeed.

Only one of the tracks of Night Studies runs longer than three minutes.  These are snapshots, but all are part of the same photo album.  Lundvall weaves his nocturnal dreams with the same subtle keyboards and minimal tones from his previous work, but there are new shadows here – not threatening ones, mind you, but the trace of the unknown, all wrapped within the mysterious arms of night.  Some (“Soft Blue Light”, “Night Paths”) contain gentle melody as their foundation, while others (“Disturbance on Wood Street,” “3:00 AM,” “Is Someone There?”) are tiny potent packages of dark ambient that are some of the most deliciously creepy bits in Lundvall’s extensive discography.  Again, the darkness is not hopeless or foreboding, but mysterious.  And yet, I’d argue that you could splice and loop these pieces together and the result would rival anything on dark ambient flagship labels such as Cyclic Law and Cold Meat Industry; they’re that evocative.  And Lundvall is able to conjure these dreams without focusing on layered processed drones or series of dramatic washes; this is the night, stripped to its essence.

Lundvall’s night is populated, too, but only as echo and impression.  “Factory Glow” hints at the ghosts of activity with distant clinks and metallic brushing, and the faint boat-horns and clanks of “Ship Lights” could have slid in very nicely to his 2012 release The Shipyard (also available on CD for the first time as part of this box).  Several of the tracks feature far-off voices; small bits of song that might have been snatched out of the air as they drift from an open window.  “Vacant Lot” has what sounds like the bark of a dog amidst its wind-stirred concrete.  These are places where people have recently passed through, but they’re gone now, and there’s only us, the wandering listeners, to hear the traces of their passage.

“Quadrant Hill,” one of the longer tracks, gives us a glimpse into a sleeping community, with quiet looped drones quietly broken by odd taps, bells, and unknown night-noises.  We pass by the “Red Window” and wonder what is occurring within its crimson glow; it could be anything, and we will never know…except, perhaps, in our dreams.  The cold-yet-warm tones of “Moonrise” segue smoothly into the deep hums and spaced tapping echoes of “Smiling Moon.”  Our nocturnal sojourn ends as gradually as it begins; “Blurred Dream” is a half-remembered haze that fades as we return to ourselves, to be greeted by the warmth of the day with “Waking Light,” but there’s an unmistakable undercurrent of the dark paths we’ve walked tonight – the thrill of the unknown, which makes us realize how little we truly know about the world in which we live.

Best listened to alone, and at night (of course!), Night Studies allows the listener to roam without moving.  Lundvall excels at creating spaces for the listener to explore, and this shadow-soaked collection of darkly brilliant compositions involve the listener’s imagination at a deep level few albums do.  Tor Lundvall might not sport the same notoriety or underground appeal of music labelled as “dark ambient,” but there comes a point when labels don’t matter.  For all its starkness and brevity, Night Studies is, at the very very least, as immersing and inspiring as its more detailed contemporaries, while never becoming overwhelming, intrusive, or dark for dark’s sake.  Lundvall has always done more with less, and he’s at the height of his powers here – both observational and translating.  This group of distilled nocturnal dreams is, very simply, unforgettable.