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.

Albert Zaigrov – Vacuum

R.K.B. Studio 13 (RKB-041), 2016

It’s always a tricky thing when an artist reminds you of another. Such is the case with Albert Zaigrov’s five-track EP Vacuum, which combines traditional beat-driven synth with pensive dark ambient to impressive effect, much in the way Forma Tadre once did with the classic album Navigator. Zaigrov doesn’t simply copy Andreas Meyer, but the versatile composition feels very similar.

Vacuum also features a supporting story of sorts: an unnamed man awakens in a surreal dreamspace, and wanders about searching for answers and an escape. The music can be interpreted as a soundtrack to this journey, but the music is so well-done, the concept adds to the experience rather than relying on it. There are two brief free-form atmospheric pieces, “Dark Corners” and “Garden,” which impart a narrative sense while establishing mood. In a display of Zaigrov’s creative talent, “Dark Corners” centers on a spaced looped tone while layered drone defines “Garden.” Neither track is very long, but they don’t need to be; while they are nicely placed intervals for the EP overall, they aren’t merely filler.

The remaining three tracks show Zaigrov at his most focused. Melodic piano is echoed by retro synthesizers, while minimal percussion and beats flesh out the framework. “Vacuum” and “Utopia” are similar in mood, but both tracks are very well put together; Zaigrov clearly understands how to assemble a satisfying synth track. The high-pitched piano is slightly nervous, and the backing drones a bit ominous, but the ambiance never becomes too oppressive. The momentum provided by the beats is perfectly paced, neither too slow nor too frantic, and the rhythms all play off each other in impressive fashion.

Vacuum culminates with “Narcotic Drain,” which combines the atmospherics and the percussion to great effect. The beat is slowed and distanced, while the loops and keys provide the same gray surrealism that dominates the EP. Like Meyer, Zaigrov’s songwriting is matched by his sense of the aesthetic; while there is a variety of style at work on Vacuum, the feel remains the same, never wavering from its half-lit fog-wreathed atmosphere.

Without question, Vacuum is a remarkable listen. Zaigrov has produced highly listenable music that also swirls with strange mystery. As good as the EP is, there’s clearly a good deal of untapped potential, and not just because Vacuum is only twenty minutes in length. One gets the feeling that Zaigrov has just begun to hone his craft, and it would be no surprise if subsequent releases make good on the EP’s promise. On its own, though, Vacuum is a wonderful throwback to the thrilling early days of electro, when creativity and solid production reigned over studio trickery.

Kolhoosi 13 – Politbyro

bandcamp, 2013

Mixing elements of post-industrial noise with synthetic soundscapes, Finnish duo Kolhoosi 13 presents their self-released debut, Politbyro. On their project’s bandcamp page, Juho Lepistö and Niko Salakka declare that Kolhoosi 13 “delves deep into the past of The East.” Such a statement might sound familiar to fans of dark ambient, as many notable projects – Muslimgauze, Herbst9, m2, etc – draw inspiration from a similar concept. However, upon listening to Politbyro, it would seem that Kolhoosi 13 has also adopted details from elsewhere.

Those who follow the genre will notice similarities here: the shaped noise of Sleep Research Facility, the brooding atmosphere of Kammarheit, the somber grace of Kave. Those are fine acts to follow, of course, and Kolhoosi 13 has done a fine job. But while tracks like “Valuma-alue” and “Syvyys” might sound a bit too close to their muses, Kolhoosi 13 slowly begins to inject sparks of jagged noise and harsh passages of distortion.

“Aivolaboratorio 74” and “Sillo” are examples of this; where the ambiance is punctuated by sudden bursts of static and the snarl of grinding metal. It’s here where the Eastern muse becomes a little distant and modern post-industrial factory wastelands rise to the album’s surface. This shift in sound design gives Politbyro some variety, at the cost of some consistency.

At almost sixteen minutes, “Sarkofagi” is easily the album’s longest track, and is a centerpiece that hints at the project’s potential. Moving from earsplitting whines to passages of near silence and back again in organic waves, the track is a showcase for how Lepistö and Salakka grasp their muses as well as their machines. “Virastokompleski numero 104” is its equal, a work of cohesive vision built upon a wonderfully cavernous sense of space, enhanced by buzzing sampled speech and what appears to be the distorted sound of an old-fashioned typewriter. Moments such as these elevate Politbyro beyond a mere shadow project, fashioning its own peculiar and effective identity.

With such a promising debut, it’s no wonder that Kolhoosi 13 was snapped up by Cryo Chamber for its follow-up album, Monuments of Power. While that album is quite an impressive developmental leap for the duo, the growth process began here, with Politbyro, a well-executed collection of ambient experimentation containing seeds of what was to come.

Sound_00 & Lefterna – Collab 15

Crna Zemlja (cz043), 2016

I’m fascinated by musical collaborations. One reason is to see how two (or more) artists work together, meshing styles and content toward a unified goal. Another is to gain some exposure to new artists.

Sound_00 (Antonio Dimitrov) and Lefterna (Boban Ristevski) are no strangers to working together. It’s safe to assume they’ve hit it off, too, as they’ve released several single-track numbered releases, across a variety of labels and formats, including a collaborative compilation on the German label Attenuation Circuit. The latest of these is Collab 15, a twenty-minute work of drone and spliced field recording from netlabel Crna Zemlja that impresses with its cohesion, experimentation, and execution.

This is a true collaboration in that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to tell which artist is responsible for certain sounds. This is a positive thing, for you’re able to bypass attempting this kind of identification (something I’m often guilty of) and concentrate on the music itself. Collab 15 begins with a slowly approaching wave of processed noise, an abrasive grace similar to artists like Terra Sancta and Bleak Fiction, with layers being slowly added until the sound swells into a full-blown digital maelstrom. It’s immediately hypnotic and immersive, but things soon begin to change.

Dimitrov and Ristevski start to toy with the layers, dropping out the low end and letting the high-pitched distortion move into the light, before bringing the bed of drone back in. This technique provides a first-hand look at how the duo structures their ambient collage, giving insight into how the different sounds change the experiment’s identity. From a technical standpoint, this is quite fascinating.

If this was all Collab 15 did, it would be noteworthy by this merit alone. But there are surprises in store. About eight minutes in, the muted sounds of speech emerge, buried so deeply that the words cannot be distinguished. This imparts a sense of mystery to the proceedings, as I can’t help but strive to make out the words. This element is a shrewd design choice, which gives the sound increased identity and variety without feeling artificially executed. With the relative lack of a defined concept, the feeling of intrigue is thick as the noise pitches and swirls around the ghost-like mutterings; at this point, Collab 15 becomes a lost archival recording, a audio signal sourced from a time and place unknown, plucked from the detritus of the sonic ether.

As the track winds down, Lefterna and Sound_00 begin to dissolve their construction. A delicate melody appears, a brief flickering pattern of lights in the midst of the swirling disrupted air. A final burst of radio static and distant mumbling vocals, then the fifteenth collaboration pulls the plug into silence.

Given the quality and creativity displayed by Ristevski and Dimitrov on Collab 15, I find myself wishing that they’d pool their talents on a fully realized conceptual album. With plenty of teamwork in the bank, it’s pretty clear that the duo has a strong relationship. As a standalone release, however, their newest collaborative installment is a quality piece of experimental drone, showing an enviable combination of poise and technique. After listening, don’t be surprised if you find yourself doing the same thing I did: tracking down as many of the first fourteen as I could.

Kreazot-Maks – 2066

GV Sound (GV-517), 2016

The ruin of civilization is familiar broken ground for dark ambient. 2066 examines near-future global ruin through the eyes of Maxim Maksymenko, a multi-talented artist from Belarus who records dark ambient experimental soundscapes under the name Kreazot-Maks. If his prediction is any indication, the world fifty years hence is not going to be an altogether pleasant place, and no city will escape the effects of the disintegration of society as we currently know it.

Right off the top, there are two details that make 2066 attractive from a conceptual standpoint. The first is that each of the twelve tracks is titled for a different global capital city: “Paris 2066,” “Cairo 2066,” and so on. The second enticing detail is that the tour of the world’s fall is over two hours in length. Nearly half of this is contained in two tracks, however, as stops in a shattered Washington D.C. and a smoke-choked Beijing each last close to half an hour, with a seventeen-minute layover in the burnt-out shell of Moscow not far behind.

Musically, Kreazot-Maks doesn’t deviate from the established tropes of dark ambient noise, but it’s the way in which the elements are arranged that make this album a superb example of the genre. 2066 doesn’t feature much, if any, keyboard chords or sequenced melody; it’s an album born purely from field recordings, samples, and processed noise. It’s beautifully ominous, and overflowing with creative audio production. The looped noise sample at the foreground of “Cairo 2066,” equal parts molded static and pitched distortion, is an example of the familiar-yet-alien sonic palette that the album is sheathed in. Amid the muffled thumps, crackling feedback, deep hums, and odd warbles are the remnants of human voices, drifting and fading through the electronic detritus that’s settled upon the destroyed husks of the world’s greatest cities. There’s a lot of dark ambient that favors mood over memorable sound, but the snatches of noise that haunt 2066 will stay with you. The warped mechanical howl that closes “Seoul 2066” is both chilling and mysterious, and I’m at a loss to identify its true source.

While a triumph in sound design, the album is also a genre success. Perhaps the strongest example of Maksymenko’s grasp of flow is “Washington 2066,” a longform drone piece that seems shorter than its twenty-five-minute running time; a surefire sign of high-level ambient. The embedded drone is wreathed in pitched feedback and phantom noise that curls around it like digital smoke. The track’s subtlety is a fine opposite to the slow thudding drums of “Tehran 2066” and the scraping industrial noise of “Lisbon 2066.” There’s plenty of variety from track to track, and the album moves from city to city without losing momentum, displaying the universal catastrophe without making it monotonous.

While Kreazot-Maks has crafted a post-apocalyptic vision that rivals Cities Last Broadcast and Brian Lustmord and Robert Rich’s trailblazing album Stalker, there’s one detail – or rather, lack of detail – that would have launched it over the top. There’s no real distinction between the identities of the wasted cities. Rome could have been Mexico City, and vice versa. With a concept that’s so globally based, some content marking the individual natures of each city would have been perfect. A couple of obvious examples would be lost vocal samples in a city’s native tongue or snatches of a national anthem, or more understated ones, like field recordings taken directly from a city or two themselves, would have strengthened the concept even more. As it stands, while 2066 is overflowing with dark ambient excellence, the lack of such elements seems like a missed opportunity.

Taken for what it is, however, 2066 remains an enduring testimony to the sounds of a collapsed civilization. Kreazot-Maks takes everything that makes dark ambient such an interesting genre – engaging synthetic atmosphere, gradually evolving tracks, adherence to concept – and generates a world that is equally effective technically and aesthetically. Brimming with creative and memorable passages, and rewarding repeat listens despite its length, 2066 is easily one of the most awe-inspiring dark ambient listening experiences I’ve had this year.

Post Mortem Photographs – Post Mortem Photographs

La Manufacture De Bruit (MDB03), 2009

This has old-school post-industrial written all over it. The self-titled debut from Post Mortem Photographs (David Vallee and Stephane Flauder) is thick with the ashes of those who’ve come before. Beyond the morbid name, so reminiscent of the heyday of Cold Meat Industry and Malignant Records, the sound here is snatched from the cold dark vaults of yesteryear, all ominous drones, tolling bells, metallic scrapes and clanks, looped German vocal samples, and a general sense of foreboding. It’s a tribute to shock value, in both concept and atmosphere, and it’s a fitting one.

Arranged into eight “Mouvements” and one thirteen-second “Interlude”, there’s little doubt about what this project is aiming for, and darned if it doesn’t manage to nail it between its staring undead eyes. Taking cue from the age of early German expressionist films, the album seems to be a soundtrack for those largely silent and starkly minimal affairs. The whispered vocals flit and flicker among the dread-infused electronics, which move smoothly from sampled noise to bonecrushing drums to drone and back again; there’s little variation in formula from track to track.

And yet, there’s aesthetic here, among the minimal synthetic wasteland of abandoned asylums and rain-soaked graveyards. The sampled monotone chant of “Mouvement 4” is flanked by piano and violin; it’s still dark, but it’s not the same cold doom and gloom pervading the bulk of the album. This track in particular strongly recalls the religious heights of raison d’etre, with its sense of isolated contemplation and introverted musing. “Mouvement 7” is similarly sparse and reflective, with the plaintive piano providing a human element to the synthetic instrumentation. The album really strips down on “Mouvement 8,” as mournful strings and spaced percussion are punctuated by the always-creepy sample of laughing children.

If Post Mortem Photographs was attempting to raise the ghosts of the post-industrial past, they’ve certainly succeeded. While there’s nothing really new here, it’s handled quite well, and may surprise with its range of projected emotion. This is a worthwhile trip through dim and haunted halls where many have walked, but it’s an effective and memorable reminder of what made the genre so successful, once upon a time.

Red Fog – Exodus To The Land Of The Drone

DNA Production (DNA 162), 2014

Maybe I’m in the minority, but I love it when albums and tracks have cool titles. There’s something about thrilling about a super-attractive album name that doesn’t exist when you’re faced with a list of “Untitled” tracks, even to the point of having an effect on your enjoyment. At least, I know this is the case for me.

It can work the other way too. Take, for example, the near-groan-worthy title of Exodus To The Land Of The Drone, one of a series of netlabel EPs from Red Fog. It’s the kind of title that I probably wouldn’t normally look at twice, except for two things. One, Red Fog has released EPs with magnetic titles like Zone Of Avoidance, Sculpted in Luminol, and the gloriously named Inscrutable Vapor Grid. Second, Exodus has track titles like “Castle of Condensation” and “Cinder Petals.” Now these are tracks I know I’ve just got to hear based on their titles alone.

What’s most important, however, is that Red Fog has consistently produced darn good dark-tinted drone. “Castle” is a yawning, sprawling display of grandiose drone minimalism, bold yet subtle. Red Fog is particularly adept at this type of drone: slightly layered tones work with each other in an unwavering longform style, with a few incidents of sampled details dotting the landscape. In the case of “Castle,” you get some scattered icy specks spilling across the broad swaths of drone, and some instances of bubbling water; this is how to properly title a track. I particularly like this marriage of the sonic and the imaginative, where I’m presented an outline from the artist and given the chance to expand upon it in my head. Here, I roam wide stairways and empty halls carved from melting ice, wondering at who built it and for what purpose. The translucent walls expand and contract, as if breathing. I slip into this place easily, buoyed on the back of Red Fog’s enveloping atmospheres. The experience just isn’t the same without the provided starting point.

“The Quiet Magnetar” is another example of this. The drone is simplistic, as expected, but muted – as suggested by the title. Over its sixteen minutes, the basic structure barely moves, but that’s exactly what a “quiet magnetar” would be. Red Fog often includes a series of scrapes, clicks, and other bits of noise; here, they create quite an effective sense of mystery without becoming repetitive. Once these pieces of noise fade away and the drone takes over – this is the land of the drone, remember – the track blooms into a wonderfully evocative portrait of consistent mood created and maintained by gradually and carefully controlled evolution. It’s drone at its best. Whatever the track is describing is ultimately up to the listener, but Red Fog doesn’t over-describe or under-describe what’s being presented here, and when this happens, the project is at its most effective.

The other two tracks on the EP don’t work quite as well. “Volans Disruption” and “Cinder Petals” stick to the simple-yet-effective formula of solid uncomplicated walls of steadfast drone, but don’t share the same sound-title chemistry. The added patterns of sampled glitch on these tracks are a nice change of pace, but their presence sounds a little forced. As a result, the tracks go on a bit too long; Red Fog drifts somewhere between traditional and longform ambient.

While there is certainly a place for untitled abstract sound art, Red Fog smartly doesn’t take that route. The project gains a hefty amount of identity from its imaginative sci-fi-inspired titles and corresponding fantastical sound palette, but takes measured care to allow the listener plenty of freedom to explore. Of course, you don’t have to take Red Fog’s lead, but it’s there should you want it. I hope you do, for when Red Fog peaks – both on this EP and elsewhere among the project’s releases – it’s a potently interactive listening experience of sound supporting concept. Taken at face value, the tracks are perhaps a bit long and a tad uneventful, but the draw of Red Fog is how you use the titles to shape what you hear. I mean, this is a project that has made tracks with titles such as “Doppler Sabotage” and “Forest of Diodes.” Aren’t you just a little bit intrigued?