Mount Shrine – Winter Restlessness

Cryo Chamber, 2018

Sometimes, predictability is a good thing.

I’m all for experimentation and new adventures, but in this hectic world, there are moments when it’s best to lean on something familiar. Not everything is intended to expand your mind and life experience, and not everything has to break new ground to have merit. You know that favorite restaurant you frequent? That comfortable pair of shoes? The person you might share your life with? That’s the point I’m reinforcing.

With this in mind, that’s not to imply that Winter Restlessness by Mount Shrine is going to be your new best friend. However, its strength lies in its familiarity; the ease with which it sockets itself into your consciousness, the sense of recalled nostalgia, the consistency of its temperament. Mount Shrine is a Brazilian project which has released several albums of gray-tinted slow-motion nature-themed ambient, but that was enough to capture the attention of Cryo Chamber.

Winter Restlessness haunts a realm somewhere between Kave’s Dismal Radiance, Kammarheit’s ghost-steeped landscapes, and Sleep Research Facility’s arctic epic Deep Frieze. However, Mount Shrine has none of the desolation of Kave, the sepulchral ruinous reflection of Kammarheit, nor the density of SRF. The first few moments of the first track, “Winter Restlessness,” provides an exacting example of what the album is: a bed of analog loops merged with a gentle river of assorted static and distant field-recorded sources like rain and thunder. The track winds its way languorously through drifting haze, with a variety of samples and loops waking and slumbering with muted grace. At ten minutes long, the track feels shorter, due to the singular mood and Mount Shrine’s firm grasp of gradual evolution.

Atmosphere established, the album reveals itself one shade at a time. While it might seem an odd choice to release a winter-themed album in the middle of July, the season is inconsequential; it meshes easily with slanted afternoon light through trees, gently lapping waves, and breathtaking mountainous vistas (I’ve made a point of experiencing each accompanied by Mount Shrine, and Winter Restlessness fits them all with equal ease).

Does “Moon’s Distrust,” the second track, sound the same as its predecessor? Basically, yes. The keys are slightly different, but the quiet reflectiveness remains the same. The same applies to “The Silence Between Our Houses”, “Foggy Deck,” and the rest of the album. However, this should not be taken as criticism; rather, Mount Shrine has a clear understanding of what form and function Winter Restlessness was made to fulfill, and if you listen closely (which can be difficult, given the album’s tendency to fade into your headspace), you’ll notice how precisely it is directed, and how cleverly it is assembled. The album works best when the field recordings share the air equally, and perhaps the rain samples of “Lifeless Indoors” are a shade too harsh, but that’s really all the criticism I can level at this majestically constructed waking dream.

Winter Restlessness is anti-progressive, anti-stimulation, and anti-groundbreaking, but those are all to its merit. I’ve heard too many albums in this genre that try too hard at creating a synthetic space, or seem content to flaunt technical skill or ambitious concept. Many artists have attempted to create a similar sensation, but are either too busy or too soporific. Mount Shrine is content with immersing the listener in a particular state, a drifting odyssey through an indistinct territory where the noise of modern culture is reduced to a whisper, and the serenity of the world’s unseen places encourage reflection and detachment. Winter Restlessness achieves an all-too-rare balance between holding too tight and letting go too soon. I, for one, couldn’t be more grateful.

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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.