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.


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.

[existence_sounds] – The Biography of Industrial City

Green Field Recordings, 2016

A surprisingly calming work of experimental drone, The Biography of Industrial City meshes treated guitar and electronic ambiance with practiced ease. [existence_sounds] (Stephen McCann and Kirill Makushin) avoid the doom-and-gloom atmosphere that you might expect from the album title, opting for a greyscale sound palette that follows a static structure.

Despite track titles like “Dismal Monument” and “Factory Slaves and Waste Biomass,” the feel of the album is archival rather than apocalyptic. By drone standards, the track lengths are short, with an average time of around four minutes. This works in the album’s favor, however; if it was much longer, it would risk becoming repetitive. The album’s concept is of dual drones: one electronic and one analog, from guitar to something that sounds like an accordion (the wonderfully evocative “See Place – Gray Swamp”). Following a basic and straightforward structure, each track quickly establishes its identity, flows for a brief and pleasant interval, then moves smoothly to the next. Only the final track, “Drone Gamelan Piece,” a collaboration with KG, adds details like chimes and bells to the lazily drifting fog.

Perhaps it’s too similar in sound design, and perhaps it’s too short, but I find The Biography of Industrial City to be immensely satisfying. It’s mysterious without being ominous and consistent without being soporific. The best thing about an album like this is how you can loop it, revisiting familiar ground, while remaining within its created borders. You’re not at ground level, right in the thick of the presumably abandoned city, but floating above, observing the empty streets and silent buildings without foreboding attachment. With this album, [existence_sounds] proves you don’t need a lot of studio trickery or twenty-minute track lengths to create effective immersion.

Vitaly Maklakov & Lefterna – Solar Mycelium

Ostroga Records (OTR-069), 2016

It’s one thing to put together a successful ambient album. It’s quite another to tap into the mind of the listener, to make him or her forget that they’re listening, and provide a doorway into a synthetic mode of consciousness. I have often thought that the best ambient albums are those that provide not just an unexpected technical experience, but a form of mental escapism that walks a fine line between subtle guidance and allowing enough freedom for the listener to collaborate on the creation of something beyond just the sounds. Inspired by the ambiance, the listener molds an imaginary world; a unique imaginary state that can be revisited time and again, sometimes with different results.

Solar Mycelium is among the rare breed of ambient works that achieves both states. Lefterna (Boban Ristevski) and Vitaly Maklakov have fused minimal electronic drone and field recording into an exploration of the unseen world that flows all around us. The album begins with “Fairy Rings,” in which a gentle bed of static buoys a series of quiet metallic creaks and scrapes. As the track progresses, you can feel the heat of summer rising from the ground, and the sounds shift into the noise of insects on a heavy, lazy, dream-invoking afternoon. There’s just enough evolution to keep the track from becoming mechanical, which is vital in an organic framework such as this.

“Cradle of the Information Snare” is a tad heavier and darker, with odd sampled warbles replacing the field recording, but the drowsy hypnotic effect is the same. Much similar ambient music that leans on such a minimal structure often fades into the background, and the bond between mood and listener dissolves. Not here.

The final two tracks show Ristevski and Maklakov indulging their deep-listening and longform muses, and over the thirty-one combined minutes, Solar Mycelium reaches its surreal peak. The title track is thick with strangeness despite its simple structure; it’s easy to imagine the air about you dotted with invisible fairies flitting and darting about, but this is no wispy aria. The odd buzzes and tiny buried whines ground the track and shroud it in hazy mystery, with a tinge of shadow tracing the edges. It’s a haunting piece of work that displays a delicate balance of its components without losing sight of the overall structure. At nineteen and a half minutes, “Fluorescent Landscape” is the album’s longest, and while the distortion is enhanced, the aesthetic is the same. It’s not quite as trance-inducing as the previous track, as its sonic range is wider, but the patterns of hidden static pops keep the immersion high for its duration.

Albums in the mold of Solar Mycelium are easy to come by these days, but precious few walk the tightrope between overbearing and inconsequential as surely as this one does. Deftly placed between active collaboration and consuming escapism, this unusual album nails the elusive state sought by so many similar artists. Maklakov and Ristevski might not blow your ears away with studio trickery, but that’s not their goal. For a strikingly creative minimal ambient experience that gently treads the waters of the deep subconscious, I haven’t heard an album all year that equals the strangely mythical poise of this one.

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.

Meho – Led Na Savi

Crna Zemlja (cz040), 2016

The border between immersion and noise is something I often ponder. An example of noise would be the hum of air conditioning, or the Doppler-esque sounds of traffic on the highway – comforting and soothing, perhaps, or else numbing, soporific, and monotonous. (I used to live right next a freeway, and used the noise it created to fall asleep – not exactly the kind of music one would aim to make, I’d think.) Ambient music often treads this line precariously; I’ve listened to many an album that do little more than mimic the background noise seeping into our modern mechanized lives. On the other side, there are albums that create a nice headspace to dwell in, but are a bit too directed, demanding a bit too much of one’s attention. Both styles of ambient can be excellent listening experiences, but you’ve got to be in a certain frame of mind to best appreciate them.

Then there are the rare albums that fall in between sense-deadening noise and technical distraction. In the last couple of years, I’ve found myself drawn to these types; they engage my brain from the background during the day, and they calm and lull me when I need to detach and recharge. Darkwater Pond from Circle of Pines is one of these. Kave’s Dismal Radiance is another. Perhaps my favorite example is Sleep Research Facility, but even Kevin Doherty’s wonderful mechanisms are sometimes a bit too, well, mechanical. My most recent discovery of twilit amorphous beauty is Led Na Savi, the latest work from the Croatian experimentalist Meho Grbić, who has released several works as Meho over the past couple of years via his Crna Zemlja netlabel.

Led Na Savi, which translates roughly as “bending ice,” is a perfect example of partially directed immersive ambient. Consisting of seven untitled tracks running roughly an hour and a quarter, the album is a minimal series of quiet-ish drones and gently rising waves of loops and samples, all expertly paced and pitched to slide just beneath the surface of one’s consciousness. The more I listened to it, the more I realized the album’s longform tendencies, but as the longest track is fifteen minutes, Grbić keeps his creations from becoming too static. Neither is Led Na Savi strictly “dark” ambient; Grbić takes a cue from Seetyca in this regard, but on this album, at least, keeps things more sedate.

“Untitled 2” is a windblown marvel, its crystalline loop aping the glorious arctic wastes of Northaunt, but Meho’s interpretation is even more stripped down, giving one’s mind more room to drift. A low drone slowly glides underneath, buoying the snowflake-delicate atmosphere with careful and easy momentum. There’s a bit of Kammarheit in the metallic samples of “Untitled 3,” but again, Meho wears its own skin, and doesn’t mimic that lauded project’s strong sense of desolation. Perhaps my favorite moment on Led Na Savi is “Untitled 5,” a majestic and serene fifteen-minute drift through a blanket of soothing fog. This track comes closest to losing the listener, as it’s quite bare-bones, but Grbić’s hand guides things just enough with near-imperceptible shifts and washes, all reduced to the edges of the buried drone of its foundation. The small pieces of noise scattered along the last two tracks change the focus from the drones, but never intrude too strongly into the half-aware state that the album generates from its opening moments. The shift of “Untitled 7” from a single tone of high-pitched feedback to a strange and sparse web of near-aquatic sounds is a particularly wonderful thing to hear unfold, and unlike some longform tracks, you don’t need to demonstrate extended patience to appreciate the process.

It’s not often that I come across an album like Led Na Savi, but it’s one to treasure and appreciate. Meho doesn’t do anything new from a technical or conceptual standpoint, and is clearly influenced by other projects, but it’s how Grbić establishes and maintains pacing and identity that gives his work such an intriguing aura. It’s neither too quiet nor too noisy, and just the perfect shade of welcoming gray. And it does this consistently, without falling prey to monotony. For enhancing one’s background or releasing one’s mental detritus, there are few albums I’ve heard in recent months that can fill both voids with equal aplomb as this one does. There’s a lot of netlabel static out there, but the low-key beauty, rare immersive quality, and natural flow of Led Na Savi are certainly worth your attention.