Cisfinitum – Landschaft

Old Captain Records (OCCD05), 2012

Eugene Voronovsky is a classically trained musician and graduate of the Moscow State Conservatory, but his work as Cisfinitum is far beyond classical. A combination of noise, dark ambient, and melodic synth, Landschaft, the project’s fourth release, offers a heady and thrilling combination of styles while incorporating granules of Voronovsky’s training. The result is an album that conjures a startling sense of a devastated territory, much in the vein of Stalker, Robert Rich and Brian Lustmord’s influential 1995 collaboration, but with a murkier sound and a wider scope.

The two middle tracks, “Landschaft I” and “Landschaft II,” are bookended by “Inland” and “District Delta.” I group the tracks this way because there are common elements to each set: the “Landschaft” tracks are long explorations in atmospheric experimentation, while the opener and closer feature more traditional musical structures. Despite this division in stylistic approach, the album follows a consistency in sound that holds it together, and imparts something of a cinematic edge to the proceedings.

“Inland” and “District Delta” are quite beautiful. The layered flowing keyboards are the focus on each nine-minute track, evoking a nostalgic and contemplative aura while layers of noise hiss and swell. One could consider them an invitation and a farewell to the bizarre journey that lies between. The lamenting wails that arise toward the end of “Inland” are a portent to the bleakness that is soon to follow, and as the rising noise and whistles bury the synth lines, it seems that a barrier has been crossed.

The twin “Landschaft” tracks are fascinating pieces of work. They evolve in unexpected ways – you might hear snatches of speech, bits of distorted hymns, or stretches of near-silence – as they bear you along a strange and broken landscape. It’s here that the Stalker comparisons are strongest, as it sounds very much like an audio tour of some unfortunate stretch of blasted and ghost-haunted terrain, but Cisfinitum’s interpretation flows with a bit more focus; no ethnic pipes or strange organic bleats to be found. There’s just the echoes of a lost place, floating in and out of the range of hearing as you drift through. Each track is about twenty minutes in length, allowing Voronovsky plenty of room to examine his themes and structures, but they seem to end far more quickly than their running time might suggest – a tribute to Cisfinitum’s skill and attention to detail. This is an example of traveling without moving, and it’s a journey full of surprising turns and unanticipated corners. You’ll encounter another wandering melody deep within the territory of “Landschaft I,” as a reminder of where the journey began, and it provides a moment of solace within the bleak walls of processed noise and dirty-seeming samples. “Landschaft II” touches upon panoramic and titanic moments of drama, lost-signal whistles, and quiet subterranean reverberations, all with a decidedly non-artificial feel.

“District Delta” must be a safe haven within the wasteland, for its melding tones and practiced emotion are wondrous to behold. Voronovsky indulges his training here, but still within the framework established by his fantastically envisioned trek through the twilit places between. This is a place of rest and recovery, but the shadows are just outside, and must be encountered again, before too much time is lost.

Landschaft is, quite simply, an incredible piece of work. It moves between styles with enviable ease, and neither forces its hand nor delves too far from its core. Voronovsky displays his musical, compositional, and creative talents in a one-hour journey that, in its own way, stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the more acclaimed Stalker. In fact, I prefer Cisfinitum’s strange and melodic foray into a desolate place I’ll (gladly) never visit in person. Cisfinitum has a reputation for excellence in electronic experimentation, and Landschaft shows this rep is certainly deserved. There aren’t many dark ambient albums I’d label essential for anyone beyond the niche, but Landschaft is certainly one of them.

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Flint Glass – Hierakonpolis

Brume Records (BRUME 03), 2002 / Funkwelten Records (FW 005), 2003

Gwenn Tremorin, the man behind the dark electronic instrumental project Flint Glass and the French label Brume Records, is the most talented producer of electronic music I’ve ever heard.  The sounds he comes up with are unlike anything else; I don’t know where this guy gets his stuff from.  It’s as if he’s drawing these bits of sonic bizarreness out of the air and experimenting with them however he sees fit.  The most admirable thing about Tremorin’s innovative productive talents is despite the wide range of creativity on display, his music always sounds like Flint Glass.

Hierakonpolis, Flint Glass’ debut, was released on Brume in 2002 with several remixes, then re-released in 2003 on Germany’s Funkwelten Records with the Dashur EP added in place of the mixes.  Tremorin has often stated that the work of horror author H.P. Lovecraft is a primary inspiration for his music (Flint Glass’ 2006 album was titled Nyarlathotep, and was full of tracks titled for Lovecraftiana), and his music is certainly reflective of Lovecraft’s cloying and amorphous atmosphere.  Flint Glass is formless and difficult to describe, but undeniably powerful; like Lovecraft’s writing, the music gets under your skin and leaves a lasting impression that sticks with you long after you remove your headphones….but it’s strangely detaching, like a half-remembered dream that vanishes upon waking, imparting only a vague but visceral echo.

From the dramatic looped echo and empowering distorted buzz of the title track, to the open spaces and baffling aquatics of “Heliotrop” and the muffled tribal pummeling of “Amenemhat,” and the amount of innovation on Hierankopolis is almost overwhelming.  There’s typically enough rhythm to head-nod (or even dance) to Flint Glass, but the tempo is off-kilter enough to produce a serious challenge.  On the other hand, Tremorin’s ambient sense is extremely keen; it’s deep, dark, and skewed enough to warrant description as the aural equivalent of Lovecraft.  Try on the warped metallic clangor of “Dust Particles,” the bent air of “Throw About,” the sand-choked “Middle Kingdom”, or the various short interlude pieces separating the longer tracks.  Tremorin is indeed a mad scientist of his trade; the best way to describe his music is rhythmical dark ambient, but even that doesn’t tell the whole tale.

My personal choice between the two versions is the Funkwelten release; the Dashur material outdoes the remixes on the Brume original.  Dashur provides a smooth transition, resulting in a 17-track album that’s really an extended Hierankopolis.  The vocal samples of “Al Hasard (Live)” segue smoothly into buzzing percussion and looming ambiance, while “Closer” and “Philae” both contain more strange percussion backed by backing waves and swaths.

Taken on a certain level, the music of Flint Glass is particularly schizophrenic and meandering, and resides within a very limited range of focus despite the range of styles on display.  I should point out it’s less music and more a collection of experimental sounds held together by a common elements; the actual chord progression is either minimal, or completely nonexistent.  Fortunately for Tremorin, the mood remains consistent; Hierakonpolis does have a certain flow and cohesion to it, but it comes from the overarching sound design rather than any narrative quality or sense of progression.  If you took all if Flint Glass’ work – album tracks, remixes, compilation tracks – and mashed them all into one big pile, then chose ten randomly, you’d likely have a listening experience very similar to any other random group.  Listened to attentively for extended periods, the music tends to blur together into one slickly produced mass of sound.

Not surprisingly for a man of his talents, Tremorin is a contributor and a collaborator to many dark electronic projects, most notably the Aztec-influenced project Tzolk’in where he teams with This Morn’ Omina member Nicolas Van Meirhaeghe.  Flint Glass is also an accomplished remixer; many of his best remixes have been released together as an album, titled Circumsounds.  I get the sense Tremorin works very well with the right people; his chaotic foundations are arguably more effective if given additional structure in collaborative projects, or if he applies his unique sense to preexisting material as a remixer.  What Tremorin may lack in direction and songwriting for his own work, he more than makes up for with pure style and awe-inspiring technique.

[:SITD:] – Rot

Accession Records (A 117), 2009

The definition of “industrial music” has undergone many changes over the years.  Nine Inch Nails was the first exposure for many to the subgenre, but there are many who didn’t consider Trent Reznor’s work to be industrial music at all.  The punk-inspired theatrics of Einsturzende Neubaten and Skinny Puppy, among others, eventually seemed to overwhelm the music itself, and the genre itself proved extremely difficult to peg.  Beyond that, the music itself became increasingly predictable, losing the experimentation that marked the genre in its early days.  Subgenres such as noise, IDM, and synthpop began to influence it as well, as did a level of pretension that bordered on comical, with bands straining to present themes of sci-fi, horror, slasher films, and war that seemed more important than the music.

It would seem – at first, anyway – that the trendily named [:SITD:] typifies this 21st-century post-industrial faux-angst.  The titular acronym stands for “shadows in the dark.”  They hail from Germany and use German language in their lyrics and song titles.  But there’s something going on with their music that separates them from the ranks of pancake makeup- and gas mask-wearing contemporaries.

Francesco D’Angelo, Carsten Jacek, and Thomas Lesczenski are certainly guilty of treading paths already established by others, but they ride the edge of EBM, noise, and synthpop with a sense of reverence.  Describing their 2009 album Rot (German for “red,” not the English word for decay) would seem to do little to set them apart:  it’s a collection of 4/4 electronic dancefloor hymns with aggressive German and English vocals, and is their fourth such release.

However, Rot is an example of what makes post-industrial EBM such a potentially fulfilling style.  The beats are the focus, no doubt, and they’re thick and heavy and pummeling, with little distortion.  Wonderfully straightforward, rarely deviating from the martial power of the 4/4 framework, with a relentless mid-tempo speed that I found particularly effective.  The lower BPM also allows [:SITD:] to include all sorts of subtle details between the beats, from minimal techno-inspired sequencing, visceral EBM bass keys, and ambient chord-shifting keyboards.

The vocals, which are done by alternating band members, are also free of distortion, and are somewhat restrained, chanting in the classic style of Front 242 or DAF, with none of the screaming often present in the genre.  In some cases – “Redemption” and “Destination” – they’re sung with little of the manic self-indulgence of the re-emergent synthpop.

Take “Catharsis,” which is built with a magnetic unwavering beat and a fantastic off-beat bass line, and anthemic German vocals that never overwhelm, but enhance the track’s identity.  It’s aggressive, but not overly so, and doesn’t do too much; it’s not trying to overwhelm or impress.  It’s classic EBM, but isn’t just pumped-up beats for mindless clubbing; there’s a good amount of creative songwriting on display.  “Rot” increases the tempo just a bit, and uses a looped sonar tone to augment the turbo-charged bass-line, techno-ish melody, and driving percussion.  The vocals here remind me so much of Massiv in Mensch it’s almost criminal; in fact, Rot sounds very much like a heavier version of MiM’s early work (minus the tongue-in-cheek weirdness) merged with the goth-influenced sensibilities of Project Pitchfork.

Not that Rot is completely free of pretension.  The lyrics of “Stigmata of Jesus” and “Zodiac” are pretty cringe-worthy, but those wonderfully cathartic beats and precise programming do help take the edge off.  [:SITD:] dabbles with noise on these tracks as well, with very respectable results.  I do think, however, that Rot could jettison the vocals and still be exemplary; the near-instrumental “Pride” is proof, with its carefully merged and dramatic chords and piano, all studded by lovely thudding 4/4 magic.  However, the introspective lyrics of “Redemption” and the anti-drug “MK Ultra” help redeem the band’s lyric-writing a bit; these guys are no Project Pitchfork in the songwriting department, but they’re a level above their contemporaries, for certain.

Rot is nothing new, but it’s darn good at what it does.  It’s the most effective and consistent album in the band’s discography to date, changing things up just enough to keep from becoming repetitive or overwhelming.  [:SITD:] wears its influences proudly on its electronic sleeve, and isn’t ashamed of what it is: post-industrial EBM of particularly effective power.  For a prime example of what the genre is capable of – as limited as that might be – it doesn’t get much better than this.

Kristoffer Nystroms Orkester – Overlook Hotel

Malignant Records (TUMORCD50), 2012

This is an odd duck of an album. Spanning noise, ambient, and post-industrial mayhem, Overlook Hotel has precious little connection to its source material….at least, that’s how it seems on the surface. The product of duo Kristoffer Oustad and Peter Nystrom, collaborating under the moniker Kristoffer Nystroms Orkester, Overlook Hotel is a collection of seemingly improvisational pieces that wouldn’t seem like they’d work together, but they do. You won’t find any samples from Kubrick’s infamous film here, nor any content from Stephen King’s celebrated novel beyond the album’s title, perhaps leading one to wonder exactly how the haunted Overlook fits in to the music.  Maybe it’s up to the listener to make the connection.

Overlook Hotel begins with a short track with a female voice proclaiming “you might find/the night time/the right time” over and over, like a record skipping, with odd synths burbling in the background. The transition to the following track is sudden and jarring; “Cleaning Still Houses” is a pounding barrage of metallic percussion backed by squalling, screeching electric guitar feedback, descending suddenly like a sudden downpour from a clear sky.  KNO has proclaimed itself, defying expectation while guiding the listener through a splintered experience.  Not splintered in a negative way, mind you; while the album leans toward the dark, it’s just more weird than black.

Once “Houses” calms down, we’re next exposed to the thickly accented voice of an old woman telling us a bit of a horror story in “The Tale and the Variation,” before the bizarrely soothing drones and distant pulses of “Industrial Pale Ale” winds through echoes of scraping, flowing water, and assorted rattling.  “Becoming the Green” continues the solitude at first, but out of nowhere, KNO hits us with a buzzing whirlwind of static feedback. We’re left lost and flailing, only to be cast back onto the serene shores of quietude once more.

The percussive/feedback assault is renewed with “Vulgalina Fever”; it’s here where I start wondering if Oustad and Nystrom are giving us their interpretation of the infamous boiler from King’s novel, as well as the cyclone of confusion experienced by the Torrance family amidst the abuse, alcoholism, and dread brought by their snowbound isolation. But once “Helvetesfallet”, with its Scandinavian-language vocal samples (the nature of which I can only guess at), and “It’s A Test,” with its English samples about an experiment concerning the difference between instinct and memory crop up, my brain is taken in another direction entirely.  Who knows, at this point, what KNO is thinking.  “Astronaut 47,” which closes the album with a space-ambient number – someone tell me how this fits into the source material – is a very cool piece of minimalism, with a single repeated drone backed by barely-audible feedback. It’s quite hypnotic and evocative despite its sparseness, and seems to last far longer than its under-five-minute running time.

Overlook Hotel is schizophrenic, eccentric, and eclectic, but it all still seems to fall under the same heading, like a book of haiku of varying subject matter.  It’s a challenging listen, and sometimes an awkward one, but once you get into the flow – no matter how often and how sharply the flow might change – you may very well find this to be an interesting product of experimentalism that changes clothes in admirable fashion.