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.

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Tor Lundvall – Yule

Strange Fortune (SF4), 2006

Painter and musician Tor Lundvall turns his thematic talents to the holidays on Yule, an album which examines the tradition of Christmas from a decidedly off-kilter urban perspective.  Lundvall has a keen eye and a keen ear, and through his trademark “ghost ambient” style of music, imparts his unique edge to a cultural holiday phenomenon that has a unique feel throughout the world.  Yule is unfamiliar, however, in a way that only Tor Lundvall can produce.

Lundvall’s albums often lean heavily upon theme; the source of his inspiration is rarely in question.  What makes his music particularly compelling is the strength of his vision and how effectively he gives it voice, while giving us vague yet appropriate vestiges of connection to the central concept.  “Busy Station,” for example, is not a light-hearted, artificially optimistic portrait of the holiday bustle, but carries an edge of uncertainty so common to Lundvall’s work.  A single looped keyboard chord is surrounded by light noise passes and measured tapping, with a high-pitched whistle wandering to and fro.  It’s oddly calming and deeply alienating at the same time, as if the person in the station is simultaneously part of the crowd and utterly alone.  “The Train Home” increases the tension minutely, with its mysterious chords, strange distant noises, chimes, and metronome beat.  It’s as if the train-traveler isn’t particularly thrilled about the journey, but knows it must happen, and in the back of his/her mind, perhaps it will all turn out just fine eventually…..perhaps.  The anticipation is heavy despite the minimal structure; this is familiar territory for Lundvall, and it’s clear he’s been honing his craft over his many releases.

The tone shifts on “Christmas Eve,” a song fraught with tremulous magic, as delicate and captivating as a snowflake.  Faint noise structures resolve into a rhythm, juxtaposing with a music-box melody and Lundvall’s plaintive vocals telling of a lonely girl at night alone in the glowing lights of her room.  It’s starkly vivid and surprisingly poignant; this is one of Lundvall’s best songs to date.  The holidays aren’t always about the joy of family; sometimes it’s moments of isolation that provide the strongest memories.

“12:00 AM” loops jingle bells, but with fringes of noise leaking at the edges; it’s the moment of Santa Claus’ arrival, yes, but it’s also the dead of night.  “Snowy Morning” reduces the unease a bit, with looped flutes and warm keys that contain the soft reflected light of new sun playing on the face of flawless snowbanks.

“Yule Song” is another triumphant vocal piece, with Lundvall’s high voice drifting among guitar chords and the strange near-organic cries that often appear in his music.  It’s calming, but the peace is an alien one.  “Fading Light” belies its title with uplifting wordless song and soothing bells; it’s a celebration of approaching darkness, or perhaps a fond farewell to the beauty of the day.  The slow light keys and lonely lyrics of “January” poetically describe the details of a city of rain-soaked melting snow, and “White on Grey” is full of sampled static and distant effects; it’s reminiscent of Lundvall’s album Empty City, but here, the focus is on a quiet city buried in snowdrifts, to the point that electricity has begun to malfunction.

All of these tracks are less than four minutes in length, but Lundvall has a surprise in store with “The Falling Snow (Full Length Version),” a twenty-minute track that showcases his ambient talents with panoramic excellence.  One of, if not the, longest track Lundvall has ever released, “The Falling Snow” allows his minimal style to unfold unhurriedly, and the results are stunning indeed.  I’d always wondered what Tor Lundvall could do if given some elbow room, and he’s got more than enough space to roam here.  Centered around a low repeating wind-loop, Lundvall experiments with distant chords, whistles, crackles, chimes, echoes, wisps of melody; all of it emerging from and fading into the gently drifting flakes like the wandering specters that have populated Lundvall’s music since his first release.  “The Falling Snow” is both beautiful and haunting, grounded and floating, but remains between the two extremes, each bleeding into the other with delicate grace until there’s little (if any) distinction.  Lundvall may never release an album in this vein, but perhaps he doesn’t need to; this track is as carefully executed and perfectly balanced as any ambient piece I’ve ever heard.

Tor Lundvall is something of a hidden genius.  His music consistently dwells in its own places, comfortably between genres, and always recognizable.  He doesn’t bash us over the head with technical trickery or dr0wn us in pretension.  What he gives us is a glimpse into the world as he sees it –  comfortable yet oh-so-slightly unsettling – and in doing so, lets us ponder the nature of everyday things, and urges us to wonder what might lie just beyond our perception.  There are things behind things; even something as sacred as Christmas has buried secrets.  Yule is a holiday album, but it is not an album of too-bright lights, superficial cheer, tired cliche, and crowded gatherings; it’s a holiday of glimpsed dreams and hidden shades, invisible in plain sight.

[: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.

This Mortal Coil – Blood

4AD (DAD 1005 CD), 1991

Less a band and more a collective concept, This Mortal Coil is the brainchild of 4AD head Ivo Watts-Russell and producer John Fryer.  Using personnel from a variety of sister-bands on the 4AD label, TMC albums are composed of obscure covers linked by original instrumentals, creating thick melodic atmospheres awash with 90s-era reverb, synthesizers, and drum machines.  Blood, the third and final TMC album, differs from its predecessors (It’ll End in Tears and Filigree & Shadow) in that the emotional template has been heightened and focused, and that the album follows a less straightforward path.  The result is a listening experience that changes depending on the mindset of the listener, and one that has not lost an ounce of potency or artistry in the years following its release.

“The Lacemaker” opens Blood in fine fashion, showcasing the TMC formula through mournful keyboards, wordless female lamenting, and beautiful melodies from a string quartet.  While Blood does feature acoustic elements such as guitar, strings and piano, it’s largely an electronic record, shifting effortlessly from ambient to downtempo and back again, never stepping outside the established emotional boundaries set by the first moments.  “The Lacemaker” changes completely halfway through but remains true to its core, something that happens often as Blood progresses.

Vocally, Blood has a more consistent palette than previous releases.  The sweet lilts of Caroline Crawley (“Mr. Somewhere”) are balanced by the earthy croons of Dierdre Rutkowski (“With Tomorrow”), sometimes on the same track (“Help Me Lift You Up”).  There are appearances by other voices as well – Kim Deal, Tanya Donnelly, Alison Limerick – but Crawley and Rutkowski are given the bulk of the spotlight, supported by minimal programming and melodic strings.  The covers often bear little, if any, resemblance to the originals, with extra layers of emotion enhanced by the programming; calling these remixes is superficial.  It’s remarkable how Watts-Russell and Fryer were consistently able to find what they were looking for and bring it out with such exacting attention to their overall vision.

Blood also excels in the experimentalism featured in instrumentals such as “Andialu,” with its looped washes, reverb-heavy vocal samples, and subtle stabs of noise, the playful bass-heavy dub of “Loose Joints,” the deep hums, music-box pluckings, and strange infant babbles of “Baby Ray Baby,” and the light beats and low-light mood of “D.D. and E.”  Not only do these tracks serve as bridges between the cunningly disguised pop structures of the vocal tracks, but also as opportunities to let the listener’s mind wander through the midnight urban streets conjured so powerfully by Watts-Russell and Fryer.  It’s easy to imagine oneself as a bodiless ghost, drifting through a late-night city (TMC just doesn’t have quite the same power during the day), soaking in the ambiance while sinking into the psyches of individuals scattered here and there, before lifting out and moving on to the next.  Previous TMC albums hinted at this kind of experience, but it wasn’t until Blood when the potential fully blossomed.  Aside from the two slight missteps of the too-long and too-abrasive “I Come and Stand at Every Door” and the out-of-place guitar-dominant pop of “I am the Cosmos,” the mood remains strong over the album’s 76+-minute running time.

Equally effective as sensual romantic connection and isolated lovelorn introspection, Blood is an influential and cohesive album that’s as transporting as the best ambient, while remaining true to its theme in spite of its range of moving parts.  It’s hard to pick highlights from an album like this, which is clearly intended to be experienced as a complete work, maintaining a delicate balance between consistency of mood and experimental minimalism from its first moments to its last.  Blood might not click on the same level with everyone, but for those it touches profoundly, there are few albums that can match its atmospheric power.

Heimataerde – Bruderschaft

Out of Line (OUT 688), 2014

These days, I don’t listen to nearly as much EBM as I did during my heavy clubbing phase.  One artist that has retained my interest, however, is Germany’s Heimataerde, so a new release from them is always welcome.  Marrying classic EBM to medieval instrumentation, Heimataerde’s music is rooted in telling the saga of Ash, a vampiric knight roaming the war-torn and blood-soaked landscape of the Crusades, seeking recruits for his own army.  Over five albums and multiple EPs released since 2005, the concept has never wavered, but the style of the music has changed.  Early work was straight dancefloor aggression, with pounding percussion, powerful bass sequencing, and snarling German vocals, but Heimataerde added new elements with bagpipes and flutes sounding intricate melodies alongside the wonderfully effective and well-written EBM.  It’s a formula that has continued to entice and satisfy, and the band has evolved over time, reducing the angst and adding melody and electric guitar.

Bruderschaft is a single (not many bands release singles anymore, do they?) released in hand-numbered copies of 666 (ha!) and intended to be a preview of the forthcoming new Heimataerde album (huzzah!).  Herein are four versions of the title track, in varying styles that showcase the band’s continuing commitment to changing things up.  The first version features synthpop-style vocals and electric guitars that first appeared in bulk on their 2012 album Gottgleich, and it’s quite interesting that this is the same band that released charged-up rampaging war hymns like “Endlos” and “Die Offenbarung.”  The song still has the energy and pipes and chord-shifting electronics that have always been the band’s backbone, but the vocals are clearer and more confident now, and move through chords along with the synths.  There’s even some light dubstep elements.

The three other versions of “Bruderschaft” (which translates as “brotherhood”) are quite, quite different.  The Kytara version removes the electronics, adds acoustic guitar (!) and traditional hand-drums.  It’s basically Heimataerde acapella, and it works better than you might think, showing the strong songwriting that the band has always featured.  The Choral version eschews the German vocals for emphasis on the backing chorale-style vocals, which follow traditional melodies that the band has often utilized and updated into their modern EBM structures.  Both these versions are combined in the Rueda version, and it’s quite cool to see how Heimataerde has fit these differing styles together.

Of course, no single is complete without b-sides, and Heimataerde is known for including outstanding exclusive tracks on their EPs.  Here we find “Misere Re Mei,” a quietly energetic instrumental that sounds straight from the shadow-lurking introspection of 2010’s Unwesen.  A wonderfully nostalgic bass sequence drives forward a 4/4 beat while a chorus mumbles and murmurs in the background.  It’s medieval EBM as only Heimataerde can do it, firing on all cylinders.  The gem here is “Wir Leben Noch,” nothing less than a fantastic song that shows the band at the height of its powers.  The German vocals are perhaps the best the band has ever done, the guitars are integrated better than on Gottgleich, the sense of inertia and timing are impeccable, and the bagpipes are as evocative as ever.  It’s as finely executed a song, across all elements, as you’ll find in the band’s discography.  Again, it’s so cool to see how the band has grown and evolved since its inception; if you’d told me in 2005 that the band that released Gotteskrieger would release “Wir Leben Noch” nine years later, I’d have been shocked…and impressed.

Heimataerde is a rare band sticks to a formula but varies it just enough to avoid repetition and stagnation.  It’s to the band’s credit that the concept has remained the same since the band’s inception but has yet to become stale.  Bruderschaft does exactly what it should: it whets the appetite for the imminent album, while providing a good haul of content.  This is no mere cash run; Heimataerde takes its music seriously, and has worked very hard on perfecting its craft.  If this EP is any indication, we’re in for quite an installment in the further adventures of Ash when the new album arrives.  Heimataerde is keeping the undead faith, friends, and in my experience there are few modern electronic bands that continue to produce flat-out wonderful EBM with such inspired precision.

Flaque – Mindscapes

Wycombe Music (CDWYC 14), 2007

Even before I heard his debut album, Florian Ziller’s Flaque project had been on my radar for a while, thanks to a series of outstanding tracks on various compilations:  “Black Shadows in the Fog”, “Drifting Stones,” “Darkness is Falling,” and “Voices.”  With these tracks, Flaque showed a rare grasp of several styles, from ambient to glitch-studded IDM, and I always wondered if and when an album might appear.

I got my wish with the 2007 release of Mindscapes on Germany’s Wycombe Music label.  However, I didn’t discover it for a while, because Mindscapes was released as part of a triple-album set which was often cataloged as just one of the albums (CDWYC 13, an album by synthpop group Concise titled Revive).  I don’t believe Mindscapes has had a standalone physical release, but via digital, it’s not difficult to acquire….as long as one knows what one is looking for!

Perhaps I set my expectations too high, or perhaps Ziller is the type of artist who works best with a single track, for as solid as Mindscapes is, it still strikes me as disappointing.  With the creativity and technical skill displayed on his comp tracks – all done post-Mindscapes, mind you – I suppose I was hoping to be blown away by an entire album containing the same level of production.  Mindscapes does waver between straight ambiance, such as the playful “Flares”, the watery “Plankton,” and the soothing nightscape of “Stonehill”, and restrained glitchy IDM (“Northland”, “The Clouds and the Sun”), but it seems tentative, as if Ziller doesn’t feel fully confident to let himself go in the album format; perhaps he was trying too hard to make everything flowing and centralized.

Not that there aren’t some fantastic moments here.  In many ways, Flaque is like Gridlock’s little brother.  The distorted complex percussive patterns aren’t as bombastic, and the atmospheres aren’t as profound, but the formula is very similar to Cadoo and Mike Well’s influential flagship.  “Alive” begins with crowd samples and a minimal glitch sequence, before a lovely warm synth washes over; this is calming beauty, with a little bit of quiet chaos in the background to keep things from getting too floaty.  Flaque does tread very close to New Age in places, but the distorted drum programming keeps  Mindscapes from wandering too far into dreamland.

There are two tracks on Mindscapes that do hint at the dazzling heights set by Flaque’s later comp tracks.  “Acoma” is a sparkling wonder of mood, dancing keyboards, and muffled quietly crashing glitch, but for all its prowess, it never seems to fully take off.  “Deceive” opens in typical fashion for the album, but when female voices appear, courtesy of Katrin Segert of Concise, the track shifts effortlessly into synthpop territory.  I’m not a big synthpop fan, but this song is truly magnificent, soaring to aching heights as it progresses.  Segert’s husky, soulful delivery – instantly reminiscent of This Mortal Coil – is a perfect fit for Ziller’s emotive electronics, and the two bands must have known it, for they’ve gone on to collaborate widely since.  These two tracks alone make Mindscapes worth the price of admission.

I admit that I regret saying anything negative about this release.  Mindscapes is indeed enjoyable, and transporting in spots.  However, Flaque has since done his mood-and-glitch formula much better.  While the mood here is strong, it’s rather static.  Mindscapes sticks a little too close to blueprint; most of the chord changes are too similar, and no track besides “Deceive” really breaks out entirely.  I’m realize I’m musing over Mindscapes here, but since I’d heard the compilation tracks first, I can’t help but compare, despite being aware I’m viewing Flaque’s output in reverse.  From this perspective, only a project as promising as Flaque could make an album like Mindscapes seem disappointing.  It’s certainly good, and even great in parts, but Ziller’s best work is ahead of him.