Shift – Altamont Rising

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Shift – Altamont Rising LP Unrest Productions / CD Cold Spring Records 2014

The solo helmed Shift have been steadily building their profile for a decade now and whilst the previous full length album ‘Bulk’ from 2009 received a fair degree of critical praise, ‘Altamont Rising’ further elevates Shift’s sound to a level which represents their magnum opus to date.  As with earlier material Shift has carved out a niche sound which inhabits the border regions between noise and power electronics, yet the sonic aggression and density on display here is monolithic even by Shift’s standards.

Utilising layered industrial noise filth and scathing junk metal clatter to produce a heavily drudging atmosphere, Shift’s approach is too structured nor chaotic enough to quality as pure noise, yet equally is more freeform and ‘soundscape’ oriented that than a typical power electronics ‘song’ approach.  Effectively Shift construct their compostions by bedding down layer upon layer of industrial clamour, where each layer also embodies a vague looped rhythmic structure.  Thus with the sonic layers complementing and competing for supremacy in equal measures, it provides a loose sense of structure to what otherwise could be a chaotic mass of sound.  Also with each composition effectively bleeding into the next, it only adds to atmosphere of enveloping moroseness, as the oppressive caustic distortion, buried samples, garbled radio chatter and sporadic anger infused vocals combine to gradually grind and crush the listeners psyche.

‘Circling Raptor’ opens the album with thick, heavy and laborious waves of distortion, which combine into a crushing mass of sound. This track then flows directly into the slightly more structured ‘They Don’t Suffer Enough’, which is characterised by crumbling layers of loosely rhythmic, low to mid-range industrial noise muck, prior to the introduction of the album’s first vocals which are distortion saturated and barked in full power electronics guise. One of the album’s most direct tracks is ‘Shelter’ which opens the second side of the LP with driving mid-paced distortion loops, sampled background crowd noise and fiercely oppressive and borderline unhinged vocal attack. This mood is pushed to even further extremes on ‘Rising’ with it’s the pulsing distortion, squealing noise and heavily flanged vocals. Yet notwithstanding the totality of its oppressiveness, the final album track ‘The Greatest Ecstasy’ finishes on a slightly differing tangent, mostly due to the vocals, which take the form of an intense whisper (with elongated method of lyrical pronunciation), as the multi-layered slab of cyclic rumbling industrial noise grinds incessantly to the album’s final vinyl groove.

The LP version of ‘Altamont Rising’ is limited to a mere 100 copies, issued on heavy weight vinyl and housed within a screen printed rough card stock cover with a couple of printed inserts, with a less limited CD version issued via Cold Spring Records. Through ‘Altamont Rising’, Shift have ascended to their full potential which was previously hinted at and achieved to varying degrees on prior releases. In shorter terms this impression could be expressed as: ‘Altamont Rising’ equals an absolute demonstration of Shift’s ascendancy.

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Skorneg – Foehn

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Skorneg – Foehn CD Malignant Records 2014

Skorneg are a new signing to the rapidly expanding Malignant roster, with the project being a collaboration between Frédéric Arbour (Visions member and Cylic Law label boss) and Christian Corvellec (of another Canadian project Skinwall whom are unknown to these ears). Regarding their particular style Skorneg articulate a ‘barren galactic landscapes’ to ‘vast deep space’ type of dark ambience, here featuring 4 tracks which sprawl over an expanse of 43 minutes.

Whilst the initial impression of the tonal scope is one of a gargantuan universal scale, evidently the album’s inspiration is far more earthbound based on its thematic context of: “the northern elements of Glaciers, Winds and the exploration of such rugged territories, both physically, intellectually and spiritually”. Regardless of any ‘mind’s eye’ visual impressions evoked, ‘Fohen’ skilfully conveys animated and multilayered textural dark ambience, where each of the four tracks are constructed with deep, drifting and swelling sub-orchestral drones which are propelled forwards with churning and driving undercurrent. They also follow a similar compositional approached by setting down a minimalist structure and then gradually build and morph their sound over their expanse (each ranging in length from 9-12 minutes).

In order to articulate the overarching feel of ‘Foehn’, this could be creatively described by quoting the title of one of Inade’s tracks, being: ‘The Engine of Space’ given the use of subtle, almost mechanised rhythms. This reference also functions as a further descriptive link given the material on this album begs a passing comparison to the less composed and more flowing and abstract style of Inade. Interesting the second track ‘Serac’ quite clearly stands out from other album tracks, where the piece builds upon a cyclic swirling structure, before elevating significantly at around the 3 minute with slow booming galactic horns and muted driving and rhythmic electronic programming.

Without dwelling on the point ‘Foehn’ will be a solid and satisfying release for dark ambient music devotees, but then again this is almost expected given the pedigree of those involved  – i.e. the Cyclic Law label boss and released on Malignant Records.

raison d’etre – Mise en Abyme

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Raison d’etre – Mise en Abyme CD Transgredient Records 2014

Raision d’etre return with a new album some 5 years since the last official full length, and whilst not necessarily deviating greatly from their recognised sound, solo member Peter Anderson is still producing interesting variations on well established themes. This album also sees raison d’etre shifting to a new label following the unfortunate demise of Cold Meat Industry, with Transgredient Records being a side label to the respected Drone Records.

Noting that 2009’s ‘The Stains of Embodied Sacrifice’ articulated a sonic environment of sacral dark ambience, including selected passages which veered towards a jarring post-classical sound, a similar sonic aesthetic has been explored on ‘Mise en Abyme’ (translating to “placed into the abyss”), but here condensed into 4 lengthy compositions (12 to 17 minutes each). ‘Abyssos’ opens the album and could thematically represent the decent into the abyss of one’s own psyche. Dour sub-orchestral synths, windswept drones and metallic scraping textures mark the path and while the mood commences as serene, over its expanse it gradually builds to an intensely peaked crescendo.  The following track ‘Infernous’ clearly implies a heavier visage, which does in fact deviate heavily from anything previously found in raison d’etre’s discography. Towards the middle of this piece micro-tonal grating metallic textures and heavy clanging scrap metal cacophony mark a large portion of the sound (…these sonic elements appear to have been sourced from scrap metal recording sessions, which have in turn been sonically manipulated into vaguely rhythmic effect). Whilst ‘Infernous’ has the potential to jar listeners who are more familiar with the ambient and sacral side of raison detre’s sound, this track clearly seems to be a sonic representation of self-flagellation. Yet with the underscoring elements of wailing quasi-brass horns and sub-orchestral drones, Peter positions these heavier metallic elements squarely within the framework of raison d’etre. ‘Katharos’ then arcs back to more familiar territory of a floating melancholic atmosphere (perhaps acting as a means of catharsis to the heavier grating elements of the ‘Infernos’ which preceded it), here utilising sampled Greek Orthodox chants, swelling sub-orchestral waves, sparse ritual chimes and subtle metallic scraping textures. The final album track ‘Agraphos’ rounds out the album in calmer fashion by gradually building in an upward sweeping trajectory, as if seeking to elevate above the depths and heaviness of earlier album passages. Despite its slightly lighter tonal guise, it is still a track heavily infused with a dark and gloomy mood, again constructed with the Gregorian chants and sweeping soundscapes, sparse chimes/ tolling church bells and a general sonic palate infused with a thumping echoed depth.

Whilst ‘Mise en Abyme’ does not necessarily turn the tables on what has come before, rather it represents yet another step in the continual refinement of raison d’etre’s style. As such Peter (again) effortlessly demonstrates his skill in evoking a sacral dark ambient sound, which very much suits solo appreciation and contemplation and introspection on the part of the listener.

Skin Area / Jarl – La Petite Mort

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Skin Area / Jarl – La Petite Mort LP Malignant Records 2014

‘La Petite Mort’ is a collaborative album between Skin Area (aka Martin Bladh and Magnus Lindh) and Jarl (aka Erik Jarl) – noting that Erik and Martin also form two thirds of the revered power electronics project IRM. Whereas Skin Area’s previous albums inhabited a wildly diverse experimental post-industrial sound (bordering on being almost disjointed at times), the involvement of Jarl (who is known for his own solo experimental dark ambient material), seems to have tempered the direction of ‘La Petite Mort’ into focused drone ambient territory. Also given that Martin utilises his distinctive voice within Skin Area (and coupled with the involvement of Erik Jarl), this album begs a passing comparison to IRM. Although this is acknowledged as a partially lazy descriptor, nevertheless the sound of ‘La Petite Mort’ could be considered as an ambient drone take on IRM’s far more forceful and visceral sound works.

‘Tantalus’ opens with LP with a spare soundscape of animated organic shimmering textures and quasi-drone like tones, as the monotone spoken vocals of Martin’s Bladh articulate a psychological perspective on masturbation representing a safe surrogate for self-annihilation. This theme obviously has some sort of conceptual link to the track’s title, noting Tantalus is a Greek mythological figure subjected to eternal punishment for sacrificing his son and serving his corpse at a banquet of the Gods. The composition also reveals some partially hidden disharmonic piano tones and string instruments within the soundscape, which shifts the mood into a tense passage of building and densely layered sounds and abstract vocalisations (coughs, croaks and garbled voices). ‘Charybdis’ arrives next and functions in slightly more animated guise with its clinical rhythmic pulse, whilst shrill disharmonic orchestral strings provide a degree of tenseness. The track is further complimented by Martin’s morose spoken vocals addressing abstract thematic content (“placenta nest of whiskers”?).

‘Scylla’ opens the second side with micro-tonal examinations of scrapped/ manipulated strings, as tense bowed instruments are gradually overlaid.  Think of a more abstract styled Penderecki and you are part way there. The later half of the track then shifts mode with morose muted harmonic drones, rhythmic pulses and (strangely) field recordings of the barking of neighbourhood dogs (…interestingly the atmosphere here accommodates a hazy dreamlike aura which verges towards an ‘unknown fear’ type of nightmare). ‘Pelops’ is the last of four compositions and despite its abstract frame is the most ‘composed’ with muted strumming of some sort of stringed instrument, alongside more intensely shrill droning sounds and minimalist abstract bass guitar and garbled vocalisations, which give rise to a spoken passage of Martin’s even more downtrodden vocals which return to the thematic context of the first track (…a further conceptual link is provided by the fact that in Greek Mythology*, Pelops was the sacrificed son of Tantalus).

Despite its overall ambient drone like quality, this music is far from being minimalist and abstract, rather is heavily engaging and strikingly animated due to its detailed attention and layering of the individual sonic textures. On the packaging front there is the stark minimalist artwork courtesy of Martin Bladh, which is included on the cover and a series of thirteen single sided A4 printed inserts. ‘La Petite Mort’ represents the most honed material heard from Skin Area to date (possibly due to the involvement of Jarl), and consequently delivers experimental ambient drone works of the highest calibre, which whilst clearly born of the underground absolutely elevates itself into a non-derivative niche all its own.  With a limitation of 220 copies, this seem far too few.

 

* – The conceptual influence of Greek mythology is also present on tracks ‘Charybdis’ and ‘Scylla’ – both being mythical sea monsters. Further context of the potential conceptual meaning is expressed by the Greek Mythological idiom “between Scylla and Charybdis” which effective means “having to choose between two evils”.

Abre Ojos / Illuminoscillate – A Place Of Quiet / Circle Of Spit

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Abre Ojos / Illuminoscillate – A Place Of Quiet / Circle Of Spit 7”ep Secrets of Giza 2013

Two of Australia’s purveyors of modular synth driven dark ambience have teamed up for this short and sharp double A side vinyl 7”ep. Given the relative stylistic synergies between the two, hopefully this split will serve to further raise the profile of both projects.

Although the title of Abre Ojos’s piece ‘A Place of Quiet’ might be slightly misleading, it is anything but quiet.  Presenting a piece of partly ritualised, multi-layered dark ambience, it includes shimmering mid ranged pulsar harmonics, sporadic gong tones, crumbling bass thumps and sub-orchestral power drones, all infused with a slight static edge. Whilst this is not significantly far from the established sound of the project, is slightly set apart due to its increased degree of drive and urgency.

‘Circle of Spit’ is Illuminoscillate’s offering and dives head long into a track of grinding black hole ambience which is partially mechanised in tone. Here a subdued percussive pulse is soon engulfed by forceful cyclic waves of sound which multiply in intensity. There is a clear and forceful tonal strength to these galactic synth drones which radiate an inherent power, before the track collapses into oblivion.

With the length limitations imposed by the format, both project manage to articulate a slightly more urgent sound than the abstract and long form works of their album counterparts. And whilst functioning within a similar sonic palette, each project clearly articulates an individual take on the experimental droning dark ambient sound. With a limitation of 100 copies is both an interesting and worthy release.