19/02/2012 § Leave a comment
Those unfamiliar with Germany’s Apoptose are missing out on one of the strongest contributors to the dark ambient genre. Normally saturated by the likes of Lustmord and the well-known throng of CMI staples such as Raison d’être and Desiderii Marginis, the meek and modest Apoptose rarely get a look-in at the top end. However, Apoptose are deserving of much more notoriety than they currently receive, chiefly due to the immense amount of focus and variation that goes into each release. Apoptose’s music is not filled with long swathes of dark ambient backwashes, its intention is not to drop you into a ‘dark zone’ and let you meander around for an hour without handing anything else to you. Each album is an exploration on a particular theme, filled with variety, thick ambience, atmosphere, wonder and discovery, all without overboiling the pot. 2010′s “Bannwald” has just appeared here at HH for review, and it’s better late than never for one of the finest works dark ambient has seen in recent years.
“Bannwald” is wholly dedicated to witchcraft, specifically witchcraft and the lore of the forest. The entire album drips with symbolism and references to it, of which it’s important for us to delve into to gain a full understanding of the 50 minutes of music which comprise this release. The word ‘Bannwald’ refers to a specific untouched forested area, a wooded wilderness which is allowed to develop on its own with no interference or influence from human intervention. The Bannwald exists within the Kellerwald [“bare forest” or “charcoal forest”], a low mountainous region in Hesse, central Germany, which is subject to special conservation status. As a result of its conservation, much of the Kellerwald thrives with its own natural life, with ravens, black storks, peregrines and red deer being some of the main inhabitants. But the inner Bannwald seems to take on a life of its own, and being left to evolve as it may, it takes on a certain natural mysticism and sentience. It’s little surprise then, that the literal translation of the word ‘Bannwald’ is “spell forest”.
The photography for the album art is exquisite, evoking the natural mystique of the forest as one might well expect. Even though such imagery is all too common within dark ambient and black metal, there’s something more genuine and apt about its usage here. A detailed examination of the front cover reveals an inverted photograph of a figure with arms outstretched, reflected in a forest lake. But closer scrutiny reveals it to be made of the same rough bark as the trees around it, implying that this being is something born from – and part of – the forest itself, reminding us that we are all part of nature when many of us see ourselves as distinct and separate from it. The artwork reminds us of our impersonal, replaceable nature, our inexclusiveness among the rest of the natural world whilst hinting at the higher spiritual potential lying deadened within so many of us. One of the most striking things about the cover is the stark resemblance the wood-man bears to the humanoid stick figures that appear hanging from trees in the excellent film “The Blair Witch Project”. The similarity seems too striking to be unintentional.
The track names all have a link to the theme of witchcraft or forest folklore. “Die Drei Schwestern” [The Three Witches] is an obvious reference to the trio who control and plague the events of Macbeth. “Hexenring” contains a female vocal chant of the well-known Merry Meet as sung by Liz Crow and Heike Robertson from the Museum of Witchcraft in Cornwall, England. The way the track begins with the light, upbeat vocals only to gradually slide into a more baleful but melodic ambient piece is a clever and affecting concept. As it progresses, the song makes continued references to the figure of Baba Yaga, a haggish witch from Slavic folkore who lives in the forest and consumes children.
The duo of “Vivian Und Wiebke” and “Berkanas Traum” link to each other rather fittingly. Vivian and Wiebke [the German version of the Norwegian title ‘Vibeke’] were the names of two storms which hit Germany back to back in the Winter of 1990. These storms caused widespread destruction to the forests of Southern Germany, the worst thing about them being they hit almost immediately after one another. The track isn’t a particularly tumultuous affair itself though, and seems to reference the calm between both storms on the 27th and 28th February, a period when most people didn’t know the worst was yet to come. “Berkanas Traum” [Berkana’s Dream] references the rune Berkana, that of feminine energy and rebirth, presumably mentioned here to hint at the rebirth of the forest after the preceding storms. However, it’s vital to note that the Berkana rune is that of the birch tree which, due to their flexible nature, represents youth and fecundity. It was for this particular trait that birchwood was most commonly said to be used by witches for making broomsticks, a concept whose roots lay in fertility rituals where dancers would ride broomsticks through fields, the height of jumping signalling how high the grain should grow in the coming year. Berkana has a far more positive side though, representing new life after death and the bond between mother and infant. Nevertheless, Apoptose’s titling of the track as Berkana’s Dream seems to imply only a hope for rebirth and nourishment, rather than the reality.
While being rich in symbolism, it is the music of Bannwald which is by far its strongest point. It is an album deeply involved in the mysticism and importance of the forest and how it develops its own spiritual life, how witchcraft is a naturally occurring practice springing out from the woods themselves. The album’s sound is rich, melodic and unsettling, with each track having its own personality, strength and signature cadence. By far the greatest of these lie in the excellent “Hexenring”, “Haltet Euch Fern!” and “Ein Jahr Und Ein Tag”, all of which contain the creaking, dense whispers, chants and melodies of the deep woodland dusk. Even though Bannwald bases itself heavily on folklore, it’s still very much a work of sinister dark ambient, but one which concentrates on the darker, minimalistic essences of folk inspired by the blacker domains of creation. It speaks to us and resonates with centuries of ancient traditional knowledge. It is alive as much as nature.
Being involved heavily with the magick of witchcraft and access beyond the veil of worlds, Bannwald seems most appropriate in the time of Samhain and its following darker months, a period in which it really comes into its own. It is the spirit of a deeply dark and natural realm, its authenticity coming across with searing conviction. Bannwald is not only a touching work of dark ambient – but an emotional and beautiful one – something which is sadly rare within the genre. Like Apoptose’s other albums, his deep understanding and attachment to the meaning of his work cedes excellent results, and therefore Bannwald is not only an album, but a timeless sacred rite. With two months of the dark half of the year to go, it’s still the perfect time to appreciate this work. This spirit will then rest before its reawakening next Samhain.
12/02/2012 § Leave a comment
Each Locrian release is an unpolished gem. A murky, hard-edged jewel which speaks nothing but matte meanderings to most listeners. But if you manage to infiltrate the gateway to Locrian’s essence, to break open the crust of their projection, you’ll find rays of sonic luminescence within. They are a band who play via tumultuous disharmony but whose substance is built on subtlety. This collaboration between Chicago’s Locrian and Vashon’s Mamiffer takes their exploration of minimal art to new depths. Gone are the ten minute, lead-thick ramparts of sound; the long, piercing sharded solos and the looping, never-ending churns of feedback. This time round, we’re not having it handed to us on a platter. Bless Them That Curse You is not only an exercise in exploring your own preconceptions of the band, but transforming them, regenerating them and being truly open to what’s in front of you. It is about the strength of melody as much as the strength of noise, the similarities of extremes and the universal midpoint. It is about travelling to the core of something to understand its nature, its cause, its campaign.
On the surface a collaboration with Mamiffer – known for their piano-led ambiance, alternative rock and experimental melodies – seems like an unusual pairing. But the symbiosis between the two helixes on an extremely deep level, their understanding of each other’s inner nature being what makes the project so successful. Here, both ensembles are not out to just make music, but to cut slices from their own marrow and pass them to the other for translation. As such, BTTCY is more a work of ambient than it is of noise, more of fragility than extremity, and one that operates in a variety of different modes. It is a very intriguing undertaking indeed, but one which daren’t show its message to you immediately. There’s a shyness and stress to the real content here, and only repeated coaxing off of its layers will show it to you.
The beginning of the work showcases the harsh drones of the Locrian we’re familiar with, but before long these dampen down into something calmer and softer altogether: the raining, pattering piano chords of “Corpus Luteum”; the static, ghostly fuzz within “Lechatelierite” and the shimmering distance of melody within the title track. We’re even given a tracing of female vocals for the first third of the mammoth closing piece, “Metis”, before Locrian ratchet up their defence mechanisms once more as the sonic behemoth of “Amaranthine” groans and screams into the highly dark and unsettling finale, “The Emperor”. BTTCY is perfectly balanced on each side, bookended by thick noise at the beginning and end which coats a highly soft and delicate centre section. The album is almost like some kind of sonic valley: steep unscalable walls on either side sloping to a lush and tender middle. Maybe it’s not so much of an album as an exposé.
At times it’s difficult to see exactly who’s in control. Occasionally the wavelet of a piano track commands our immediate attention, only for us to discover we’ve been missing a subtle drone-like hum underneath it the entire time; or a thick glass-like section of ambiance will be little else but a window through to some subtle, gleaming guitar within. BTTCY plays around with image and power as much as it does your experiences of it: the sounds are as important as the spaces around them, and both band knows how to perfectly balance their forte. It is an impressive fusion of understanding and ability.
This is not an album which can be tied down or typecast though, it is a thoroughly independent piece of music. It will have the last laugh just when you think you’ve understood it. Epic in feeling as well as in construction, it pulls together multiple branches of drone, ambient and experimental music but lets them interact together on a minimalist level to complex effect. It bears a particular truth and reality within its centre – and this truth is not just of sound, nor expression, but of pneuma: the breath of clarity. BTTCY shows us the vital importance of self-knowledge, and both halves of this collaboration have chosen to share theirs admirably.
05/02/2012 § Leave a comment
You wait years for an album on plants to head your way and then two turn up at once. Along with Botanist’s “The Suicide Tree/A Rose from the Dead” this is the second record to grace my path in the last few weeks entirely dedicated to plant life, though Atzmann Zoubar takes on a far more mystical feel. “Aut Sperma In Terram Effundit” came to me out of nowhere, but already it ranks as one of the most impressive ritual albums I’ve come across in recent memory, and so it should when you consider the amount of time that’s gone into making it. The Atzmann Zoubar project was founded in 2005, the songs which were to find their way onto this debut release starting their lives a year later and reaching completion to the satisfaction of the artist in 2011. Seeing as the strains within this album took a full five years to reach maturity, clearly some perfectionism is at play here. The hard work and dedication certainly paid off, since this is one of the most genuine, dark and soulful works in the genre that you could entertain.
Not that you’ll find much information about this project’s originator anywhere. K Makiri, the creator behind AZ, gives his location as being “a solitary cave” somewhere in Germany, but he moves in some very important circles. The inlay gives little away either, featuring only three pictures of the mandrake root in its four pages, with the disc released as CD “001″ under Binturong Music. This album features vocal appearances, both sung and spoken, from many contributors to the scene, most of whom are female and all of which are excellent at their craft. I was most surprised to see the inclusion of vocals by Salomeh from the ritual industrial project C.O.T.A., whose 1994 tape release “Terra-ist” caused ripples in the waters of the underground. Each vocalist has been chosen very carefully to give the exact, perfect understanding and dedication to this album’s cause, and along with the soft, underplayed industrial elements and dark ambience it’s a near perfect mix.
The title “Aut Sperma In Terram Effundit” is a reference to the spot where the mandrake root grows: in the place where a young male has spilled his last seed. The entire album is a dedication to the mandrake, its power, history, importance and relevance within sorcery. A lot of the music is taken up with incantations, all of which are carried beautifully on the train of the instrumentation. The main thread of the album’s musical feel revolves around a thick, ethereal dark ambience and even though there are industrial elements to the music, these are generally softly played, being little more than indicators of the space between one section and the next, or between one heartbeat to another between words. Indeed, the industrialist elements are there to give an impression of the transitions and timelessness within the music, not to affront or assault listeners with a heavy, martial battery.
The most impressive thing about this album is the balance it manages to strike between the chaos and the calm within. This is no work of ambience with long, actionless sections of dreary miasmic ether: the music doesn’t tie you down in a calm section without gradually ramping up the pulse and pace before long. There is much variety within the music but the band has been able to tether everything perfectly to the right point: one side ambient, one side industrial, one side experimental and one side vocal – and at no time do we end up feeling as if we’ve spent too long in any corner. The ‘experimental’ side of the music, for its worth, is more subtle that avant-garde, featuring a quiet sitar in “The Magic Root” and the droning atmospheric guitarwork of Folkearth’s Marcus van Langen in “Diese Eine”. The album also features the inclusion of violin and didgeridoo, but don’t let the mention of either flag the pressing of alarm bells since every instrument is utilised purely for atmosphere rather than melody, the violin in particular played as a soft but screeching skip between a few scratched notes. These paragraphs would also not be complete without paying respect to the excellent work of vocalist Evi whose bewitching, French incantations within “Main de Gloire” account for one of the strongest points of the release. Given the title of the work it’s no surprise that the music dips in and out of a heavily sensual feel and especially round its mid point, the album takes on an almost sexual animation and reverence.
Overall, this is a an extremely powerful piece of work indeed and a high quality example of ritual music. With all the affectation and impersonation this side of the underground is used to, it’s fantastic to see such a masterwork produced with real heart, feeling and clear in-depth knowledge of subject matter and execution. Parts of “Aut Sperma In Terram Effundit” hark back to the days of the early releases by Ain Soph and LAShTAL, whilst also thinning out their industrial sound with a fluid ambient feeling reminiscent of Raison d’être. Released on the Winter solstice this album fell right at the end of 2011, and in the current icy climate of Imbolc is just as relevant now and will be for years to come. The identities within Atzmann Zoubar may choose to remain somewhat concealed, but their sound should reap renown.
05/01/2012 § Leave a comment
I’m not always passionate about albums which have to be rehashed and reformatted, but in the case of Ovro’s “Revisited” an overhaul was vital. A lot of the work on this disc can be found on the CDR “Estrainer”, such a limited release that it’s impossible to find a copy. The term “revisited” doesn’t just apply to some older material in an improved form though, but to a spacial and geographical return as well. Many of the tracks within this album contain field recordings from Ovro’s trip to St Petersburg, jimmied into her trademark style of glitch dark ambient. “Revisited” is an emotional journeying for the petite Fin, both as a reworking of her older music seen dragged into the daylight for a makeover, and an aural scrapbook of her Baltic expeditions.
I first came across Ovro’s work a few years ago through the Horizontal/Vertical EP released under Drone Records. Even though it was put out in the same year as “Revisited”, there is a stark difference in feel between the two releases. “Revisited” has much more centre, much more focus than the H/V EP, which in comparison comes across as an experimental dark ambient orphan, the runt of a drone litter thrown on the “by the same artist” pile and glossed with special packaging. “Revisited” is altogether a greater and more intriguing work. It shows Ovro as a thinking dark ambient artist, one who gives subtle clues to her real interests, real world identities and concerns, all expressed through the mirror of her select aural voice.
One has to be careful with field recordings. In my mind there’s always the question of whether one passively collects ambient sounds or goes looking for them, and the former seems far more genuine. It’s akin to the difference between writing music naturally or intentionally aping your favourite inspirations. Fortunately a lot of the sounds within “Revisited” are incidental rather than overblown, mixed well with the atmosphere and the dark ambient underlay. As usual, Ovro punctuates the music with her usual stuttering and glitching white noise, breaking up the ambience which can so easily wallow in self-stagnation.
The field recordings are the main attraction here, comprising anything from distorted vocal patterns to crowd buzz to snatches of street conversation, but with a professional aptitude Ovro is able to create something intriguing, unsettling and beautiful out of them. Strangely enough, even though the majority of the sounds were collected in Russia, this record has more of a Middle Eastern feel. There are no silken arabesque clichés here though. Even in the closing cadences of the wonderful “Ukok” we feel as if we are an unseen, unwelcome interloper in a private mosque, hazardously listening to something never intended for Western ears. These sounds were meant to pass without remark, but here they are, stolen from their ephemeral timelines and permanently pasted onto our subconscious.
“Revisited” is very much a work of personal intrigue but one which likes to retain anonymity and introspection. It’s more of a showcase than a journey; at no point do we feel as if we are following our mentor around as much as being sporadically map-pointed to various destinations. This unfortunately works to the album’s detriment since there seems to be little cohesion, little meshing of themes, everything is just dropped in and swirled around for effect. We’ll never totally understand the stories behind these sounds, but we can still relate to their emotional gravity. This, perhaps, is the most vital thing being communicated here – we don’t have to physically exist in a location to appreciate its effects. The power and weight of a single sense can be enough, and Ovro is highly capable of demonstrating how.
01/01/2012 § Leave a comment
It’s difficult for me to accurately express my tremendous admiration for this project. Herbst9 are one of the few remaining envoys of communication from civilisations past, carrying into the 21st century a musical dedication and interpretation of the true tenets and beliefs of Sumer. Since the genesis of this enterprise, Henry Emich and Frank Merten have never faltered in producing some of the finest works the ritual ambient genre has ever seen. Ušumgal Kalamma [Dragon of the Land] is no different and this time round we are greeted with a full double album of original material to close the Mesopotamian trilogy that started with “Buried Under Time and Sand”. I have no reservation in saying that Ušumgal Kalamma is the finest of the three albums: it’s a refined, mature and reverential gift to the present day, born from unending research, respect and fascination for the past. But unlike others who use ancient civilisation purely as an inspiration, Hersbt9 seems to have been birthed directly from it. There is something so genuine and unquestionably sincere about this project which makes the orthodoxy of its sound so effective and compelling.
Ušumgal Kalamma continues the venerative path of its predecessors but also weaves in selective new elements, both thematically and musically. Of particular note is the citing of, and quoting from, the Akkadian poem “Ludlul Bel Nemeqi” [I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom]. The core of the poem centres on the physical unalleviated suffering of Shubshi-meshre-Shakkan, but who perseveres in his faith and dedication to the gods in spite of having no knowledge as to how long his afflictions will draw out or what indeed he is being punished for. The tone of overcoming prolonged suffering seems to be a prevalent theme on the album, with the tracks “She Filled The Wells Of The Land With Blood” and “Birds Of Sorrow Are Building Nests On These Flanks” referring to the trials of the goddess Inana and her efforts to triumph in the face of oppression. The first of these tracks is particularly important since it is a quote from the tale of Inana’s rape by Shukaletuda, where in delivering a plague to the land of her oppressor she turns the water to blood. This is not only a mark of revenge and retribution but it also strongly signifies the power of femininity and sexual affirmation, the River of Death. Sexuality is a theme which has always been loosely implied and employed in the works of Herbst9, unavoidable largely by even the mention of Inana, but here it appears again, especially the incantation which begins “Ereškigal, Rise From Your Throne” carries a remarkably sensual feel to it.
Disc one gives us more of the traditional sounds that many listeners of this project’s later works will be familiar with. As with “Buried Under Time and Sand” and “The Gods are Small Birds but I am the Falcon” the disc contains nearly an hour of exuberant, ritualistic ambience soaked in a trench-deep and sometimes unsettlingly dark tone, with heavy use of vocal incantation, both male and female, in English and Akkadian. As usual the ancient sound of this work is authentically employed with no hint of interest or attention given to the importance of the modern age. Herbst9′s intention is not solely to stand in awe of Sumer but to use it as a reverential path and tool in the same way as a craftsman might hone new objects out of old, trustworthy materials through understanding, experience and imagination. Sumer is not a labelled exhibit but an integral, symbiotic life-force that sparks within the musical heart of this project, in turn spawning new creations through age-old practises.
Disc two sees the use of a slightly more ambient and ethereal sound than on previous albums. Whereas in the past, older works may have been slightly heavied by the weight of sampling, the balance has been struck perfectly here. This time round Herbst9 uses an intricate and interactive use of its influences to create a calmer, introspective theme through employing sparse use of vocal samples and drones. Not only this, but here we see a new influence nudging its way to the fore, as in the excellent “The Sage Lord Ašimbabbar” Emich and Merten use the sound of a guzheng to create a uniquely Far Eastern feel. This rears its head again for the stirring finale “The Great Child of Suen” which incorporates further Far Eastern atmospherics before crossing over to more accustomed Near Eastern territories in its closing half. This change is a welcome and intriguing addition to the work of this project, and one which which gives this album a new temporal and spiritual perspective.
It is this exchange of new and familiar sounds, an intensely mystical atmosphere and skilful execution that makes Ušumgal Kalamma the immense success that it is. Maybe it is because the project has such a fine comprehension of the timelessness and relevance of past tradition that the music comes across with such soul and meaning. Piecing together the authority from thousands of years of convention, this album comes across as a multiple-layered work of astonishing depth and brilliance. Albums such as these truly are what ritual ambient music should be about, using the understanding of ancient thought to explore our own emotional processes and to improve and enhance our existence on this Earth. Ušumgal Kalamma is both a perfectly fulfilled fantasy and a dark reverie for those with an interest in this genre, and on a slightly more modest level, the crowning pinnacle of the band’s musical and devotional output so far.
– Sackler Gallery, British Museum, 31st December 2011