Owl Splinters

by Deaf Center (2011, Type Records)

Dark ambient music functions a lot like horror movies in that the most effective titles are often those that are the quietest and subtlest. Ultra-bloody torture porn might seem like the epitome of the genre given how horrific it is. However, many of the great horror films—e.g., The Innocents, The Haunting, The Shining—rely more on atmosphere and ambiguity than shock; these engage the viewer’s mind in a way that mere sadism can’t and won’t. And so it is with dark ambient music.

You’d think that the louder, creepier, and more horrific the sounds employed, the more effective a dark ambient album will be. And true, there are many artists working in the genre that employ sounds—e.g., discordant machine noises, ominous percussion, disembodied and twisted voices, low frequency drones—that are fully intent on drawing the listener down into a black audio abyss. (Lustmord, one of the genre’s most well-known and influential proponents, is a prime example of this approach.)

Now, I like abyssal expanses of unrelenting sonic blackness as much as the next discerning listener. But sometimes, such music simply sounds like it’s trying too hard. With their latest full-length Owl Splinters, Deaf Center—the Norwegian duo of Erik Skodvin and Otto Totland—take a decidedly different approach, and show how being quieter and subtler can prove more impactful and haunting than any barrage of monstrous or terrifying sounds.

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Nighttide

by Swartz et (2010, Utter East)

When you’re a parent, you’ll do almost anything to help your children sleep through the night, and one of the most obvious tactics is playing music. For example, my wife and I have used looped recordings of white noise as well as The Innocence Mission’s Now The Day Is Over. And when I was a child, I listened to old LPs of Switched-On Bach on a beat up turntable.

Steve Swartz (Au Revoir Borealis, For Wishes) took this idea on step further: he set up a guitar and amp in his daughter’s room and played soft ambient tones for her while she slept.

Nighttide is the result of those “sessions”, and as you might infer from both the description above and the album title, the album’s ten songs are perfectly suited for nighttime listening, whether for you or your child. Built around an array of Swartz’s soft, blurry drones, Nighttide lulls the listener from start to finish, and it’s uniformly lovely and affecting. Swartz wasn’t simply content to strum his guitar and let the drones flow, however: as the songs began to take shape, he employed more “experimental” methods of coaxing shimmering, ethereal sounds from his instrument, including playing the guitar with mallets and a household fan.

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In Sea Remixes

by Various Artists (2010, Silber Records)

I’ll come right out and say it: I’m not a big fan of remixes. I understand the need and desire to pay some homage to music that you find inspiring and beautiful. And given our society’s predilection for recontextualizing and reiterating pop culture in general, remixing sort of seems to be the post-modern de rigueur thing to do. But maybe I subscribe too heavily to the auteur idea for artists in general, that the vision put forth by the original artist is the authoritative one—that it’s canon, if you will—and that other versions are, therefore, pretenders to the throne.

That’s one huge generalization, of course, and I don’t mean to whitewash all remixes in existence, nor do I intend to dismiss those with mad remixing skills. But again, generally speaking, if I have to choose between picking up an album of remixes, and getting an album of brand new material—either by the remixer(s) or the remixee(s)—new material will win out almost every time. I yearn for something new, something fresh, something original—and remixes just never quite leave me satisfied beyond the initial piquing of curiosity.

Which brings us to In Sea Remixes, a collection of remixes of Aarktica’s In Sea. And in addition to my normal dislike of remixes, I was especially anxious regarding this particular collection, for two reasons.

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Drowned In Light

by Manual (2010, Darla Records)

When I last reviewed Manual (aka, Jonas Munk), it was for 2007’s Lost Days, Open Skies And Streaming Tides, a two-disc collection of b-sides, compilation tracks, remixes, and other odds and ends. And by the time I was finished with that release, I concluded, or at least hoped, that it was a harbinger of sorts, that it represented a desire by Munk to clear out any musical baggage and start exploring some new sonic territory.

As much as I like Munk’s music in spirit and theory, the truth is that a little bit of Manual goes a long way for me. I love his ethereal guitars and instrumental soundscapes, but they’re so smooth and crisp, so polished and well-produced, that they’ve always blended together in the long run. As such, I found myself eagerly anticipating something truly new from the guy.

2008 brought us Confluence, another one of Manual’s more ambient-minded releases—and his weakest of that sort (I’ve always preferred 2004’s The North Shore for my Manual bliss-out moments). But now it’s 2010 and Drowned In Light is here, and it represents the first real evidence that Munk is venturing towards a new place, musically. Which makes the album fascinating but also frustrating, because he’s not there yet.

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Slow Motion Breath Forward

by Talik (2010, Self-Released)

Cory Zaradur, who is one half of Language of Landscape—I reviewed their Memories Fade Under A Shallow Autumn Snow earlier in the month—recently let me know about Talik, his collaboration with Musk’oakA. You could lump Talik in with Language of Landscape, since they’re both “ambient” projects, but that’d be really quite lazy of you. Sure, Slow Motion Breath Forward has plenty of ethereal guitars and drifting textures throughout its five songs, but even a cursory listen will reveal that Talik quickly goes in a very different direction.

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