Featured artists: Chassm | Nate Collins | Kinkajous | Kælan Mikla | Lustmord & Karin Park ||:
In this Halloween ADA (shorter reviews) update Nick Hudson takes a look at recent releases from:
• Chassm – Falling Forever
• Nate Collins – Mythos: An Exploration of the Worlds and Themes of H.P. Lovecraft
• Kinkajous – Being Waves
• Kælan Mikla – Undir Köldum Norðurljósum
• Lustmord & Karin Park – Altar
While opening number Dawn Gaia presents a tone of optimism, and begins the album in a quite triumphant and jubilant manner, lead single Absentia Terra soon shows why the album is titled Falling Forever. From the dizzying heights of the opener, the only way is down, and Absentia Terra begins that deep dive. While Terra is synonymous with Gaia, there’s no avoiding that it’s a homophone of terror – and this is a delectably tension filled number that keeps me on the edge of my seat like a good horror film. Terror is something that many humans like to experience, especially at this time of year, and while Absentia Terra is not terror filled, as such, it’s spooky and sinister, and very, very dark. If Dawn Gaia celebrated all that is beauty in Mother Nature and Mother Earth, Absentia Terra is mankind running rampant through it all, and nonchalantly exploiting and ruining it. Over eight minutes there are some incredibly impressive shifts, the first moment the vocals come in one of those, and the moment the vocals change from clean to harsh is another.
Absentia Terra is almost a microcosm of the album as a whole. There is so much going on, and changing, within the sound of any one track, that it makes the sound of the band hard to describe or compare to other bands. I have a friend who seems to like to compare bands to Deafheaven, and in this instance I’d be hard pressed not to give him that. But how would I describe the music? Well, there’s elements of math, crust, both post-rock and post-metal, some blackened doom. I’m pretty sure there’s a cracked and broken kitchen sink in there too. Chassm’s Bandcamp page mentions Fall of Efrafa, and I’d definitely agree with that. Crust is not a genre I’m generally fond of, but I came to Fall of Efrafa via Watership Down, and I stayed there: I really enjoy their trilogy of concept albums. But I like this Chassm album even more! They remind me a little of Italian band Postvorta too – and I love Postvorta.
One of the major differences between Chassm and a lot of post-metal is how much of their music is driven by rhythmic and percussive dynamics, rather than the quiet/loud that is the norm. There is very little quiet on Falling Forever – it being one prolonged scream whilst plunging eternally into a bottomless abyss. That sounds tiresome and hard to listen to, and I’m constantly surprised that it’s not. By all measures of what I normally enjoy, Chassm is a band I shouldn’t. I think it’s because of the math aspect to their music, with the rhythm section leading the way and providing all kinds of nifty changes and twists. There’s an almost jazzy nature at times, and a definite groove that it’s hard not to be swept along with. To be timely, Falling is both trick and treat.
I love Halloween because I get to play dark ambient and drone music in the house that I would otherwise never get away with, but my wife and children seem to accept albums like Mythos as suitably atmospheric for a Halloween soundtrack. This is one of four releases from Nate Collins this year that would be appropriate Halloween soundscapes, but it’s definitely my favourite. I love how incredibly well he has expressed the concepts of Beneath and Beyond. So much so that I sort of take issue with the description on the accompanying monograph that this is “an abstract exploration”. While beneath and below might be abstract concepts, there is nothing abstract about their aural expression and representation here. The sense of being beneath and beyond is as tangible as it’s possible to be, given there is no physical or concrete existence of either, when it comes down to it.
Beneath is a highly rhythmic piece that (very) strangely reminds me of Reuben Bradley’s Cthulhu Rising. As a drummer, Bradley’s album features his playing strongly – but in a quite different way from other releases of his that I’m familiar with. Being a jazz album, it’s considerably bouncier and more upbeat than Mythos, but the percussion has the same effect, driving the music along. In Bradley’s music it rises, as per the title, and in Collins’ it takes the listener down, down, down – diving Beneath. I love the way the percussion doesn’t come in immediately. The beginning of the piece sounds like an old ship, creaking and drifting on a foggy sea. As the music becomes spookier, with hints of something lurking in the depths, the percussion begins – almost imperceptibly at first, but growing in volume in a creepy and insistent manner. The final two minutes are absolutely amazing, including the final drop.
Beyond, on the other hand, relies far more on drones and atmosphere than percussion. It is just as effective in portraying impending horror just beyond, as Beneath did beneath. Hidden within the drones, you can hear things close by but out of view. As with Beneath, and as with most great horror stories, it is the lack of visibility and description that creates the horror. The imagination fills in the gaps, so that even the most unthreatening objects and sounds can become sinister and malevolent. There is no way of discerning the intent (if any) of those movements and sounds we can hear within the fog and haze of the drones, but it’s beyond our vision, and subject to our worst fears. As the piece increases in volume, so does the tension. Again, like Beneath, the last couple of minutes are incredible.
A nu-jazz style album is perhaps not something you might expect to hear in a Halloween playlist, but this is a very dark and spooky nu-jazz, full of notes not played, and melodies unspoken. The gaps provide drama and tension, while also (for me) envisaging the turbulence of waves. Not the insipid waves of many English beaches, but the tremendous and powerful waves I grew up with in New Zealand. Waves that pound and dump, break and disorient you, if you try to fight them (though there is still fun in that), and which the only way to not be hurt is to be with the waves. That, for me, is ‘being waves’, even if that is not what Kinkajous intended for this album. It could conceivably be a challenging listen if you go in with expectations; go with the flow and the unexpected surprises are joyful rather than jump scares.
That said, there is something delightfully off-kilter about Being Waves. A Bandcamp reviewer likens the album to “GoGo Penguin, but darker”. One of my daughters made the comment that it sounds like music that shouldn’t be spooky, but is. Again, I’m taken back to those waves of my youth, where much of the fun of playing in the waves came down to the fear they engendered – particularly when I couldn’t reach the bottom with my feet, or conversely, when I had been unceremoniously dumped, and completely lost sense of direction so that when I thought I was swimming for the surface, I’d suddenly find myself scraping my hands in the sand. And that watery feel translates itself to my inferences from the titles. The capitalisation of NOOMS surely means it has nothing to do with the Dutch maritime painter of that name, but that is instantly who I think of. And the intricacy, precision and detail in his paintings is a nice metaphor for the music of Kinkajous anyway.
Being Waves has plenty of lighter moments and passages, but overwhelmingly feels like an album on the precipice of crisis and terror. There’s a sense of immensity and depth (dare I say it, of oceanic proportions), and of dark and threatening things of an indeterminate nature hidden within. At times the sound is agitated and disjointed, and it’s utterly compelling. At other times, the immensity shrinks dramatically to intimacy, so close almost to be as claustrophobic as is is comforting. There’s a sense of ambivalence that leaves the listener to decide how much is a trick, and how much is a treat. The album ends with a track that somehow encapsulates both extremities, being both immense and intimate. It crescendos in a wonderfully gentle fashion and then, like many waves that look scarier than they eventually become (or the title of an earlier track on the album), it blooms, then nothing. The sudden end and silence is breathtaking.
I’ve been awaiting the release of this fourth album from Kælan Mikla for some time, and it doesn’t disappoint. Everything I love about this band, who I was introduced to with 2018’s Nótt eftir nótt, is back on Undir Köldum Norðurljósum. The hauntingly dark and Gothic soundscapes. The bone chilling and bloodcurdling screams. And the glorious poppy synth sound that should be incongruous but works so damn well. There are beats and hooks galore, but they are devilish and bewitching. It’s nocturnal music to listen to under Northern Lights, or, of course for Halloween. There are plenty of darkwave acts around, most of which owe a debt to ’80s Goth sounds, but few (if any) are as intricately layered and richly textured and so easily fuse eerie and ebullient sounds. One moment breathtakingly grim and fierce and the next buoyantly groovy and floating.
I’ve seen more written about this band prior to this than any other (though, as usual, I’ve avoided reading any of it until I’ve written my review), and it seems that this is largely due to the collaboration with Alcest that was released ahead of this album. That track, Hvitir Sandar, is undoubtedly a highlight of Undir Köldum Norðurljósum, but it comes towards the end of the album, and there are so many amazing songs preceding it that it never feels like a chore waiting to reach that point. In fact, though I’m sure the collaboration with Alcest brought many new fans to Kælan Mikla, the contributions of Neige and Winterhalter are subtle, and this is very much still a Kælan Mikla song; ghostly, glacial and glorious.
I am potentially being premature with this, having not had this album in my hot little hands that long, but Undir Köldum Norðurljósum really does seem like it may be the best and most assured Kælan Mikla release yet. It’s colder, heavier and more disturbing in its darkest moments, and warmer, sweeter and more intimate in its lighter moments. The harmonies can be chilling and unforgiving, or beautiful and alluring. The vocals are whispered, spoken, sung, screamed – but however they are delivered is always perfect for the song they appear in. And the same could be said for the way the album is sequenced and progresses. There are twists and turns along the way, but it never feels like a wrong turn has been made, and the final destination (Saman) is sublime.
Welsh composer Lustmord is someone I’ve been familiar of for quite some time, largely because of his work with Graeme Revell (firstly as part of seminal industrial, noise and ambient outfit SPK and then for his work with Revell on soundtracks for films such as The Crow) and Tool (for whom he remixed songs from Lateralus and provided atmospherics for 10,000 Days). Yet, though he is someone whose work I’ve always meant to investigate, Altar is the first Lustmord album I’ve ever heard. And, typically, I suppose given my history with Lustmord, I came to it because of Karin Park’s involvement more than anything else. But regardless of how I came to it, I’m glad I did as it’s a spectacularly great album, albeit spectacular is perhaps an odd choice of word when the music is so understated. But then, Lustmord is somewhat a master of this form, and generally recognised as one of the originators and pioneers of what has become known as dark ambient.
It is unsurprising, then, that much of this album has the kind of cinematic qualities that draw comparisons to a film soundtrack, in particular of the horror variety. Karin Park (probably best known from Årabrot, but with a solo career as well) provides an additional layer and texture of sound that is incorporated in different ways, rather than simply soaring over the top, as I admit I had expected them to. I also didn’t expect an album of, let’s face it, such bleak, oppressive, dark and minimal music to be so compelling. While it is dark, and at times desolate in its minimalism and introversion, there is a surprising amount of variation within a theme, and this is fairly evenly split between the contributions of Lustmord and Karin Park. I guess that isn’t surprising, given that this is a release credited to Lustmord and Park, rather than Lustmord with Park, and yet I’m still impressed by how much Park adds to proceedings. As well as vocals, Karin also plays keyboards (most notably and impactfully on Kindred).
I mentioned The Crow, as a soundtrack that Lustmord worked with Revell on, and there are moments on Altar that I find reminiscent of that film – even if they don’t necessarily sound anything like the incidental music from The Crow. Rather, the aesthetic and the aural pictures the sounds paint make me think of The Crow. It is something about the colour and texture of the music, rather than the sound. The Void Between, the second track and one of my favourites here, is one that make me dream a crow-black dream. The thing is, I say one of my favourites, but it would almost be easier to say which tracks are not favourites, as each flows into something that seems as great, if not greater, than what preceded it. As Perihelion follows The Void Between, and Twin Flames follows Perihelion, I reconsider favourites, and then reconcile myself to the fact that they’re all favourites. Each track is greatly similar, and vastly different from the last. There is both contrast and consistency within each piece, holding the attention until the last note fades.