The power of music is a curious thing. Sometimes it takes just one album to open up my mind and ears to something that then consumes me. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it hits hard. Though I’m not a stranger to the sorts of music that made up the excellent compilation The Black Stone – Music for Lovecraftian Summonings, they were not what I would normally listen to. Yet when I first heard that album in January last year, it more or less changed my listening patterns and preferences for the remainder of the year, and its effects are still lasting. One of the tracks on that compilation that particularly stood out was Nocturne for Erich Zann by a group called Dead Space Chamber Music. When I discovered that they’d released an album last year, I had to hear it. And I can say, without any doubt or reservation, that not only did The Black Hours not disappoint, but it quickly became one of my favourite releases from 2021.
So how to describe the music of Dead Space Chamber Music? Well, that’s a tough one, as they are both ancient and modern, and take on aspects of many different genres without ever really belonging to any. Folk, classical, metal, and ambient all make up a part of the sound, but they exist somewhere in between. Indeed, from the very first time I heard their music, I thought Liminal Space Chamber Music might be a better moniker, not just because of their liminality of genre, but because their music seemed to come from and describe those liminal spaces in space and time that are quite perfect for a compilation of Lovecraftian inspired music. Dead Space Chamber Orchestra have a wonderful ambiguity and disorientating quality to their music that places them in a position of no one era or genre. And while The Black Hours is largely more of an album of this world (however blurry the timeline might be), rather than the space between this world and those that the horrors of a Lovecraftian universe might creep through, the music remains liminal – and that is one of its greatest attractions for me.
If there is an element of horror in the music of The Black Hours, it’s more because of the shapeshifting nature of the music, and the unease that might impose on the listener. The modus operandi of Dead Space Chamber Music appears to be to take music from centuries ago and reshape it into something new. But while there are plenty of bands that like to add a touch of what they believe is the sound of Medieval or Renaissance music (for example) to their own pieces, it’s often superficial, and even artificial. But Dead Space Chamber Music are, as far as I’m concerned, one of the few bands that genuinely and authentically represent the music of those old ages, even if it is not in a manner that might be expected. You may query my use of authentic, given the contemporary nature of these interpretations, but (as with much music from long ago) these traditional tunes had a basic structure, although largely left their arrangement to the performer. Improvisation played an important role in the performance of these pieces at the time, and so the improvisation within Dead Space Chamber Music’s interpretation is, in a sense, true to form.
For a more modern example of how a piece can have underlying structure but rely on improvisation, you need only look to Terry Riley’s In C, which was deliberately “composed” in such a way that no two performances were ever likely to sound alike. But however different it might be, it is always recognisable. I imagine Dead Space Chamber Music continually evolve and innovate upon their own reinterpretations in the same manner, so that if any of The Black Hours were performed live, it would be different from the recordings on the album – yet still recognisable for what it is. I would love to hear the music of Dead Space Chamber Music live – preferably in a church, crypt or cemetery. But in terms of the album, the best way to hear it, I think, is with headphones – as it has been mixed superbly to become completely immersive. The way in which certain sounds pan at certain moments elevates tension and excitement in a way that I don’t believe could be experienced without headphones. Listen to this in the dark, or simply with your eyes closed, and it’s a quite incredible listening experience.
Part of what makes The Black Hours work so well is certainly the mix, but ultimately it’s the “chamber” part of the band’s name. True to the idea of a chamber orchestra, there is a directness and focus in the quartet’s playing that provides both intimacy and intensity. The sound is often far bigger than one could expect just four musicians to make, and it’s truly impressive. Conversely, there can be an incredible delicacy. The distance between the heavy and loud peaks, and quiet and delicate lows is immense. The wide dynamics are just one way Dead Space Chamber Music use space within their sound. No space is dead space, effectively, as it is all used so well. Again, without headphones you could be missing a lot. And at all times the interplay between the band is just a joy to hear. I presume, as should be the case for any chamber music, they have recorded themselves playing together in the same room. At this point, I might normally be expressing how eager I am to hear a third album from the band. But Dead Space Chamber Music’s Bandcamp page seems to have a cornucopia of goodies to work my way through, and I’ve not even thought to begin, because I can’t stop playing The Black Hours…
01. Liement de Deport (3:33)
02. Bryd one Brere (Bird on a Briar) (5:34)
03. Ion I (3:38)
04. Mari Lwyd / Morfa’r Frenhines (Grey Mare / Queen’s Marsh) (7:29)
05. Ion II (4:16)
06. The Pit / Dissolved in Ashes (13:20)
07. Douce Colombe Jolie (5:00)
Total Time – 42:50
Tom Bush – Guitars, Sampler
Katie Murt – Drums, Percussion
Liz Paxton – Cello
Ellen Southern – Voice, Percussion, Bowed & Plucked Psaltery
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 23rd December 2021