Some albums stand out so much, I find it hard to review them. Slovenian duo Shadow Universe released their latest album Subtle Realms, Subtle Worlds in March, but I’d been playing it for some time prior, while slowly attempting to write this review. For me, they may inhabit subtle realms, but Shadow Universe’s music is anything but subtle, crashing over me like a tsunami and drowning me in its layered complexities. Rather than subtle, I might suggest that Shadow Universe’s music might more appropriately be described as understated. It has no need for subtlety, and in fact subtlety might obfuscate what the band is saying with their music. And the music does speak for itself, dramatically and impactfully. So much so, that the descriptors “cinematic” and “soundscape” that I’m sure will be used in other reviews seem woefully inadequate to me, and perhaps entirely misleading. This isn’t music to soundtrack another medium. Where a soundtrack complements or highlights the visual aspects of a film, I can only feel the reverse would be true here. The use of field recordings and expansive dynamics, as just two examples, completely negate the need for any visual accompaniment. If this is to be a soundtrack, it’s to an internal film where images are conjured in the listener’s mind from the varied textures and vivid colours of the music. If you’ve wondered what it might be like to have synaesthesia, close your eyes, put some headphones on, listen to this album, and see if you don’t have your head filled with images.
The closest comparison I could make to aid in describing the sound of Shadow Universe is Nordic Giants. But while their sound is reminiscent of that duo, there are more than enough differences to suggest that Shadow Universe are not mere imitators of Nordic Giants. There’s never a point where one band actually sounds like the other, but that said, I would be very surprised if a fan of one band didn’t also enjoy the other. Up until this year’s Shadow Universe album, though, I don’t think I would ever have preferred them to Nordic Giants, but with Shadow Realms, Shadow Worlds, the Slovenian duo may have just slipped ahead. I think I prefer this album to Nordic Giant’s Symbiosis (also 2022), and have to admit to being surprised by this realisation. At the time of writing this, I would go so far as to say that Shadow Realms, Shadow Worlds is one of my favourite releases of the year. So what makes it so great? Well, there we go. I still haven’t quite worked that out. But it is a huge step up from the previous two albums (from 2017 and 2018) – and they were both very good. It’s obviously been some time since their last album, and perhaps it’s that extra time that has helped produce such a great album?
Perhaps interestingly, given its longer gestation, Subtle Realms, Subtle Worlds is quite a bit shorter than its predecessor, but ironically it feels far more expansive and explorative. It was only when I was looking at the track times that I even realised how much shorter the album is from Speaking for Clouds, which I guess goes some way to showing how immersed in the music I become, and how far it takes me on its sonic journey. Shadow Universe describe their music as “spacious”, but this is the first time I’ve really felt that sense of space. It’s perhaps appropriately most felt on the second single release, Hymn for the Giants, a vast, sweeping sense of grandeur. It speaks for itself, and needs no spoken word, but I can easily imagine a speech by Chris Maser (sometimes called Ghandi of the Forests) laid over the top, as Nordic Giants so successfully used speeches on their Amplify Human Vibration album. Perhaps Shadow Universe even considered this, as I note they posted Maser’s most famous quote on their Facebook page when promoting the single: “What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another”.
But, as stated, the music of Shadow Universe definitely needs no spoken word, so I’m glad they didn’t take that route. Certainly, for me, the field recordings of bird song on Hymn for the Giants speak more clearly and potently than any human voice. This is not just my favourite song on the album, but my favourite Shadow Universe song from all three of their releases. It is the single most beautiful and affective song they have written. And, yes, I describe it as a song, despite it having no singer. It is very rare that I describe an instrumental number as a song, as it seems a contradiction in terms. Yet, over and over, I find myself thinking that these pieces have a voice. They speak to me more than most songs with lyrics. There is a song (released as the third single) on this album titled Don’t Look at It, and You’ll See It. Maybe it’s a case of “Don’t Listen for It, and You’ll Hear It” when it comes to the music of Shadow Universe. Just sit back, and let the music do its magic.
Coming a very close second to Hymn for the Giants in my affections is the following Losing Home. Both of these tracks feature quite amazing performances from guest musicians that raise what are already incredible pieces to even greater heights. On the former (and also the two preceding tracks) Ana Novak plays violin, and on the latter Gašper Selko plays trumpet. The impact these two make cannot be understated. Their contribution is immense. But that’s not to detract from the duo of Peter Dimnik (on guitars, piano, and synths) and Žan Šebrek (on drums and percussion), who create a quite astounding wall of sound built of neoclassical, post-rock, post-metal and ambience. A wall of sound too breathtaking to be called subtle. Subtle Realms, Subtle Worlds is Shadow Universe’s strongest work yet, and will hopefully make them more well-known. Having been picked up by a UK-based label (and one with some prestige at that) will hopefully bring them to a greater audience. They deserve it!
01. Organism (6:23)
02. Don’t Look at It and You’ll See It (7:04)
03. Hymn for the Giants (5:47)
04. Losing Home (4:35)
05. Antares Goes Supernova (5:57)
06. Season of Eternal Maze (8:21)
Total Time – 38:07
Peter Dimnik – Guitars, Piano, Synths
Žan Šebrek – Drums, Percussion
Ana Novak – Violin (tracks 1, 2 & 3)
Gašper Selko – Trumpet (track 4)
Record Label: Monotreme Records
Country of Origin: Slovenia
Date of Release: 11th March 2022