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Aquatic ambient - 70%

drengskap, February 23rd, 2009

This untitled release is a split between Swedish project Underjordiska and Greek project Spectral Lore, with each band contributing a single long track to what the artists describe as ‘a journey from the surface of the sea to the very depths of the ocean, and then back towards the surface again…. two compositions over 30 minutes, featuring actual underwater recordings, aquatic drones, unique instruments (from a mandolin to a duduk) and even melodic post rockish moments.’

Underjordiska open the album with the 31-minute ‘Part I’ – at least , that’s what it’s called on my promo copy, although various websites, including the New Age Dawn one, call this track ‘Ascent’, and Spectral Lore’s track ‘Descent’. That doesn’t really make sense, though – that would mean you’re starting your journey from the bottom of the ocean! In any case, the track opens with the oceanic scene being set with very mellow and soothing background sounds of seagulls and ocean waves lapping on the shore, overlaid by a repetitive plucked guitar melody. There is some melodic progression and nice arpeggio work several minutes in, but little else changes until sweeping, Vangelis-like synth chords are introduced at the five-minute mark as backing for the guitar. The guitar disappears, and we’re smoothly drawn into a passage of pure synth, with a languid and dreamy atmosphere. Orchestral strings weave in and out of the synth chords.

All seems well, if a little bit aimless, but then at around 10’15”, there’s a noticeable curdling and darkening of the mood, with cavernous booming and scraping tones putting a bit of dark into this ambient. This section of the track reminds me a bit of Cyclic Law artists like Svartsinn and Gustaf Hildebrand, yet it feels as if there’s something lacking about it – it’s maybe just too minimal, and needing some more incidental sounds. A bit of percussion wouldn’t go amiss here.

‘Part I’ stays in this ominous, forbidding mode for ten minutes or so, but then at 22 minutes, some gloomy notes break through the murk, not really relieving the sombre mood, but at least reintroducing some melody, with a synth playing a repeated three-chord progression, in typical black metal ambient fashion (e.g. Burzum’s ‘Gebrechlichkeit’). There’s a cinematic, medieval tonality about this theme, similar to that of Dead Can Dance or The Soil Bleeds Black, a resemblance which is increased by the faint traces of choral vocals which can be discerned behind the chords, which build up into an expansive, thickly enveloping cocoon of sound before being choked back to a cold, eerie drone at 27 minutes, fading out to a low rumble at the end of the track.

Now, I came to this release straight from reviewing Underjordiska’s debut album Dystert Vilse, which completely blew me away with its radical transformation of black metal into ambient music through the use of multiple layers of guitar and vocal, with hardly any drums and no bass. The work presented on this split release is so utterly different from Dystert Vilse though, that it’s hard to believe that this is the same artist. Underjordiska’s track isn’t bad, it just bears no resemblance at all to Dystert Vilse, and to be honest, I've heard many, many examples of this kind of ambient music, and I've never heard anything else quite like the Dystert Vilse album. It seems as if Dawid Dahl, the musician behind Underjordiska, is presented with an unusually stark choice, either to continue with the startlingly original and visionary music he created on Dystert Vilse, or to make pretty but undistinguished ambient like this. Over to you, Dawid…

And so on to Spectral Lore, whose ‘Part II’ is slightly longer at 36 minutes, and which opens in a seamless segue from ‘Part I’, fading in on the same low rumble that Underjordiska faded out on, then bringing in brooding, minor-key synth which build in volume and intensity to an imposing textured wall of noise over the first four minutes of the piece, suddenly subsiding to quiet drones until bright, sacral synth chords cut in at the eight-minute mark. The sound then becomes really menacing, with a kind of choppy, predatory metallic growling shot through with aching high frequencies – this sounds to me like processed electric guitar, and very much in the vein of guitar-based drone outfits like TenHornedBeast and Keplers Odd. Things calm down again at around 12 minutes, then build back up, with smooth, expansive synth chords cleansing the atmosphere, bringing a sense of wonderment rather than terror.

After 20 minutes, tiny, tentative fragments of guitar melody appear one by one, gradually coalescing with the synth and other instruments towards a definite theme. Sustained organ chords and some kind of exotic woodwind introduce a ritualistic atmosphere at 24 minutes, and there’s a scintillating multi-layered cascade of mandolin notes at 26 minutes. ‘Part II’ ends with some very prog-rock sounding guitar, and the sound of the waves which began the album returns, indicating a cycle completed.

Overall, I think Spectral Lore’s track is stronger than Underjordiska’s, with more complexity and a greater use of acoustic instruments, though it’s evident that the two projects have worked together closely to produce a split release with two complementary halves. Mostly though, I'm just perplexed and disappointed by how much this doesn’t sound like Underjordiska’s first album. The powers that be at Encyclopaedia Metallum have apparently decreed that Underjordiska aren’t ‘metal’ enough to have their own page, although Spectral Lore are, yet ironically this split release is much less heavy than Dystert Vilse.

As with previous New Age Dawn / Stellar Auditorium releases, this split album is a 300-copy limited-edition CD-R, and it comes packaged in a jewel case with a four-page booklet.

This review was originally written for Judas Kiss webzine: