1816 is a winter album, released when most of us are enjoying spring. But don’t worry ~ this work is a winter music classic, and is likely to be enjoyed for years. Its time will come around.
Word of the album was first announced in the waning days of summer 2011, and I’ve been waiting (not very patiently) for years for it to appear. The tracks have slowly been revealed since then, many mentioned on our site as compilation highlights. “First Moments” was the first track (now the album opener), made public on Bearsuit Records’ run over by an elevator. Next came “Stilled”, from Hidden Landscapes 2 (Audio Gourmet / Hibernate). Then “Cloak of Lingering Fog,” from Time Released Sound’s Trust, followed swiftly by The Frozen Vaults’ remix of Field Rotation’s “Zietreise”, (Zietriese Remixed), “A Year Without Summer,” from Headphone Commute’s post-Hurricane Sandy benefit …and darkness came, and “Hard Frost Fields”, from Dronarivm’s 15 Shades of White. Then a one-year wait, followed by “The Great Thaw” on Home Normal’s Elements IV and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” from Festive Greetings (Hibernate/Home Normal). Earlier this year, Vintermusik published a cassette featuring three of these tracks ~ but maddeningly, no album.
Every time a new track was released, I bought it and burned a new CD. It was already 41 minutes long. Finally, with the addition of two new tracks (“Cold Light of Day” and “Frozen Streams”), the album is complete, and I can relax. Does it matter that the album is released in spring? Not at all. When one has waited this long for a release, the season doesn’t count. There’s a chance that others out there have been waiting as well ~ if so, be reassured that all of the tracks are here. Completists, rejoice!
Some discussion may have gone into the decision to include “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, but it would have been painful to have 90% of the quintet’s output in one place, and not the full set. As these puzzle pieces have slowly fallen into place, a greater picture has been formed, and the final product is perfect. Ironically, the very first release this site ever reviewed – The Cloisters’ Little Winter, which was later incorporated into a self-titled album – also includes the Christmas hymn.
Familiar names Pleq and Spheruleus (Bartosz Dziadosz and Harry Towell on production and arrangement) are joined by Yuki Murata (piano), Dave Dhonau (cello) and Tomasz Mreńca (violin). The music remains exquisite throughout, but the field recordings make the album distinctive: whipping wind, frozen precipitation, boots on snow. As individual tracks, the tracks conjure up images of a frigid north, white-out conditions and prayers for safety. As it turns out, the subject matter is the year 1816, known as “the year with no summer”, “the poverty year” and “eighteen hundred and froze to death.” For those interested in the details, the year is chronicled in the relatively recent book Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History by Nicholas P. and William K. Klingaman.
The album begins with rustling wooden wind chimes, soft piano and the sound of birds: a light foreboding, leaving little indication of the full horror of what is to come. It was the summer of the famous Lake Geneva villa gathering that would later lead to the publication of Frankenstein and The Vampyre. But even these torrid tales could not compare to the countless lives lost in the never-ending cold. “Cold Light of Day” introduces a film reel, a grandfather clock and the sound of tentative precipitation: comfort that would tilt like burgeoning clouds. As the album develops, the precipitation grows louder, more insistent, peaking in “Hard Frost Fields”, “A Year Without Summer” and “Cloak of Lingering Fog”.
This was a time of superstition. Vast meteorological deviations were often attributed to God. Imagine now a faithful populace wondering what they had done wrong ~ what personal or national sins had caused the Lord to withdraw His warmth. Many souls perished in spiritual despair. As preachers seized on the opportunity to spew hellfire sermons (at least something was warm), others simply shivered, and burned all the raw material they could. The searching strings of Dhonau and Mreńca highlight the feeling of desolation, both external and internal. Murata’s ivories are forlorn to the point of sounding brokenhearted, especially on “A Year With No Summer.” At this point, one begins to understand the inclusion of the Christmas hymn: some hope is needed, some spiritual counterbalance. Let nothing you dismay. And then finally, “The Great Thaw”, dripping, melting, flowing, as water deserts the white.
I doubt I’ll ever tire of this album, as I’ve been playing most of it for years. For fans of winter music, this is a must-buy. Thank you to Vox’xoV Records for finally making it happen! (Richard Allen)
Mesmerising, beautiful. The strings keep everything taut and fresh sounding, the piano is intermittent, piercing through. The field recordings are a little by-the-numbers at points but certainly help. The guitar is simple, the naive melodies creating that winter feeling of near-static atmosphere.
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