Someone is working very hard over at Essence Music, because this pair of releases contains some of the most beautiful packaging we’ve seen all year. It’s also a brilliant showcase for three veteran artists (four if you count Troum as two) that continue to compose vibrant and challenging work well into their third, fourth and fifth decades.
Yes, you read that last sentence properly. These artists started recording before most of us began listening to music – or in some cases, were even born. Japanese noise maestro Merzbow (Masami Akita) began in 1979; Swedish dark ambient genius raison d’être (Peter Andersson) came along twelve years later, and German drone innovators Troum (Stefan Knappe and Martin Gitschel) followed six years after that, although it could be argued that they really began in 1988 as part of the more industrial Maeror Tri. Much of what we now enjoy in terms of dark music has been influenced by the work of these visionary artists, who have proven time and again that the well of their inspirations has never run dry.
I listened to a lot of raison d’être in the 90s, my favorite album of that period being In Sadness, Silence and Solitude (1997). Cold Meat Industries was a giant force in dark ambient music at that time, ground zero for a sound that continues to echo through the ages, in the same way that the music itself contained echoes: of castles and choirs, dragged chains and drowned guitars. While Troum had been known to collaborate (most notably with Martyn Bates, Nadja and Aidan Baker), Andersson had not; and so it is a gift to find these artists working together on De Aeris In Sublunaria Influxu.
Right from the beginning, we hear the creaks and forlorn chords that mark the best of each artist’s work. “Folia” may be brief, but it makes for a bittersweet introduction. The music steps quietly to the side only two minutes in, as if reluctant to draw the attention of less benevolent specters. Bells ring and a deep bass booms, like sounding instruments. A synthetic choir rises from the sea. With so much pleasant, unobtrusive ambience on the market, it’s a joy to hear music with such humidity and heft. The artists seem motivated not only by each other, but by dueling concepts of darkness and light: beauty in the midst of devastation. The word “melancholy” is often used in association with such music, but that word lacks weight; this is oppressive, black dog music, wearing soggy woolen overcoats of sound. Halfway through “Oculum Mundi”, the ritualistic nature of these artists finally shows through; listening is like realizing that one is not alone in the crumbling church. The sun is setting, the taxi has left, and a cloaked figure has just stepped from the shadows. We may never know what deal these artists struck in order to draw so close to the abyss; we can only be thankful that they’ve been able to return.
In contrast, Merzbow’s Konchuuki is overt where De Aeris is covert, loud where it is soft and crunchy where it is smooth. Few would accuse Akita of being subtle, but he is: one need only delve below the layers of what the label rightfully calls “sonic assault” to discover delicate intricacies of metal and bone. The album is inspired by insects, and sounds like a closely miked series of hives and hills, filled with mastication and colliding debris. Alternately, one might describe it as a fire extinguisher and flamethrower being eaten by a concrete mixer. But Lord, is it beautiful. Laser-sharp at times, rhythmic at others, it’s the sound of a mind with too many ideas to suppress. When a pulse develops only two minutes into the opening “Hanamuguri”, one begins to ask, “is this the legacy of industrial dance music?” If so, Merzbow has been there for the entire span.
Now draw near to the speaker. Other things are going on deep in the mix: strange screeches, odd utterances and scurrying synths, fleeing from the light. Konchuuki is translated as insect machine, and we can’t imagine a better title: instead of a blend, it’s a blender. Not since Tonesucker and Mentallo & the Fixer have we heard an album so harsh, and yet so alluring. Multiple parts are constantly in motion, as they would be in a factory or a nest, and yet despite the teeming chaos, everything is running efficiently. The queen is under attack! But the honey still needs to be harvested. The boiler is bursting! But someone still needs to feed the conveyer belt. If anyone or anything should die, well, off they go into the tube of industry. In like fashion, Merzbow seems to run right over anything in his way; one certainly can’t hear anything else while playing this album. The beauty is that one doesn’t want to; there’s nothing more exciting going on elsewhere. And in a welcome display of kindness, even though the special editions are gone, one still gets a moth pop-up with the CD.
One can’t say enough about what Essence Music has done with these two releases: they’ve given these artists their due, gracing them with the honor they deserve; in return, the artists have done the same. (Richard Allen)