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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Aleph Naught - "Rituals"

Artist: Aleph Naught
Album: Rituals
Year: 2008
Label: self-released
Genre: dark/ritual ambient
Website: ???

Packaging: 6.5/10

Like any good independent dark ambient artist, Aleph Naught provides us with a handmade package of a CD limited to 50 copies. Usually the term “hand made”means crappy, and in this case that implication is more or less true. While the packaging is pretty comprehensive: sleeve sealed with wax, booklet, stickers, and mini folded paper casing for the 3” cd, it’s pretty obvious that the package is homeade. You can see the uneven cuts in the paper, etc. But that is not really that terrible I suppose. My only real qualm is that the booklet is completely blank except for a cliché b&w picture of a statue and the track titles. There is NO information whatsoever. It would’ve been nice to at least get a website or something.

Composition: 2/10

This is only a 5 track EP so I’ll go through each track individually:

1. Death Ritual

Ok so this does not provide a very exciting start to the album. It kicks immediately into the spine of the track: a drone-y pad. I have no idea what he used to record this, but this track is kind of like the black metal of dark ambient. The sound quality is terrible, there is tons of high end hiss and every few seconds the audio starts to cut out as if his recording interface had some issues. There are also a few cracks and pops sporadically throughout the track. Other than bad recording, the track is totally bland. Did I say the spine of the track? It seems as though this drone-y pad sound is the ONLY element of the track. It consists of one pad playing 3 chords over and over and over for four minutes and fifty one seconds. I’m not kidding, that’s ALL it is. The same 3 chords over and over, and every few seconds the audio starts to cut out and then it pops. This is fucking miserable even for drone/ritual ambient.

2. Piety

Alright well it seems that Aleph Naught figured out how to record properly this time. The audio quality is a lot better and most of the hiss is gone. However the bass frequencies are pretty muddy and there is some minor clipping. There are still some pops and clicks. “Piety” basically follows in the footsteps of its predecessor and is comprised solely of one pad playing about 3 notes. Hell it sounds like the same fucking three notes as the first song, except this one sounds like it he decided to throw in an extra note occasionally, and in a futile attempt to capture your attention this new note is out of key. Basically “Piety” is just Death Ritual recorded a little better using a slightly different synth patch.

3. Insects and Rats

Ok well thank god, “Insects and Rats” is actually a little different from the first two tracks. The mixing and production are still very poor, but this has some dark atmosphere to it. There are thankfully no pads; instead we get a dark dungeon drone with some reverb-ed bells and banging noises. This would actually sound menacing and slightly evil if it weren’t for the absolutely terrible mixing. Every time a bell or hit occurs there is some serious clipping which just makes this song' sound like a joke as opposed to creepy or terrifying. The main dark atmosphere is actually pretty good and I wish I could enjoy this, except the poor mixing kills it. To make an analogy, this sounds like a dungeon in an old NES game. It is supposed to be dark, haunted and terrifying but it is just too cheap and goofy to actually exude that emotion and instead comes off and weak and pathetic. Like the first two tracks, there isn’t much going on and change is just about nonexistent. For some reason towards the end of the track Aleph Naught decides to crank up distortion on the entire track and turn it into a wall of noise which slowly recedes back into the original drone. It’s pretty annoying and it definitely doesn't add suspense or depth to the track, but at least something happened.

4. The Womb of Opposites

No idea what this title is supposed to mean. This is the shortest song on the album at just over two minutes, but it is also the best. It has a solid main drone coupled with another slightly different drone which ebbs in an out. Most importantly there are no banging noises which cause hideous amounts of clipping. Not much happens, but it’s acceptable because the track itself is so short. It is by no means a good track, but compared to the rest of this EP it's not too bad.

5. Death Ritual

For some reason this track has the same title as track one, however it is infinitely better (though that doesn’t say anything at all). This must’ve been the last track written because it’s very clearly better than the rest. This has the signature 3 note pad, however the mixing is a lot cleaner and therefore this pad almost achieves a menacing tone. Unfortunately like the first coming of “Death Ritual” this is another victim of over-minimalism and thus comes across as pointless and trite. One pad and one bass-y sound. Really would it have been so hard to record more? I would not be surprised if this EP was written in a single afternoon.

Production: 1/10

There are two major flaws with “Rituals”. The first is that it is completely and utterly devoid of substance. The second is the completely hideous and offensive production and mixing. For some reason people seem to think that in the genre of Black Metal poor mixing is really “true” and cool. Apparently Aleph Naught is attempting to translate that sentiment to dark ambient, however I honestly can’t take bad production seriously, especially in this modern age of electronic music with its extensive free/open source DAWs and plug-ins where making decent mixes is hardly a skill. There is absolutely no excuse for a piece of electronic music containing pops, clicks, excess hiss and parts where the audio seems to cut out. I guess that perhaps you could say he is trying to capture the essence of “old school” where all they had was shitty tape recorders, cheaply made microphones, etc, but I don’t care. That stuff sounded like shit back then and it sounds even shittier and more juvenile now. Hearing something with poor production immediately directs my mind to the phrase “ shoddy demo” and there is simply no way that I can credit it as a serious attempt to capture the sound or essence of darkness.
Well, to Aleph Naught’s credit all the tracks are an even volume…and that volume just happens to be really quiet. Some mastering would have been nice here too (though even with excellent mastering this ep would be weak at best); it would have shown that he cared at least a little bit about how this EP sounds.

But seriously, does anyone really expect something with hiss and pops to stand up to something (even early or demo works) by Lustmord, Robert Rich or Steve Roach? I certainly hope not. And if you think "well theyre the best in the scene no one can stand up to them"...why aim so low?

Artistic Merit: 0/10

Sorry, but no. This is the most uninspired, weak and generic dark ambient I have ever heard. All that he could come up with was 3 note pads. Seriously, what the fuck? How hard is it to record more than 2 sounds per song? When there is an absolute ocean of pitiful crap ambient floating out there, how is something like this supposed to phase anyone? There is no way that an album that sounds like it was made entirely in a single day could possibly succeed in capturing or portraying anything worthy of being listened to more than once (if even once). Even if all you have is a four track…well fuck it. Save up some money and buy something better than a shitty four track. Music equipment isn’t THAT expensive. Hell, most modern ambient musicians produce completely “in the box” anyway.

Flow: 5/10

It’s not bad, but it’s not great either. The songs sound different enough from each other to tell that they are different tracks, but other than that they don’t have much in common save for their uniformly poor production and complete lack of anything memorable happening. They don’t mix into each other well, but I guess the song transitions aren't terrible either.

Overall: 1/10

While “rituals” isn’t the worst or most annoying album I have ever heard, I have to give it a 1 because of its complete and utter pointlessness. As I mentioned before there are literally fucking tons of ambient albums being made every day and distributed like wildfire over the net, whether they self-released free downloads, or on netlabels or whatever. The point is that the market is so oversaturated that it is going to take some serious talent and devotion to make something worth listening to in this day in age. “Rituals” fails at that completely. It sounds like something created as quickly as possible with absolutely no thought, feeling or technical skill behind it. He should consider spending as much time on the actual music as he is willing to spend creating custom packaging for each CD. In days past, when ambient was a young and naïve genre, something like this may have been acceptable as it was so different from other forms of music. But ambient music has made considerable strides since then, not to mention the basic techniques of recording, producing, mixing and mastering. Ambient has morphed into quite a real and capable genre with quite a number of power players pushing it forward. We are much past the days where someone can put a tape recorder in a cave, hit play, leave for 40 minutes and then claim they have an ambient album (hell, Aleph Naught could have benefited from some cave drones). That shit doesn’t impress anyone anymore, nor does it even hint at capturing the essence of life or the void or whatever else you could try to bullshit people into believing. In the age of Lustmord making DVDs and Robert Rich doing mastering, there is absolutely no excuse for putting out a shoddy and totally half assed demo and expecting anyone to notice.

Anyway, my advice for Aleph Naught is to seriously re-think what the point of this music is and to listen to some of the greats in the genre and listen to and focus on how they give auditory life to emotion and layer sounds and textures to create visionary soundscapes. It takes a hell of a lot more than 2 pads and some tape hiss.

-dan barrett

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