Album: Spectral Lore, Underjordiska (split)
Label: Stellar Auditorium
Genre: Drone, Minimalist, Ambient,
Website: Stellar Auditorium, Underjordiska
* Spectral Lore is a deliberately mysterious project without an official website.
If you are sitting down specifically to have some kind of "otherworldly" experience, with some combination of candles, darkness, drugs, or an ouija board, you will get a lot more out of this, and you can "see" into the record pretty much as much as you want. Sober, it is still a good record, for this genre, which is an accomplishment! In such a state of mind you may find that the "drone" elements of it seem to go on for quite a while, perhaps too long for your tastes of you're tend to dig faster music with more of a beat. But to get a more balanced perspective on this specific record, as well as the future for this genre in general, I'm including with this review a brief interview I conducted with Chris from Stellar Auditorium productions, which is releasing the record. I think it sheds worthwhile light on this whole situation far more than I as a mere critic could come up with on my own.
This is being released by Stellar Auditorium as a limited edition of 300 copies. I'm reviewing it as it was sent to me in mp3 format so I don't have a hard copy of the packaging, but I assume it's probably put well enough together to hold the CD in there, and there are rather pretty paintings on it, so that's pretty sweet. Thus I feel it's adequate and does what it should, and if you see the cover, and read the description of what it is about, you'll find both are original and intriguing, and they may prompt you to pick it up. If you're that obsessed with packaging, there's even pictures of the physical CD, inside and out, on the SA myspace, so check that out.
**editor's note: the actual album cover doesn't look as clear or crisp as the above photo. The booklet is a simple one fold, nothing too spectacular, however the inner art is interesting and the cover is a very beautiful design that compliments this work perfectly.
Artistic Merit (9/10)
According to the people trying to sell this thing:
" It is a journey from the surface of the sea to the very depths of the ocean, and then back towards the surface again. Each musician undertakes one part of the journey; 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. There is a continual flow of movement to the music, as the listener, embodied within this audial environment, descents and ascends through the ocean, towards a deepest point that seems to bear a particular significance: but is it the goal, or the journey itself that matters more?"
Pretentious gobbledygook? Perhaps. But giving it a listen, it actually stays very true to this vision, and the sounds used make sense for each "level" of the ocean we're traveling through. If you were to take, say, one of the less good 'noise-ambient' albums we've reviewed here, and put a description like that on top of it, it would be sadly as ludicrous as it would be unsurprising. Yet in this case, it's not. The theme fits, and the album is I think quite innovative and original.
It does what it claims to do, and is pretty original. When you first hear it, Underjordiska starts you off at the shore of an ocean, with beach sounds, and what sounds like a pretty piano part over and over, you think, "wow, sampled ocean and water sounds sure do find their way onto a lot of these noise-ambient records, don't they?" Well you'd be right about that. But for this specific album it does fit into a concept so it makes a bit more sense than usual. This part, which continues for about the first 10 minutes, is pretty. Yet, it could have been "awesome", were there some sort of percussion, even the minimalist, rhythmic kind, or were there more variations on the main melody, and layers of the same or other instruments playing harmony parts and other variations while the main melody continues. There is a least some kind of string that comes in after a while, and over the background samples and the melody it helps... but I can't help feeling it could have been so much more had they tried a little harder. Yet perhaps that's not what the objective of this record was in the first place....
Then, as you descend deeper down into the depths of this thing, you get about 10 minutes of weird, filtered down, low grumbling. Perhaps it was some off tuned distorted guitar, or FM synth, that jarred you into the transition from the serene moments of earlier down into this new drone, but it was interesting. Here again, I feel like if a good industrial musician was looking at this track, they could have thrown several more tracks of weird samples, time stretched madness, multi effects, hits, etc... over it. But this is not in the nature of the artists we are dealing with. We perhaps can't or shouldn't expect such from him, but it would have been nice if we could!
About 21 minutes into the thing some kind of life gets breathed into it again, with some very pretty electric guitar part fading in. It builds up to some kind of 'wall of noise' type distortion over which a melody is played.... the same melody is of course played over and over in typical drone style... it does sound pretty cool though, and there's some nice kind of bell sound to fill out the high end. Five more minutes of droning weirdness that's moderately interesting finish out Underjordiska's "Part I".
"Part II" then begins with Spectral Lore, starting off about where Underjordiska ended. You get what sounds like a really sweet, overdriven, distorted something or other. With the background of guitars and "experimental black metal" these musicians have, it will be quite futile for you to try and guess whether this is a guitar or an analog synth run through multi f/x. But for a while it does sound like the better parts of old Numb circa "Death on the Installment Plan" (minus the beats of course). Then after about 6 minutes we drop down to the low end drone and build it back up again. There's creepy strings here so look out. Then about 13 minutes into the track there is a very beautiful choral part added on. Of course the damn thing ends too early, and there's not enough weird percussion to go with it, or even strange voice samples. But remember, you're supposed to be underwater now, so unless it's possible to sample some kind of fish that makes a noise this would probably be inappropriate. For better or for worse; at least these guys are consistent, and stick to their vision, even when deviating it to the point of making perhaps a more interesting song would have screwed up the whole concept.
Spectral Lore still has 15 minutes left. About 26 minutes into this track a pretty sweet, acoustic plucked part comes in, with delay on it. Think good old Death Can Dance. This is probably my favorite part of the album. Then a few more build ups and break downs, and we're once again back upon the surface. It's like when you started, and this was good music to wake up and make pancakes and coffee too; but it's a little weirder now, and on the plus side a lot more dynamic. Defiantly less repetitive; good layered solo guitar parts, and there you have it.
All instruments, including guitars, appear well recorded. There's no "hiss" anywhere someone forgot to turn a preamp down or filter down a noisey sample, all in all this is pretty well done.
There are some parts that seem to drag on a bit, and you're ready for a bit more to come in and catch your attention before it does. Then the parts that do seem to end before you are ready for them to. Perhaps this is intentional, but for an 8/10 rating it is a very small qualification for an album that all in all has one of the better flows out there.
This is a good "noise ambient", or if you prefer, "experimental black metal" album. There are a lot of BAD noise ambient albums out there. This isn't one of them, and it is worth picking up. So put on something warm and soft, turn down the lights, if possible, get high, and "experience" this journey.
An interview with Chris of Stellar Auditorium
CW: You are a small, independent label that releases physical cds. How big an operation is SA records? Is it a full time enterprise or just something done part time?
SA: It is something done as a hobby for us, although we treat it with a professional attitude and importance. We are for the most part a non-profit label who's basic goal is to promote music we love rather than make a living out of it. So, we are always going to keep a low price on our products and we will mostly focus on quality of releases and small runs, although occasionally we will do regular cd releases as well. As to "how big" the label is, there are four people behind it, which is something that gives us a greater possibility to do what we want comparing to the usual lone wolf case I guess.
CW: How well is the split doing in terms of sales? Could you tell us approximately how many people are buying hard copies of this vs. just downloading mp3s of it?
SA:I'll admit that our releases are not close to being sold out yet, but we're doing pretty good comparing to our own predicaments and calculations prior to the releases. We haven't set up a legal downloading service for our albums yet as to compare, so I can't comment on that. Concerning what goes on "behind the scenes" I have no idea.
CW: As a label what are your aspirations? Where do you see yourselves in one year? How about five years?
SA: Aspirations, well this is an interesting word, all people should have high [ones]. Personally, I do, but I prefer to announce the moderate ones. So, in a year, I'm hope that we'll have grown as a label, and have some brilliant new releases that we're discussing at this very moment. In five years, I could tell you lots of things, but the most important goal would be to still exist. Longevity is what's missing from underground labels, everyone can be lucky enough to release one great record and enjoy some moderate success, but will you be around 3, 4, 5 years later? A label has to have a strong backbone, character, organization, and a long-term plan in order to survive in these hard and changing times in the music industry.
CW: Spectral Lore and Underjordiska get talked about online for having a "black metal" background... but their stuff sounds nothing like any metal I've ever heard... Is that an accurate term to describe their music, or what gives?
SA: There isn't a sole term, and that's what's interesting with these bands, and with Procer Veneficus and Sempervirens as well. Someone could hint a generic "post-black metal" term which would be as boring and undescriptive as obviously, post rock, but truth be said, there is a common background of these artists in the metal (and especially, black metal) underground, but this is nothing more than the beginning. Several other musical and aesthetic influences should be evident, an interest in abstractness, the tendency to experiment, a transcendent and spiritual outlook. I'd say that I saw a common spirit in some beginning musicians around the time I was also making a start with my own projects. "One-man-bands" (in contrast to the typical four-member rock/metal band), listening from Burzum to Stars in the Lid to Miles Davis, putting out an ambient or an all-acoustic album after a metal one, self-recording and producing their music and experimenting with form and sound like electronic musicians do. I found a new aesthetic in all this, or probably a desire for something new, which was one of the reasons that inspired the creation of the record label. We don't label ourselves accordingly to the music genres we're releasing, but to a vision that we're sharing, so that's why you don't find many similarities between the material of these bands and the metal music you've heard, I guess. To answer your question more directly though, the two previous solo recordings of these projects/musicians feature material which is closer to metal comparing to the split.
CW: I don't see any Spectral Lore myspace. Is that guy just super secretive or what?
SA: Yes, he is!
CW: At Wounds of the Earth we've reviewed a lot of "ambient/drone" albums. A lot of them tend to sound very similar and the whole genre seems to be bottlenecking itself up in a trap of predictability. Does this genre have a future? What is it doing/could it do to keep itself alive?
SA: There is a "problem" in the said genres given that they are by definition very specialized forms that are supposed to convey particular aesthetics (how much variation does music that has to be "droning" allow anyway? Fortunately ambient music is much wider in this sense). So, it is to be expected that repetition and stagnation might eventually occur, although not necessarily. (Of course, don't also forget the possibly to get "burned out" with this sound as a listener, in which case it always helps to refresh your playlist). Personally, the problem I notice with some young musicians in the genre is the lack of focus concerning the structure and goal of the music. Making some original sounds should be the beginning, not the end, and I feel that the pursuit of novelty sometimes hurts the meaning and musical aspect in avant garde music in general. I think that a "stricter" approach influenced by the standards of electro-acoustic music and a focus to composition rather that improvising would prove of use as to the future of both ambient/drone and experimental music as a whole. Or at least, this is that I'd find interesting myself.
-Review by Christian Wright