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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Featurette: FIRST FALLEN STAR (Label)

Today I want to bring to your attention a new birth in the realm of dark ambient. First Fallen Star, which formed in 2009, is an up and coming label out of the US. Though they haven't been around for long, they are already compiling quite a worthy catalog of releases, with many more on the horizon. There are a lot of shitty, or at best unnecessary, ambient labels out there, and so it pleases me greatly to be able to spread the word about an upstart that is worthwhile and has quite a lot of potential.First Fallen Star has clearly worked hard for its artists so far, getting their releases to many major distros coupled with getting coverage in many scene-related publications, and I hope this momentum continues unhindered. If you are a fan of any sort of dark ambient than you will want to take the time to read on about this label and make a point to check out some of their releases.

check out the label here: http://www.firstfallenstar.com

.Interview with First Fallen Star.

Firstly, tell us a bit about the label: the philosophy, the history, whatever.

After 5 years of running the Dark Music Domain online shop, it was time to take the next step. In early 2009, we began label activities while the website was still being designed. At the time, Karsten Hamre was looking for a label to release two albums – one under his own name and another under Dense Vision Shrine. Karsten took a great leap of faith in deciding to come on board with First Fallen Star at a time when, despite worldwide economic troubles, upstart record labels were popping up like weeds every single day. We were sincerely flattered by the opportunity to start off the label with releases of Karsten’s music. Since mid 2009 and the release of those Karsten Hamre and Dense Vision Shrine albums, we have only released 4 other albums, choosing to take the time needed to properly plan and release music. Later in 2011, we plan to release the sophomore album by Innfallen, “Weathered Roads to a Burning Bridge,” as well as Melek-Tha’s massive 12CD set, “H.P. Lovecraft, Volumes 1-6”!

What inspired you to start a label? What do you feel your label can/will/has contributed to the greater ocean of dark ambient music?

Starting the label was the inevitable next step stemming from having operated the Dark Music Domain online music shop for 5 years prior. I wanted a deeper involvement with the music I personally enjoyed – short of trying my inept hands at creating music myself. I also felt that we could strengthen the experimental music “scene” by releasing excellent music – and doing it well! In recent years, there has been a surge of upstart CD-R labels releasing absolutely everything that any music submitted to them, whether it was truly the product of an inspired artist or just the foolishness of someone playing with a synthesizer. Many of these CD-R record labels do a miserable job of producing the music and album packaging, never promote the music, rarely compensate the artists, and customers often receive damaged merchandise from them. The sheer ineptitude of the people running these labels is nothing less than criminal, and absolutely inexcusable. Their actions serve only to dilute the pool of ambient/experimental music with low-quality releases, as well as to undermine the trust of the fans in any new or unfamiliar record labels out there and the experimental music genre as a whole. First Fallen Star may be a new label, but we have already done better than many other upstart labels, and with only 6 quality releases thus far, we have absolutely contributed more to the genre of dark ambient. With time and the expansion of our catalog, the proof will become even clearer than it already is. The albums on our label are well crafted by the artists, they are professionally mastered, the discs and album packaging are professionally manufactured, the albums are promoted considerably, and the artists are compensated. You might think that this isn’t extraordinary at all, or that it is nothing less than what a record label ought to be doing, but when it is not what most labels are doing, just doing the job right becomes an amazing accomplishment.

It is often said that there is nothing new that can be created in the realm of dark ambient music. For people who truly believe that, it is true to them, and they will never want to hear anything contrary. This unfortunate perspective is reflected in the myriad of music reviewers who proclaim 90% of what they review as “nothing new,” with the only exceptions being their favorite artists: Nordvargr, Raison D’Etre, etc. If we are going to take only a few minutes to evaluate an hour-long album, skimming through it to find something that strikes our fancy, and inevitably encountering drones, tones, and types of sounds often found in dark ambient, then yes, I imagine that a person would say that a given album is “nothing new.” But dark ambient is a journey. It is something to be explored, which takes time. For people who are impatient, everything is “just drones” and “nothing is new.” But that is not reality. Even the most minimalistic music is an experience distinct from any other. To truly hear that and appreciate it, though, you cannot actually expect each artist to have reinvented the proverbial wheel. To expect that is foolish. First Fallen Star is not seeking to reinvent the wheel. We just lend a discerning ear to the artists we encounter, and strive to release music by those few who have created something intricate, something developed, something with dimension to it, something in which a person can become immersed – a journey! 

To continue on a bit with that, how did you get into Ambient music in the first place? What attracts you to this style?

Personally, it was something I stumbled upon while searching the internet to seek out more “dark” music. (Rather, seeking information on genres and specific bands/projects – not downloads, which were an unfortunate consequence of the digital age that emerged later.) I had discovered gothic rock and industrial music very late in the game during the late 1990’s, and for the next few years, I was ravenous for more – not just finding bands I had not heard of before, but also related genres. Eventually, I came across dark ambient, which was appealing to me for a few reasons. Among many projects, there was an emphasis – aurally, visually, thematically – on the natural world, and at that point in my life, I was working toward a degree in biology, so the appeal within the music was inherent and instantaneous! I admit that I also have something of a penchant for darker themes in movies, music, and books because the “darkness” is just as much a part of our existence as the “light,” but people are so damned afraid of death and disease that they over-saturate not just their own lives, but entire cultures with unnatural optimism and an unwarranted emphasis on obtuse religious notions in a failed attempt to ward away the darkness they see in physical existence – as if it could be escaped, or even separated somehow! But I digress. Ambient and dark ambient music are very relaxing, and therein lies broad appeal among the innumerable fans of the genres. Northaunt was, as I recall, the first dark ambient project I ever heard. And it remains one of my favorite projects within the genre, as Herleif never settled for simple drones, but deftly employed sound recordings and even some subtle instrumentation to successfully communicate moods and themes in a way that many other projects have tried – and failed – to emulate.

Back to your mention of a label’s duties – what do you think is the key to promoting these types of releases? The problem for many is that they see dark ambient as such niche genre that is typically only aimed at a very select audience.

Yes, that is certainly a problem for many people who have not “broken into” experimental music (ambient, dark ambient, whatever) and have not truly even sampled it yet. I think that another major problem is the concern – held both by established fans of the genre and people who have heard very little of it, if any – that every artist/band/project is creating very simplistic sounds (“just drones”) and that there isn’t anything appealing in it. The key to promoting these releases, in my opinion, is to clearly establish the theme. As superficial as it seems, good album artwork actually is a necessity. But the artist and the record label have to establish an obvious connection between the music and the themes it claims to express or represent. A good album description is another part of that process. It shouldn’t be this painfully simplistic, but it is. In fact, it is so simple that it eludes many artists and their record labels. In many cases, the music is actually horrible, simplistic, or both, and the record label is just some lazy slob living in his mother’s basement, hoping to miraculously get rich by riding the coattails of the artists and offering nothing in return.

To offer an example and shamelessly promote a project on the First Fallen Star label, take Innfallen’s “Three Days of Darkness.” This project is actually two people: Doyle Finley of Invercauld (a well-known dark ambient project) and Kevin Scala, who is new to music but has already proved himself through his work with Innfallen. These two people have very different belief systems but chose the Catholic prophecy of the “Three Days of Darkness” as the theme for their album. The tracks on the album are not random references to horror or religion, or obtuse conglomerations of words with no clear intent, but actually follow the events outlined within this prophecy. On this skeletal framework of a working theme and tracklisting, we find the meat of the matter: These two people clearly created soundscapes that portray the exact events that they claim to portray – and adeptly so! It isn’t “just drones,” or tones, or recordings of clanging bits of metal. Each track portrays a specific event in the timeline, and the individual tracks are absolutely distinct from one another. They are multi-dimensional soundscapes crafted in soundtrack style! The theme is obvious, and the aural presentation of that theme is very clear! And the excellent reviews that followed this album were well deserved by Doyle and Kevin!

Must every album within the genre be formulaic? No, not at all. But there’s no sense in even suggesting that you have a theme in mind if you cannot communicate that to the listener in some fashion. (After all, would you buy an album on a blank CD in a blank package with nothing more than a title that was described only as “some drones”?) And that’s a big problem within the genre. In an increasingly impatient world, people need a good reason to spend an hour of their time immersing themselves in your album. They have to be “sold on it” first! 

Your website talks about it a bit, but tell us more about The Eulogy Series that First Fallen Star does. How did the idea come about? Any other concepts you’d like to do?

The Eulogy Series was the product of brainstormed attempts to come up with a way to add a personal dimension to dark ambient that may not have otherwise been obvious. All artists have a backstory to the albums they release. Some of them are better than others in communicating what that backstory is, and translating it into music and sounds. The connection, though, is not always obvious. Through the Eulogy Series, we encourage artists to lend considerable thought to their personal beliefs, especially regarding life and death and what lies beyond the grave, and then translate that into music. Given the highly personal and emotionally intimate nature of this task laid before the artists, their respective backstories are more complex and more obviously connected to the music they crafted than they may otherwise have been if it were any other album.

Although we have a horde of other concepts that we would take great pride in bringing to life, only time will tell which ones are in fact brought to life. Considerable time has been invested in seeking ways to encourage artists to produce music with greater dimension than most of what is available within the dark ambient genre, and to conjure themes with wide appeal to the existing dark ambient fans as well as new fans. Again, time will tell.

When a friend first told me about your label, he said “they typically have interesting & unique packaging”. Tell us more about how you come up with the ideas for the packaging and where you acquire them. Any ideas for future packaging?

In a world where people care less and less about album packaging and the overall presentation of an album, innovation is admittedly difficult. There are a finite number of packaging options and physical materials that can be employed in a practical and efficient manner in presenting an album to the fans. We would love to do something truly unique for each album we release, but it just isn’t possible. That having been said, we have had a few good ideas thus far. Comments similar to those of your friend’s statement have most often been received in response to the albums by Innfallen, Mystified, and Melek-Tha.

Innfallen’s album was presented in an “uncoated” A5 digipak (also known as a DVDigipak). The paper is not coated with gloss or any other such substance, so the surface appears as textured paperboard or cardstock – perhaps somewhat akin to what has been used by Cyclic Law for many releases. Admittedly, this was a packaging option made available by one of the disc replication companies we have worked with – not an original idea. This packaging option, however, worked perfectly with the artwork of Innfallen’s “Three Days of Darkness,” complementing well the mood of the album.

Mystified’s “Passing Through the Outer Gates,” of course, was Volume 1 in our Eulogy Series. The album packaging was a glossy 6-panel A5 digipak featuring silver foil-embossed lettering and a coffin-shaped die-cut hole in the digipak cover that reveals the true “album cover” artwork on the digipak panel underneath. In this way, the coffin shape is symbolic, representing a gateway to what lies beyond – or, rather, what the artist believes to lie beyond the grave. Death is but a doorway! … If all goes well, Svartsinn will follow up with Volume 2 in the Eulogy Series!

Melek-Tha’s “H.P. Lovecraft, Volumes 1-6” set (12 CDs in the standard set, 14 CDs in the box set) is highly anticipated by fans largely because of the box set edition. Although box sets constructed of wood or metal are nice, they are still somewhat two-dimensional. We wanted a medium that could “express a third dimension” that wood and metal were not able to do. We needed a different material. So we commissioned sculptor Corinne Crowe (known for her Cthulhu statues at CthulhuStatues.com) to sculpt an original piece that could be cast in resin (plastic) and serve as the box for the box set edition of this multi-disc release. Although the box is still box-shaped, the “third dimension” we sought is manifested in the form of tentacles that rise up from the sides of the box, reaching up and over the top of it. (Tentacles, of course, being quite relevant to any mention of Lovecraft due to the eternal popularity of Cthulhu!) One of the tentacles writhing across the side of the box serves as a handle for the false bottom integrated into the design. Removal of the false bottom will reveal a bonus set of 2 CDs within the bottom of the box!

After the eventual release of the Melek-Tha set, it will be difficult to set the bar any higher in terms of creativity, but we do have a few good ideas on hand!

Where do you hope to take the label in the future?

To places left unexplored by our predecessors in dark ambient / experimental music! Although we may seem to be a quiet, relatively less productive record label, unfathomable ideas are always writhing in the darkness below, threatening to emerge at any time. Exactly what will come to life is determined by a combination of destiny and deliberation. We have been very careful to release only the finest sounds, and to present and promote them to the best of our ability! What can you expect from us in the future? Follow us closely to find out.

Any final words? Wounds of the Earth wishes you much luck in the future!

Thanks to Wounds of the Earth for the opportunity to be interviewed and shamelessly promote ourselves! Thanks is also due to the many, many reviewers and radio & podcast program hosts who took time out of their lives to lend an ear to our artists’ albums, and write up a review or offer tracks up for the listening pleasure of fans within the genre! Last but not least – and without a doubt, most importantly – THANK YOU to the artists who have already been or are soon to be a part of our team at First Fallen Star! We appreciate the faith they have had in us! We are nothing without them!


.Wounds looks at the works of First Fallen Star.

Despite being a fairly recent upstart, FFS already has a solid catalog of material available now. Here is our take on their releases thus far:

Karsten Hamre – “Through The Eyes of a Stranger

This album was my introduction to First Fallen Star. You may know Karsten from one of his many other monikers such as Arcane Art, Penitent, or Dense Vision Shrine. I was very pleasantly surprised by this album; it is a very mature and complex work of dark ambient. It is subdued enough to offer a relaxing and meditative experience, but also complex enough for enjoyable active listening. The album offers up myriad layers of rich, evolving drones, well created, interesting synthwork, visionary pads and sound effects (the good CMI type stuff – distant banging, clanking, rustling, etc) to conjure up some interesting atmospheres and successfully transport the listen to another place. This reminds me a bit of the good, older albums that got me interested in dark ambient in the first place. One of the best ambient dark albums I’ve heard in 2011 so far. It also comes with a DVD of very fitting imagery.

Dense Vision Shrine – “Time Lost In Oblivion

Dense Vision Shrine is another project of the aforementioned Karsten Hamre. This album is similar to the one described above, though “Time Lost In Oblivion” is significantly more cinematic. Where “Through The Eyes of a Stranger” is passive and droning, this one is active and bombastic, riddled with modern classical and martial aspects. If you are looking for pad-heavy ambient with well-crafted cinematic and martial elements (again, this album reminds me of the great CMI works) than do not pass this one up. Sound design and production are both solid; he achieves the good, nostalgic, dark & organic sound of older dark ambient classics, but fitted with modern production that gives just the right amount of power to the tracks without making them sound too digital or synthetic. Like the Karsten Hamre album this comes with a bonus DVD and is a must hear for fans of the aforementioned styles.

Aspectee – “Morben

Despite the rather lackluster artwork, this is actually a very solid release. Morben is a work composed of numerous layered and evolving drones, subtle melodic elements and some odd sonic textures (Somewhat similar to Allseits or Parhelion). Despite befitting of the term ‘drone’, “Morben” is not boring or simplistic. It succeeds very well in creating a massive wall of atmosphere which consumes and completely envelops the listener. It will keep you hooked and you will not desire to skip tracks nor turn it off. Every time I listen to this I feel myself slipping away from the waking world and falling into sort of a lull / dreamstate. Listening to this feels like being high, such that the world of dream has nearly merged with the waking world and only a thin veil separates the two. Throw this on and let yourself get lost in it. Definitely check this out if you are a fan of droning, visionary ambient.

Innfallen – “Three Days of Darkness

This album is pure, unstoppable darkness. This is the most dark / evil release so far on FFS, and is reminiscent of New Risen Throne and Konau. This album is full of haunting sounds and oppressive, weighty droning textures. An absolutely must have for fans of that style of black ambient! Pick this up and listen to the sound of humanity collapsing in upon itself. If you are looking for truly dark ambient than get this now. They are preparing to release a follow up soon and I cannot wait to hear it.

Mystified – “Passing Through the Outer Gates” (Eulogy series vol. 1)

To be honest, before this album I really wasn’t impressed at all with what I’ve heard from Mystified. The stuff I had heard was predominately simplistic, directionless drone. That said, he has really stepped up his game with this release. "Passing Through The Outer Gates" has a convincing tribal, ancient feel to it, as he is now employing the use of ethnic percussion and melodic elements. Mystified does a good job of bringing to life visions of forgotten desert cities, or perhaps the arcane cities of the afterlife, considering the theme. The tracks are repetitive, but the sound design and production are both a big step up from previous works. The packaging is absolutely beautiful and there is some great mastering courtesy of Frederic Arbour of Cyclic Law. I'm looking forward to see where the Eulogy Series will go after this - the next release is supposedly from Svartsinn.

Secret Druid Society – “Restless

The most recent release from FFS comes from Australia’s Secret Druid Society. This is a work of pure drone; utilizing only layers upon layer of moving, shifting, ebbing and flowing drones and pads. This might be a little boring for some, but if you are a fan of that style than you will definitely find this enjoyable. “Restless” does a good job of capturing the ideas presented in the press release: the future of our planet, post-mankind; the cold, crushing emptiness that is completely devoid of human life. The artwork is exceptional and it comes with a nice booklet with some descriptions of each track coupled with very compelling photography. I'm very glad to see a label putting time and effort into packaging, and this release exemplifies quality packaging that supplements the music well, and feels like a complete multi media album, rather than just a collection of sound with some arbitrary picture on the cover. This goes for many of the albums so far on FFS, and if the interview and website are any indication, this will continue, and likely evolve, as the label grows.

check out First Fallen Star here:
First Fallen Star on discogs

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