Cold Spring Records is a label and online store that has its origins over 30 years ago. Today, it releases music that spans several unconventional genres including noise, power electronics, dark ambient, neo-folk, industrial, and other experimental forms. Over the last several years, we have reviewed a number of their releases.
ZPK – Zamia Lehmanni (1986/2019)
The most unexpected and compelling aspect of SPK’s 1986 release of Zamia Lehmanni (subtitled Songs Of Byzantine Flowers) is its sheer breadth of styles. Between tracks, and even within certain tracks, are passages that border on tribal / ambient, industrial, non-Western musics (Middle-Eastern, African, Southeast Asian), sound collages, and various other unclassifiable styles and weird amalgams.
Graeme Revell was the creative force behind SPK, and his work under that name during the 1980’s morphed from industrial to soundtrack in nature. Zamia Lehmanni falls in between these two genres, capturing some of the best aspects of each. This re-release is a fresh mastering with Revell’s approval.
As one example, Romanz in Moll features a grungy industrial beat, synth washes, melancholy improvised piano leads, and haunting vocalizations. In contrast, In The Dying Moments, consists of twisted chants, tribal percussion, and a bass synth line to go therewith. Alocasia Metallica includes non-western rhythmic vocal phrasings over flutes and dense group percussion.
The other remarkable aspect of this album is just how futuristic it ended up sounding. Recorded over 30 years ago, Revell’s ability to fall between and combine established styles in new ways is still being perfected by today’s artists. Zamia Lehmanni was decades ahead of its time in this regard, and would have been a striking release if it were recorded today.
Llyn Y Cwn – Twll Du (2019)
“Windswept” is a term that fits Twll Du (Black Hole), the upcoming release – sixth overall, it seems – from Llyn Y Cwn (Lake Of The Dogs). Invoking either primeval landscapes or outer space, these deep drones somehow manage to be both utterly overwhelming and suitable for background listening depending on your volume level.
Each piece was crafted from a field recording as well as overlaid synths. The latter is not significantly layered. Instead, the recording and the musical elements are laid beside one another. So arranged, the former provides environmental white noise while the latter swells and drifts. The result is a set of dark, ominous sound walls and atmospherics. A suitable example is the third track, Cwn Cneifion, which features ponderous drones and washes over rumbling that resembles a distant thunderstorm or the destruction of a star.
While the overall approach and sound over the course of the album do not vary dramatically, they are unusual enough to remain interesting throughout. Thus, Twll Du is a compelling slab of dark ambiance recommended for fans of Lustmord in particular.
Tunnels of Ah – Charnel Transmissions (2018)
Tunnels of Ah is Stephen Ah Burroughs and Charnel Transmissions is his fifth major release under this moniker. Not exactly ambient nor drone, Burroughs uses electroacoustic manipulations of both of these approaches as well as other stylings to evoke a sound somewhere between industrial and musique concrète. Distorted noise walls crumble and processed voices haunt these five medium-length tracks. The drone elements mimic the consequential sounds of high-speed travel as they undulate and echo in a prickly and metallic fashion. Non-specific percussion comes and goes.
The feel on Charnel Transmissions is one of melancholy and alienation. Alone in an unknown landscape, you are haunted by scattered vocalizations and ancient machines operating according to obscure mechanisms. And when you can make out the words of the disembodied voices, they only add to your growing trepidation. This is an unclassifiable and compelling release that spans multiple subgenres.
Colossloth – Heathen Needles (2017)
This is the second recording from Colossloth, who is as far as I can tell, an Englishman. And I will frankly admit that it is hard to believe this variety of sounds, noises, and harsh freaked-out melodies come from a single individual. Heathen Needles, released earlier this month, covers an impressive amount of ground. From dirty synths to distorted drones, speaking and screaming voices, feedback, acoustic piano and guitar, backward masking, noise walls, and undulating rhythms. Needless to say, this is not pleasant music in the normal sense of that phrase. Instead, Colossloth generates a veritable hellscape of aggressively-manipulated sounds.
The title track, as an example, begins with a grungy synth rhythm, interspersed with video-game fallout effects that melt away into walled noise. These elements are joined by IDM-styled keyboard chording, the echoing of which survives until the end of the piece. Compare that with the next offering, Lain Inert, which features slowly rolling synths with decimated samples, power chords from an electric guitar, and guttural voices. We Had a Pact is comprised of several layers of drones, walls, and noises, growling, post-industrial rhythms, and a deceptively charming melody made from the aforementioned backward masking. There Will Be Islands begins with distorted noise walls before adding a nearly ambient synth rhythm, then indecipherable spoken word elements.
Heathen Needles is fresh and surprisingly non-repetitive. Colossloth processes a number of familiar styles and techniques in a fashion that is unusual and unconventional. The result is a thoroughly twisted and enjoyable album.
Common Eider King Eider – Shrines For The Unwanted, Respite For The Cast Aside (2017)
Common Eiders and King Eiders are both categories of large ducks. Be that as it may, Common Eider King Eider is a dark ambient group consisting of Rob Fisk (formerly of the quirky pop band Deerhoof), Andee Connors, and a host of guests. This album, Shrines for short, is perhaps their 10th depending on what you count.
It starts off routinely enough. Thick, bassy drones ponderously exploring a haunted landscape. Over the course of Cast Out to the Wolves to be Devoured, They Were Instead Embraced, the movements become louder and more menacing, yet the tension remains in check. The second track, The Dark Winter, introduces synth washes and wordless chants. By the five-minute mark, it has already grown into a multi-layered crescendo – and from there it keeps going. Chaotic percussion and dense walls lead to an outro of twisted vocals. Elk Tongue takes it down a few notches, with eerie, windswept atmospherics. On the 25-minute finale, Litha, all hell breaks loose. Beginning with deep chants, the track slowly morphs into synth-led thematics over growled vocalizations. Slowly the droning becomes more distorted, and the growling becomes frantic screams…and continues for several unsettling minutes before settling back into the original chanting and a soft, distorted drone.
Shrines is a deliberate journey from unsettled quiet to all-out madness. It is a carefully and beautifully crafted hellish nightmare. With so much music out there that falls somewhere in the general category of “dark ambient,” it is refreshing to hear an artist not only serve the genre so well but break new ground in the process. Highly recommended.
Various Artists – Visions of Darkness (In Iranian Contemporary Music) (2017)
Visions of Darkness is a new 2CD release from Cold Spring Records that documents underground music from Iran. As the album’s liner notes state, “[i]n a country where youth culture has been heavily restricted for so long, it’s significant when a cultural form such as this has an opportunity to reach a wider audience – aided by the abstract nature of dark ambient, drone, and noise.” The artists have suffered through limited funding opportunities due to economic sanctions, but have nonetheless persevered to offer their unique takes on a range of musical styles.
Several of the tracks recall early (1985-1995) Steve Roach, with slowly layered drones evoking a desert atmosphere, as well as echoing sequencers. Not necessarily dark, but fitting the “ambient” moniker quite well. But, in addition to these aspects, some artists include whiffs of techno, middle-eastern chants, spoken word, and electroacoustic elements. As an example, Longing to Return by Xerxes the Dark begins with throat singing that rapidly evolves into a scratchy palette of droning soundscapes. Industrial percussion and machine noises join in for the second half of the track, which ends with a distant choral chant. Hossein RangChi provides windswept synth work over a melancholy piano melody on Mute. Narcissa Kasrai’s Articulation sounds as if it came from the GRM school, while Nyctalllz’s Daeva is an oscillating set of post-modern background drones with subtle foreground pulses and crackles.
The sheer variety and consistent quality across this compilation make it a notable release. Combine that with its cultural importance, and Visions of Darkness is a welcome and enjoyable addition to the collection of anyone who is curious how non-mainstream artists of an under-represented country express themselves.
TenHornedBeast – Death Has No Companion (2017)
TenHornedBeast is Christopher Walton, a longtime purveyor of dark ambiance. This latest release, Death Has No Companion, features haunted soundscapes over three tracks totaling almost 60 minutes.
The opening, The Wanderer consists of long, slow, drones of electronics and stringed instruments. The drones are layered and oscillatory, with an occasional metallic character. The Lamentation of Their Women begins with repetitive processed piano chords over more droning, in a style reminiscent of William Basinski‘s works. This slowly builds, adding feedback and distortion, almost into a full-on noise wall. In Each Of Us A Secret Sorrow, the longest track, exhibits a deliberate pacing and includes more electronic / string drones, as well as cymbal flourishes.
Overall, the album evokes a haunted primeval land, sparsely populated and foreboding. Unseen dangers lurk nearby. But the traveler of this land is so caught up in his own sorrow that he may be oblivious to peril. Death Has No Companion is bleak, dark, and desperate, all good reasons to give it a listen even if nihilism is not your thing.
Skullflower – The Spirals of Great Harm (2017)
UK’s Cold Spring Records puts out recordings of a wide variety of unsettling music: dark ambient, neo-folk, harsh noise, and experimental. Skullflower, which centers around Matthew Bower, fits the more extreme end of that spectrum. Bower has recorded under numerous monikers for over 30 years and this double-album reflects the confidence that comes with experience.
The Spirals of Great Harm features traditional instrumentation, particularly guitars, rather than just electronics. But this might not be apparent initially. To that point, the album is a viscous, ever-shifting series of noise walls featuring long drones from distorted chording. Hidden in these walls are some subtleties that careful listening will pick out – a melody or two within the mass of sound. But Skullflower ultimately offers an overwhelming post-post-rock and post-industrial set, fitting for both foreground and background absorption.
Comparisons to early 70’s Krautrock are not out of order here, though without the rhythmic emphasis. A welcome slab of dissonant, twisted darkness from an early purveyor of the same.
Dave Ball & Jon Savage – Photosynthesis (2016)
What we have here is a combination of 70’s and 80’s synth-heavy electronic music, the 90’s colder, sparser ambient, as well as field recordings. The amalgam thereof is a distinctive and compelling sound – retro without being derivative, modern without feeling unfamiliar.
Dave Ball founded the pop band Soft Cell in 1979. On Photosynthesis, he teams with electronic musician Jon Savage for eight tracks that form an hour-long suite. Apropos to its title, the album brims with organic textures, perhaps due to use of analog instrumentation. As stated in the liner notes, “[s]itting in the garden surrounded by trees and plants on a sunny day, the idea of organisms using sunlight to synthesise nutrients from CO2 and water became an inspiration to us. This idea, juxtaposed with mankind’s destruction of the planet through pollution and war gave us the inspiration to compose this soundscape.”
The putative centerpiece of the album, a sixteen-minute track titled One Night in Helmand Province, covers both these yin and yang aspects. Sequencers provide sweeps, percolations, and effects, while the rhythm is driven by dark, shifting drones. Unintelligible voices fade in and out of the foreground, as do washes laden with static.
Both beautiful and menacing in tone, Photosynthesis, stakes its claim as an original work in a crowded field.
Andrew Chalk, Ralf Wehowsky, and Eric Lanzillotta – Yang-Tul (1998/2016)
Ambient artists Andrew Chalk, Ralf Wehowsky, and Eric Lanzillotta join forces for two long tracks on this recent reissue of a 1998 release. The first piece, Wycha, features Chalk manipulating material from Wehowsky. A background sine wave provides the anchor drone, while object percussion and effects evoke a lo-fi experience. Gentle clunks, static, and hissing contribute throughout, as does a subtle, low-pitched background wash. This is ominous music that never quite goes full horror-show, but still might raise a few hairs.
For the second piece, Chalawy, Wehowsky worked over material from Chalk and Lanzillotta. The direction of this track is harder to ascertain, as noises and effects are the focus first four minutes or so, until an underlying mid-range drone evolves. Bassier elements also emerge, while sounds that resemble tuned percussion play in the foreground. Twisted whistling, wire scraping, and object percussion are prominent as well. The single drone eventually is replaced by several concurrent layers, each coming and going, until a cacophonous combination of keyboard and vocal sounds take this track to even darker places.
Hijokaidan – Emergency Stairway To Heaven (2015)
Unknown to many (including this writer), Hijokaidan is considered to be one of the first noise bands, having been founded in 1979. This 2015 release on Cold Spring Records demonstrates that the group is not showing any ill-effects of age when recording aggressive heavy improv. The clearly identifiable instruments are guitar and drums, both played in a freak-out, structureless style. Electronics and perhaps another guitar accompany. Comparisons can be made to some of Merzbow‘s recent work with the likes of Balazs Pandi and Mats Gustasfsson. Past collaborators include Merzbow (of course), Acid Mothers Temple, and Otomo Yoshihide.
This particular album is a double, featuring a 50-minute studio suite eponymously entitled Emergency Stairway To Heaven, and then another 65 minutes documenting two live performances. Great stuff if you enjoy unrelenting, ever-changing walls of metallic noise.