Cyclic Law Overview

Cyclic Law is a label based in Germany that focuses on dark ambient, industrial, electroacoustic, techno, and other corners of the musical spectrum, as well as innovative combinations thereof. Founded in 2002, Cyclic Law has released over 140 recordings. We have reviewed a number of them, as shown below. What I appreciate about this label is that its recordings go beyond the dark ambient / drone genre that has been well-explored in the last 25 years. Instead, Cyclic Law recordings provide new sounds, structures, and contexts that advance this field and others.

Various Artists – CYCLES II (2022)

The Cyclic Law label, based in France, has been producing some of the most compelling dark, experimental, and electroacoustic ambient music for two decades. This label sampler, running almost two hours, is a collection of new and unreleased tracks from the label’s artists, celebrating its 20th anniversary.

Contributors include Ajna, Ascending Divers, Ashtoreth, Beckahesten, Curse All Kings, Desiderii Marginis, Funerary Call, Kammarheit, Leila Abdul-Rauf, Neraterræ & Dødsmaskin, New Risen Throne & Corona Barathri, Nordvargr, Øjerum, Shedir, Shrine, Sophia, Sutekh Hexen, Taphephobia, Visions, and Vortex. While all twenty tracks are varied and quite excellent, a few highlights are covered below.

Ajna’s Elemental Manifestation and Ascending Divers’ Charybdis Drain are both prime-grade darkness with ominous drones. The former features metallic cracking and hissing while the latter includes thunder-like rumbling and long-held synth chords.

Ashtoreth heads in another direction on Emic, with distorted chords, plucked notes, harmonics, and percussive lines from multitracked guitars. These are coupled with whispered vocalizations. The guitar-driven material continues on Beckahesten’s Heder, with grinding chords, martial drums, and chanted vocals.

Cerements Of The Moon from Funerary Call is one of the more experimental tracks, comprised of sculpted abstractions, electroacoustic noises, and haunting voices. Another vocal piece is a surprise – Leila Abdul-Rauf’s cover of Moving On its Own by Lee Rather is neither ambient nor electroacoustic but quite psychologically dark.

In contrast, the track from New Risen Throne (featuring Corona Barathri) is squarely experimental ambient, including shimmering tones combined with layers of forbidding vocals and chants. Shrine’s Dream Axis features a catch synth melody along with bursts of echoing noises and an oscillating pattern floating in the background.

Sutekh Hexen’s The Sky Below is a static-laden affair incorporating a subtle repeating melody buried within white noise and disassociated growls. Vortex finishes off the set with Cosmic Rim II, a piece with a pulsating bass line, sweeping waves, bells, and fortepiano dynamics.

Caldon Glover – Labyrintia (2022)

Experimental synthesist and composer Caldon Glover has released a handful of albums and singles in the last few years, mostly crossing the ambient, industrial, and doom realms. They make heavy use of field recordings and drones to embody disconcerting soundscapes of locations both real and from the imagination. On Labyrintia, Glover has created a cinematic, sonic exploration of a hypothetical portal through space and time.

The album features both acoustic instruments as well as rising and falling waves of deep, rumbling drones across its seven tracks, each track clocking in around eight minutes. Skittering and echoing percussion comes in and out of focus. The synth mimics haunting vocalizations. Metallic glissandos morph into sculpted static.

One of the most compelling features of Labyrintia is the sheer size of the sound palette. The drones are rich, spanning a wide frequency range, especially in the bass registers. This is enough to rattle the walls of your house if given enough volume (I speak from experience). Further, the textures of these pieces are gritty enough – almost grinding – to give them a feel that straddles the majestic, the mechanical, and the foreboding. This comes across as not unlike an aural version of H.R. Giger’s biomechanoid paintings.

Yes, there is a lot of dark ambient music around these days, and yes quite a bit of it is good. But Labyrintia is special and worthy of a closer listen. It takes the elements of the genre and mixes them in novel and clever ways. Glover seems like an ideal choice to create the sound architecture for a science fiction or horror-themed movie, TV show, or video game.

Ascending Divers – Watery Domain (2022)

Deep, airy drones…lilting voices and chamber instrumentation…minimalist yet throbbing beat patterns…there is nothing not to like about the first few minutes Watery Domain. The album is the latest from Ascending Divers (Hugo Champion), and is an exploration of oceanic myths. These core elements of windswept synth layers, voices, hints of strings, and the occasional thump or drum roll are arranged in various ways throughout this offering.

Indeed, the droning chords and vocals often blend in a hazy fashion, for example on Clamor of an Off-Shore Dismissal and Ear the Shell Peach. This gives the album a strange presence of dull anxiety that warns of ever-present danger. Low bass notes contribute to this ominous feel, with subtle rumbling or jarring spikes. Occasional noises from field recordings or manipulation of objects also find their way into these pieces, while the beats become fewer and further between.

This general approach continues until the final (and longest) track, Wreck. It is initially an amalgam of non-musical elements – wind, water, echoes, and the rumbling of large structures. Thick synth lines slowly integrate themselves into the mix, gradually taking over with slow-moving melodies. This continues for several minutes until the seascape acoustics return and then fade.

Shrine – Nausicaä (2022)

Shrine is a moniker of Hristo Gospodinov, whose works often get placed in the rough category of dark ambient. But Gospodinov’s futuristic soundscapes are quite varied, though often influenced by dystopian science fiction.

Exploring a future Earth covered with deadly flora, he employs gritty textures, breathy, fuzzed-out drones, and a surprising amount of steady patterns of percussion. The latter, when present, drives these pieces along at a rapid clip. Indeed, there is a fair amount of repetition in general, with themes slowly developing over the course of several minutes, building to crescendo. These fragments ebb and flow in both the foreground and background.

As Shrine’s first album-length effort in almost three years, Nausicaä is a suffocating statement on humanity’s fragile relationship with nature. While synthesized, the sounds present as organic, perhaps their hazy aspects adding a degree of appealing imperfection to the tones. The production is dense and claustrophobic, yet windswept and alien. As an example of synth-driven music with the haunting atmospheres of dark ambient combined with elements of electronica and post-industrialism, you cannot do much better.

Undirheimar – Vardlokkur (2022)

Undirheimar presents a distinct sound on Vardlokkur – ritual drone and dark ambient with gritty, shamanistic vocalizations and pounding martial percussion. This album runs only 34 minutes and consists of three tracks, two long and one short. Though brief by today’s standards, Undirheimar packs a lot into this compact offering. They say what they want to say and then stop.

Deep, hissing drones characterize Vardlokkur almost as much as the chants, which incorporate a form of bassy throat singing and controlled growling. While easy to miss due to being mostly in the background, other sounds add texture and color, such as what appear to be bells, wind instruments, and found-object percussion. This results in an organic overall feel – perhaps of nature coming up from earthy depths to reclaim the world’s surface from human dominion.

Vardlokkur is a compelling follow-on to the band’s 2020 effort, Heljarrúnar. It is just as mysterious yet markedly listenable.

Ashtoreth – Rites III & IV (2021)

Ashtoreth is Belgian Peter Verwimp, and this release is a follow-up to 2019’s Rites I & II. Here, Verwimp uses overlapping electric guitar, percussion, and voices to create menacing soundscapes. Of note is his broad palette for each of these instruments. The guitar provides heavily distorted chords, drones, and brief melodies with cleanly-picked notes. The voices are both male and female, often wordless or unintelligible, and can be beautiful, poignant, or painful. The percussion is largely based on bell-like sounds. This instrumentation blends into a wafting and moody ambiance. Rites III & IV explore humankind’s relation to nature, evoking ancient rituals and a connectedness that is largely missing from the modern world.

Saáadon – мреть (наутро ночь) (2021)

St. Petersburg duo Sádon and France’s Saåad are collectively Saáadon on this new release. Using slow, mid-range drones bordering on the ambient, cleanly-picked guitar, and melancholy vocals, this trio explores the poetry of Donat Mavleev. The melodies drift as if floating on air, and exhibit a range of emotiveness from wistful sadness to a strange and compelling buoyancy. A rough translation of the title is Die (in the morning night), perhaps a bit darker than the constituent tracks.

Muhd – Dilogia (2014/2021)

Dilogia is a set of rough-textured drones and layered synths from Muhd (Samuel Vaney). Originally put out on cassette in 2014 and quite difficult to find, this is the album’s first official CD / digital release. Centered around the aforementioned drones, Vaney adds and removes colors by modifying their forms. He varies oscillations, pitch, grittiness, tempo, and combinations thereof. The feel is windswept and cinematic, while the mood shifts between anxious and forlorn. The album slowly evolves from a more forceful effort to one that toys with minimalism. To that point, it begins with Severing, which consists of stacked, oscillating drones with a driving beat, while the last track, Kychtym, evokes the sequenced rhythms of the Berlin Shcool.

Leila Abdul-Rauf – Phantasiai (2021)

Still in catch-up mode, Phantasiai is an unusual mid-2021 effort from multi-instrumentalist Leila Abdul-Rauf. Employing just processed trumpet, glockenspiel, and voice, Abdul-Rauf offers two 20-minute, multi-movement suites entitled Distortions in Phantasy and The I Emerges. The trumpet provides background tones that form layered drones or short motifs, while she sounds out ominous melodies on the glockenspiel. She sings or vocalizes on several tracks in a non-Western fashion that accentuates the sparse yet foreboding character of these pieces.

O Saala Sakraal – Heven (2021)

O Saala Sakraal is a Dutch collective that combines dark ambient and post-industrial leanings into a unique union of sounds and textures. Heven, an EP-length effort and second from the group, centers around a four-piece choir that chants both with lyrics and wordlessly. The voices are combined with deep drones that, unlike some uses of that technique, evoke a sense of movement and urgency. Atop this is percussion that is kit-based and also employs found objects, ultimately sounding more than a little like F.M. Einheit from Einstürzende Neubauten. These recordings drip with tension even when the tempo decelerates to a slow burn. The spoken-word passages are somewhat less initially compelling than the choral and percussion-oriented sections, but add to the psychologically haunting atmosphere of the pieces. Overall, this is a very well-done, weird, and disturbing short album.

Peter Bjärgö – The Translucency of Mind’s Decay (2021)

Peter Bjärgö’s deep, gravelly voice and acoustic guitar work is a signature sound, harkening back to his days with Arcana. His solo work of late represents a progression toward the more song-oriented, though still squarely within the neo-folk and dark ambient spaces. The Translucency of Mind’s Decay was written and performed during the pandemic lockdown of 2020, which gave Bjärgö an opportunity to introspect about his own mortality. As such, these pieces include tribal and martial percussion, haunting and melancholy chants and singing, gentle string and drone passages, subtle guitar, and an overall medieval feel. Despite being far from upbeat, they are catchy and rhythmic in their own way. And this is perhaps Bjärgö’s gift – the ability to generate an unconventional sense of hope in dark-themed offerings. Even the instrumental tracks, despite their downtempo gloom, are quite enjoyable and almost uplifting in their treatment of sadness. Well done, once more.

Natura Est – Real Seasons (2021)

Real Seasons, a fresh release on Cyclic Law, is a slab of hardcore dark ambient with earthshattering deep drones and sweeping waves of multi-layer textures. These synth-generated walls vary in smoothness without quite approaching the jagged. Those at the low end of the register rumble and shake with tectonic movement while remaining beatless.

These organic elements are combined with synth patches that resemble tortured voices or chants in the latter tracks. Case in point, parts of Midsummer sound almost choral. The longest track, The Trilogy of Harvest is a haunting eight-minute hellscape, rolling and boiling with restrained anger despite its deliberate pace. Throughout, there is a darkness that never lets up.

Natura Est is the duo of Tony Young and Andreas Davids. Real Seasons offers their version of nature as somewhere between uncaring and malevolent. Listen at high volume to enjoy the details.

Beckahesten – Tydor (2021)

Swedish trio Beckhesten (Peo Bengtsson, Per Åhlund, and Viktoria Rolandsdotter) lurks in the gray area between Northern European horror-folk and dark ambient music. Deep, menacing drones are coupled with foggy, horn-like synths and martial percussion. Over this, Rolandsdotter speaks, sings, and chants expressively, while her bandmates provide occasional background gutteralisms in the form of throat singing.

While vocals are an important aspect of the Beckahesten mix, they are not a song-oriented outfit. The nine tracks on Tydor also include lengthy instrumental passages, with dark atmospherics, found object noises, and field recordings. Having said that, there is a strangely appealing lilt to the vocal melodies, Rolandsdotter in particular. They are catchy in a haunting and melancholy sense.

These pieces move at a deliberate pace, further reinforcing their primeval feel. Whether evocative of ancient forests, dripping caves, or unspeakable nightmares, Tydor is a beautifully written and performed album.

Kammarheit – Thronal (2020)

Released 18 months ago, Thronal is one of those albums that slipped under the radar. And it is good that it popped up in the queue because Kammarheit (Pär Boström) produces quintessential dark ambient. Quiet and slow-moving, these drones and layers of synth are haunting journeys through ancient forests, caverns, and abandoned villages. Deep tones rumble and echo in a nearly-hypnogogic fashion. As the album progresses, the drones take on a rougher, grittier nature. A standout track is The Two Houses, which combines all of these features into discordant yet subtle pulses of noise.

Grande Loge – Mantras (2020)

France’s Grande Loge offers Mantras, their first full-length album. While ostensibly falling into the tribal ambient subcategory, Mantras is so richly composed and performed that anyone who appreciates folk, ambient, free improvisation, or throat singing would find much to like herein.

Instrumentation centers around violin, buzuki, nafar, shaman drums, and tanpura, giving the tracks a medieval and ritualistic feel. The vocals are layered chants that encompass ancient prayers, apparently in both established languages as well as patterns of syllabic utterances. The registers of the voices vary from bassy to midrange. Accompanying them are martial percussion and strummed strings.

The compositions are dense and earthy, evoking ancient cultures. This results in cinematic overtones as well, and it is easy to see how some of these pieces could be incorporated into movie, television, or video game soundtracks. Comparisons could be made to Raison d’Etre and Phurpa, but Grande Loge is its own animal. A very well done and welcome debut, just in time for the solstice.

Undirheimar – Heljarrúnar (2020)

Undirheimar is a mysterious outfit. Promo materials and some casual Googling do not identify the musician or musicians behind the moniker. But that context is ultimately not too important. What matters, of course, is the music. What we have here is a set of dark, ritualistic drones with martial percussion and throat-singing. The percussion consists mainly of repetitive, pounding drums that border on the overwhelming. The drones are similarly aggressive while the voices are guttural and invoke a set of mantras. Less obtrusive pieces are meditations or ceremonies with steady beats and slower growling voices. Ultimately, the sound and feel are that of an amalgam of Nordic and Far Eastern folk styles, but with a heavy dose of imagination. Thus, cuts from Heljarrúnar might serve well as part of movie or television soundtracks in which Viking hordes – cloaked in the evening mist and hyped up by shamanic rites – descend on hapless villagers.

Arcana Reissues – …The Last Embrace (2000) & Inner Pale Sun (2002)

Arcana is the neoclassical darkwave brainchild of Peter Bjärgö. For about 20 years, Bjärgö and company released numerous full-length albums, EPs, and compilations. While comparable to Dead Can Dance in terms of style at a high level, Arcana focused on martial rhythms and brooding chant, as well as medieval instrumentation.  …The Last Embrace and Inner Pale Sun were released in 2000 and 2002, respectively, on the now-defunct Cold Meat Industry label.  Cyclic Law has reissued these albums as part of its very welcome revisiting of the Arcana discography. Each release includes a bonus track.

For those not familiar, …The Last Embrace is probably the best place to start with Arcana. From the outset, the percussion focuses on a combination of snare patterns with bells. Over this are synth lines, acoustic guitar, dulcimer, and melancholy ethereal vocals from Bjärgö and co-vocalist Ida Bengtsson. These relatively simple elements are creatively combined and overlapped into appealing – yet funereal – pieces. While Bjärgö’s deep baritone intones dark poetry in English, Latin, and Italian, the singing is largely wordless or difficult to decipher. This renders voice another instrument with which to generate haunting atmospheres. Thematically, these songs are focused on anguish, grief, and loss, but are strangely exhilarating and emotive. A prime example of this is the short and powerful Love Eternal, with Bengtsson on lead vocals.

If anything, Inner Pale Sun is even more cinematic than its predecessor, with tracks that manage to be both more uptempo and slower. Case in point, My Cold Sea would fit into a movie soundtrack (a movie about Vikings, perhaps) with its tribal drumming, chanting, and ponderous synths. In contrast, Song of the Dead comprises slowly evolving synth and string patterns. This evolves into a more uplifting melody over bassy drumming before settling into a quiet outro. Overall, these pieces are more pastoral, piano-driven, and song-oriented than those of …The Last Embrace despite being layered with gothic angst.

AJNA – Oracular (2020)

AJNA’s first release on Cyclic Law, Lucid Intrusion, was a commendable addition to the ever-expanding dark ambient compendium. Oracular, a follow-up released this month, does not deviate too far from this path, but exhibits a few novel twists and turns. The modus operandi here includes deep, dark drones, windswept soundscapes, and manipulated sounds lurking in the background and occasionally jumping into the fore. This latter set of elements appear at times to be vocal or animal in origin, yet unidentifiable. At other points, they are mechanical in nature – the creaking of metal and giant machines or sculpted white noise. The drones are layered, each with a different pitch and wave-pattern, overlapping as they ebb and flow. This results in a palpable tension, as the drones – though foreboding – tend to lull the listener until a jarring set of processed acoustics raises its ugly head. Like a scene from a nightmare, there is nowhere to relax or run. The high points of the album are where AJNA uses his palette of compositional tools together to create slowly-oscillating but harshly-textured alien soundscapes – ideal for dark-room listening. This is more than enough to earn Oracular an enthusiastic thumbs up.

New Risen Throne – The Outside (2020)

In sitting down to write, I realized that I had heard a number of releases from New Risen Throne over the last dozen years or so, but had not yet written a review. Perhaps this is because the project has been mostly quiet since 2011’s Loneliness Of Hidden Structures. In any event, Stiehl (Gabriele Panci) is back with a double album. The first part is a new set of deep, cold, windswept dark ambient soundscapes. The second consists of remixes of his previous recordings by like-minded individuals and groups including Sysselmann, Visions, Taphephobia, Phantom Ship, Vestigial, Apocryphos, and TeHÔM. The new album is described as “[a]fter centuries of isolation, the human race begins a journey in search of the causes that led to the end of its world, and for the first time it approaches the Structures, new life forms that have developed and evolved in the emptiness of ‘The Outside’.” Sounds ominous. In addition to ponderous mid-frequency and low-frequency drones, these tracks include foreground synth layers and snippets of spoken or chanted vocals. They vary in volume, from barely-audible intros to densely-packed and highly-detailed walls of sound. These cinematic explorations evoke apprehensive footsteps through caves, primordial forests, or abandoned cities. The remixes take the New Risen Throne approach in a few different directions. One of the standout pieces is Breath Of Growing Structures, as remixed by Taphephobia, with shimmering, discordant drones that ebb and flow. Signs Of The Approaching Wastefulness (II), remixed by Stiehl himself, is one of the more haunting tracks on a haunting release. It involves a layered disquiet with shuffling sounds and disembodied voices. Overall, the remixes are interesting and consistent with what one would expect from New Risen Throne and these artists stylistically. The Outside is a great place to start with this artist if you have not already.

NERATERRÆ – The Substance of Perception (2019)

NERATERRÆ is Alessio Antoni, and this debut album is a set of seven collaborations with a virtual who’s who of dark ambient and melancholy electroacoustic music. Collaborators include members of Northaunt, Phurpa, Treha Sektori, New Risen Throne, Flowers For Bodysnatchers, Taphephobia, Ugasanie, Xerxes The Dark, and Infinexhuma. For the most part, these tracks consist of layered drones and a sense of dread. Interspersed therein are crackling background static, ritualistic chants, windswept soundscapes, and subtle spoken-word elements. Highlights include Becoming the Nightmare, a piece with efforts from New Risen Throne and Treha Sektori, which features bassy rumblings, barely audible voices, and processed industrial noises. This evolves into a more conventional pattern of mid-range drones until the voices return for a coda. That Which Shall Not Be Witnessed is a powerful statement made from sweeping waves and pulses overlaid with manipulated voices. Xerxes The Dark and Treha Sektori contribute. Echoing Scars, recorded with help from Flowers For Bodysnatchers, includes piano over rainfall and subtle drones. Antoni does not attempt to adapt the styles of his collaborators to that of his own. If anything, he adapts to them. The result is an album with sounds that vary around a fixed anchor point. Well worth a listen for anyone who follows the aforementioned artists.

Peter Bjärgö – Structures and Downfall (2019)

Peter Bjärgö, mastermind of the sadly defunct Arcana, returns with his fourth solo release. I’ll always associate Arcana with painting. From 2002-2004 we painted just about every room in our house, and many times I put Arcana’s …The Last Embrace on as background music. Hymn Of The Absolute Deceit was a favorite track. I seem to have misplaced that CD, so thank Darwin for streaming. Pointless personal trivia aside, fans of Arcana will find much to like on Structures and Downfall. The martial percussion, neo-classical stylings, and Bjärgö’s gravelly and deliberate vocals remain. Here, the emphasis is on slowly-paced, melancholy vocal pieces with arpeggiated guitar chords, drones, and rich string arrangements. While not as forceful as most of Arcana’s output, Bjärgö’s efforts have a subtle and restrained power. Case in point, Anemoia & Onism features tribal percussion layered with synth and strings. Bjärgö’s deep chants convey a haunting atmosphere. The title track, in contrast, offers less elaborate patterns of percussion and focuses on the aforementioned guitar picking as a gloomy presence. Bjärgö contributes sorrowful vocals. The inevitable comparison to Dead Can Dance can be made, but Bjärgö’s solo work is its own animal. Unlike DCD, the emphasis on Structures and Downfall is more instrumental and less song-oriented. Nonetheless, this album will appeal to anyone interested in or curious about darkwave.

Visions – Temples (2019)

Cyclic Law’s head Frederic Arbour returns under the moniker of Visions. On this outing, he focuses on deep, dark, slowly oscillating drones and subtlely distorted loops that form a primordial low-frequency sound sculpture. Arbour thoughtfully layers textures upon one another to create a barely restrained walled intensity that spans all seven tracks of this release. Each voice growls, expands and contracts, or provides a semblance of melody that joins together in a coherent assault. Despite its in-your-face nature, cinematic is also a good way of describing the impact of Temples. Deep caverns, abandoned towns, windswept cliffs, and fog-cloaked woodlands come to mind – all infested with a sense of dread. The title track, in particular, begins with a haunting two-tone pattern that is accompanied by a drifting, pseudo-metallic melody. Ultima, on the other hand, brings unease to life with distorted waves breaking over shifting drones and a pulsing rhythm. Continuum ends the album with shimmering, grinding vehemence, as life is consumed until the cycle begins again. Built up from relatively simple elements and patterns, there is nonetheless a lot going on as you listen to Temples. This is a solid and compelling release that will afford many listens.

Moljebka Pvlse – Komoku (2019)

Although Sweden’s Moljebka Pvlse has been around for 20 years, this is the first time one of their recordings has crossed my desk, which makes me wonder how much more music of this caliber is out there that I’m not aware of. Komoku explores a cross-genre blending of dark ambient and electroacoustic music, an area in which more and more artists are poking around. As such, it consists of oscillating drones with soft noise walls as well as string, reed, and percussion elements in the foreground (or at least, audio structures that resemble these instruments). Gentle grinding and humming accompany waves and pulses throughout the frequency spectrum. Fractured samples and fleeting utterances overlap with unsteady synthesized rhythms. The album was developed by Mathias Josefson, who made field recordings in American deserts, and John Björkman, who plays instruments acquired in Nepal. Throughout, both have been deconstructed and processed into waves. These are merged in various ways and forms.  The result is an album that is rich in information and detail, with a feel that is both organic and architectural. Each listen brings forth nuances and subtleties that may not have previously been apparent, but without ever being overbearing Needless to say, this is an unusually strong release that follows its own unique and twisted path.

Monocube – Substratum (2019)

Substratum is a fitting title to this set of eight haunted ambient pieces from Ukranian act Monocube. Instrumentation consists of modular synth and plucked string instruments (mostly guitar, it seems), with a clear emphasis on the former.  But deep drones dominate the recording – bass-heavy echoings of lost chambers, unlit passages, and windswept ice-scapes. Tectonic shiftings accompany chant-like voicings. Dissonant static and found-object noises accentuate these dark layers. The overall result is an album that cannot be ignored or played in the background. While undoubtedly atmospheric, Substratum demands the listener’s attention. The ambiance includes a sense of growing anxiety that ultimately filters into your consciousness. As the drone genre goes, it can be hard to break new ground. Monocube does so by acknowledging the formula but choosing to build on rather than rely on it. Listen at high volume for the full wall-shaking effect. You may be unnerved but will not be disappointed.

The Nent – Vulner (2019)

The Nent is Vince Gagliardi, based out of Berlin, and Vulner is his debut release. While ostensibly falling into the dark ambient bucket, the music on this three-track EP is primarily a set of atmospheric samples and abstract field recordings that are live-triggered from a drum set. This results in a series of pulsing themes, fractured waves, and distorted effects driven by drum beats and other percussive elements. But rather than cobble together these constituent pieces, Gagliardi structures them into distinct compositions, each with a logical progression and a sense of purpose. If anything, Vulner exhibits a cinematic ponderousness, with clearly discernable melodies and rhythms. But underlying its occasional catchiness is a menacing darkness replete with tension. Comparisons? William Basinski, for one. In particular, the emphasis on percussion-based activation of sounds provides a set of oscillating and hypnotic offerings. But while Gagliardi’s namesake wanders in a few familiar spaces, Vulner is its own animal and resists any strict categorization into a genre. Strong recommendation.

Shrine – Celestial Fire (2018)

Bulgaria’s Shrine (Hristo Gospodinov) is back with a follow-up to 2016’s Ordeal 26.04.86. Rather than the Chernobyl disaster theme of that album, Celestial Fire tells a fictional story, based on the Tomb Raider III video game, of a search for alien artifacts. But the six tracks of this album can be listened to and enjoyed without any knowledge of or reference to such background. While one could roughly lump Shrine into the “dark ambient” category, doing so would ignore his toying with post-industrial elements. As such, Celestial Fire features no shortage of shifting waves of sound, but also gritty electronics, martial drumming, and heavily distorted (though inobtrusive) spoken-word vocals. This combines into dense, windswept soundscapes with an ominous and otherworldly feel. Not unlike his previous effort, Gospodinov has created an offering that has a remarkable amount of depth and detail that will support repeated listenings. The layered combination of synth and processed elements is compelling and has a singular appeal. Strong recommendation.

Bonini Bulga – Sealed (2018)

Bonini Bulga is Sweden’s Pär Boström, a veteran of projects such as Kammarheit, Cities Last Broadcast, and Altarmang, and offers this solo effort. This eight-piece version of Sealed is an extended variant of a five-track release put out last year. Sonically, it falls between quiet ambient and slow-moving drone. With heavy use of loops and analog synths, Boström creates dark, sparse soundscapes. His approach is raw and earthy, yet at the same time with an otherworldly feel. Lightly undulating drones combined with subtle looped elements produce a hypnotic effect. The relative understatedness Sealed is in stark contrast to its sense of foreboding and anxiety. Uneasy synth waves evoke dead cities and broken landscapes with unknown dangers just out of view. Thus, the album challenges the listener on a subconscious level. Nonetheless, the unique stylings of Sealed help it stand out amongst the ever-growing library of dark ambient recordings.  Strongly recommended.

AJNA – Lucid Intrusion (2018)

AJNA is a U.S. dark ambient act who goes by the name “Chris F”, and has put out numerous albums over the last few years. Lucid Intrusion is his first release on Cyclic Law, and is a fitting addition to the label’s oeuvre. The focus here is on walled drones combined with crackling electroacoustic elements that represent a lucid dream gone horribly wrong. This dreamscape is windswept with rumblings of distant thunder as well as more foreboding nearby sounds. Layers of breathy static and processed samples lurk in the foreground, but are often gone as fast as they arrived. At times, the drones seem to growl, while the samples can be jarring and percussive. But much of this occurs at low volume levels, on the edge of perception. This is a strong release that fans of Raison d’Etre should find appealing.

Visions & Phurpa – Monad (2018)

The term monad refers to a singularity or a single being. The album Monad brings together two artists well-known in dark ambient spaces. Visions is Frederic Arbour (label head of Cyclic Law) and Phurpa is a loose-knit monastic group led by Russian Alexey Tegin. The former contributes dense, layered organic drones and sparse object percussion, while the latter offers throat singing and chants. But not infrequently, the two combine into seamless atmospheric structures as the title might suggest. Consisting of four tracks in the eight to twelve minute range, Monad is an exploration of the sacred yet ominous, and the ancient but powerful. Representative is the title track, which begins with a windswept soundscape. A couple of minutes in, mournful chanting begins and slowly ramps up in intensity. Throat singing is added, but the vocals never overpower the underlying synth-formed strata. In the last minute, a subtle crescendo is reached, are the voices finally reach the foreground. And with a final, plaintive call, the track ends. There is something unabashedly medieval or even antediluvian about this album, despite modern technology being used to create that feel. The vocal elements are compelling in particular, especially given their unusual approach. This is a good one for those who enjoy their ambiance cinematic and brooding.

Dødsmaskin – Ingenting (2018; Cyclic Law)

This release of Ingenting is actually a re-issue of Dødsmaskin’s 2015 debut, which has been exceptionally difficult to obtain until now. Musically, it lands squarely between dark ambient, industrial, and acousmatic styles, with rumbling and grinding drones and noise walls. Split across five medium length tracks, these sounds would fit well into a soundtrack of a futuristic horror movie. Aske features an atmospheric drone with echoing metallic scraping and calls. Bionegativ explores a combination of softer and harsher drones coupled with unsettling soundscapes that resemble that of gigantic machines performing unspeakable tasks. The title track, on the other hand, is a softly menacing alien soundscape, with more than a few hints of danger in the endless twilight. Dødsmaskin is not for everyone, especially those who don’t appreciate a heavy dose of harsh darkness in their evening drink. But for those who do, this re-issued gem comes highly recommended.

Raison d’Etre – Alchymeia (2018)

Raison d’Etre’s Peter Andersson has released over a dozen albums under this moniker. All of these are satisfying, if not genre-defining, examples of ethereal dark ambiance. Alchymeia is his first new effort since 2014 and consists of four tracks coming in at about 17 minutes each. At first blush, the album appears to be more in the electroacoustic vein than previous releases. Along with slow, deep drones, Andersson supplies rattling percussion and object noises, bells, bassy rumblings, and crashing thunder. As each piece evolves, these aspects move in and out of focus but never really disappear. And the chanting…on Nigredo monks seem to be reading from a sacred text, Albedo evokes the low-frequency singing of giants in their mountain halls, and Citrinitas features choral work. Throughout, there is something sinister at work – a disquieting intentionality that remains mysterious but omnipresent. Indeed, Alchymeia is intended to be a journey through the subconscious based on Carl Jung’s notion of archetypes. In that sense, the juxtaposition of concrete, organic foreground elements with more subtle background layers seems to represent the inescapable link between conscious thought and that which lies underneath. Accordingly, the background ebbs and flows, but comes to tenebrously dominate the focus of each track. But even without the psychology, this is a compelling release and a high point of Andersson’s career.

Arcana – Petrichor (2017)

Neoclassical dark wave music typically features ethereal and wordless vocals, heavy keyboard and string arrangements, as well as martial drumming. While influenced by medieval music, it uses modern electronic instrumentation. Think Dead Can Dance, but with less of an emphasis on singing. Founded by Peter Bjärgö over 20 years ago, Arcana is one of the earlier examples of this genre. Petrichor is the group’s first release since 2012. Even though it is a compilation of music from the band’s EPs and singles, the album is still a solid representation of Arcana’s overall sound and feel – it does not stray far from well-anchored roots. As an example, Part I-II-II, the longest track at 15 minutes, begins with deep synth drones and slow, haunting chants before a tribal drumbeat joins in. Blended male and female voices accompany a slow synth melody over this rhythm. Around the six-and-a-half minute mark, the track switches from the first part to the second, the latter featuring whispered vocals and subtle Middle-Eastern themes over bell-laden percussion. The third part includes complex repetitive drumming, more drones, breathy vocals, and prominent arpeggiated guitar chording. The music of Arcana evokes something between the high fantasy, gothic, and horror genres. Sparse landscapes, ancient structures, and medieval atmospherics reign. Even if that isn’t your thing, there is a still a lot to like here. And though there are plenty of examples of neoclassical dark wave, Petrichor is not a bad place to start or to round out your exploration of the genre.

Shrine – Ordeal 26.04.86 (2016)

Shrine is the stage name of Hristo Gospodinov, an experimental ambient musician and composer. On Ordeal 26.04.86, his latest release that will be out on October 26, Gospodinov sonically explores the Chernobyl disaster. The album begins with Atomgrad, a 9-minute piece featuring birdsong coupled with ominous background synths and washes. A foreshadowing of what is to come, the latter grows louder in comparison to the former as the track progresses. Radiant Skyline (Unit 4) follows, a dense synth-laden effort full of rumbling bass and discordant drones. Gospodinov states: “I witnessed the nuclear sunburn effects myself back in 1986 when I was a kid.” Both sweeping and grinding, the track forms an apt representation of such horrors. Under the Graphite Clouds’ electroacoustic crackling invokes a dark hellscape of fallout-infected rain. The remaining three tracks continue in this vein – thick drones, computer-generated effects, pulsing rhythms, occasional indecipherable spoken words, and a driving undercurrent of ruin. Gospodinov views the events of Chernobyl as being parallel with the biblical book of Revelation, and does not shy away from creating music that reflects apocalypse. Ordeal 26.04.86 serves both as a memorial to mankind’s worst nuclear disaster, as well as a grim warning to those who might prefer to ignore this date in history. But even without these thematic elements, the music exhibits considerable depth and character. Repeated listens at the appropriate volume will reveal subtleties and an attention to detail. Despite the intended subject matter, there is a lot to like here.

Vortex – Moloch (2016)

Self-described as an “apocalyptic soundtrack for urban decay,” German dark ambient project Vortex returns with their fourth album, Moloch. This offering features both airy keyboard patches and grinding guitar chords over subtle rhythms. Acoustic instrumentation includes strings and flutes, which provide a human feel to what might otherwise be a bleak, post-industrial hellscape. Like many of this genre, Vortex creates atmospheres rather than melodies. The guitar lines, in particular, are dense walls through which one can hear the throbbing and pulsing of a city at night. Some tracks, such as Hunted, combine the above approach with tribal rhythms, which results in a strange juxtaposition of the aboriginal and a near-future dystopia. As the album progresses, it takes on a more nuanced and introspective direction as times. Measured, single-note piano begins Skyline, though the track evolves into a guitar-laden, pounding theme. City by the Sea slowly builds up disturbing ambiance over the course of its windswept 14 minutes. This is a very strong release from Vortex – possibly their best yet.

Allseits – Chimäre (2016)

Allseits is German dark-ambient artist Nina Kernicke. After a six-year silence, she is back with a new offering of discordant soundscapes. Chimäre begins with pulsing drones, reminiscent of guitar feedback, overlaid with ominous electronic waves. By the third track, In the Hills, the album takes on a slightly lighter tone, with a rapidly-shifting, sequenced melody surrounded by deeper chords. This interlude is gone by the next track, Monster, which features acousmatic scrabbling with distorted drones and a throbbing rhythm. On the other hand, the 17-minute October includes ponderous industrial drumming and washes of metallic scraping. The final offering, Sink in Sideways, includes wordless vocals over a slowly boiling and evolving dystopia. Chimäre is a journey that begins in a bad place, provides a few twinklings of hope, and ends in insanity. Kernicke is not in a rush to get anywhere with her music – the pace is relaxed even if the mood is not. Each piece is tightly composed, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Comparisons could be made to Lustmord, the darker, late-90’s works of Robert Rich, with a touch of post-rock on the side.  A very solid and enjoyable release.

Kave – Ominousium (2015)

Kave is the dark ambient work of The Netherland’s Bram Gollin, who may have been influenced by Robert Rich. On this release, Gollin explores oppressive soundscapes with synthesized waves overlaying crackling undercurrents. The modus operandi herein seems to involve pairs of oscillating drones, each disturbed or jittered to some extent, combined with additional background layers and effects. It isn’t until the fifth track, The Tribes of Nyx, that found object percussion, crashes, and horn-like sounds are interspersed with Gollin’s more spacious approach. Ominousium ends strong, with the final track featuring ebbing and flowing swells of sound, evoking a fast-moving geological process. This is haunting music, no doubt – a soundtrack to a distressful dream – and comes highly recommended to those who prefer a nihilistic dissonance in their late-evening drink.