Unexplained Sounds Group

The Unexplained Sounds Group is an experimental label run by Raffaele Pezzella (who records as Sonologyst). Eighth Tower Records and Reverse Alignment are its sublabels focusing on dark ambient recordings. Seemingly from out of nowhere, these platforms have emerged as primary sources of underground electroacoustic and post-industrial music from various corners of the world. Particularly of note are their compilations, often focusing on a specific geographic region or set of inspirational source material.

We have reviewed a number of these albums over the years. All are republished below.

Various Artists – Anthology Of Exploratory Music From India (2021)

The Unexplained Sounds Group is back with a new 2CD release of modern experimental music from India. Stereotypes of Indian music are common outside of that country, perhaps not helped by the popularization of Bollywood soundtracks. While Indian musicians have collaborated with western classical, jazz, and rock artists, there is an ongoing (and incorrect) belief amongst some that music from India is still largely produced by instruments such as the sitar, sarod, tambura, and tabla.

This compilation unasks the question of what music from India is or should be. Yes, there are elements of traditional music throughout, with characteristic strings and percussion. But these are combined with drones, field recordings, electroacoustic processing, and post-industrial influences.

Some of the resulting compositions do not resemble Indian music at all, such as the 11-minute Illuminen by Surabhi Saraf, which incorporates pulses, rumblings, liltings, sculpted static, and rattling and crackling elements in a slow-moving amalgam of sounds. To live work and die in East Kolkata from Jessop & Co is more influenced by musique concrete, and consists of irregular percussion and disconcerting waves and textures. Hemant Sreekumar’s Ajivika has a rather simple pattern of processed white noise, throbs, and echos that ebb and flow, and yet is strangely appealing.

Other pieces employ traditional instrumentation to varying degrees, consist mostly of bells, or include recordings of chanting and street noises. A number of these have the feel of an outdoor sound installation, with voices fading in and out of constituent tones and noises.

Various Artists – New State Of Flux (2021)

Some people collect seashells and others collect sports memorabilia. Raffaele Pezzella collects labels. More specifically, labels that focus on dark ambient, drone, and experimental noises from around the world. Reverse Alignment joined Pezzella’s stable in early 2021 and this compilation is its first release since the merger.

Initially operated by Kristian Widqvist out of Sweden from 2007-2020, the label features a number of well-known dark ambient artists as well as a handful of lesser-recognized acts (e.g., Jarl, Taphephobia, Ajna, Diskrepant, VelgeNaturlig, Dodsapparaten). New State of Flux consists of mostly unreleased material from these artists as well as others in the ambit of Unexplained Sounds Group, Pezzella’s parent label.

The sounds on the album vary accordingly. Jarl provides oscillating and shimmering drones, while VelgeNaturlig offers up pulsing waves of synths. On the other hand, Henrik Meyerkord combines layered ambiance resembling an organ with prickly electroacoustics. Derelict Relay and Joao Sousa’s Claustro em Ruinas (Cloister in Ruins) is a slow-building set of thick walls with a haunting bell-like melody.

One of the most interesting pieces is from B*TONG, and is an amalgam of walled noise, static, and recorded voices. At only two and a half minutes, it is one of the shortest tracks on the album. Diskrepant also provides one of the stronger efforts, with wordless vocals, rumbling bassy sounds, tectonic crackling, and synth. Another high point is the dissonant, vibrating drones of Brian C. Short.

Nonetheless, the discussion of these particular pieces is for reference. There are no weak or even medicore recordings on New State of Flux. Each track exists in its own ecosystem and context. This makes the compilation a must-have for newcomers to experimental dark ambient as well as experienced listeners. Bravo to all.

Various Artists – Unexplained Sounds Group – 7th Annual Report (Mid Year Edition) (2021)

The Unexplained Sounds Group has done more for ambient, electronic, and experimental music than just about any organization lately. Its mid-year review of these genres drives that point home, with four hours of material that is mostly new and hard to find. While one could lump many of these artists under the dark ambient or cinematic monikers, there are also pieces on this compilation that focus on synthesizer, drone, electroacoustic, kosmiche, IDM / beat-driven, minimalism, and classical / chamber music as well.

Artist representation includes those who are reasonably well-known (at least to followers of the label). To that point, Simon McCorry offers up lilting classical with processing and effects, Mauro Sambo provides drones and abstract electronics, and Grey Frequency contributes haunting soundscapes with oscillating tones. But there are inevitably some pleasant surprises on a collection of this scope. These include the creative chaos of Farabi Toshiyuki Suzuki, the GRM-like stylings of MODO AVION, as well as the Dockstader-influenced sound art of TRISWARA. In addition, Med Gen provides a textural ambient piece, Slow Abyss supplies thick, oppressive walls of synth combined with martial rhythms, and A.M. Ferrari Fradejas imparts unusual choral forms coupled with synthesized chamber music.

All said, this is a stellar release. It is a challenge to combine music that is so different in composition and structure, but also in a way that maintains coherence. Somehow, the Unexplained Sounds Group has achieved this goal across 37 artists. Whether you are a seasoned listener or looking for a place to start dabbling in cutting-edge experimental music, 7th Annual Report (Mid Year Edition) comes highly recommended.

Gasparotti / Ciullini / Stancati – Portraits (2021)

On my second listen to this compilation of tracks from three Italian experimentalists, my 17-year-old walked into the room and remarked on its similarities (in spirit if not exact sound) with the soundtrack to one of his favorite oddball Japanese video games from the 1990s, Earthbound. I had watched him do a playthrough of the game about a year prior and recalled that the music was “experimental” and quite advanced for the time and medium. Doing a bit of research finds that the composers of Earthbound’s soundtrack admitted to being influenced by Zappa, Sun Ra, Steve Reich, Brian Eno, and Can among others (Earthbound also has a storyline and dialog as witty and creative as its music).

Back on topic, this release is the first of a new Portraits series from Unexplained Sounds Group, providing exposure to electroacoustic and electronic composers. There is more of the latter than the former herein, and perhaps a bit of post-industrial influence, but the sounds evoked are likely to be found compelling to fans of both.

Gabriele Gasparotti focuses on electroacoustic music and analog instrumentation, with heavy use of repetitive patterns, sequencing, oscillations, synths, violin, percussion, and drone textures. These patterns are interrupted by static, cosmic whooshes and evolve in a boundary-less fashion. The constant change maintains a degree of freshness that separates this organized set of unusual elements from a bag of recurrent sounds. The mood of these pieces is neither bright nor dark, just strange without being menacing. There is even a hint of playfulness in some of the lilting rhythms. The result indeed has an unmistakable vintage video game feel.

Mario Lino Stancati is a cross-genre adventurer, who uses gently-played acoustic and electric guitar along with wavering processed sounds and synth drones. He also employs vocals that blend into the latter. On the other hand, Stancati is not opposed to a bit of disquiet, as his tones are more uneasy than those of Gasparotti, especially when he combines them with electroacoustic elements. The final track from this composer incorporates multi-tracked spoken word vocals over ambient drones and an odd combination of percussive structures.

Daniele Ciullini is the eldest of the three composers and more focused on creating music for tape. Thus, his approach is perhaps the least traditional herein, with layering and fluctuating synth lines coupled with glitchy and mechanical noises, object percussion, and the requisite amount of charming hiss. Ciullini also utilizes spoken word recordings from various sources. The overall feel is more machine-oriented than organic, and yet peculiarly engrossing in its own unique fashion.

Various Artists – Drone Islands – Stellar (2021)

Eighth Tower is back with another compelling compendium, this one entitled Drone Islands – Stellar. Not unlike the similarly named Drone Islands – The Lost Maps and Drone Islands – Land Raising, this is a compilation of new dark ambient works from artists who explore all things drone. If anything, this 2CD recording dispels any notion that drones are just about minimalistic sustained tones. Instead, the sheer variety of approaches herein incorporate drone techniques into larger musical structures, all invoking sci-fi / horror themes.

Case in point, the opening track from Infinexhuma is spacious and dark, with quietly chanting voices as well as rumbling and crackling electroacoustic elements that provide an uncharacteristic busyness. MLS provides a quietly sweeping piece with a haunting windswept tone, and occasional growls that could be from a natural or supernatural source. Grey Frequency also focuses on the subtle with a set of slowly moving notes. Kloob’s contribution has a rough beat as well as swelling and fading drones.

But where things take a turn for the even more interesting (at least to these ears) is on Simon McCorry’s Awakening, which layers sound resembling classical string and brass sections playing chaotically toward a crescendo over the obligatory drone patterns. While one of the shorter pieces, it is singular and powerful. Nihil Impvlse also provides At the Springs of Void, one of the denser and more heavy-processed tracks, with echoing manipulations of distorted structures and feedback. Blackweald’s Kapteyn’s Darkness is organized around ebbing and swelling waves of roughness that morph into a more subtle and unpredictable set of ambient noises and effects. Finally, a shout must be given to Veronica Moser and her laptop for Supernova, an amalgam of drones, grinding passages, and sharp, repeating beats that are as ominous as they are unconventionally rhythmic.

Needless to say, a compilation of this breadth and depth cannot be summed up in a few words per track. Do take a listen and prepared to be pulled in.

Various Artists – Anthology Of Experimental Music From Peru (2021)

In the coming years, we may look back at the Sound Mapping project from Unexplained Sounds Group as a watershed moment for making contemporary experimental music available from a wide variety of regions around the world. Or at the very least, we owe a debt of gratitude to Raffaele Pezzella, the label head who is the brains behind this operation. Spanning Latin America, Iran, the Middle East, Africa, the Balkans, and Indonesia, these releases are uniformly compelling.

The latest recording is a 75-minute set from Peru. The music covers a wide variety of sounds and styles, including drone, ambient, electroacoustic, folk, and experimentation with electronics. Árbol, Rodolfo Ontaneda, Qsn10​-​97, and Ian Duclos merge drones with various combinations of walled noise, static, oscillations, field recordings, and more conventional acoustic sounds. There is a rough texture to these efforts, and they take up various positions on the light / dark spectrum. The use of field recordings is either the focus of a track (as in the case of Vanessa Valencia Ramos), overlaid with percussion, effects, and processing (CAO), or violin and drone (Paola Torres Núñez del Prado). Some of this crosses over into folk, such as the piece from Ivanka Cotrina featuring percussion, flutes, and stringed instruments. And then there is a “weird electronics” category, with Marcelo Mellado’s lilting melodies, Kevin Salkeld & Juan Pablo Egúsquiza’s haunting atmospheres, and Brageiki’s static and synth lines.

Throughout Anthology Of Experimental Music From Peru there is a rawness – not in recording technique per se, but in the directness of emotion. If anything this adds to the charm and authenticity of these efforts, and leaves one wanting more from Peru, South America, and other parts of the world.

Sonologyst – Dust Of Human Race (2021)

Sonologyst is Raffaele Pezzella, curator of Eighth Tower Records and its parent label Unexplained Sounds Group. Here, he presents a recording that could be considered to roughly fall into the noise category, but actually explores the outer reaches of that space.

The theme of Dust Of Human Race is the decayed remnants of humanity, not a happy thought by any measure. The music fits this dismal and chilling topic with a mix of synth drones, dark ambient stylings, electroacoustic and walled noise, organ, pseudo-vocalizations, actual vocalizations, and synthesized rhythms. These components combine into a post-industrial landscape of sounds, many mechanical or electronic in nature. Static, spoken-word recordings, and wails abound.

But what makes this effort stand apart is its creativity and unpredictability. Drawing upon a broad palette, Pezzella assembles a set of compellingly weird and harsh collages. The pinnacle of the album is the 13-minute Chiangimuerti, which features bells, pulsing drones, and processed double bass. It is a slow-moving piece that is less dissonant than its predecessors and yet maintains an overall sense of foreboding and calamity. A large portion is dedicated to chants over layered drones, where the chants eventually devolve into screams.

Dust Of Human Race provides an echo of lost humanity through its machines, architecture, writings, and recordings. These sounds are what a hypothetical alien archeologist of the future might use to represent the darker side of our culture if presented with post-apocalyptic ruins. Well done and highly recommended.

Various Artists – The Black Stone – Music For Lovecraftian Summonings (2021; Eighth Tower Records)

By Mike Borella

At about 80 minutes, The Black Stone is a lengthy compilation that covers a broad swath of sounds. This is the second Lovecraftian set from Eighth Tower, a follow-up to 2018’s In Tenebris Scriptus. Content-wise, most of the tracks gravitate toward distinct styles. New Risen Throne, Alphaxone, and Moloch Conspiracy offer what we can now call more “traditional” dark ambient – haunting drones and soundscapes. Dead Space Chamber Music and the trio of Cosottini, Bocci, and Barbiero take a chamber approach with acoustic instrumentation and abstract percussion as well as electronic processing. Solatipour Reza’s The Resurrection combines a chorus, falling drones, and electroacoustic manipulation for a haunting mix. The remaining tracks can be placed somewhere between these poles, with some invoking post-industrialism but most focusing on the early 20th-century sci-fi/horror that Lovecraft now embodies.

Nihil Impvlse – STASIS (2020; Eighth Tower Records)

by Mike Borella

Nihil Impvlse’s STASIS is a dark ambient / noise / industrial experimentation that is a fitting release for the end of 2020. It was a year that involved extreme geographic stasis (staying at home) for many of us that led to a disconnection with time itself (Google “blursday”). But STASIS takes this notion even further, and through spoken word quotes makes a political comment on how there may be an intentional effort on the part of some entities to maintain their own power at all costs. Change is an illusion – as is time itself – reminiscent of the themes in Orwell’s Animal Farm. The listener can easily draw lines to current events, as hundreds of millions of people seem to be ready to renounce democracy and majority-rule for institutional structures that we rejected decades ago.

Musically, this is expressed with layers of wafting and ominous drones combined with harsh walled noise, echoing percussive elements, and static-laden electronics. In contrast, some pieces take on a more atmospheric angle, with gentler drones, distant machine noises, oscillating tones, and pulsing rhythms. The spoken word parts are not extensive – they make their points with just a few repetitions. The result is not an easy listen, and yet ultimately rewarding in its diversity and fresh approach.

If you can deal with a bit more darkness this year, STASIS is a very well done effort with a mood that is commensurate with that of the times. Highly recommended.

Various Artists – Anthology Of Persian Experimental Music Vol. II (2020; Unexplained Sounds Group)

by Mike Borella

In 2016, Unexplained Sounds Group released an unusual and compelling compilation album, Anthology of Persian Experimental Music. Here, the label follows up with an equally fascinating sample of sound art coming from Iran. Due to the current geopolitical climate, Iranian artists are often unable to export their works, though happily, some like these manage to slip through customs.

Anthology Of Persian Experimental Music Vol. II offers up almost 80 minutes of cutting edge experimental music from this overlooked region, most of which focuses on various combinations of dark ambient, industrial, noise, and more traditional Middle-Eastern styles. For instance, Shahin Souri and Alireza Amirhajebi sculpt raw noise into shifting walls, with the latter adding in synth and knob-twisting elements. Force Ignore, Ali Ostovar, and Ali Latif Shushtari offer up the traditional-sounding pieces, updated with modern atmospheres and feel. Coming in as favorites, for this listener at least, are the more well-known Xerxes the Dark and Reza Solatipour, who combine dark ambiance with electroacoustic cracking and effects. And speaking of dark ambient, Alphaxone fits that bill with haunting layers of synth.

If this is the kind of vibrant music coming from the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities, it is a shame that it is impractical for many of us to visit and experience the scene in person. Nonetheless, this compilation provides the next best thing – a diverse set of tracks that are appealing as they are strange. Strong recommendation.

Reza Solatipour – The Gate (2019; Eighth Tower Records)

By Mike Borella

Dripping with tension, The Gate is the latest release from Tehran’s Reza Solatipour. We were briefly introduced to his work in the Visions of Darkness compilation. In short, this album might be what you’d get if Lustmord went further toward the dark side – a set of grueling tracks featuring pulsing, deep drones and ambient waves along with electronics and synthetic percussion.

Each of The Gate‘s ten offerings has a distinct pattern and texture that probably could be classified based on the length and frequency of the drones, the extent of manipulated acoustic sounds, and the amount of industrial influence. But the album as a whole has a hazy feel to its production, evoking mist-cloaked streets and the rhythms of distant machines with the occasional low-register boomlet. As instances of these elements, Reach the End offers windswept soundscapes with barely-discernable voices punctuated by a sparse stringed-bass chord pattern, while Among the Signs presents dissonantly-processed samples over layers of ominous drones and breathy vocalizations. On the other hand, Collapse is based around a non-Western drum pattern, waves of static, and bassy rumblings.

Like many of the most interesting and compelling releases, The Gate provides fodder for multiple listenings each of which revealing yet another aspect of the music thereon. I found myself slowly raising the volume as I progressed through this album, as so much detail is subtlely contained in the lower registers. What begins as a fairly run-of-the-mill dark ambient effort rapidly morphs into something far more interesting. Bravo.

Various Artists – Anthology of Contemporary Music from Middle East (2019; Unexplained Sounds Group)

by Daniel Barbiero

What the Unexplained Sounds Group recently did for the under-known contemporary experimental music of Africa (see below) they’ve now done for the equally under-recognized experimental and electronic music of the Middle East. Just as the African anthology made explicit the diversity of the music being made in that consummately diverse continent, the fourteen artists represented on the Anthology of Contemporary Music from Middle East reflect the distinctiveness of the countries and cultures they come from: Afghanistan, Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Palestine and Turkey.

Although electronics play a prominent role in nearly all of the pieces, each artist handles them in a way that best meets the needs of expression and form. To pick a handful of examples: Thalassa by Dimitris Savva of Cyprus uses sampled and synthesized sounds of tidal waves, seaside field recordings, and voice and bells to create an audio portrait of an island, painted from some of its most salient sounds. Gaza Requiem by Pharoah Chromium Palestine is a moving work of contemporary musique concrète constructed of electronically modified source recordings of voice, drones, and suspenseful, looped fragments of rhythm. Iran’s Nyctalllz contributes the dystopian, dark wall of electronic sound of The Humanity Demise, which contrasts with the acoustic plucked strings and traditional rhythms and modes of Prelude for Orpheus by Bahrain’s Hasan Hujairi. Both Cenk Ergun of Turkey and Ahmed Saleh of Egypt offer their own takes on rhythm-driven music, the former with scrambled electronic beats and the latter with minimalist pulse music.

Like the anthology of contemporary African music, the anthology of Middle Eastern music is required listening for anyone interested in the broad world of sound.

Sonologyst – Phantoms (2019; Unexplained Sounds Group)

by Daniel Barbiero

When Pierre Schaeffer asserted that musique concrète would provoke musicians to discard old habits vis-à-vis sound and return to actual experience, he helped point the way toward a paradoxical sound art where the concrete becomes abstract and seemingly simple sounds instead reveal themselves to be complex objects.

The concrete element in Phantoms, the album by Italian sound artist Sonologyst, is the pre-recorded material that serves as the foundation for Sonologyst’s explorations of sound structure and timbre. The album’s evocative soundscapes are made up of apparently old and more recent recordings of voice, non-Western music, and other, less identifiable sources, which are looped and broken up into cyclical and/or textural objects seasoned with Sonologyst’s own electronic tones. Phantoms clearly is descended from classic musique concrète, but it is tweaked and shaped by contemporary technologies and sensibility.

Michael Bonaventure – In Tenebris Ratione Organi (2019; Eighth Tower Records)

By Daniel Barbiero

No less than the synthesizer, the electric organ, with its versatility of compass and timbre, can create electronic music of uncannily evocative sounds. Klaus Schulze’s Irrlicht deftly demonstrated this back in the early 1970s; now comes the solo organ work In Tenebris Ratione Organi by Michael Bonaventure, whose universe of electronic sounds follow a creative logic uniquely his own.

Bonaventure, who is based in both Edinburgh and Amsterdam, is a composer and concert organist whose performances include new music as well as the organ works of Messiaen. His own compositions have been written for organ, piano, carillon, and choir; the eleven-track Works 2008-2017, available from the Unexplained Sounds Group netlabel, is a good introduction to some of his recent output.

Intriguingly, some of the sounds of the instruments and groups he composes for in other contexts obliquely find their way into In Tenebris Ratione Organi. Through the shimmering washes of bright timbres and richly constructed chords there emerge the sounds of a strangely altered choir of human (or synthetic?) voices; resounding, bell-like tones saturated in delay; and a musical rhetoric that at times recalls the retro-futurist murmurings of analogue synthesizers. Throughout all of the overlays and distortions the organ’s essential voice remains intact. Bonaventure characterizes the music as a kind of alchemy, and it’s clear that the basic organ sound provides him with the prima material he needs to work his often stunning sonic transmutations.

Various Artists – Witchcraft & Black Magic In The United Kingdom (2019; Eighth Tower Records)

By Mike Borella

Eighth Tower Records offers this release featuring UK-based dark ambient artists. Some have been previously discussed in these pages (Grey Frequency, Howlround, and Michael Bonaventure), while others not (Daniel Williams, Sky High Diamonds, Rapoon, and Satori). Regardless, the nine pieces on this compilation explore the haunting landscapes and fear-laden tension that one might expect from an effort of this nature.

Grey Frequency kicks off with Elegy for Vinegar Tom, which begins with sweeping loops overlaying a cracking foundation.  This slowly morphs into a more conventional (yet still dark) set of synth drones.  Rapoon’s The Village evokes mysteries with its use of church bells as well as an echoing bassy theme accompanied by a sax motif.

Howlround’s first contributed track provides drones as well as looped and rapidly manipulated electronics with a squeaky rasping, while the second is aqueous and otherworldly. Satori’s staticky drones combine with low-level percussive elements poking in and out of the background. Michael Bonaventure’s Coronach is an organ piece that captures a retro-horror feel using modern compositional technique.

Both Daniel Williams and Sky High Diamond’s pieces are spoken-word stories dealing with witchcraft.  The former is accompanied by static, stringed instruments, organ, and electroacoustic sounds, the latter by soft ambient walls and comparatively more abrasive electroacoustic sounds.

Ultimately, Witchcraft & Black Magic in the United Kingdom is a compelling mix of fright-inducing atmospherics that is suitable for accompanying your trick-or-treat candy bowl – aside from the likelihood that it might scare off younger visitors and garner more than a few apprehensive looks from their parents.

The Cloudwatchers – S/T (2019; Unexplained Sounds Group)

by Daniel Barbiero

Forms by themselves are inert things: accumulated conventions and materials that, for all their inertia, are nevertheless available to be appropriated and made newly meaningful through the projects and programs that somehow have need of them. 

The Cloudwatchers’ membership comprises Andrés Alonso (electric guitar and bass, digital synthesizers and audio processors); Iván Cebrián (analogue synthesizers and audio processors); Coco Moya (voice, analogue synthesizers and audio processors); and Jaime Munáriz (analogue synthesizers, electric guitar and audio processors). The group’s overlapping instrumentation—three of the four play analogue synthesizers, and all four engage in audio processing—doesn’t prevent them from creating rich soundscapes of varying colors. The three long, untitled pieces are constructed around more or less fixed harmonies; as a foundation this may seem simple, but with this kind of music what matters isn’t complex harmonic change but instead changes in texture, timbre and voice. Sometimes, as in the first piece, the voice is human, oscillating in microtones around washes of synthesizer and echo-drenched guitar. The dominant voice on the second piece, by contrast, consists in a modal keyboard melody floating lightly over the gravitas of a slow beat and densely-layered background texture. The closing piece features luminous sounds and culminates in an ostinato for sequencer—a clever recontextualization of an old convention from space music.

Moloch Conspiracy – Baclou (2019; Eighth Tower Records)

By Mike Borella

Baclou is the name for a Guyanese evil spirit that can be summoned to do harm to a person. There are varying descriptions of a Baclou’s physical appearance, none of them appealing. Baclou is also the title of an experimental release from Moloch Conspiracy (Julien Lacroix), and is based on Lacroix’s experience in French Guyana.

Instrumentally, Lacroix uses cello, malaka, djembe, tama, detuned piano, synthesizers, and field recordings. Thus, this release should not be confused with the more strictly synth-oriented Northern European style of dark ambient music. Instead, it reflects on Lacroix’s venture into the tropical jungle with a heady, organic mix of birdsong, shakers, sparse percussion, and crackling elements. Behind this are slow, menacing waves of synths, cello drones, and bursts of white noise. The result is a suffocating amalgam that evokes the humid, equatorial environment, as well as the voodoo that still influences the inhabitants’ beliefs.

Ultimately, Baclou offers an oppressive psychedelia embodying both natural and supernatural dangers.  Not unlike last year’s Cave of Metaphysical Darkness & Lights, Lacroix intrepidly explores a tenebrous theme in an immersive fashion. Well done, indeed.

Various Artists – Anthology of Contemporary Music from Africa Continent (2018; Unexplained Sounds Group)

by Daniel Barbiero

The Unexplained Sounds Group has with this various artists compilation delved into the largely unexplored territory of contemporary experimental music from the African continent. For that reason alone the collection is worth hearing. But the music itself makes its own case for listening. The fourteen tracks give evidence of a creative ferment that meld Western electronics with the musical heritages of the various cultures of that highly diverse continent. A good number of the pieces included in the anthology are rooted in song — in the cyclical rhythms of a given region or in the melodic lines built on traditional modes. For example, several tracks, of which Ahmed Saleh’s Right Side is representative, feature North African vocal, flute or oud music as source material for processing or as a musical framework for electronic overlay and embellishment. Other pieces — AMET’s Imposer Le Savoir and In_o’s track, which seems to be based on a recording of Jiddu Krishnamurti speaking – represent a variety of musique concrete where radio transmissions or other samples are electronically rearranged. There also are more conventionally “experimental,” abstract electronic works, such as Abdellah M. Hassak’s two contributions. This is a fine collection that provides insight into an area of musical experiment that isn’t yet well-enough known.

Jeton Hoxha – Vowel (2018; Eighth Tower Records)

By Mike Borella

Macedonian Jeton Hoxha recorded a live performance just a few months ago for this 44-minute, single-track album. His process was described as “based on loopy electro-acoustic sound created by sources like field recordings, computer & synthesizer being processed through various filters, plug-ins and hardware signal processing.” The auditory effect of this is a long, multi-faceted drone with an ominous feel.

The track begins at very low volume and slowly ramps to a dense layer of eerie noise with a lilting high-frequency melody.  Gradually, the intensity grows and the main drone takes on a sinusoidal character. Multiple walled voices join in, along with patterns of bells. Following this is a long, rumbling drone that morphs into processed machine noise with the aforementioned high-frequency elements.  Eventually, the bells return, as does the melody, but this time in a lower register and clear enough to be reminiscent of a twisted take on Phillip Glass.  In particular, the falling pattern of notes is (perhaps unintentionally) similar to the coda of Koyaanisqatsi.

Fans of Lustmord and the darker side of Robert Rich will find much to like here, as will those who enjoy post-ambient / industrial crossovers. Vowel is an oppressive and baleful journey through a rift in spacetime – and well worth the effort.

Moloch Conspiracy – The Cave of Metaphysical Darkness & Lights (2018; Eighth Tower Records)

By Mike Borella

You have probably heard of dark ambient music. This album is deep ambient music, both literally and figuratively. Waves of bassy synth provide shifting drones. Over these are a variety of elements including disjoint percussion, vocals, piano, stringed instruments, and field recordings. The overarching theme is exploring the mysteries of a cave, and the music suits that purpose.

Moloch Conspiracy is French experimentalist Julien A. Lacroix who has put out a number of odd recordings over the last several years. The Cave of Metaphysical Darkness & Lights, however, is a full-blown, thematic album with windswept soundscapes, haunted chanting, and a surprising amount of acoustic improvisation. But the album provides more than just ominous atmospherics; instead, is an immersion into an unknown (and perhaps unknowable) subterranean world of wonder and fear.

To that point, Kulullû, the third track, combines discordant drones, echoing arrhythmic percussion, sparse piano chords, a theme plucked on a gusle (an Eastern European stringed instrument used in the folk tradition), and subtle vocalizations. The result is an earthiness unlike many dark ambient offerings that rely primarily on technology for their sonic vocabularies.

Lacroix is a detail-oriented arranger whose musical imagery is vivid and dense. Each listen of the album brings forth new elements and further appreciation of its scope and delicacy. You can feel and hear the water dripping from walls of Lacroix’s cave, a destination well worth exploring.

Hezaliel – Paradise Lost (2018; Eighth Tower Records)

By Mike Borella

Hezaliel is Belgian Steve Fabry, who offers a new album based on the epic poem by John Milton about the fall of Satan and the banishment of Adam and Eve. Musically, Paradise Lost is a 50-minute hellscape, with layered, grinding drones, incidental alien noises, and long-held keyboard chords. Between and around these artifacts are oppressive, dark walls. Brooding and ominous, lost voices cry out of the darkness within catacombs. While there are a few relatively bright moments, Hezaliel’s focus is on the bleaker side of Milton’s fallen angels and humans. To that point, the album ends with rolling synth waves accompanied by ethereal female vocals forming a plaintive and fatalistic call into eternity.

Aseptic Void – Ideazione di Contrasto (2018; Eighth Tower Records)

By Mike Borella

Aseptic Void is Davide Terreni, and Ideazione di Contrasto is his fifth release under that moniker, including two soundtracks. But this album is pure experimental dark ambient, and cinematic in scope. Shifting and roiling drones are accompanied by samples including scattered found object sounds, forlorn voices, and mechanical noises. Distorted elements share prominence with backwards-masking, electronic crackling, and metallic scraping. Rather than focusing on the drawn-out nature of most ambient efforts, the album is an amalgam of disturbing snippets put to music. The number of raw ideas present is nothing short of remarkable, as Terreni leads the listener through a descent into madness in which ominous threats lurk just out of sensory range. Released just a few days into 2018, Ideazione di Contrasto has already set an early high water mark in dark ambient for the year. Very well done.

Various Artists – The Old Alchemist (2017; Eighth Tower Records)

By Mike Borella

If nothing else, the current end-of-the-world pandemic crisis has facilitated digging through recordings that have been sitting on the shelf (or in this case, the SSD) unlistened. Case in point, I’ve had a copy of The Old Alchemist for over two years and first put it on a couple of days ago. If nothing else, it goes to show that there is a virtually unlimited amount of music being made – so much that excellent material can easily get buried.

This compilation features a cadre of dark ambient artists that have been discussed in the pages before: New Risen Throne, Monocube, Xerxes The Dark, Alphaxone, Sonologyst, and Aseptic Void. They are joined by others that are new to these ears: Self Industry, SiJ, Urs Wild, Niculta, Sounddog65, Maaurge, and Peri Esvultras. The output is over 90 minutes of haunting drones with electroacoustic manipulations. High points include the relentlessly avant and jarring offering of Sonologyst on Primeval Science, as well as Niculta’s Tundra, which sounds oddly like whale-song. But there are no weak tracks on The Old Alchemist, and each artist provides a different take on this expanding genre.

Don’t be like me – grab this one and put it on. You will have no regrets.

Various Artists – Anthology of Persian Experimental Music (2016; Unexplained Sounds Group)

by Daniel Barbiero

This digital collection of experimental and electronic music from Iran was the first of USG’s fascinating set of surveys of experimental music from places whose musical communities are often overlooked or obscured, sometimes for extra-musical reasons. As was the case here: in order to avoid having the Iran collection banned from certain platforms, USG had to label the release as “Persian” rather than “Iranian.” In a way, though, the name is rather fitting, since it serves to imply the continuity of musical culture in what is now called—censors be damned—Iran.

USG has reissued the original digital album as a limited edition CD supplemented with digital bonus tracks. What the collection demonstrates is that Iran’s musical underground doesn’t appear to be working in complete isolation; the sounds here compare well to electronic work being made elsewhere in the world. The predominant tendency is toward heavy electronics in a dark ambient mode, but there are some tracks that summon the rhythms of dance music, others that feature cosmic choirs of voices sounding through layers of electronic fuzz and grit, and yet others centered on undulating drones and synthesized arpeggios. And as with USG’s other surveys of experimental music outside of the Western world, this one is worth hearing.