Unexplained Sounds Group / Eighth Tower Records Overview

The Unexplained Sounds Group is an experimental label run by Raffaele Pezzella (who records as Sonologyst). Eighth Tower Records is one of 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 – 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.