Procer Veneficus: Saltwater & Glassmoon
Stellar Auditorium

Sempervirens: Dirge of the Dying Year
Stellar Auditorium

Spectral Lore + Underjordiska: Split Album
Stellar Auditorium

Yes, this trio of full-length releases on Stellar Auditorium is unapologetically “progressive” music (don't let the fact that it's a sister label to New Age Dawn Productions scare you either) but it's definitely “progressive” in the best sense of the word (Stellar Auditorium describes its focus as ambient-experimental music of atmospheric and psychedelic character). The split album by Underjordiska (Dawid Dahl) and Spectral Lore (Ayloss), for example, pairs two instrumental epics both of which exceed a half-hour running time. But the material never succumbs to the dreaded clichés to which prog sometimes falls prey; instead, the music's dynamic contrasts in mood unfold naturally and at a carefully-measured pace. There's no self-indulgent soloing or needlessly oblique time signatures, just oceanic pools of multi-layered sound assembled from field elements (e.g., underwater recordings) and conventional and unusual instruments (electric guitar, mandolin, duduk, etc.). The artists are described as “experimental black metal” but such a label misleadingly connotes a more brutal sound than the sensitively modulated kind on display here. The two hew to a “travel” script with the journey starting out above ground and then plunging into black depths before rising once more to the surface. Up first, Underjordiska's half opens at the seaside with waves crashing, seagulls calling, and electric guitars establishing a mood that's peaceful yet slightly ponderous, suggestive of overcast skies. As the music begins its descent, the guitar attack turns increasingly raw, but then slowly blends into a musical mass that grows increasingly blurry until it reaches its murky limit by track's end. The ascent begins when Spectral Lore's more episodic piece takes over, with the gloom slowly alleviating over the course of its slow-burning, thirty-six-minute trajectory. Molten guitar playing adds an occasional, semi-violent dimension to the piece but Ayloss administers a controlling hand throughout. Brooding atmospheric sections alternate with more aggressive moments as the music moves towards its destination. The emergence of bright guitar patterns at the twenty-minute mark suggests the presence of light overhead, as does the dazzle of mandolins six minutes later. The final minutes are spent in a state of Eno-like ambient bliss that announces that the ascent has been successfully completed, something confirmed by the return of the ocean waves and the seagulls. As the aforesaid makes clear, one of the release's notable features is that, unlike the prototypical “split” release, the two halves on this one are related with Spectral Lore's part the mirror version of Underjordiska's.

Recorded in 2005, Saltwater and Glassmoon by Procer Veneficus (Derek Schultz) is an equally immersive forty-three-minute excursion that also uses the watery depths as a conceptual vehicle for dark ambient explorations. The label's proffered description—that the album material could be likened to “a drowned orchestra performing large, adagio movements from within the deep, dark ocean”—isn't inaccurate, with Schultz's five slowly drifting pieces opting for a spectral style that's reverential, melancholic, and often beautiful. The gauzy yet still discernibly mournful “Descent Through Glassmoon” represents atmospheric ambient in peak form while “Amaranth and Liqueur” transports the listener to a cavernous and bottomless realm for a magnificent twelve minutes. “Atmospheric Lull” brings time to a halt for six hypnotic minutes, after which soft bell strikes puncture ever-quietening funereal gloom in “Departure.” Without question, Saltwater and Glassmoon's dreamlike “sea music” turns the prospect of drowning into seductive surrender.

Dirge of the Dying Year by Sempervirens (Estonian ambient artist Margus Mets) is more sonically expansive than Procer Veneficus's release which is generally hermetic (by design). The eight vivid, multi-layered evocations comprising Mets' fifty-five-minute recording were assembled from a diverse assortment of electronic and acoustic instruments (organ, wind chimes, bells) and field recordings (industrial creaks, water, wind, voices). Though each is of slightly different character, each piece flows into the next, resulting in a cinematic travelogue of ample sonic richness that, true to the album title, is slow-moving and somber in spirit (e.g., the ominous, see-sawing tones in “Grey Skies Above Us”). Biosphere is mentioned as a possible point of reference for Sempervirens and, based on Dirge of the Dying Year, the connection can be reasonably made. Both producers establish clear senses of place in their works without tying the material's abstract character to any singular context. A times a clear sense of place is evoked (in “The Moon of Misfortune,” for example, winds whistle while boats rattle against the docks of some fog-enshrouded harbour, while “Sails Engulfed In Fog & Fire” records the creak of a boat adrift on a stormy sea as the sky rumbles threateningly overhead); at other times, Mets opts for a more abstract approach, such as in “Sunken Consciousness” where a vaporous drone evokes the primordial depths inhabited by the psyche during sleep or unconsciousness.

A final note: all three of these superb Stellar Auditorium releases are limited in number (300 copies) so ambient aficionados shouldn't wait too long if interested.

October 2008