Sunday, 9 May 2021

Dark Ambient Review: Behind the Veil of Black Stars

Dark Ambient Review: Behind the Veil of Black Stars

Review By Casey Douglass

Behind the Veil of Black Stars
Album cover

In my recent interview with Scott Lawlor, we touched on the topic of’s One Sample Dare Challenges, contests in which the composers must use only one sample to create their musical piece. Scott recently released Behind the Veil of Black Stars, a slice of dark space ambient that was created for one of these challenges. The album consists of three, twenty to thirty minute tracks, each of which conjures up the bleak indifference of space in its own way. My favourite track is No Place To Land, and one of the main notes I wrote about it was “Recipe for agitation?” You'll see why.

No Place To Land begins with a low, gradual sound, a little like wind blowing along a plastic tunnel. It winds upwards and begins to rasp with a sharpness to its edge not long after. A shrill sound emerges, which to me, seemed like a flock of jackdaws settling for the night. The track starts to feel as if it has a mechanical underpinning not long after this, which I think is confirmed by the siren-like sound that comes after.

The siren tone arrives at about the three minute mark, and it feels like it agitates the soundscape. It also cements the impression that the rest of the track gave me, which was of a spaceship trying to land on a barren planet, but each time that it gets near to the ground, it spies some reason as to why it shouldn’t land. The track lifts and falls, rises and descends, over and over. You feel like you can hear engines winding down and surging upwards with each failed attempt, and that very much sets the scene for the remainder of the track.

I liked the uneasiness that No Place To Land seemed to bring about in my mind. It wasn’t too harsh or uncomfortable, but as someone who knows how his brain feels when his OCD has tripped him up with rumination and anxiety, No Place To Land approximates this unsettled feeling, but in a much more mellow way. It’s like a dark, space-based Groundhog Day, but with subtle changes as it plays out.

There is much to enjoy in the other tracks too. Behind The Veil of Stars is a track that seems to shimmer and boil with static, drone and an ominous feeling of vast depth and distance. Unquiet Spirits Wandering a Dying Planet flicks bubbling tones and electronic warbles from ear to ear in the first half, yet settles into a deeper, “plane flying over your head” droning space for the second half, which I must admit I preferred. They are both great tracks.

It’s amazing to think that Behind the Veil of Black Stars was made with only one sample at its core, and yet Scott has twisted and manipulated it into a dark sci-fi creation, one that thrums with the cold of space and the threat of an indifferent universe.

Visit the Behind the Veil of Black Stars page on Bandcamp for more information.

I was given a review copy of this album.

Album Title: Behind the Veil of Black Stars

Album Artist: Scott Lawlor

Released: 10 April 2021

Friday, 7 May 2021

Dark Ambient & VR: An Interview with Phantom Astronaut

 Dark Ambient & VR: An Interview with Phantom Astronaut

Phantom Astronaut

Dark ambient music creates incredible moods and a sense of immersion. Virtual reality, in the right hands, can do the same. When the world of dark ambient meets the technology of VR, the experience can be astounding. Sadly, I’ve not experienced VR, but you only have to read or watch others to see that it can be a powerful playground. With that in mind, in the coming months, I will be posting a series of interviews with creators who straddle the worlds of dark ambient and virtual reality. This is the first of those interviews, and it’s with Phantom Astronaut, aka Dekker Dreyer.

Dekker Dreyer is a man that wears many creative hats. He composes dark ambient soundscapes as Phantom Astronaut, he creates and directs immersive VR horror films, and he also writes Amazon top 20 selling novellas. As a first interview subject, he certainly ticks all the boxes. Below, we talk about how he came to the idea of merging his art with his music, the roll of dreams, the intimacy of VR, along with the influence of horror, folklore and the occult. I hope you enjoy it.

* * *

Casey: In an article on, your view that VR is about a feeling, and not a narrative is one of the topics covered. Dark ambient music also, for the most part, seems to be about the same thing. When and how were you first exposed to dark ambient, or the idea of it, and why do you think melding dark ambient and VR together is such a powerful combination?

Dekker: I think we've all been exposed to ambient music in one way or another without realizing it. I remember being very small and hearing an orchestra warming up and that chaos-- those tones all blending together-- it stuck with me as musical.

One of my earliest projects was a short film to accompany a movie called Naqoyqatsi, this ambient film scored by Philip Glass. That was probably my first head-on collision with ambient music.

My creative partner Cyr3n pushed me much deeper though. She turned me on to sound baths and places like the Integratron out in the California desert, and the La Monte Young's Mela Foundation in New York.

I took all of that in and started wondering how I could integrate this music with the kinds of themes I explore in my art and I stumbled onto this rich universe of "dark ambient".

I approach all of my projects from the same starting point; I want the audience to experience something emotionally more than intellectually.

I create things that you'll play at midnight, laying on your back, getting lost in the textures. Dark ambient, to me, works best when you feel it, physically. I love playing in domes and halls and places where the audience can lay back and let the bass radiate through them. It's a very physical music, it engulfs you, just like VR. I also pair my music with visuals so it's all part of a single sensory experience.

Casey: At the end of 2019, you released an immersive visual album, Lucid, under your music name Phantom Astronaut. In Lucid, the experiencer gets to explore five dreamscapes that bring about emotions from the darker side of life. The audio-visual experience also invites the person to ponder parts of their own morality. Which is the dreamscape that you are most pleased with, and what was the inspiration behind it?

Dekker: I can't play favorites on Lucid, I love all of it, but I can talk about how it came about.

Did you know that we don't really know what dreams are? Science, as of this moment, doesn't know for sure why we dream. There's also no clear universal definition of consciousness. That fascinates me.

Artists and philosophers have been preoccupied with dreams since the dawn of time. We live a quarter or more of our lives in the dreamscape and yet we can't share that between each other. It’s so lonely to think about that. The road to VR is paved with cobblestones made of history's dream journals. For the first time we're able to create environments that allow others to walk into our dreams... it's very intimate. I'm still not sure how I feel about that aspect of it.

Casey: It is certainly an intimate notion, but at the least, if you have created something to show one of your dreamscapes, you are giving permission for someone to visit and experience that. Are you concerned that someone might learn something about you that maybe even you aren’t aware of, or do you think it boils down to more general hopes and fears that someone will “get” what you hope to convey from it?

Dekker: The nature of privacy is changing and I think that humans have this inherent alienation that can't be soothed. No matter how well I know someone I can never truly know them in the way they know themselves. Communication and art and storytelling is a manifestation of our desire to be closer. I don't believe that someone exploring one of my dreamscapes will walk away with the same interpretation as me, so I just hope they find something that's meaningful to them in that shared space.

Casey: In an interview with Voyage LA, you revealed how you thought that your experience and admiration of the Disney World theme-park might have informed your desire to create your own virtual realities. What was it about the experience of being in that place that you think appealed to your world-building inclinations, and how has this merged with your love of horror and folklore?

Dekker: I end up talking about Disney a lot. It's funny how that's a recurring theme in my life. I want to be very clear because sometimes people conflate my interest in theme park design as an interest in how Disney chooses to use the medium. I'm inspired by this brilliant moment in history where humans have decided that they want so deeply to live in alternate realities for days or weeks at a time that they'll pay extraordinary prices for it. I see that as beautiful. I see that as a willingness for us to collectively embrace imagined worlds. That's what inspired me about the Disney parks.

I see that desire for people to experience environments and characters and I answer that from my own perspective which is informed by paganism, cults, the occult, and the supernatural. These themes, in our majority Christian culture, happen to be connected to horror. Many fairy-tales or myths or folk traditions are firmly in the horror genre when examined through our current sensibilities.

As for why I'm attracted to these themes? I'm not sure. It could be about embracing the powerlessness of humanity on an individual level when up against nature. We're very fragile creatures and our main strength has always been our ability to create social groups. When you watch a horror movie or experience a VR world you're inherently alone in the forest. That position tells you a lot about yourself.

Dekker Dreyer
Dekker Dreyer

Casey: While talking to the Good Men Project, you raised the issue of how art is emotional communication, but that in most forms, it is filtered in some way, and that the effect is easily broken. Why is virtual reality such a powerful platform for creating more immersive experiences, and, if one stands out, what was a time when you felt that you were most immersed while engaging with any variety of art?

Dekker: I think this comes from the element of isolation I mentioned earlier. We're all a child, standing at the top of the basement stares, timidly holding a flashlight.

Unfortunately, I have a hard time becoming immersed in any virtual worlds anymore. That's what happens to anything when you know how it's built. I can tell you about the strongest reactions I've seen in VR though. I was showing a series I created called The Depths, a horror series that takes place in a capsized ship, and one person screamed and threw the headset across the room. They were crying and couldn't speak. I felt proud of that. I'd never seen someone react to a movie like that. If I had to guess why it was, it was a combination of isolation plus the claustrophobia of that rising water and darkness... music designed to make you feel uneasy... throw a creature into that scenario and it transports people so completely, that their bodies react.

Casey: The various viewing and production elements of The Depths came together very nicely to cause that tearful scream. Do you think that, as VR technology improves, it will be easier, or more common, to cause that kind of emotional reaction in the audience, and if so, how would you like to see it evolve?

Dekker: I don't think that any tool makes the creative process easier. Our conversation with media is always changing, so that means that the audience will come to expect something different as technology and culture change. I imagine hearing this same question when the first films were being publicly shown and people were running for cover when they saw a train coming at them on the screen. It won't be easier, just different.

* * *

Thanks so much to Dekker for taking the time to answer my questions. You can find him at his website, and you can find his many creations through any of the links above.

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Dark Ambient Review: Reflections at the Sea

Dark Ambient Review: Reflections at the Sea

Review By Casey Douglass

Reflections at the Sea

I’ve always had as much time for urban environments as I have for the peace or bleakness of nature. Even though beautiful vistas have their place, there is a lot to be said for a small park backed by the thrum of traffic in a busy city. Reflections at the Sea is a dark ambient album from SiJ and Textere Oris, an album that, at its very core, brings these two forces together.

The album description tells of a person who wants to see the sea. Sadly, they are living alone in a big city. One day, a fog blankets the concrete, glass and metal around them. The environment feels different, and as the album plays, the fog seems to bring said person to a place in which their fantasies are almost at hand.

For me, Reflections at the Sea is an album that feels light and peaceful. There are field-recorded sounds of church bells and people talking, but there are also soothing drones, pipe or flute-like tones, and pleasant vocals. These elements make the fog envisioned in the album description one that is illuminated by golden sunlight, rather than a dreary, damp smothering greyness that fogs so often can become.

I think that I’d have to say that Train Leaves in the Rain is my favourite track. It opens with a chiming, undulating space, and a mellow low tone. A “staticy” rain emerges, a voice crackling through a tannoy system joining it. A smooth drone sits beneath everything, floating female vocals and train sounds sitting comfortably among the various plucked notes that occur in the latter half. This is a peaceful track, and one which merges the mechanical with the ethereal with adept ease.

Veter 101 is another of the tracks that stood out for me. It also makes use of a tannoy-style announcement. A small tone sounds, like a mouse trying to clear dust from a pipe. A muted buzzing shortly follows, making me thing of a tiny dot matrix printer spooling out tiny receipts. Okay, my mind is now thinking about mice buying train-tickets for their own micro train. This track is features a plucked melody, piano notes, and a variety of voices. It has an energetic feeling, but like the Train Leaves in the Rain, it seems to merge a variety of mechanical recordings with pleasing light tones.

Finally, the track K Moryu is the last I will mention. It’s a track where the sea very much makes its presence known. It begins with a high whistling tone, lapping waves, a deep beat and a male vocal. The cascading rattle of a rain-stick sounds at intervals, a variety of instruments playing their own particular notes and melodies throughout the track. This is the longest track on the album, sitting at almost twelve minutes in length, and it gives the listener ample time to bathe in the lulling qualities it provides.

Reflections at the Sea is the ideal kind of album for anyone who might be stuck somewhere and would love to be somewhere else. It offers that “world at a distance” feeling, when the weather or other circumstances make the familiar seem a bit different, when the usual view down the road is changed by fog, and you get the feeling that somewhere else might just have moved in to take its place, even if just for a little while.

Visit the Reflections at the Sea page on Bandcamp for more information. You can also listen to Train Leaves in the Rain below:

I was given a review copy of this album.

Album Title: Reflections at the Sea

Album Artists: SiJ & Textere Oris

Label: Cryo Chamber

Released: 20 April 2021

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Dark Ambient Interview: Scott Lawlor

Dark Ambient Interview: Scott Lawlor

Scott Lawlor

Anyone who knows Scott Lawlor will be all too aware of how prolific he is with his music releases. It’s a good thing that his music is well worth listening to! Scott kindly agreed to share a few words with me in this interview. We touch on how he can be so prolific, the challenges of composing music as a blind person, the virtue of creative constraint versus total freedom, and the most mundane sound he feels that he has ever recorded. Thanks for joining us and I hope you enjoy the interview.

* * *

Casey: Scott, even though I am familiar with how prolific you are with your music releases, it still surprises me just how frequently I see that you’ve released a new album on Bandcamp. What are the main factors in your life, that you think may contribute to how you can achieve such a release rate, how does this current rate compare with periods earlier in your musical life, where you felt the need to take a break from things, and what was different between the two periods?

Scott: I am a stay-at-home dad and since my kids are in school, I have a lot of time to compose and release music. Some years have been busier than others regarding actual number of releases but through all of that time, my situation has been the same.

I've got many more albums on our network that I've recorded over the last 7 years, so if I quit writing new music right now, I'd still have releases for a long time to come. I'm always working on new music so the odds of catching up to myself are astronomically impossible at this point.

Casey: As a blind composer, I know that you occasionally tweet about accessibility issues with the tools or apps that you want to use. What kinds of accessibility issue do you find the most irritating, which apps or tools do you use that you feel handle things really well, and more broadly, what is your usual process for composing a new track, which tools do you tend to use the most etc.?

Scott: Well, for a long time, I had a Roland fa08, Sound Forge and Audacity as my main way of composing music and though this set of tools allowed me to create many albums over the 6 years that I used them, they weren't as accessible as the current tools I utilize.

The menus on the Roland didn't talk and I was limited in how I could shape sound from within the synth, so this lead me to using things like Audacity for shaping recorded sound from the Roland into something totally different. Even though it was an interesting experience to do things this way and I got quite proficient after developing such a streamlined workflow, the results from one project to another weren't as different sonically as I thought they'd be.

As an example, Paul Stretch is a tool that I used to use quite a lot in my early work and though it can create some interesting results, if you change the default values, it's something I hardly ever use anymore, or, if I do use it, it's part of something with a good many more layers and elements mixed in.

I think part of the reason PS has such a bad rap in the ambient community is probably because people didn't change the values, and just released things that were run through it with no further processing after the fact. Just look at all the videos of popular songs that were run through this plugin and uploaded to YouTube as an example.

The same can be said for other effects inside the box and so the point of all this is to say that, though for me, this method worked for a while, it's actually pretty easy to tell which effects I used, particularly on the noise projects that I've done over the years.

Now that I've said all that, the tools that I use now are totally different and they're accessible with speech so it's much easier to manipulate sound and add interesting effects where this wasn't possible before. I use Komplete Kontrol from Native Instruments, and various third party instruments by companies like Soundiron, Soniccouture, Luftrum, Sudden Audio and, of course other things from Native Instruments themselves.

The most time consuming part of composing now is deciding on which sound to use. Sometimes it takes me longer to find the sound I want than it does to create the actual work in question.

Casey: In an interview with the From Corners Unknown podcast, you touched on the topic of how constraints can often aid creativity, talking about how contests like the forum’s One Sample Dare Challenge can give creating a different focus and challenge you in different ways. How much constraint do you enjoy before you feel it becomes a true hindrance, how often might you sit and compose with no purpose in mind, and the theme later suggests itself, and do you prefer one approach over the other?

Scott: Most of the time, I compose without constraint, just letting the improvisation go where it will as I play on the keyboard and upon playback over time, a theme or concept will come to me for the music. I do prefer this approach but am thinking of revisiting the One Sample Dare challenges since I have new effects, software and hardware that are much more accessible.

Casey: In the aforementioned From Corners Unknown interview, you talked about some of the sounds that you recorded, including workmen breaking your house windows, at the time that it was your turn to submit the sample for the One Sample Dare Challenge. I was wondering, what is the strangest or most obscure sound that you can ever remember sampling, and which mundane thing have you recorded, that gave you the most surprising and satisfying sound, once you started experimenting with it?

Scott: The most mundane thing I've ever recorded was the spin cycle of my old washing machine and I took that recording and created an album called Spin Drone, which, looking back, isn't really that interesting but some people really seem to love that album.

Spin Drone

I think the most interesting thing I recorded was different objects in our old clothes dryer which I then used for an album called the Ambient Series 1, Symphony for Prepared Dryer. I put many different things in the dryer including silverware, wooden alphabet blocks, shoes, coins, and even sweet potatoes, recorded from 19 seconds to 3 minutes, depending on the item and then processed those sounds to create the album.

My wife wouldn't allow me to put her pipe wrench or glass in the appliance and you can hear her promptly rejecting both ideas in the last track of the album which is the documentary for the project.

* * *

Thanks very much to Scott for answering my questions. If you’d like to find Scott’s music, you can find him on Bandcamp at this link.

Sunday, 25 April 2021

Rest in Peace Mount Shrine

On the 16th of April 2021, dark ambient label Cryo Chamber shared the following tweet, a tweet announcing that Cesar Alexandre, aka Mount Shrine, passed away from Covid:

Even though I couldn't say that I knew Cesar well, we did share some emails, and an interview he was kind enough to give me. His dark ambient music is brilliant, and I still have yet to come across someone who can make rainy drones as soothing as he does. 

My condolences and best wishes go out to Cesar's loved ones. Rest in Peace Cesar.

Friday, 23 April 2021

Dark Ambient Review: glass fawn

Dark Ambient Review: glass fawn

Review By Casey Douglass

glass fawn

During one of my many perusings of Bandcamp, I discovered glass fawn, a dark ambient album from uncertain, a music project from artist Florian-Ayala Fauna. As I previewed the tracks of glass fawn, I was particularly taken with the feeling of bleak melancholy that seemed to manifest in them. It’s for this reason that I decided to write this review.

The opening track is “from falling waters” and it certainly sets a mood and the scene. It begins with a warm, low and pulsing drone, a drone that soon mingles with the sound of sea waves. The waves feel like they are chopped or foreshortened after awhile, and then a juddering, screechy sound joins them. There are other sounds that emerge too, rasping sighs and exhalations at the edge of things, creating a maelstrom of pressure. For me, this whole track created the mental image of a sea of lost soils boiling, not in hell, but in a roiling sea, beneath a black sky, with no land in sight.

“teeth, water and soil” is another track that gripped me. It starts with the strange string notes from the end of the track before, but itself blooms with bat-like chitterings, the muted sound of cascading rocks and an airy drone. The drone has a sacral chant aesthetic, peaceful yet at odds with the sea-sawing string-notes that dance above things. After the midpoint, a buzzing, warbling noise begins, one that put me in mind of the sound sea-birds sometimes make. Not a call but a chuntering. This track furthered my impressions gleaned in “from falling waters”, but this time the waves and wind brush against an island of black rock, a cacophony of seabirds mocking in the sky as oily waves lick the edges.

A lighter track (in comparison to the darkness of the previous ones at least) is “the white stag”. It starts with a high, sparkling tone, and a distant animal call and a rumbling. There is a rustling, and what sounds like fluttering paper, along with a resonant tone that hangs in the air like a snow flake. Slow string-notes weave through the soundscape, and the track, though dark still, feels peaceful. Maybe the white stag of the track title is slowly walking through a snow-dusted woodland, the mist between the trees making everything shimmer. A grinding, rougher quality emerges after the midpoint, a different, gentle tone accompanying it. A lovely track.

The last track that I wanted to write about is “pilgrimage”. If the previous track felt like it was set in nature, this one feels more urban. It features a chimey, droning space, a strange crying call, and has possible “city” sounds in the mix. I thought I heard what could have been the drone of cars passing on a wet road, and after the midpoint, a “garage door” maelstrom begins. If you have ever been near a metal garage door that someone has kicked hard, you might be able to guess what I mean when I describe the vibrating sound in this way. Maybe the stag of the previous track finds itself lost and alone in a hostile city. It seems possible.

As dark ambient albums go, glass fawn is certainly up there with some of the darkest I’ve heard. It doesn’t achieve this darkness by sinister chanting or some of the more “horror” styled tones that you might be used to. The darkness on glass fawn, to me at least, felt more subtle. I also really enjoyed how pretty much every track dove-tailed nicely with the one before and after, the tones at the end of one encroaching into the beginning of the next, sometimes soon to fade, but at other times, to stay a little longer. A fantastic album that is well worth the attention of your ears.

Visit the glass fawn page on Bandcamp for more information.

Album Title: glass fawn

Album Artist: uncertain

Released: 11 Jan 2010

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Dark Ambient Review: Isolated Tales

Dark Ambient Review: Isolated Tales

Review By Casey Douglass

Isolated Tales

The Covid lockdowns in so many parts of the world, introduced a good number of people to the raw reality of how many hours there really are in a day. Yes, there are twenty four, but if you are ill, locked-down or alone, each of those hours can feel like its own decade. Isolated Tales is a dark ambient album from ElectronicDeathBlackDogs, and it was conceived during that time of stay at home orders, uncertainty, and creeping despair.

The track Endlessly Searching Through Empty Rooms is a great embodiment of these feelings. It begins with a low, trundling machine-like sound, with pacing footsteps and creaking echoes filling an empty space. There are distant impacts, maybe doors slamming in the wind. There are also closer sounds of the footstep owner shutting doors too. A light, string-like tone begins, floating in the air above what feels like a harsh concrete world of abandonment. At one point, I wasn’t sure if I heard distant shouts or cries. This is a haunting track, and I really liked the way that the footsteps and door shutting kept appearing.

Crushing The Construct is another atmospheric track. This one feels technological though. It starts with a knocking, as if against glass, with what sounds like a flurry of wings answering each time. Maybe this is how a bird in a glass enclosure might react to continual annoyances from its owner. A growing hollow drone emerges, soon joined by electronic screeching that rasps through the soundscape. For me, this track brought about feelings of being trapped and tormented, possibly by technology. It felt high-tech and spiteful. Maybe it’s an analogy for how shit social media can be, especially when people are stuck at home and easily outraged by stuff that doesn’t remotely effect them.

Food For The Trees is the last track on the album, and probably the darkest. It opens with the sound of the wind and a faint, wet, crumpling sound. The sound of a shovel sliding through dirt comes at regular intervals, a deep meditative chant filling the air. Deep impacts begin, languid string-notes aping the tones of the chant. As the track progresses, all of these sounds seem to coalesce to make a clattering, mechanical rhythm. If this isn’t the track to someone digging a grave in the shadow of some kind of catastrophe, I don’t know what is.

Isolated Tales is a collection of dark tracks that really do seem to fit the strange times that we still find ourselves in. Its soundscapes all feel nicely dark and spacious, and many do contain moments of lightness too, just to keep things the right side of gloomy. Isolated Tales is a great album for dreary days and insufferable nights.

Visit the Isolated Tales page on Bandcamp for more information.

I was given a review copy of this album.

Album Title: Isolated Tales

Album Artist: ElectronicDeathBlackDogs

Released: 7 Sept 2020