Wednesday 12 May 2021

Dark Ambient Review: Back to Beyond

Dark Ambient Review: Back to Beyond

Review By Casey Douglass

Back to Beyond

Back to Beyond is a dark, space ambient album from Alphaxone and ProtoU, and is the follow up to their 2017 album Stardust. The album description tells tale of a long journey into the vastness of space, mysterious black-hole-emitted golden dust causing the protagonist some consternation. There is also the issue of the protagonist’s cat performing zero-G acrobatics as it tries to feed.

Quantum Zero is one of the tracks that I enjoyed the most. It begins with small ticks or clicks, a sound that put me in mind of hot metal that is slowly cooling. There is a whining noise and the muffled feel of static, and then, a tone a little like a distant train whistle. An airy drone rumbles through the soundscape, the clicks beginning to echo into a larger space. There is a pulsing tone and a little later, deeper vibrations. Towards the end of the track, beeps and radio frequency sweeps can be heard, and what sounds like paper being scuffed. For me, Quantum Zero felt like it described a vast reactor or engine room, one that has recently fallen silent and is in the process of simmering down.

Dreams of Solace is another track that stood out for me. It opens with chuffing air movements and an “air blowing down a ribbed plastic tube” vibration. A rushing sound roams the soundscape, and what might be doors hissing open and closed. Electronic warbles and a long sweeping tone manifest, small trills and whistles in the distance joining them. Towards the end of the track, the sounds of movement through a metal vent seem to be heard. I felt like this track was the best match for the cover art of the album above, the pipes etc. It also, for some reason, brought to mind a scene in the film Brazil, where Robert De Niro turns up and messes with the pipes and tubing in the wall.

Finally, The Edge of Perception is a track that I enjoyed because it felt “watery” to me. That’s not to say literally water-filled, but there are elements to the audio that seemed to impose a distortion to things, a little like how water muffles and warps sound. It starts with a low, airy drone, a distant dripping, and a closer echoing knocking joins things. There is a low, voice-like call or groan, and a deeper rumbling fuzz. There is also a persistent high “ahh” vocal that sits uneasily above things. This is an echoing, flowing track with swells and the sounds of impacts in long corridors. For all of that, it is a warm track, the flowing melodies that come in near the midpoint setting a lovely contrast with the rasping hisses and echoes. Maybe this track is the sci-fi equivalent of a lonely alien minotaur at the heart of a labyrinth made out of cold metal.

Back to Beyond was, for me, the soundtrack to being on a long space journey. Many of the tracks feature metallic vibrations, muted clicks and beeps, and the hisses of atmosphere escaping from pressurised containment. For the most part, it seemed an album of smooth tones, small sounds and mechanical objects buzzing into the void. The darkness it displays is tempered by the warmth it also contains. It’s a bit like the difference between seeing zombies on your lawn in the light of the full moon, compared to seeing them in golden sunlight, while dew is still dangling from spiderwebs and birds are chirping their morning chorus. Both scenes could be horrifying, but the second has its own beauty.

Visit the Back to Beyond page on Bandcamp for more information. You can also check out the track Quantum Zero below:

I was given a review copy of this album.

Album Title: Back to Beyond

Album Artists: Alphaxone & ProtoU

Label: Cryo Chamber

Released: 4 May 2021

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.

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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.

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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