Friday 24 December 2021

Dark Ambient Review: Heterodox

Dark Ambient Review: Heterodox

Review By Casey Douglass

Heterodox Album Art

A horror unfolding is often a double-whammy. You first have the shock of whatever it is, and then, quite often the insight comes that things are actually far worse than you initially thought. A world fifty years after an alien invasion is just as fascinating as another that is only just being conquered. What horrors will the first generation born during an alien occupation have to accept as normal? This is the kind of realization that Josh Sager’s dark ambient album Heterodox explores, the long-tail effects of the worst kinds of darkness, inspired by the soundtracks of some of the best movies of our era.

Opening track The Plague Doctors is one of my favourites on the album. There is a distant thunder-like sound, one accompanied by an almost jaunty pulsing rhythm. Static looms, with an impression of rain and a metallic squeal or shimmer. I half felt that I was listening to the softened sounds of traffic passing in the street. A ghostly vocal begins, and deeper vibrating tones around the midpoint, before things build to a climax and then slither away. For me, this track could have been a score to a film, one in which the opening scene shows a crowded, rainy pavement, with everyone moving in one direction besides a strange hooded figure that is eerily floating against the flow. A very pleasing and ominous track.

The second track is also one of my favourites: A Dread of Something Abnormal. It begins with a rotating resonance and a thrum surrounded by fuzz. It feels a bit sci-fi, the flares of higher tone leading me to think that this might be what an angel strapped into the large hadron collider might sound like. There are various swells and knockings later, and a buzzing that changed the angel mental image for one that evoked the happenings of The Fly film. This is a floating, roiling and pressurized track, one that reeks of science and technological power plucking at the workings of things that it should probably leave alone.

The final track that I wanted to mention by name is Monsters Make Monsters. This is a different kind of track, opening with echoing piano notes, notes that begin to twist and warp against a growing windy background. As the track continues, there is a low buzz, a swarm-like feel, hinting at massive industry that bodes ill for anyone nearby. The low, vibrating swells of tone and relaxed echoing beat that join confirm this feeling. This is the track where someone is out for a midnight walk and finds a meadow overrun with thousands of strange insects mating in the moonlight. Sinister.

Heterodox is another fine dark ambient album from Josh, one that, as the album description mentions, is a fitting sequel to his earlier release Interlopers. While the previous album felt more “abandoned industrial estate after a catastrophe”, Heterodox for me, lays out a more varied smorgasbord of threat. Some of the tracks suggest desolation, others some kind of lurking danger, and others still, more abstract feelings of delving into the gaps between realities. If you like your dark ambient ominous, technology-infused and desolate, you should check out Heterodox.

Visit the Heterodox page on Bandcamp for more information.

I was given a review copy of this album.

Album Title: Heterodox

Album Artist: Josh Sager

Released: 28 Sept 2021

Thursday 16 December 2021

Book Review: The Stoic Challenge

Book Review: The Stoic Challenge

Review By Casey Douglass

The Stoic Challenge

Sometimes, it can feel like life is full of setbacks. Whatever you try to do, things just seem stacked against you. It’s overwhelming. If like me, you have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), you can probably multiply that feeling by a thousand or so. Then add one to the result for good measure. One of the elements of Stoic philosophy that most appeals to me is the notion of the Stoic Test, and William B. Irvine’s book The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher's Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient is firmly focussed on that particular approach.

Stoicism, as a philosophy, doesn’t entail suppressing emotions and keeping a stiff upper lip. That’s small “s” stoicism. Stoicism, the philosophy, takes a number of approaches in helping the practiser enjoy life just as it is. It does this by encouraging us to reflect on the things that are in, and beyond, our control, and living a life driven by values that aid us rather than harm us. Stoics still feel emotion, but they don’t needlessly fuel it by rumination. The practices they engage in also reduce the chance of negative emotion occurring.

William illustrates this nicely in the book with a burst water pipe analogy. The burst pipe, the setback, needs to be solved. The water that floods your house is your emotional reaction. Some water will leak, even if you are a super plumber who always has your tools at hand. Regardless, the sooner you can fix the pipe or stop the flow, the less damage the water will do to your home. If someone triggers anger in you (the burst pipe), you can either notice it and rise to the challenge, or you can lose your temper with them, stew all day, and flood your emotional basement. Using the Stoic Test approach is one way of dealing with this.

William explains that the Stoics purposefully adjusted how they framed events, to help bring their actions more into alignment with the virtues that they wanted to live by. An example of a re-framing that I always think of is that the sensations of anxiety and excitement are very similar, and how we view a particular arising depends on which frame we view said sensations through. That doesn’t mean in the midst of an OCD spiral, that I can suddenly decide to view it as exciting, but I get the concept if nothing else. Making use of the Stoic Test approach, for me, is more a reminder to at least recognise that things can be viewed differently.

To practise the Stoic Test frame, when you are confronted by a setback, you decide to frame it by saying that the Stoic Gods are sending you this challenge, for your own good, as a way to develop and grow. Now, you don’t need to believe that these Gods exist. You can even just imagine a sage-like elder standing nearby and prodding you towards the challenge. William emphasises that you need to bring this to mind as quickly as possible, preferably within five seconds of the first flush of frustration, anger or whatever is occurring, as it can stop the emotions running away with you. That’s about it. There are nuances and other helpful elements that William covers in the book, but that's the broad gist of things.

When I first started applying the Stoic Test frame to the setbacks I experienced, I was often slow in remembering to do so. I’d get a minute or two into some response and then remember it. Over time though, the notion came to mind more quickly. When it did, it genuinely seemed to help with how I viewed things. When I was able to apply it, it made setbacks seem almost amusing, or at the least, it felt fun to approach them as a challenge. I couldn’t do this all of the time, but it is slowly creeping into my world view the more that I do it. Things that trigger strong emotions are harder for me than more trifling setbacks, but as with anything, as the test frame becomes habitual, I don’t see why I couldn’t make headway with those too.

I had a nice example of a minor setback just before I started to redraft this review. I received an email coupon from a gaming website offering a discount. Often the coupons can’t be used if you’ve been a member before, but this one was titled in such a way that it suggested I could use it. What’s more, a game I have been interested in for awhile is included, so I was pleased at the idea of treating myself to a very cheap game. Well, the coupon couldn’t be used. It was the same as similar ones I’d been sent before after all, just titled in a misleading way. Within a few moments I reframed it as a Stoic Test and smiled. I did have a brief moment of wanting to tweet at the company to let them know that their coupon was misleading, but that urge soon fell away. Who cares. What’s more, the next day the company emailed and said that things didn’t quite go to plan, but now the coupon works as it should. It’s a low grade, low stakes example of how framing something differently takes some of the sting out of things. I wasn’t super upset, just mildly irked and disappointed. The fact that things resolved the next day in a favourable way was a pleasant surprise too, but if that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have minded.

With my OCD, I’m always careful not to buy into approaches that entail trying to control my emotions. This is counterproductive and just makes things worse. I like the Stoic Test frame approach as changing the frame just seems to encourage a softer, more accepting approach to things, without the emotional escalation that we often add to events ourselves. As the fear of setbacks in life, both large and small, is a major element of OCD, anything that can help me to view the world in a more tranquil and accepting way is just fine by me. If you have OCD, you might find the concept helpful to look into, but here, I can only speak as to how it has affected me.

The Stoic Challenge is a fine book that teaches the reader in a warm, friendly way. William illustrates his teachings with a variety of personal examples, and his easy going manner and acknowledgement that he still slips up, all make it a fantastic book. If you have any interest in Stoicism, or in how the way we view life can affect our mental health, I recommend this book. Also, if you have OCD and have yet to get any formal treatment, I’d do that first. I came to Stoicism after having CBT and other therapy, and I wouldn’t change that sequence of events for anything.

Book Title: The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher's Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient

Book Author: William B. Irvine

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

Current Price: £15.68 Hardback / £10.75 Paperback / £8.96 Kindle

ISBN: 978-0393652499

Published: 1 Oct 2019

Thursday 9 December 2021

Dark Horror Short Review: Last Orders

Dark Horror Short Review: Last Orders

Review by Casey Douglass

Last Orders

I’ve never been in a pub or a bar when last orders have been called. It’s funny to me that I only realise this as I am drafting this review of a horror short called Last Orders. It’s barely seven in the morning and I already know myself a tiny bit better! Last Orders is set in a pub, and, well, I’m sure you can guess the timing of events too.

Chapter One: “The End” appears on screen. The camera lurks at an empty doorway. There is the flash and the bang of a gun going off. We don’t get to see what happened, just an empty kitchen. In the next chapter, a pub landlord is stacking upended chairs onto tables, eyeing the darkly-dressed stranger who is sitting quietly at the bar. We see a figure sitting outside in a car. The figure pulls out a gun. The landlord tells the man at the bar that it’s time to call it a night, and is then surprised when the stranger informs him that they’ve met before. As he does so, the music playing in the background scratches to a halt, and the landlord looks suddenly chilled to the bone. It turns out that he has a dark past, one that just might be catching up with him. At this point, the viewer has some information to begin their speculations about who is going to be shot, and who is going to do the shooting.

Last Orders

Last Orders reveals what actually happened by way of six chapters, each filling in a little more of the detail as to what is going on and who might be involved. It’s a fun way for the story to unfold, and it makes use of dream-like images and other flashbacks to fill in the more historical doings. For the most part though, it features some lovely prolonged and creepy scenes, where strange noises see the landlord wandering through the darkened pub, flash-light in hand, trying to find out if he is actually alone.

What the film does so well is to make great use of the location. Director Jon James Smith says that Last Orders was made during UK Covid lockdown, with hardly any money, but access to an old pub that couldn’t open due to the lockdown. Even though we only see it lit for a short time, while the two men chat at closing time, the bowels of the pub stand in stark contrast to the cosier upper floor. Downstairs is all bare walls, circuit boxes, pipes, beer kegs and harsh echoes. Then, when the landlord returns to the bar area once the lights are out, upstairs seems to have caught some of the menace of what lies below.

Last Orders

Of course, a stage is nothing without the actors who portray the story, and in this regard, Last Orders also delivers. The conversation between the landlord and the strange man at the bar felt like a meeting between two darknesses. One seems brawny and capable of violence, the other quiet and equally menacing. It felt like an important scene to get right, as so much of the short is set up by the questions it raises and the truths it hints at. The inflections in the quiet stranger’s voice as he says “But actually, we have met... Daniel,” followed by the look on Daniel’s face are probably my favourite moments in the film.

Another thing that stood out for me was the camera work. I enjoyed how it teased and toyed, and didn’t show all. There is one particular moment where it pulls away to one side and I was waiting to hear what happened. The silence stretches, and I realised that I had been tricked into predicting something that wasn’t actually going to happen. Last Orders is comfortable with silence and tension, two things it builds so adeptly. When there are sounds, they are suitably creepy: ominous drones, chants, squeaking floorboards and scraping metal. The sinister voice-over that narrates at certain moments is also well executed, as it not only sounds suitably threatening, but also provides hints as to the identity of the speaker over time.

Last Orders

Last Orders is 21 minutes of quiet, ominous British horror. It’s the sort of thing that seems to nestle lovingly into the darkest hours of the evening, when the mundane world is blanketed by night and the people that are still awake are left alone with their thoughts and fears. Last Orders is currently touring the film festivals so isn’t released as of yet. It picked up an Official Selection at the London Lift-Off Film Festival 2021 and I’d be surprised if that’s the last nod it gets. If you get the chance to watch it at a festival, or later when it is released, I’d say it’s well worth checking out.

I was given review access to the film.

Film Title: Last Orders

Starring: Alastair Parker (The Witcher 3, Mass Effect 3), Steven Elder (The King, Rillington Place), with Charles Edmond.

Written & Directed By: Jon James Smith

Score: Stewart Dugdale

Producer, DoP, Editor & VFX: Jon James Smith

Sound Design: Stewart Dugdale & Jon James Smith

Associate Producer: S. K. Bishop

SFX Supervisor: Eddy Popplewell

SFX Crew: Sophie Bramley

Sound Recordist: Matt Wilkinson

Friday 3 December 2021

My Dark Ambient 2021

My Dark Ambient 2021

By Casey Douglass

My Dark Ambient 2021

It’s almost the end of another year, so here is a post in which I look back at some of the dark ambient music that has caressed my lugholes over the last twelve months. The vast majority of albums mentioned actually released during 2021, but I included some older releases that were none the less, new to me in 2021.

When it comes to what I decided to include, I chose the albums that I kept drifting back to long after I had finished the review. Or, maybe I remember listening to them tens of times during a certain period during the last year. As I only tend to review releases that I feel reasonably confident that I will enjoy, even the ones that I don’t mention here but are sitting on this website, are still well worth checking out.

Before I get to the list, I just wanted to pay my respects to Mount Shrine once more. Cesar created some of the most dreamy and relaxing music, and I’m still so sad that Covid took him in April. His albums have been in my permanent rotation ever since I first listened to Ghosts On Broken Pavement. Shortwave Ruins is also an excellent album for winter-based relaxing, in my humble opinion. Rest in Peace Cesar.

Ghosts On Broken Pavement. Shortwave Ruins

On to the list.

Dark Litanies of Terra
Xmas is often a time when certain people listen to Gregorian-styled chants. This year, I intend to make full use of Monasterium Imperi’s Warhammer 40K inspired, chant-laced Dark Litanies of Terra (2020) and Mundus Sanctorium (2021). While everyone else can fill their minds with notions of beards in the sky, I’ll happily be absorbed into a bleak mental world in which humanity plunges into the depths of space, with a might and a zealousness that surpasses anything we’ve seen in real life.

A similarly space-based album is Sleep Research Facility’s dark ambient album Nostromo (2007). As I stated in my review, I have no idea why an Alien and a dark ambient fan such as myself, has taken so long to finally get around to checking out Nostromo. It’s like loving peanut butter and jelly and never thinking to try to put them both together. Unthinkable! Nostromo is a simmering, ominous journey through the decks of the titular spaceship, one that skilfully evokes the feelings of the film. I listen to it on an almost weekly basis.

Megafauna Rituals
After two sci-fi albums, next up is one that sends the listener back in time. Paleowolf’s Megafauna Rituals (2017) fills the ears with shuddering drumbeats and crumping footfalls as it conjures the spirit of the great mega beasts that roamed the planet during the last ice age. Shortly after I picked up this album, we had a few days of blizzard-like snow. As I walked across frozen farm-land, looking down as the snow whipped past my feet, I listened to Megafauna Rituals and it certainly added a wholly different feeling to the raw elements. If you buy this album and you are blessed with some harsh snowy weather, pop in your earphones and give it a listen as you stride out into it.

#44 - The Recluse
The Owl’s dark ambient album #44 - The Recluse (2021) is another that, at times, felt wintery, particularly the second track Glacial Beauty. #44 - The Recluse is an album that mixes warm smoothness with harsher noise, and was initially one that I wondered if I’d gel with. Well, I keep returning to it, and it’s still one of the best albums I’ve ever encountered for quieting my mental chattering and ruminations.

666 Minutes in Hell
I kind of want to move onto a heat-based album now, all of this talk of snow and glaciers is decidedly chilly. BlackWeald’s 666 Minutes in Hell (2021) is just the ticket, as it’s an eleven hour journey through the realms of Hell. Some of the tracks are as long as some entire dark ambient albums! The soundscapes give the listener a great variety of brimstone-laced vistas and sounds to enjoy, from the impression of being buried alive, to a giant infernal furnace and abyssal depths with distant cries and strange ululations. Who needs eggnog when you can mentally stroll along the edge of a lake of magma?

The Umbra Report
Finally, Cities Last Broadcast’s The Umbra Report (2021) is an album that really masters the “invisible threat in a quiet room” kind of vibe. This album drip-feeds an ominous feeling of unseen forces shifting and stirring in what could be an otherwise mundane vista. There are strange warbling voices and notes that seem to ping from vast distances, straining to reach your ear. A tense, very atmospheric album, and like the others mentioned above, one I listen to regularly.


That about does it for this year. Thank you for reading, and thank you if you are one of the regulars who often visits my website. I hope you have a good Xmas and New Year.