Sunday 22 May 2022

Dark Ambient Review: Colossus

Dark Ambient Review: Colossus

Review By Casey Douglass

Colossus Album Art

Depth is something that seems to be all too fleeting in recent times, with both the important issues, and the less important, mangled by the machines of rhetoric and sophistry. I can’t speak for anyone else, but it often brings me to the point of ceasing to give a fuck about any of it. When I’m feeling this way, rather than merely sticking my head in the proverbial sand, I switch off, and delve into a far deeper experience, losing myself in some rich dark ambient soundscapes. Atrium Carceri and Kammarheit’s Colossus is an album that’s more than suited for leaving “all of this” behind for awhile.

As is becoming a habit when I review a Cryo Chamber release, I feel that I want to spend some time on the album cover art, as they always set the mood so wonderfully. Here, a lone figure stands between two decaying structures, a small bright light on the end of their staff providing a meagre illumination of the dark cavernous space. What I like about this is how it brings to mind the way that, once we’re used to low light conditions, even the smallest glimmer of an LED can seem to light a whole bedroom. Well, it does mine at least. When you “quiet the noise of the every day” whether by turning away from the 24/7 news churn or literally shutting out the daylight, who knows what else you might discover. I also appreciate that the figure in the album art seems to be standing contentedly at rest, feet side by side, calmly experiencing the scene that surrounds them. I guess they strike me as a figure that is alone, but likely not at all lonely, and as someone who really doesn’t want to be anywhere else.

The Colossus album description gives us a number of ways that the notion of depth manifests in the album’s theme. It reveals that it is set deep underground, which for me, always brings to mind a kind of “sinking into the Earth” feeling. It aligns this with the notion of exploring forgotten civilizations, which does a wonderful job of unlocking the doorway of time, therefore conjuring ideas and dreams of long epochs stretching back into unknowable temporal dimensions. As with anything of a great age, things tend to degrade and decay, and the soundscapes reflect this in a kind of “found footage” way, with “dirty tape reels”, crackles, buzzing, and other signs of degradation.

Opening track Subpulse is a great example of the above. It begins with a low pulsing drone, and quiet rattles and crackles. A slow, multi-element beat begins to build, one that’s cosseted by choral vocals, and wet buzzings and flappings. The imagery that came to mind was of an ancient altar, one populated by a fossilized insectoid creature that’s slowly shedding the mineral deposits from its carapace, coming to twitching life. This is a track full of crackling echoes, soothing static and a kind of throbbing, wave-building atmosphere. It’s relaxing and yet energizing at the same time.

Title track Colossus is a different beast. It opens with an undulating drone, seemingly backed by a horn-like sound that I’d describe as similar to the lowing of cattle. A shimmering high tone emerges, the audio equivalent, for me, of “fairies flickering around an ancient statue in a dark place”. An occasional thumping beat sounds, and is joined by some male choral chanting. An echoing, tapping beat proper soon appears, with things in general turning more raspy and juddery after the midpoint. This track feels both shamanic and also sacral, yet the “cow lowing” sound seems to anchor it firmly into the earth. I enjoy how these elements sit in a soundscape that seems to balance the forces that it’s depicting, with everything hanging in a pleasingly tense space.

The next track, Interwoven, is another that serves up something slightly different. It starts with a muffled, watery drone, with a hint of a distant chant and high tone. There are notions of thunder, warm swells and glugging water. The lower tones feel church organ-like. The higher tones, string-like. At times, the soundscape seems to sigh and flow, and at others, there are what could be hints of chugging machinery or circular-saw-like metallic squeals. As the track progresses, things warp and twist and blare a little more. The imagery that came to mind for this track was the explorer in the album art coming across ancient technology, but tech that mirrors some of our own, showing that we aren’t nearly as different or as advanced as we might think that we are, both civilizations seemingly ‘interwoven’ in space and time.

Colossus is a dark ambient album that contains a softly throbbing, ancient darkness, one that doesn’t feel hostile or dangerous. If it is inhabited by a spirit, it might feel ancient, sad and forgotten, but it has no acidic bitterness towards events or the people involved. It just is and it just watches and waits. If you like your dark ambient music to warmly smother you with the weight of years and the echoes of antiquity, while plucking you from the modern world and setting your mental wanderings in the depths of the Earth, you should check out Colossus.

Visit the Colossus page on Bandcamp for more information. You can also check out the track Colossus below:

I was given a review copy of this album.

Album Title: Colossus

Album Artist: Atrium Carceri & Kammarheit

Label: Cryo Chamber

Released: 15 Feb 2022

Tuesday 3 May 2022

Dark Ambient Interview: Jan Robbe

Dark Ambient Interview: Jan Robbe

Jan Robbe

Jan Robbe is a composer, programmer, artist and sound designer, one with a love of broken rhythms, experimental electronic soundscapes, and the possibilities afforded by using technology in the creative process. Along with co-founding the netlabel Entity, Jan has various music projects to his name including UndaCova, Atomhead, Duncan Avoid and Diagnostic, the last of which is how we began chatting.

In this interview, Jan reveals how he got started with the tracker scene back in the 90s, the perils of getting stuck in one type of creative style, and who his inspirations are. He also tells us which software and hardware he likes to utilise, how he uses neural networks as an aid to his creations, and why he thinks that humans using A.I for creativity is a dance that benefits us greatly.

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Casey: The description of the latest album under your Diagnostic name, Morphology, tells the listener that you utilised things such as non-linear feedback loops and neural networks, among other approaches, when you created this album. Before we get to that though, in the 90’s, you experimented with tracker software on hardware that was far less powerful than that which is available today. What brought the young Jan Robbe to music creation, and what sort of software and hardware were you using back then?

Jan: Back then my interest in music creation coincided with the discovery of the tracker scene. Simply searching for free music on the internet, that was also small in download size (actually a factor at that time) led me to the Fasttracker / Impulse Tracker software that many artists were using. I remember being shocked by how good the music actually was, even though netlabels were putting it online for free, it was a true explosion of creativity.

So I used Fasttracker at first, but my music wasn't very good. It wasn't until Fruityloops came along, with the support of VST plugins, that things really got interesting. I understood that I didn't actually need to buy any sophisticated hardware to make pleasing sounds, in fact it was all pretty much free of charge.

Around 1999 was when I really caught the producing bug and decided I would make a track every day, with the sole mission of making something that I could be proud of, and perhaps also something that others would enjoy.

Casey: Committing to creating a track every day and doing it for the intrinsic feeling of satisfaction are both great ways to go about any sort of creative endeavour. Have there been periods where you fell out of love with the music or the process, for whatever reason, and are there any other mental approaches or techniques that you use to help to get yourself back on track?

Jan: Especially in the very beginning there were several moments where I simply gave up. It takes a lot of time to grasp all the concepts (synthesis, mixing, compression, fx, ...), but my love for music has always brought me back. By now it's my preferred creative outlet, I almost need it to feel sane, to catch emotional unease by the throat. Or simply for my own enjoyment.

There have been periods where I just lacked the time or inspiration, but I keep in mind that these are only temporary. Life gets in the way since it's never been a sustainable thing for me. Getting stuck in a singular style has also proven to be a problem, but changing up, learning new styles is just endless fun. There's always some artist that will inspire me to make something new.

Casey: Who were some of your biggest influences and inspirations when it came to the music that you wanted to create, and how might this have led to you co-founding the Entity website?

Jan: I remember feeling bothered with commercial electronic music being very repetitive and similar. There was a clear opportunity to just break things, you know, like broken rhythms, breakbeats, but not as a looping structure... I wanted it to just keep on breaking itself with endless variation. Aphex Twin seemed like one of the first to really execute this idea properly, with Squarepusher and Autechre working in parallel and really pushing the boundary of sound. Along came Venetian Snares, which really spoke to me as I always preferred the harder side of music.

But you know, life isn't all metal and violence, so in that regard, say around 2002, I found my counterpart in ambient and more specifically, dark ambient / drone music, just to cover a wider emotional spectrum, using music as therapy.

In 2003, with my friend Nico, we started a website to promote the experimental approach in electronic music. Something that wasn't genre-bound, but simply sounding good to our ears with the artists' authenticity shining through: Entity. This way we got to really know and discover artists, work with them and help them reach some listeners, however small the audience, it didn't matter much as we felt connected in our cause. We all know we are an odd bunch anyway.

Fast forward to today, the list of artists I appreciate just keeps on growing. In my current playlist there's KK Null, SØS Gunver Ryberg, Fernanda Martins, Alphaxone, ProtoU, Marco Monfardini, Oophoi and Ionosphere to name a few.

Casey: As with so much in the music world, the technological world has advanced a great deal in a few short decades. What have been some of the most exciting tools for you to use during that time, and what does your current composing/creation environment include?

Jan: Along came things like Native Instruments Reaktor, Absynth and granular synths (most notably the native Granulizer in FLStudio and Robert Henke's Granulator) which really took sampling to the next level. In later Atomhead works I got a bit obsessed with Rob Papen's Subboombass which served as the basis for a lot of my drums / bass sequences. UHE Bazille became my go-to modular emulator, and eventually got me into the analog modular domain.

For a couple of years now I've collected Eurorack modules and experimented with them, and while there is certainly a uniqueness to this approach, and improvisation is very gratifying, I find myself returning to the digital domain since I see myself more as a composer / programmer / sound designer than a performer.

Jan relaxing while sat at his studio

Casey: For Morphology, you made use of machine learning to create the sounds it contains. What need does machine learning fulfil in your creative process, and how do you train the neural network to give you output that is in the ballpark of what you are looking for... Or do you use it more as an element of chaos and let it throw up things for you to spring off from?

Jan: I've always had an interest in how the brain works, how we perceive music and sound, so when the opportunity arises to experiment I gladly jump on the train. A.I is an important evolution, of which we are only scratching the surface. It is evolving at an enormous pace, it's actually hard to keep up, but using Google Colab's cloud computing service it became more convenient as some of the notebooks are easier to grasp and don't require an advanced degree in programming to use.

Using the Jukebox AI notebooks, there are a couple ways to go about it. One method is to prompt it with a piece of music, and have it "guess" what the continuation might be, based on a large pre-trained database of music or "model". When you are in a creative rut, it's obvious how this output could be used to your advantage since the results are entirely unpredictable.

For Morphology I found it more apt to train my own neural network, based on the material that I had already created, in order for it to produce variations of itself. Most of the time it tends to output a mess of unintelligible garble. But once in a while, something entirely unique comes out of it, something that also displays actual emotive content, that I wouldn't have created myself, though it still contains the gist of the sources so it would "fit" with the rest.

Casey: The other element mentioned in the description of Morphology is chaos, by way of non-linear feedback loops. I’d imagine that your neural network’s output produced plenty of chaos that also made it into the track. How important was it for you to have some chaos in Morphology, why does it appeal to you, and why are non-linear feedback loops a fine place to find it?

Jan: Chaos is not just a kind of randomness, it's best understood in terms of Chaos Theory, a chapter in System Dynamics, which covers emergent complexity.

Using modular synths, chaotic feedback systems can be quite easily achieved. My favourite method is to patch the output of an oscillator into a filter, then feed it back into the oscillator (SYNC or FM inputs). Many strange noises will ensue and it doesn't take a lot for it to go completely haywire, going off on its own tangents (simply automate the filter cutoff or something).

There's more methods, for example there are modules which can create Lorenz Attractors or similar chaotic functions. They can act like an LFO, without exactly repeating themselves. So it's non-repetitive, much like a non-periodic tiling (e.g. Escher or Penrose), it tends to sound more interesting, alive, unpredictable, than something which simply repeats itself.

Casey: Alongside your music creation projects, you’ve long had an interest in generative design, making use of its concepts when it comes to your fractal computer artwork, and in your 2014 game Hyperspace Invaders. At the moment, a key element seems to be the human involvement in training or assessing what the software outputs, making sure that it achieves a certain task or function. What advancements in areas such as machine learning, would you most like to see with regards to things that you might currently find restrictive or a struggle, and do you have any concerns about the paths that A.I might take us down when it comes to the creation of art in whichever form?

Hyperspace Invaders Screenshot
Hyperspace Invaders Screenshot

Jan: I can't wait for these systems to become faster and more convenient. I don't see a problem for creativity, quite the contrary. Humans will adapt to this technology, like a dance. I've heard someone say that "the code is the art", and while I agree, I also still think that selecting and applying the output are creative choices. For example, text to image, where you prompt the neural network with keywords (like "a cat in a bag travelling into another dimension")... it generates a picture based on your description. It could be the final form. Or it could inspire you to make a game or movie concept or anything you can imagine. Imagination is limitless. A.I is simply an extra tool for us to employ. An extremely powerful one at that.

Casey: As someone with a finger in so many creative pies, what does the immediate future hold for your creative endeavours?

Jan: I'm focusing on sound design and composition for video games, at least I will try and see if that's a feasible thing to find a job in. I want to check out more A.I. scripts, both in audio & image/video, it's very exciting.

Perhaps at some point I will have another stab at a mini Hyperspace Invaders iteration (hyper casual), if the situation permits it.

I'm finishing a flashcore EP with my friend Eelke of Anti-Narcose Records which will probably be my next release.

I definitely want to make more ambient-style things too, both in collab and solo. I would love to dedicate more time to Entity. But as you can probably tell, that's a lot for one plate, so, don't wait up, just have a check now & then :)

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Thanks so much to Jan for taking the time to chat with me. If you’d like to read more about Morphology, I’ll be writing and posting my impressions in the coming days. (Casey from the future says looky here).

You can find Jan’s creations in a variety of places, such as Bandcamp, Soundcloud and Facebook. You’ll find his digital art (such as the picture below) at FRAMEofMIND, and the netlabel at Entity. You an also find Hyperspace Invaders on Steam.

Catharsis Artwork by FRAMEofMIND
Catharsis by FRAMEofMIND