Wednesday 28 June 2023

Dark Ambient Review: The Curse of Spring-Heeled Jack

Dark Ambient Review: The Curse of Spring-Heeled Jack

Review By Casey Douglass

The Curse of Spring-Heeled Jack Art

It’s funny how the ghouls and spectres from the non-digital past seem to be all that much more mysterious and sinister for it. The fog of hand-me-down memories and the way that we always think that we know better than our more “simple” or less “enlightened” ancestors creates a strange kind of grittiness to the topic, an almost feral air of interest. For The Curse of Spring-Heeled Jack, criptid corraller and myth master Mombi Yuleman has turned his attention to the bouncy and sinister Victorian folklore of Spring-Heeled Jack.

Spring-Heeled Jack was the name that society bestowed on the perpetrator of a number of mysterious attacks in Victorian Britain, his most popularised characteristic being his ability to jump to great heights. He was also apparently of a sinister aspect, and at the time, set imaginations and hearts racing. Mombi’s musical style of bouncy electronic notes and rhythms lends itself so well to this subject matter, and from the very first track, this smoke-laden, industrial slab of British history jiggles and jounces into the listener’s lugs.

The opening track, Hammersmith 1837, does a great job of setting the scene and feel of the album. A bubbling, clock-ticking, bell-like opening produces bouncy notes and melodies, backed by choral swells, organ tones and guitar chugging. For me, this track had “chase music” written all over it, and I had a pleasing mental impression of Victorian London at midnight, pale moonlight illuminating chimney smoke, and the fleeting shadow that happens to be bounding from rooftop to rooftop. The latter half of the track features a kind of whirling, helicopter “whup-ping” sound which greatly aids in this mental image. A fun but also sinister track.

Another track that really stood out for me is Jack be Nimble, Jack be Quick. Sitting at just under three minutes long, it opens with a mechanical, hissing, factory-like environment. Twisting plucked notes and a bulbous deep tone sit in the soundscape alongside a knocking beat and sounds of activity. A ghostly chorus emerges with a squelchy melody, and then, manic laugher backed by what sounds like a hammer hitting an anvil. This is another track that suggested the notion of being chased to me. Maybe Spring-Heeled Jack is trying to evade capture by bounding through an active foundry?

The Devil’s Footprints follows, and begins with a warped clockwork knocking rhythm. It’s a fuzzy track, but one that features a gnat-like melody that really buzzes into your mind. This track had a melancholy or at the least, a more peaceful feel. Maybe this track is depicting the carnage left in Jack’s wake, the common city-dwelling folk waking up and finding bloodstains outside of their homes. A really enjoyable track and a different kind of mood, although that mood does shift slightly as the track approaches its conclusion.

I briefly wanted to mention two more tracks that grabbed me. I enjoyed Exploits at the Astronomical Clock for its “heist movie” feel, particularly when the string-like notes emerge in the latter half. Terrorizing the SS also really comes to mind as a great track that would sit well behind a newspaper headline montage in a movie, the escalating headlines backed by its blend of stabby notes and darting strings. They both have the urgent feeling of “things happening”, which is something that I enjoyed.

The Curse of Spring-Heeled Jack struck me in a very “filmic” way, the visual impressions and movie angles that I seem to have pondered only something that I noticed when writing this review. This is to Mombi’s credit of course, and shows why he chose “soundtrack” as one of the tags for this album on Bandcamp. The album is full of fast, bouncy, and often jaunty melodies, but all backed with that twisting, creeping weirdness that Mombi is so good at injecting. As in his previous album Witch-Works, and others, Mombi has brought the Halloween-type spirit to a dark piece of British folklore. If you enjoy forteana with a light-hearted yet sinister aspect, you’d do well to check out The Curse of Spring-Heeled Jack.

P.S You might also like to check out Mark Hodder’s Burton and Swinburne series of books, the first of which is called The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, an excellent steampunk alternate history saga that I read some years ago.

Visit the The Curse of Spring-Heeled Jack page on Bandcamp for more information.

I was given a review copy of this album.

Album Title: The Curse of Spring-Heeled Jack

Album Artist: Mombi Yuleman

Released: Feb 3, 2023

Friday 23 June 2023

Stoicism: Stoa App Review

Stoicism: Stoa App Review

Review by Casey Douglass

Stoa App

The philosophy of Stoicism gained its name by being taught on the “painted porch”, or stoa, in ancient Greece. It was a philosophy very much of the people, and its street-side nature was as open a way as any for passers-by to have their interest piqued. Stoa is a smartphone app that aims to bring Stoicism to our modern “digital streets”, in the hope that many more people might experience the benefits of the mindful Stoic outlook on life.

I won’t go too in-depth about what Stoicism is, save to say that the Stoic philosophy is very different to being small “s” stoic. The first is aware of the role that our value judgements play in everyday life, those things that we label as good or bad, and the way that these judgements affect our emotions. A Stoic wants to develop their character and to live well in the world. The latter tries to hide all external expression of certain emotions, and more than likely tries to repress them so that they don’t even feel them. The first is wise. The latter is a breakdown (or a meltdown) waiting to happen.

Stoa App Courses
A brief look at some of the courses

Stoa gives the user access to a whole host of meditations and teachings from the ancient Stoics, and it does this by letting the user digest concepts in small, manageable routines. Each day, the main page of Stoa will present your current lesson, broken down into a number of sections: A quote, the theory behind it, a meditation practice incorporating this idea, an invitation to make a commitment to practise, and a chance to note if you followed through. I really appreciated this layout, as often, any internal resistance towards starting the daily lesson was soon banished by even just reading the quote, a micro-action that takes all of a few seconds.

When I first started to explore the Stoa app, I also happened to slip into a severe period of depression (unrelated to using the app). Even though I’ve read about, and attempted to practise, Stoic philosophy for a decent number of years now, I still found myself struggling to muster the motivation to even look inside the app. This is where each lesson being broken down into tiny steps really helped, as I just tried to read the quote each day. Some days, once I’d read the quote, I saw that the theory audio was so short (often only a few minutes) that I thought I’d listen to that too. After this, I was almost half way through the lesson, although I often stopped when I got to the meditation section, as at the time, I couldn’t cope with some of those.

Stoa App Main Page
The Stoa App main page

The meditations are really well done and helpfully give the listener some guidance with how to reflect on and digest the notions of the day. I did enjoy the more mindfulness-based ones but during my dip into depression, I found a good number of the meditations included elements that required me to think about a problem and to visualise it in a new way, such as how I’d most like to respond. This is valuable advice and direction but I just couldn’t do it while depressed; my mind couldn’t even grasp some of the concepts that I already knew at that point. I was just content to read my quote and listen to my lesson of the day.

When using Stoa, you aren’t restricted to the lesson of the day, there are all manner of other audio and written resources in the app. You can delve into various elements of Stoic theory, learn about the lives of the most well-known Stoics, such as Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, and even listen to some brilliant conversations about Stoic topics, conducted between the Stoa team, or with other experts in the field. You can access some of these conversations at Stoa Conversations. I really valued listening to these conversations as they often branched out into other areas of life, such as creativity, how to deal with bullying, and with fake news. A good chunk of my “minutes” shown below came from listening to the podcasts.

Stoa App Streak
My best month regarding my "streak"

Stoa was created by Caleb Ontiveros and Michael Tremblay, two philosophy lovers who have come together to spread a little more Stoic wisdom in the world. While there are already some excellent books that break Stoic ideas down into day-sized chunks, Stoa really benefits from its digital form and the way that we nearly always have our smartphones close at hand. The mild gamification (streak counting) and the low-effort positive psychological principles in the app design (such as pressing a button to commit to your practice) all create a feeling of progressing, without hitting you over the head with too much. Stoicism is, after all, a life-long process, where repeated visits to a topic, with many periods of reflection, is usually needed to get said topic to travel from “head to heart” so to speak. From mere thought to knowing. Stoa makes this a pleasing, interesting experience and, even if I don’t keep those streaks going, I know it’s an app that I will return to again and again.

You can find out more information about Stoa on the website. Pricing details are below, and also links to the Apple and Google app stores. If you are interested in the app and genuinely can't afford it, you can also get in touch with Stoa who will give you a free account. You can find details about this on their website.

I was given free access to this app for review purposes

App Name: Stoa

Developer: Zeno Apps LLC

Platforms: Apple App Store & Google Play Store

Price: Free 7 day trial, then £8.99 / $9.99 per month or £46.99 / $69.99 per year.

Saturday 17 June 2023

Dark Ambient Review: Tsathoggua

Dark Ambient Review: Tsathoggua

Review By Casey Douglass

Tsathoggua Artwork

Any H.P Lovecraft fan will likely have marked the annual Cryo Chamber collaboration, released in his honour, on the calender. Or maybe on a piece of ancient paper, one that gives off sinister crackles of green light when it feels a pen’s embrace. Tsathoggua is the newest entry to the Cryo Chamber Lovecraftian catalogue, paying its dues to the toad-like Old One.

As in previous Cryo Chamber Lovecraftian collabs, Tsathoggua consists of two tracks, each just under an hour long. In the broadest of strokes, I’d describe the soundscapes as made up of buzzing, vibrating tones, with lots of little scuffling echoes and insect-like ululations. The drones are supported by a variety of ritual drumbeats, juddery string notes, and shrill pipings, with occasional deep crumping impacts that rumble through the environment. With the toad-like god in mind, Tsathoggua tends to feel wet, close, swampy and at times, cavernous.

One of the highlights for me was around the 34 minute mark of track one. There is something about the five minutes or so that comes next, that I felt pleasantly dragged my mind out from the misty subterranean mire and that hinted at Lovecraft’s world rubbing up against our own, much like Randolph Carter and his dream wanderings in search of Kadath. Where Carter might have heard hoof-beats and anvils (if he heard anything at all), our world seems to impinge at this moment with a number of technological beeps, squeals and tones. This sequence begins with some clattering swells and what I noted as “corrupt organ music” so if you check out the album, listen out for it.

Tsathoggua isn’t all unrelenting gloom however, there are some sequences where things lighten a little, with high tones and drones shining like a pure crystal in the darkness. There are impressions of wind, rain and a static that serves as a kind of balm to the listener’s mind. I was really struck by this at the end of track one when the soundscape had a feeling of “the ordeal is over”. I’d like to add that I mean this with regards to an imaginary protagonist who has traipsed through the strange twisted world hinted at by the music, not that listening to the music is an ordeal! This feeling also made the commencement of the second track a “lets go back in” kind of notion, with unfinished business threatening the delicate tranquillity just recently found.

Highlights of the second track were, around the 7 minute mark, a segment that felt like a small nod to Lovecraft’s The Beast in the Cave. An ape-like hoo-haa-haa sound signals a stretch of track that is a veritable storm-swell of sound. There is a drumbeat, bouncing elastic swells and a windy creaking feeling. The synth, when it appears, gave me that Silent Hill, “sunlight through mist” feeling, the distant cries and candyfloss crackles hinting at a funfair that you might not ever want to visit. At around the 30 minute mark, there is also a section that I noted down as “The Prowling Abyss”, which is a lovely, hollow, dripping environment to let seep into your mind.

Tsathoggua is a remarkable Lovecraftian slab of audio-meat to feast your dark ambient chops upon. Even though I very much enjoyed the previous Cryo Chamber collabs, for me, Tsathoggua is up there with Azathoth and Cthulhu, which are my two absolute favourites. If you follow Cryo Chamber’s dark ambient music output, the chances are that you already have this album and none of this is news to you. Good on you! If you aren’t this person however, let my words kindle a spark of interest in your soul and go and check out Tsathoggua.

Visit the Tsathoggua page on Bandcamp for more information.

I was given a review copy of this album.

Album Title: Tsathoggua

Album Artist: Cryo Chamber Collaboration

Label: Cryo Chamber

Released: 27 Dec, 2022

Sunday 11 June 2023

Dark Ambient: The First Year of Reality Scruncher

Dark Ambient: The First Year of Reality Scruncher

Reality Scruncher

Things often exist without a name, even if that label is created a little later. Before the notion of Reality Scruncher came along, I found myself attempting to create music similar to the artists that I most enjoy, trying to capture that glorious, awe inspiring quality that the dark ambient genre holds.

I enjoyed creating sinister drones. I enjoyed wandering the house with my Zoom H1 in hand, creating my own field recordings to toy with. I enjoyed how a track coalesced into something, that even with my own lack of music creation chops, nevertheless, sounded like what I was hoping for.

My initial tracks ended up on my Soundcloud page and as a handful of videos on my YouTube channel, but not for long. I don’t really rate Soundcloud as a platform, it mainly seemed like “bot-city” to me, and so I deleted my years old account. My YouTube offerings got culled when I left social media in the Summer of 2022, although I did ultimately return to YouTube as it’s the most convenient place to post videos, in my opinion anyway.

A few months later, I got the itch to attempt to merge some of my previously created tracks into an entire dark ambient album and put it up for free on Bandcamp. This turned out to be Deep Space Impingement, a rumbling, droning space-infused album in a minimalist horror style. This is also when I had to create my music project name, concocting Reality Scruncher as a reference to the other realities that I hoped to create and destroy with my music.

I gave out a lot of free Bandcamp codes for Deep Space Impingement, and it also got a good number of free downloads through the “free” button on its Bandcamp page. Dave over at The Dungeon in Deep Space gave it a very kind review, as did some other kind people, and all in all I was very pleased with how it turned out.

Since then, I’ve released four more albums:

The Miasmic Bridge, themed around occult spirit communication and unnerving, looming drones.

Nature Abhors A Personality Vacuum, a brief three track album about a depressed man being swallowed by nature. Yes, I was deeply depressed at the time.

Hell Isn’t Physical, It’s Digital! a collaboration with musician Scott Lawlor, playing with notions of Hell and technology.

Bootleg Virtue Injection, an album with a concept set in the tech-infused future, where a lone hacker finds a way to make the ancient philosophy of Stoicism more accessible to the people who want it.

Very recently, I decided to set my albums to “£1 or more” on Bandcamp, and was pleasantly surprised to make my first couple of sales. I didn’t think it would happen to be honest and still found myself amazed that people even wanted my music for free.

Making dark ambient music has become an enjoyable hobby for me, but as is the case with anything that I start to get into, my mental and physical health slaps it down and makes it hellish for me to move forward.

My OCD picks away at things, my chronic fatigue sees me struggling to sit at the PC for more than 30 minutes, and my depression rolls in with stuff like “What’s the point?” and “The people who listen to your stuff are only being nice”.

Even so, I didn’t expect to be sitting here a year on, with a few albums to my name, a collab and a few pennies from real money sales. So thank you to everyone who has ever listened to my music, even just once. Even if it wasn’t your kind of thing. And if it was and you enjoyed it, even better!

I hope to create more, and I hope to make more progress with the technical side of things too. Time will tell.

Thanks for reading :)