Nacht Plank: Septs Vents

Marcus Fjellström: Exercises in Estrangement

These provocative outings by Nacht Plank (Neo Ouija head Lee Norris) and Marcus Fjellström initiate the UK label Lampse in bold style, with the former offering ambient experimentalism and the latter challenging, sometimes harrowing, post-classical music. Put simply, if the first might be said to flirt with ambient, the second is anti-ambient by comparison.

Norris has issued electronica and Detroit-influenced house-techno under the Metamatics and Norken guises respectively, but Nacht Plank offers an avenue for music of an entirely different sort, namely densely textured soundscaping. Septs Vents' eleven, cryptically titled tracks are ethereal ambient settings teeming with jungle calls, amoebic life forms, guitar smudges, insect chatter, and other abstract exotica. They're largely static, often lulling pieces comprised of looping cells over which minimal motifs appear, the focus more on the material's rich sonic density than compositional development. Apparently, Norris sources material from the outdoors, processes it, blends the results with filtered piano, guitars, and synthesizers, and then constructs layered loops from the grimy results. Consequently, there's an often natural, organic quality to the sound but also an industrial dimension though not of the abrasive kind, more akin to the sound of quietly humming and whirring machinery. While the overall compositional approach isn't innovative, it's Nacht Plank's distinctive sound palette which recommends Septs Vents most of all. Consider, for example, the gauzy, rippling textures, frog-like calls, and flares that dominate “Vire,” and what easily could pass for a magnified recording of chattering micro-organisms in “Mehk.” The album's alien aura is perhaps best conveyed by its longest piece, the eight-minute “Troarn,” an amorphous mass of clicks, burblings, and rustlings out of whose swamp a horn-like theme surfaces. Imagine ambient recastings of Eno's “In Dark Trees” and “Sombre Reptiles” (Another Green World) updated, blurred, and expanded to album length form and you'll have some hint of Septs Vents' sound.

Certainly Fjellström's Exercises in Estrangement is aptly named, given that 'exercises' connotes a 'classical' dimension while 'estrangement' suggests 'alienation.' Currently completing a Postgraduate Diploma in Composition, Fjellström allows a bevy of classical influences to seep into the album's nine pieces, composers like Ligeti, Messiaen, Reich, Stravinksy, and Berio, resulting in always challenging though not necessarily pleasant music. Fjellström's predominantly orchestral settings are in a modern classical, even avant-garde, post-classical style. It's an at times harrowing, disturbing, and loud listen, though the composer wisely gives the listener a chance to recover from the dark intensity with quieter pieces that appear midway through (“Anstice” and “Oil,” despite the unsettling current of dissonant flute tonalities that flows throughout the latter). Though the album purports to fuse contemporary classical composition with electronic music, the emphasis is firmly on the former; while there is an electronic side to the album (overt on the minimal keyboard interlude “Music For Dx7”), it's largely woven subtly into the orchestral textures.

Fjellström opens Exercises in Estrangement auspiciously with an inventive manipulation of minimal material in “Planchette.” Though its pulsating patterns can't help but recall Steve Reich, Fjellström almost immediately distances himself from the American master by blurring the sound and subtly modulating the volume of the patterns, having them resemble advancing and receding waves, and by inserting dissonant, wavering drones behind the pulses. And, just when you're sure it'll carry on in this manner until the end, the sound quietens to a pause before jarringly re-entering with a steely roar. The pieces that follow inhabit denser territory: “Jeux” presents an unusual combination of drum textures, atonal classical motifs, phantom voices, and howling dissonance, while quiet martial snare rhythms collide with explosive orchestral ruptures in “Marionettes Revised” and extended tonal clusters recall Ligeti in “Campane Morti e Acqua Crescente” and “Lev Poem.” True to its name, the playfully abstract “Kandinsky Kammer” merges dancing clarinet melodies with the fiery crackle of castanets and granite blocks of sound.

As mentioned, the album title indicates that Fjellström and Lampse are aware of the album's daunting content yet both deserve credit for remaining true to the music's uncompromising nature; such commitment bodes well for future releases. For now, Septs Vents and Exercises in Estrangement offer more than their share of challenging moments to appease an open-minded listener's appetite.

June 2005