Northumbria: Helluland
Cryo Chamber

Unless I'm mistaken, Helluland announces a fairly dramatic change in Northumbria's sound. On previous releases, Ontario-based duo Jim Field (guitar) and Dorian Williamson (bass) presented an oft-massive attack that was so huge it threatened to engulf the listener. By comparison, Helluland largely showcases a restrained Northumbria, one more focused on understated ambient soundscaping than anything that might be labeled noise. Issued on the Swedish dark ambient label Cryo Chamber, the hour-long collection is perhaps the strongest and most perfectly realized outing to date by the duo. That distinctive title, by the way, means “the land of flat stone” in Old Norse and draws reference to the Norse discovery of Baffin Island in Canada that happened over a thousand years ago.

While guitar and bass are the central instruments, other elements sometimes work their way into the ten tracks—waves crashing in “Maelstrom,” for instance, and what sounds like bowed strings in the title piece. Yet while it is the case that the very first sounds heard on the album (during “Because I am Flawed I Forgive You”) are nature-based field recordings, Field and Williamson keep the focus firmly on axe-generated soundscaping, and Field makes full use of the guitar's capacity for producing subtle textures as well as immolating slabs. During “Maelstrom,” for example, the instrument generates corrosive rumblings that suggest some elemental geological force welling up from the depths.

“Because I am Flawed I Forgive You” provides an excellent entry-point when long, multi-layered trails of electric guitar extend gracefully across its eight-minute terrain. Stirring evocations such as “Still Waters” and “Sacred Ground” exemplify the duo's phenomenal ability to sustain mood and control for the full duration of a piece. Only once, specifically during “Catch a Falling Knife II,” does the album escalate to the aggressive pitch heard on past Northumbria releases.

Gauzy choral voices lend the two-part “A Door Made of Light” a pronounced Popol Vuh-like character, and at such moments Northumbria's material assumes a misty and majestic quality similar to the material Florian Fricke and company contributed to Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Nosferatu; for that matter, the very title “Song for Freyja” sounds like something one might see on a Popol Vuh tracklist. Given the evidence at hand, it might be more accurate to describe Field and Williamson as soundsculptors rather than soundscapers; the way the two artfully assemble and shape the elements in these settings is nothing short of remarkable.

May 2015