Northumbria: Markland
Cryo Chamber

Though its final chapter hasn't yet arrived, Northumbria's triple-album trilogy about the Norse discovery of Canada is shaping up to be a certifiably remarkable achievement, if not a career high point for the Toronto-based ambient-soundscaping duo. Whereas the inaugural chapter, Helluland, was designed to be relatively sparse and minimal in order to reflect the chilly desolation and huge expanse of the titular locale, Markland, which translates from Old Norse into “Forest-land,” sees the group evoking the wondrous second land the early Norse explorers encountered.

Markland presents no clearcut linear narrative, Jim Field and Dorian Williamson choosing instead to evoke the Norse explorers' experience of the landscape in impressionistic manner; that being said, the track titles offer an interpretative guideline of sorts for those intent on fashioning a tentative story-line. Without betraying Northumbria's raw and minimal esthetic, they've created music of exceptional nuance and depth, and as heavy as the group's music sometimes is, it can also be delicate, not to mention, as “Wonderstrands” illustrates so wonderfully, majestic.

Even more remarkable is that Field and Williamson, as they've done in the past, used nothing more than guitar and bass to generate the album's incredibly rich sound world; further to that, it was all created live and without overdubbing, though heavily processed with effects. If that's true, those 'cello' and 'violin' solos that lend the opener “Torngat” such mesmerizing impact were generated by guitar and/or bass, though bowed and treated to convincingly foster the illusion. Field recordings also are subtly woven into the seventy-minute recording to strengthen the music's evocation of lakes, forests, and mountains; by way of example, howling wolves and crickets make their presence felt at the beginning of “The Night Wolves / Black Moon,” with the group's slow-burning metallic timbres also augmented by thunder and rain.

As the ten ambient dronescapes unfurl, images of various kinds form, of inhospitable wildernesses, of frozen plains across which brutal winds blow, of primordial landscapes where few life-forms survive. Throughout the release, Field and Williamson generate multi-layered, long-form drones from their effects-laden gear, the music unspooling as cold, metallic sheets and low-pitched slabs. Though in places daunting, Markland also makes room for moments of serenity; “Still Clearing,” for instance, offers a soothing respite from the life-threatening challenges the explorers confront at other stops on the journey.

Track titles notwithstanding, the listener's perfectly free to conjure scenarios to fit the material presented. One might hear, for example, the patient unfurl of “Torngat” as the cautious advance of explorers entering what might appear to be dangerous territory; “The Shores of the Suffering Wind” similarly suggests cavernous rumbles emerging from the earth at a lakeside setting stretching as far as the eye can see. In keeping with a recording that's so visually powerful, Cryo Chamber head Simon Heath has fashioned for the release striking cover artwork that complements the project's tone splendidly.

May 2017