I can't take it anymore. I'm throwing all my Southern Lord records out the window. I'll let the shock sink in for a moment. Right, let's move on.
So why even mention Southern Lord records in a review regarding the latest from Pan Sonic/Schneider TM side-project Angel, you might be inclined to ask? I wondered the very same thing when taking stock of the great multitude of online reviews for this LP, as each one of them just could not seem to manage avoiding a reference to Sunn O))) + co. at some point. After throwing on the album, however, everything came into focus -- though the group avoid explicit links to drone metal, there is an undeniable similarity between Kalmukia and the empire of ambient sludge Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley have built up for themselves from the ashes of Earth's early ’90s material.
Following in the massive footprints left by KTL, another product of the mostly flawless Editions Mego imprint on which this release finds a comfortable home, Angel's Kalmukia replaces those long, fuzzed-out guitar tones with similarly hazy buzzing from Pan Sonic member Ilpo Väisänen's electronics, in addition to weird sounds and occasional guitar work from Dirk Dresselhaus of Schneider TM, and of course Hildur Gudnadottir's understated cello playing, which was featured on Pan Sonic's latest LP. But this is music that refuses to hover motionless, static and cold and soaking in its own pretension -- Kalmukia instead wraps you up in its unique world of sounds, inviting you to return frequently to its multiple layers of operatic design and impenetrable conceptual themes (which, supposedly, are directly associated with the album's impressive artwork and evocative titles, which this reviewer has unfortunately not yet seen).
There's been some unnecessary focus on the opening track, "Bones In The Sand"; there's a slide guitar mixed way up-front, playing through some spacious blues noodling that's had the unfortunate effect of causing nearly every review I've read to reference Sunn O))) at some point -- and with good reason; it really does come off as a bit of a ripoff at first listen. But Angel are above (ahem) such imitative behavior; the constant shifting of each player's space provides a constantly engaging atmosphere, similar to but never derivative of both Pan Sonic and Schneider TM. Besides, "Bones In The Sand" is much more of a prelude to the album than an immediate presentation of its themes.
That comes with the title track, a 20-minute ambient dirge that in its subtitle reveals the first mentioning of the theme of "discovery" -- discovery of what, however, seems to be up to the listener. Still, a few assumptions can be made: While the word ‘discovery’ might conjure the theme from Nova or perhaps Carl Sagan's "Cosmos," Angel run in the opposite direction, focusing on what sound like test tones from hell, eerie tapping of guitar strings (a recurring theme in the album), and cello playing that wouldn't be out of place scoring a filmic portrayal of an abandoned city or documentary on the holocaust. What's being discovered is clearly not beneficial to society in the way that discovery might ideally be imagined. Instead, it's something sick and probably very old, not unlike the protagonist in a story by Lovecraft or M.R. James, bound to be bit in the ass by their horrible and unholy "discoveries."
Track three attempts to detail the "effect of discovery," which, judging by the rest of the title, seems to be particularly unpleasant. It also, apparently, resulted in lots of quick pans and phasing being applied to the test tones present in the previous track. The other elements remain more or less unchanged, though there are some laser sounds in what's probably the ‘alarm’ movement of the piece and a big, distorted, belching sound that might just be a guitar chord closing the track. For the most part, however, we're treated to more droning cello, more ghostly tapping of guitar strings and what could be bells, and more buzzing. Cleverly, these elements are introduced, dropped out, and re-introduced in such a way as to render both tracks equally engaging, keeping you unsure of what's coming next. This is perhaps the greatest achievement of Kalmukia, proof that the performers were either capable of giving one another space while still remaining essential to the whole or at least capable of some ingenious mixing.
The final track, "Aftermath," is a real piece of work to take home to the family. Featuring a constant molestation of undistorted electric guitar strings not dissimilar to Joy Shapes-era Charalambides, there's a more epic sweep to this track than any of those preceding it, and for the first time, the wondrous connotations of that oh-so-important theme of discovery assert themselves in a very accurate portrayal of awe. Think of Boredoms on a couple grams of DXM each. Which brings me back, somehow, to drone metal, which relies very heavily on fog machines and robes to inspire that sense of awe that seems to be so critical in decent ambient music. Eno, Niblock, Riley, Young: they all approached drone as a method of lifting the listener toward something higher, not as something to oppress the soul and beat the listener down into the ground till the dirt's pouring in their ears. Angel understand this, I think, and have managed to show it's still possible to make a work dark and mildly disturbing while providing that necessary revelatory experience found in the greatest ambient works.