Biosphere Departed Glories

[Smalltown Supersound; 2016]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: tensions between synth and voice
Others: Ian William Craig, Pete Namlook, Andrew Chalk, Steve Roach, Loscil, Lawrence English, SAWII

Departed Glories is some of the simplest music Biosphere has ever recorded, yet at times it feels infinitely dense. Geir Jenssen’s first record since 2011’s N-Plants is a sea of croaking, naturalistic ambient tones and dissonant, eldritch voice loops that brood quietly in private reflective pools, repeating tense phrases or exhausted drone back to themselves like mantras. These fragments of folk and drone, the ghostly remnants of a larger, long-vanished sound source, cause curious shades of darkness as they collide and interact, adding to an overall sensation of ambiguity while encouraging the listener to scour the small details for things to love. Despite its bare construction, Departed Glories feels no less laboriously realized, no less significant for operating in a miniature capacity than past works.

What’s immediately notable about this record is how bare it plays out: a faded artifact discovered in situ, timidly occupying its space, it remains stubbornly apathetic to observers. It’s beat-less and distinctly averse to standard instrumentation: the bass seems sourced from the ocean floor, the mid range is pure cave echo, and piano and guitar are faded to their bare essence. Much of the record feels derived from natural formations, swelling and fading like tides or whistling like the wind, uncompromising physical processes that give it an inanimate, indifferent affect. Its use of voices is ornamental but at the same time a kind of disruptive presence, often avoiding the inherent harmony of the voices and opting instead to wring out bizarre tensions, pitting choirs against each other dissonantly (“Behind The Stove”) and experimenting with strange spatial effects (“With Their Paddles In A Puddle”) or faint speech patterns (“Free From The Bondage That You Are In”) that overlap nonsensically — ghosts lost in a whirl.

It seems Jenssen has simply chosen to do more with less here, making for an album of peculiar, demonstrative sensations that all stand apart, impressively so for a 17-song ambient suite. Much of this is owed to his production techniques, which have grown to include generative programs and abstruse sound design software. He’s created an alien form of ambience on Departed Glories that feels, while based in familiarity, impossibly active and subconscious, preoccupied with unseen aims, each moment a subtle directional shift that carries with it a singular design. It feels more closely related to Selected Ambient Works Vol. II than to Biosphere’s own works like Substrata for how it greets each new sound with the impartial attitude of an explorer, documenting new geographic oddities as they lay in untouched habitats. Swollen bodies of sub-bass and dispersed voices whispering out of the forest, like birdwatching and spelunking.

It bears a constant naiveté, an endless curiosity as to its own potential — to the yet-undiscovered phenomenological possibilities of microtones, the loose suggestibility that arises in layers of soft, shifting sound. This translates directly to the listener, who, unbound by any conventional access points, simply takes it all in at once, perhaps refreshing their ears mid-song and picking something new to notice. Therefore, repeat listens give several different rewards, with stolen peaks and odd seconds of splendor: a few golden harmonies from “Sweet Dreams Form A Shade,” hollow whistles a portent to a storm (“With Their Paddles In A Puddle”), a surreal conflict of sympathies and worries (“Aura In The Kitchen With The Candlesticks”), and idyllic mashed pianos (“Invariable Cowhandler”). Although the album bares many dark and barren moments, as well as the recycled voices of pristine, angelic choirs, few songs are ever overtly “positive” or “negative.” They probe atavistic fears, wistfully and with an endless curiosity.

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