At times like this, with events like we had last week compounded by the onset of Winter and various minor personal nonsense, I tend to withdraw and retreat inwards. It is an instinctive reaction, I’m not a person for big statements in real life. This introspective impulse is in full effect and has led me yet again to easily my most played album of the last 18 months, Biosphere Substrata. A beautiful, atmospheric, icy core sample of alluvial ambient that I choose to immerse myself in again and again.
The creation of Geir Jenssen (who is Biosphere), a man born within the Arctic circle, Substrata sounds to me exactly like the far frozen north, a completely beatless ebbing and flowing survey of bright, snowy landscapes. Occasionally water trickles, radio voices are heard in the background, wood creaks, there are short bursts of bird song*, a synth makes a sound like a distant church bell and before you can credit it you’ve reached the ominous second half of the LP that stops everything being far too undemanding and pastoral. Have I mentioned that I love this album yet? because I do.
Substrata uses a couple of very cleverly chosen speech samples, two of which are from Twin Peaks, in fact. Both are beautifully blended and complement the mood of the music to perfection, whether it be The Giant’s elliptical speech to Agent Cooper, or Major Briggs’ explanation of his vision**. They both serve to give some shape, a stately glacial drive to the album as a whole, but the best is yet to come. Track 7, ‘Kobresia’ uses a Russian language sample taken from a documentary where a telepath attempts to identify distant objects, set above some of the most achingly, sad music I can think of. It may just be unfamiliarity on my part, but I do love the sound of Russian – particularly over a delicate wash of synths.
Which brings me to what I think differentiates and demarcates Substrata from all the other ambient music put out in the late 1990s, and lets face it, there was a lot of it about back then. This is far more than pretty wallpaper, or the aural equivalent of a screensaver, it is brilliantly crafted and sculpted music but what Jenssen gets so right on Substrata is that he really nails a range of emotions and feelings. We move from the sun-on-snow of ‘As The Sun Kissed the Horizon’, through to the genuinely disquieting ‘Silene’, touching upon yearning, loss and a cold, strangeness in-between. There are and were plenty of clever clogs knob twiddlers out there at the time but Jenssen punches/slides the right buttons/faders to engage the listener emotionally and has the courage of his art to leave us without a clichéd happy ending too and I rather admire him for not taking the easy option.
… or maybe that’s just me, Mr Next Listener may come along and wonder when something good was going to happen, Mrs 1537 thinks it sounds too creepy and Dr Nother Listener may just be waiting for some phat beats to hit the speakers. But that is the beauty of our favourite art form isn’t it? why it is so easy to write about, everything is valid^. But it isn’t just me Substrata was and is regularly voted one, if not the best, ambient LP’s of all-time by the enthusiasts.
I find it hard to credit that Substrata is 18 years old now, it sounds as fresh, clear and pristine today as ever. I have had a file copy of the album for a couple of years now and enviously looked at the eBay and Discogs prices for vinyl copies of Substrata, but much as I lusted after it, £100-125 was far too rich for my blood. Luckily it was reissued this year and so I was able to snap it up, so I have only owned this beauty for 6 weeks or so. It’s a beautiful object, it has been well re-mastered and cut but … want to hear a confession? a double vinyl LP is a lousy way to listen to ambient music, you keep having to get up and change sides/records and it can wreck the mood. Maybe there is a place for those horrid little silver discs after all!
So unless you are ambient allergic then I heartily commend Substrata to you as the great immersive, chilly, introspective experience of a lifetime.
605 Down (in the substrata).
PS – I never look at other write-ups until I’m done but Wikipedia sum it all up far better than I took 700 words to do there, wankers!
Being Biosphere’s first truly ambient album, it has a theme of cold, of mountains and glaciers and running water. Sounds of howling wind and creaking wood, although infrequently employed, create a chilling soundscape interrupted by sonorous but quietly suspenseful music.
*field recordings are big on Planet Biosphere. I love field recordings!
**‘I was on the veranda of a vast estate, a palazzo of some fantastic proportion. There seemed to emanate from it a light from within, this gleaming, radiant marble.’ – it’s very clear to me now, that this is precisely where I got the opening few ideas for this post from. I’m just a filthy plagiarist.
^with the strict exception of Morrissey. Oh and Donovan.