We now enter our third week and one of my personal favourite albums; Biosphere’s Substrata.
If you’re new to ambient then you should know that this album is consistently voted as one of the greatest ambient albums ever made, and I’m inclined to agree. Biosphere went from being a synth and acid-house artist to a champion of ambient during the 90’s when ambient’s popularity was rising rapidly. The two albums prior to this release, Microgravity and Patashnik, lay the groundwork for this album’s distinctive and classic sound and help to really hone his style. Quite an impressive feat, all things considered.
Substrata is strongly thematic and focuses on creating an Arctic atmosphere, and Biosphere does this very well. The intro “As The Sun Kissed The Horizon" introduces us gently with few melodic devices, simply using field recordings of wind and the quiet, diminishing roar of an airplane, leaving you behind in a frozen desert soundscape. This makes way for "Poa Alpina”, 4 minutes of, well, not very much really, but it helps to set the mood. As it draws to a close we hear the sound of rain more prominently as we move into probably my favourite track of the album “Chukhung”. Something about its electronic yet vaguely organic oscillations reminds me of the Northern Lights flickering across the sky; fading to nothing and then brilliantly surging back to life seemingly randomly. A quick Google Search actually reveals that Chukhung is a location in the Himalayas. “The Things I Tell You" brings more of the same really, but begins to introduce a few voice samples for the first time and further develops the field recordings, with wind becoming yet more prominent. The atmosphere begins to grow and feel a little darker. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, "Times When I Know You’ll Be Sad" breaks the trance created by the first 4 tracks and, quite frankly, puts a significant blemish on the quality of this album with pointless, repetitive lyrics. This is the only track of the album that I will skip every time, it’s pointless.
Then we reach the halfway mark; “Hyperborea" throws us straight back in at the deep end with a chilling Twin Peaks sample and a musical backdrop that appears to mimic a car’s windscreen wipers, like being told a ghost story on a night journey. "Kobresia" carries this creepiness forwards again with a recording of a Russian telepath. Somehow Biosphere manages to make this a compelling listen. "Antennaria" feels a little like a "Chukhung" rehash, but just as beautiful. The last few tracks introduce an awful lot of diversity and serve to lighten the mood considerably, with "Uva-Ursi" helping to separate these two opposites with running water and birdsong. "Sphere Of No-Form" wanders all over the shop musically; it feels a bit aimless but still not boring. There’s enough change and activity to keep you interested. Finally it ends and merges perfectly with the outro "Silene”, a track somewhat coarser than the rest with almost mechanical sounding beats overlaying the soft drones behind, apparently supposed to signify the continued operation of generators of polar research stations long after desertion. Slowly over its duration these sounds are phased out and replaced by the sound of breaking ice; our human presence will always be overcome by nature in these extreme climates.
Substrata is a fine album, no question; every listen provides you with fresh details and nuances in the field recordings that you may have missed before. There are times when you might find that you have to concentrate on what you’re listening to for the full experience (Hyperborea/Kobresia), but other times where the gentle, repetitive rhythms are allowed to just wash over you with minimal effort (Chukhung/Antennaria). I’ve seen a lot of complaints that this album is too cold, but that is exactly the point; Biosphere has set out to produce an Arctic album and that is exactly what he has done, and very well. There are times when the electronic rhythms here sound almost organic, blending flawlessly with the excellently implemented field recordings to set the sense of location. All this serves to make Substrata amazingly immersive.
I would add, probably controversially, that in my opinion Biosphere peaked a little too early, and while some of his later stuff is very good (Shenzou I love), it never quite seems to live up to Substrata's standards, which is a bit of a shame. Clearly this was produced while he was in the perfect frame of mind.
Next week I return with the undisputed master of tape music, William Basinski and his Disintegration Loops.
Tagged as: onlyambient. review. essential. ambient. Biosphere. Substrata. Arctic. electronic. music.