Ambient, Dub / Hospital Recordings / May 7, 2021 – Reviewed by Jon Lindblom
I am not a huge fan of ambient music, particularly because the idea of music that blends with the environment with the purpose of inviting ‘us deeper into the lived experience of the everyday’ – as the great musician Lawrence English has put it – stands somewhat at odds with my own interest in art that pushes beyond the everyday. However, if there is one sub-genre of ambient music that I do like, it is certainly so-called ‘dark ambient’ – precisely insofar as what I find most compelling with it is that it, rather than embedding itself within the sonic fields of lived, everyday experience, instead stands in stark contrast to it. In other words, for me, dark ambient seems to best be characterised as an alien force that introduces a rupture to what we, following English, may refer to as the ‘lived moments’ of the everyday. It is a sonic index of the outside, which estranges or denaturalises the everyday through the alien and unsettling sounds indexed by its ‘dark’ component. It thus exposes the regionality or locality of the everyday, rather than operating within its confines. Some favourite examples of mine here are Thomas Köner’s arctic-themed dark ambient releases, the earlier work of Demdike Stare, as well as some of Biosphere and Deathprod’s work.
And, more recently, I have become fascinated by the dark ambient music of Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement – one of Dominick Fernow’s three major projects, along with Prurient and Vatican Shadow – precisely for this reason. While I had appreciated his previous work before (as Vatican Shadow in particular), it is his music as RSE that I have listen to by far the most ever since I first discovered it (quite late) in 2017 when the astonishing album Ambient Black Magic was released. The present release, entitled Flying Fish Ambience, follows the same formula as its predecessor and really all RSE releases (although it is now a duo project with Philippe Hallais, a.k.a. Low Jack): a combination of rainforest sounds, deep and pulsating sub-bass, shimmering synths and occasional dub rhythms. The project is certainly oriented around the construction of ‘soundscapes’ – to use the word so often associated with ambient music – but strangely unfamiliar ones that transport the listener into a reality very different from that of the everyday (well, at least for those living in relatively urban, modern societies). This quality is certainly indexed by the dark as characterised above, but also very much by the eerie.
In his book The Weird and the Eerie (2016), the theorist Mark Fisher defines the eerie as a mode of strangeness of something unknown that lies beyond everyday cognition and experience. In other words, as an unknown that introduces a disturbance to the human lifeworld, rather than simply operating within it. We may for instance think of vast natural landscapes (deserts, forests, mountains, etc.) more or less untouched by humans. When traversing such spaces, one often experiences a certain eeriness because of the non-human vastness and strangeness that they invoke – including a feeling of wonder and speculation: is there perhaps something out there? This feeling is rooted in what for Fisher are essential aspects of the eerie: elements of presence and absence (is there something present where there should be nothing, and vice versa?), as well as agency (who is acting?).
There is thus a clear overlap between my characterisation of dark ambient and Fisher’s conception of the eerie. And this overlap is very much present in the RSE project, whose dark ambient soundscapes also are steeped in a distinct eeriness. To a large extent because of brilliant uses of the abstract qualities of sound – with each track invoking certain elements of Fernow’s sonic outside, while at the same time leaving as much a mystery to the listener by not revealing too much. Indeed, what is fascinating about the RSE project is precisely how it utilises what Fisher identifies as the key component of the eerie – the unknown – not just through the sounds, but also through the album artworks and, in particular, the album and track titles. These are all crucial to the project, insofar as they brilliantly participate in invoking a certain eeriness that is elaborated on through the sound. Indeed, album titles such as Folklore Venom, Green Graves and Water Witches – along with track titles like ‘Undrinkable Water’, ‘Full Moon Moth’ and ‘Snake Head Cemetery’ – all invoke the eeriness that Fisher points to in phenomena such as possessed entities and abandoned structures, while also enhancing the supernatural register of the project (the supernatural is, of course, very much related to the eerie). I would go so far as to say that without these non-sonic elements, the project would not be nearly as compelling insofar as they brilliantly allude to elements of the eerie outside constructed by Fernow, which enhances the abstract qualities of the compositions and fuels the speculative register that is central to the eerie. Indeed, when listening to the soundscapes of RSE, one cannot help but speculating about things such as what kinds of entities populate them, what impersonal forces traverse them, and what do they look like phenomenologically and topographically? It is certainly like being transported to a mystical reality populated by alien forces and agents, of which we know very little. Of course, these mysteries are, wisely enough, not resolved – insofar as that would remove the elements of speculation and the unknown that are so crucial to the eerie. It would have the inside annex the outside by turning the unknown into the known.
All of this is brilliantly at work in Flying Fish Ambience’s five lengthier tracks, which build upon the ‘artificial spaces’ and ‘synthetic nature’ that have been central to the project’s dark ambient eeriness from the start. As the creators put it themselves: it is an ‘artificial ambient wilderness rooted in wobbling sub-bass, watered wastefully with glossy digital FX’, which sounds as powerful as ever on this album.