Novaya Zemlya represents a refinement of over 20 years of practice. Thomas Köner has learnt to process indeterminable source sounds until they attain an almost tactile texture, then layer and cross-pollinate them until they achieve a caliginous density that is virtually inhabitable. The resulting music, pitched at low volume but immersive thanks to deft modulation of extreme low-end frequencies, creates for the listener a liminal, atemporal headspace.
After three albums (Nunatak Gongamur, Teimo, and Permafrost) of minimalist, arctic-inspired ambience made between 1990 and 1993, Köner contributed a key track, “Kanon (Part 1)” to the landmark thematic compilation album, Isolationism (Virgin, 1994) which expanded his aesthetic into a movement. He later collaborated with producer Andy Mellwig of Berlin’s Dubplates & Mastering studios as one half of Porter Ricks, applying a similar textural reductionism to the implacable 4/4 time of Basic Channel-style dub techno.
But since recording the conceptual piece Unerforschtes Gebiet (‘uncharted territory’) in 2001, Köner has delved further into his psychogeographical obsessions, developing his practice well beyond the purely musical and into the reals of sound art. Novaya Zemlya, represents a distillation of his aesthetic in pure musical form.
The album, bears a subtitle: “Towards a metaphysical geography”, and takes its name from that of an archipelago in northern Russia, 10,000 square miles of which is given over to nuclear testing. It was the site in 1961 of the detonation of Tsar Bomba, the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated, and it’s impossible, knowing that, not to correlate the soundscape of Novaya Zemlya, the album, with the history of the land. But Köner is perhaps more psychologically drawn to the archipelago (he has said in interviews that he has never been there) by its mountainous landscape of tundra and glaciers, its severe climate, and its remote location at the extreme northeast of Europe.
The album presents a single piece of music, “Novaya Zemlya” in three movements, a tenebrific wasteland of low-end rumble and reverb that has as much in common with label mate Chris Watson’s time-lapse field recording of a melting icelandic glacier, “Vatnajökull” (from Weather Report), than with Köner’s earlier audio mapping of the polar regions.
“Novaya Zemlya 1” begins with a plosive detonation. Thereafter it’s a wind-scoured and glitch-pocked tundra of further muffled detonations and atmospheric static. Unsettling electronics ripple through the mix, before expanding warmly across the audio spectrum. It’s necessary to listen at some volume in order to catch the detail in the grain of each sound. The effect is vascular, like listening through thawing pipes.
“Novaya Zemlya 2” is further dubbed-out, with submarinal echoes of the detonations heard on part 1 billowing in a cavernous, sedimental vacuum punctuated by human voices. These clipped radio communications sound procedural but remain tantalisingly, disconcertingly obscure; something to latch onto nonetheless.
I suspect that Köner captured many of the background sounds by recording gongs underwater, as he did to such remarkable effect on the ground-breaking Teimo, and the overall aesthetic is similar to that of Nuuk (1997), but here the recombination of source sounds is much more nuanced.
This throbbing low-end penumbra blossoms on “Novaya Zemlya 3”, until haunting echoes of notes perhaps originally sounded on a piano rise from its depths, blossoming into an aureola of soft, diffuse melody. It’s a gorgeous payoff and a masterly resolution, which dissipates the album’s former nebulous pall in an unexpected luminescence.
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