I think I can say with confidence that it’s easier to create a concept album within dark ambient than it is with any other genre. Even with the lack of lyrics (mostly) and lack of structure or rhythm, dark ambient can manipulate emotions and tell a story better than rock, classical, or folk music, partially because it can contain bits and pieces of all three. Dark ambient has a fuller range of sound and capabilities than do rock, classical, or folk, and it is because of that that I find so many story structures in the dark ambient that I listen to. A story can be told more deeply in drones and field recordings layered on top of distorted, atonal piano movements much better than a riff, chord, riff type melody. A search for meaning, or means, is often the kind of story that I encounter in dark ambient literature. The concept of the journey and the meaning of the journey is one of the most prevalent in normal literature, so it makes sense that that would be one of the strongest themes in dark ambient music, but as with all things dark ambient, stories cannot be crafted the same way they might have been crafted. Dark ambient twists sound and musical notes so that they resemble something else, it distorts reality. How then, could a more realistic story be told through dark ambient than classical? Let’s look to Sun through Eyelids for the answer and in their 2016 album Pathways of the Lost.
To be honest, before I started listening to the album, I didn’t know what I was going to get. I wasn’t expecting a whole lot but that’s not what I received once I pushed play. Sun through Eyelids is one of the best examples of pure, synth dark ambient that I’ve encountered in a long time. The sounds are smooth and subtle, with soft echoing drones that melt into the atmosphere, slow, long drawn out notes on horns that reverberate against a thick cloudy atmosphere, percussion that flitters like the wings of some ancient monster just at the edge of your vision. It’s somewhat sinister, this sound, but It’s awe inspiring, it’s grandiose, it’s spectacular. Yet the music never reaches any sort of crescendo that shatters the tranquility of the dream. The dream, ethereal atmosphere remains unbroken, unspoiled, for the entire length of the album, not something achieved often in my experience.
And that story! Pathways of the Lost is about a group of people, a small one, that are journeying across a landscape that they were once very familiar with until something happened. It’s never explained or even hinted at but whatever it was as left the landscape a different place. It’s both more dangerous, and more enlightening (it’s remarkable how often those two coincide). Why they set out on this journey is hinted at but never outrightly spoken. It’s some sort of meeting that they have to make, a meeting that could and will change the course of their future. The journey is long though, this is definitely a bildungsroman tale, a tale of growth through adventure and adversity, through the bones of the old, dead civilization. What is the purpose of the growth? To what end do the protagonist search for it? What do they plan to do with it once they find it? Can they find it? Whether they find what they seek, and whether or not they are the actual protagonists in the story is completely up for debate. I would like to think that they are protagonists rather than antagonists, that the world they now live in has either evolved or devolved the need for morals and ethics and that survival and the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom is what lies at the core of society. Is that too much to hope for? Probably but that doesn’t take anything away from the story of the album.
There are a lot of themes within the music as well, pushing the story forward and putting obstacles in the way of the listener. The future’s foundation on the past, the value and currency of knowledge, the journey to a certain piece of knowledge can and will yield more knowledge that we expect, sometimes more than we can handle, adding an emotional burden.
Overall I thought this album perfectly exemplified the kind of storytelling dark ambient is capable of. The themes were richer, more heartfelt, and easier to grasp and understand. The characters were more poignant, more textural, than the characters found in a classical or rock or folk album. The story is rooted in reality, distorted to make a point, but using real sound and music to display the realness of the characters, the plots, and the story. The album itself is a beauty, a tranquil piece of work that through my many listens has never failed to calm the nerves and allow my mind to wander as necessary. Pathways of the Lost is a great album. It’s a lotus blossom that reveals new things, new angles and facets and perspectives with each new listen. It’s a surprisingly addictive album. I didn’t expect the amount of emotional depth and subtle realism that I got from this album. If you want story, if you want something you can put on to let your mind wander through dusty, fog riddled ruins, this is album do that.
Highlights: In a Gown of Stars She Wed the Night, Hermits Redoubt, The Dead City
If you enjoyed this album try: Dronny Darko, ProtoU, Council of Nine
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