In my time writing about dark ambient, all time that I consider well spent, I have come across two giant subgenres within the great beast that either get overlooked or I miss out on the conversations for: cinematic ambient and theatrical ambient. I know what you’re thinking “Aren’t those two the same thing?” Well yes, and no. Both are clearly story driven, all music is story driven but some are more obvious and created with artistic intent, but the manner in which they tell their stories is vastly different. Well then what is that difference, I’m sure you’re asking already. The difference between the genres, to me at least (and maybe me alone), is clear. Cinematic ambient is music that one might be able to pass off as a movie soundtrack, one that highlights the emotions of the characters on screen or gives gravity to certain events as they unfold. The responsibility of the music isn’t to tell the story, but to accentuate it. There is still a narrative within the music, in the case of soundtracks it can be entirely separate from the movie, but it is not necessarily the focus. Theatric ambient is responsible for not only the mood and nuances, but the storytelling as well. Theatrical ambient carries much more weight, it must act alone to tell a story without an outside or visual aid. Often theatrical ambient employs a wider range of sounds: human voices, found sound, drone, atonal instruments, loops, and field recordings, anything they can get their hands on that they believe will help tell the story. And of course who is the best at theatrical ambient? That’s an easy question. Noctilucant.
I was first introduced (or exposed if you like that connotation better) to Noctilucant with “Oblivion to You All” which at the time was the most active and involved album I had ever heard. Noctilucant used so many different kinds of music, incorporated so many themes and genres I was at first overwhelmed. I loved the album, especially because of its uniqueness, but it wasn’t until I listened to the newest album, Crumbling Cities Echo Their Terror, that I began to understand what it was that made me enjoy the album so much. At the time I had no concept of cinematic vs theatrical music. I had no grasp of what either of those two terms meant, let alone anything else. It wasn’t until I was listening to the album and starting my note taking process that the idea struck me. And now that it’s struck me I can’t think of anything else. Noctilucant is the king of theatrical ambient.
Crumbling Cities Echo Their Terror isn’t a straightforward album with a natural story line. It’s a compilation album comprised of old, alternate, and otherwise unreleased material that has accumulated over the past few years. Nonetheless, there is a storyline that we can follow in the album. It does have a purpose beyond a track dump.
For one, if it were merely an excuse to get rid of unused tracks, the quality of the release would not be so high. I would argue that the quality of production is actually higher on this album than on Oblivion to You All. Each sound is clearer, crisper, and more vivid. There’s must fuzz and background noise getting in the way of the music (such as it is). The emotional connection the listener has with the music, and thereby the musician, is much stronger. The connection is deeper. The tracks go beyond the normal buzz and drone and out. Noctilucant has made the music more than just music. It’s feeling too, as if it’s alive.
I won’t go track by track; you all know how much I hate that outside actual compilation albums (which I should probably properly call anthology albums) but I will say this about the first track in particular. It’s a cover track of Nobuo Uemetsu’s classic “You Can Hear the Cry of the Planet” from the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack (yes I’m nerdy enough to own the soundtrack and know what album the track was originally from). Not only does Noctilucant do the original track justice, a hard enough feat, he makes it his own. The melodies and emotional resonances are there but they take on a new life with crafted by drone samples and atonal instruments than with traditional orchestral sounds. It’s brilliant. The best Final Fantasy cover I’ve ever heard and I used to spend my days looking for covers of the old classics. If the album were just that track, it would have been a resounding (no pun intended) success.
The rest of Crumbling Cities Echo Their Terror is filled with more of what I’ve come to expect from a top notched Noctilucant album. It’s dark, in a noir sense, and moody. The film that it plays is one in stark black and white, where all the characters are shades of grey. The album’s tale starts in the “docks” of the city but after listening closely to the track several times I have to suspect that the “docks” are really the seedy, ramshackle taverns where the swill is cheap and strong. It’s a place to drown yourself and forget everything, it’s a place people go to reflect and to escape that reflection. From there our protagonist, I refuse to say hero because I don’t believe a noir tale has heroes, stumbles into the night. It’s cold and his head is swimming from alcohol. Does he have a purpose? He can’t quite remember. He thinks so, but the booze could be playing tricks on him. The Drink is a cruel mistress; she gives but she takes so much. The night gets worse and worse and he tries to recall what he needs to do, bordering on madness brought by despair. Soon, he begins philosophizing with himself, never a good thing, about his purpose, if he even has one, and what he’s meant for. What is he meant for? Is he anything but gutter trash? Someone must have thought so at some point. But why? He dozes off, or rather passes out, and he remembers. He remembers when he had a purpose, when his life had real meaning. But this is a dream world, all the colors of the world aren’t real. Can’t be real. Nothing he sees here can be what’s true, not anymore. And more’s the pity. A man that had a purpose but lost it is more pathetic than one who never found it to begin with. He wakes up, covered in the muck and murk of his surroundings, covered in the garbage and filth of the streams, smelling of death and acrid smoke. He tries to catch his breath over and over as the painkilling side effects of the alcohol wears off. The physical pain and the emotional pain comes soaring back to him tenfold. It’s too much. Too much.
What happens from there? You really think I’m going to ruin the story? You daft fools! I’ve led you this far, it’s up to you to follow the rest of the story and draw your own inferences. I will say that the title of the album is very important to the story and how it can potentially play out. Normally, Noctilucant delves more into the cosmic and metaphysical but this time he goes full force into my guilty pleasure novel genre. Noir is dark and depressing, I’m actually surprised I haven’t come across it more often in dark ambient. Whatever the reason is that it hasn’t been done, Noctilucant nailed it. Absolutely nailed it. Dark ambient album of the year? It is at the halfway point this year. And to think this album was initially only around to release unused tracks. Ha! The irony. Seriously though, listen to this album. Even if you aren’t a dark ambient fan, give this a shot.
Highlights: You Can Hear the Cry of the Planet, Down by the Docks, Rebirth
If you enjoyed this try: Xerxes the Dark, Dødsmaskin, Manet
Support the artist!
- You Can Hear the Cry of the Planet
- Down by the Docks (Alternative Version)
- A Solemn Night
- Letting Go of All Hope
- A Momentary Dream
- Beholding the Murk
- Direct and Yet Indirect
- The Unrecognized Words