Of all the subgenres of dark ambient, I think space ambient might be the most underrated and the most overrated. It’s easily the most widely accepted and mainstream accessible subgenre (garnering the name “Space Music” from the plebian public masses) but it also has the potential to be the most diverse and the most nuanced. With space ambient, my feeling is there is more potential for narrative within the music. It doesn’t happen with every album or every artist, obviously, and there are many albums out there that have a narrative that would blow away anything space ambient artists could come up with, but by and large, the potential is greater. Space ambient albums are a little more common that ritual ambient or death industrial (far more common than the latter actually) which can lead to the watering down of the talent within the subgenre. You may have noticed that while I enjoy space ambient, I don’t review as many space ambient albums. I have higher expectations for them. I want to see the best of the best. I want to hear an album that’s not immediately forgettable. I want something that stands out, both narratively and sonically. I don’t want to contribute to the watering down of a fantastic genre. Therein lies the Catch-22 though, how can I promote the genre if I don’t talk about it often? How can I talk about it often but not water it down? Prune the bush, cull the weak, extol the good. One space ambient artist that I think has been totally underrated is Reza Solatipour. I’ve mentioned him a few times throughout Resounding Footsteps’ life. He took part in the fantastic Iranian dark ambient anthology a few months ago, and released a full-length album last year. Arrival, his newest album, was released by Kalpamantra Records a few months ago and it somehow got swallowed up by the flood of mediocre space ambient floating around out there. Thankfully though, I found it and I refuse to let it sink in the flood.
Arrival is one of the shortest space ambient albums I’ve listened to, not quite clocking in at half an hour. That’s both an advantage (the music doesn’t have a chance to get repetitive or tiring) and a disadvantage (the music doesn’t have a chance to fully explore all the narrative possibilities). The title, for me, is a reference to the sci fi film (based on a novel) from last year starring Amy Adams. The film is about the arrival of aliens and our subsequent attempts to learn how to communicate with them and linguistic and temporal structures. It was one of the best films from all of last year with a soundtrack to match. While the surface similarities between album and film end there, I would like to look a little deeper into Arrival’s (the album) narrative. Also, the album’s setting feels like an ode to Infinity Beach, a novel by Jack McDivett about the first contact between humans of earth and alien civilizations in Alnitak.
I saw two possible narratives in the album. One, the aliens come to us, or two, we come to the aliens. I suppose it doesn’t really matter too much which the listener decides to follow but it is important to follow one of them. For the sake of the review and analysis here, I’ll follow the first pathway, the aliens coming to us. The album begins, more or less, with the arrival of the aliens. The music here is menacing and mysterious, but not quite sinister. We don’t know who or what these aliens are, they are a complete and utter mystery to us. They then try to communicate with us, telling us where they came from without giving a purpose for their visit (the question remains unanswered throughout the album even though the question comes up quite a bit). They came from what we know as Orion’s Belt, from the star Alnitak (also known as Zeta Orionis). They journey was long and arduous, filled with vast amounts of emptiness (the distance between Alnitak and Sol is well over a thousand lightyears).
It is that void, that vast expanse of emptiness, that defines the journey, that defines all journeys in space. It is something that is ever present in space ambient (the good ones) even though it is not always directly addressed by the albums. In Arrival, however, the void has to be addressed. The album is about the journey and arrival of an alien civilization, it’s about a first contact. The void and its characterization is unavoidable. Reza, to his credit, doesn’t avoid it. He dives straight into it. He uses soft drones and loops to characterize it, to give it a personality and a form (though now that I think about it, a formed void is a bit of an oxymoron). He devotes two of the seven tracks to the void alone. He has “Orion’s Belt” which has a harsh, partially terrifying, but also epic and grandiose sound, then he has “Alnitak,” which is Arabic for “the girdle” which is softer, more melodic, but also with a grandiose atmosphere. The terror of the unknown is ever present in both tracks but it takes less and less of the narrative. We cannot fear what we do begin to understand after all.
We learn more about these beings, and their perception of time (being four dimensional beings rather than three dimensional), and they again become more alien us. Several magnitudes of intelligence above us, what could they possibly want? Again, the question of what they want and why they are here goes unanswered. Are they here to destroy us? Help us? Study us? Maybe all three, or something else I haven’t considered. Either way, the underlying apprehension of the album’s melody never really leaves the stage.
Overall, the narrative is formulaic for a sci-fi story but it’s still good, it’s told well and the listener can engage with the story. It doesn’t quite call to those wonderful hard science fiction stories but it does feel like it belongs among the burst of sci-fi in the 50s and 60s. Narratively, the album is a huge success. However, the actual production is a bit off. The sound, at times, feels unintentionally scratchy and rough. The sound cuts in and out at the beginning of “Arrival,” disconnecting itself from “Intro” rather awkwardly. So much time was spent making the narrative feel engaging, lifelike, and intimate that not enough time was spent making sure the sound itself was structured and presented in a way that portrayed that. The production wasn’t bad, not overall, but there were a few too many moments that I felt like I was forcefully disengaged from the story. Thankfully it doesn’t happen so often that I gave up trying to listen (that’s happened more times that I can count). Still, I think spending more time making the presentation perfect should have been taken. Arrival was a good album, despite some of the production flaws. It’s an album that I can explore. There are a lot of narrative pathways the listener can take with the album, it’s open ended. It’s speculative and it’s intuitive. While it’s not perfect, it’s pretty damn good.
Highlights: Alnitak, Lascaux (Planet Earth)
For Fans Of: Alphaxone, The Lost Son, Cold Womb Descent
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- The Constellation of Orion
- Dimensional World (Fourth Dimensional Beings)
- Lascaux (Planet Earth)
- Abstract (In Concrete)
Arrival was released through Kalpamantra Records on June 3rd, 2017