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 Review archive:  # a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

Roto Visage - Where the Mandrakes Grow [Autumn Wind - 2009]

I’ve always felt that dark ambient had something to offer me. There’s an undeniable attraction in the dark and gloomy sound scapes, the raw, gritty and dirt stretch of unpleasant sound. And then there’s the darkness in the imagery – to anyone even remotely interested in experimental music of the dirtier kind, there’s definite appeal there. It's all about what lies in the shadows, what harrowing visions appear at the edge of my vision as I’m drenched in eternal blackness – this obscurity, this understated-ness is ever intriguing, and, though we are drenched in darkness, we are eager to find our way through it, or to get lost in it, and then to disappear completely. 

And yet, time and time again, I’m painfully disappointed by what dark ambient I given a shot. You see there’s only a fine line between pefected darknes and the work being boring or predictable dark sound scaping that verges on being  dull, or is even flat-out sleep-inducing sonic matter. And the power of suggestion stays unused or fully unforfilled, for nothing tenable is suggested, and rather it’s  hinted at what may lie in the shadows, there is only shadow, and in the shadow itself is too little to inspire fear. I find myself not truly haunted, only truly yawning – quite an difference between the two.

Roto Visage claim to offer a fresh slab of dark ambient with 'Where the Mandrakes Grow', a beautifully packaged album, its digipack plastered with strange, unclear yet satisfyingly intriguing collages. Collages that raise some expectations: as they are hallucinatory composites of body parts, wounds and so much more, so I expect the sound scapes to be difficult to pin down, to make sense of, but no less engorging and encapturing for it. Yet the album largely consists of your typical dark sound scapes, with low, humming layers of sound, knocked up another notch here and there with what then seem to be  field recordings, then digitally processed rumblings and tumblings; here and there tortured cries scream away in the background, elsewhere slowed down voices mutter away indistinguishably.

The approach is, by all means, familiar, but that I consider no great problem. If the execution is effective, who can object to it? Consider horror movies, and the various subgenres of horror, each built around familiar premises, plots; each offering a barrage of ghosts and murderers we have seen before many, many times – and yet, they will still give us chills, goose bumps, shivers down our spines. And though, consciously, we may object to what we’ve so many times before, subconsciously, or consciously but secretly, we still enjoy the feeling. And so it goes for dark ambient: we’ve heard it before, know the premise, the plot, the twist; are intimately familiar with its brand of monsters and monstrosities, yet when done superbly, we are positively terrified. 

Yet Where the 'Where The Mandrakes Grow' never really manages to haunt. It takes it understated-ness slightly too far, confusing that which is left unsaid with that which is unarticulated: the tracks drift away fairly uneventfully, with the various sound and sources all mashed to an all too monochromatic paste. No sample stands out; no drone pounds away at my one eardrum while a jittering click stabs at the other; the tracks are slightly too safe, avoiding any form of contrast or conflict altogether. And so, the sense of impending doom never really sinks in. That is not to say the record is altogether un-enjoyable; on the contrary, it provides a comfortable backdrop to doing the dishes or something like that – yet this seems like the wrong kind of qualification for an album like this, and will hardly serve as a recommendation of any kind.

The greatest problem with 'Where the Mandrakes Grow' is that the sound scapes lack a real edge; sonically, everything feels slightly too stretched out, so losing something of the grit that would be ever so welcome. The hisses lack the static abrasiveness that makes them grim; the stretches of ambient sound lack true texture, even the least bit of crackle. It’s as if the tracks were smeared over with a thick layer of Vaseline, to provide them with a coherence that, in the end, turned out to be slightly too coherent.

'Where the Mandrakes Grow' is by no means unpleasant, but I’d preferred it if it hád been slightly unpleasant. As is, it fails to really get under your skin, and it is far from memorable. A decent album genre fanatics can probably enjoy, but which casual dark ambient listeners need not concern themselves with.

Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5

Sven Klippel
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