Shambala Networks - The Last Winter [Ozky e-sound - 2013]Befitting its title, this epic double disk ambient release, "The Last Winter" is empty, cold and expansive, always receding into silence. Each of its 12 glacial movements stretches between 3 and 15 minutes. Shambala Networks apparently has an extensive discography including more than 15 digital releases, which I've been unaware of until now.
Traversing many unfamiliar places not usually explored in soundscape music, this album remains unpredictable, though often lacking the soothing, grounded quality many listeners look for in ambient, myself included. I use such music for sleeping, and this album is not well suited for that, however it is quite moving as a focused listen.
The album opens with lullaby-like xylophones, already setting it apart from the distant, synth driven music of Steve Roach or Mathias Grassow. The mallets play one circular, consonant figure over and over, and it sounds like it could've come from a music box. No other sounds join the xylophone for the 3 minute running time of this intro track.
The second piece "What Life Was Meant to Be" begins with a sudden, lovely contrast, a shimmer of beautiful string pads that undulates brightly, charged with light, and the chirping of birds is heard. Blurred with reverb, a climactic and compassionate chord progression unfolds in slow motion, like the best moments of Stars of the Lid or Kyle Bobby Dunn, it is something of an aquatic symphony. The note choices are comparable only to soundtrack music or classical, and the tone is heartbreaking if you call the right visions to mind. The reverence and glittering magick in this song illustrates all one might hope to find in a winter themed ambient piece.
I would've been satisfied with an entire album in the vein of "What Life Was Meant To Be", but instead, "World Made of Dark Matter" continues the trend of changing style entirely. Each movement here is a distinctly separate statement. This track is muddy, noisy industrial ambience, a dirty and fuzzed out drone with the classic sound of a choir singing 'ah' in the backdrop; possibly a mellotron. The dissonant, ominous soup is sustained for most of the 7 minute running time, dissipating to a grey murmer in the last 2 minutes for a cavernous dark ambient feeling. I don't find this track as interesting, but so many ideas are tried over the course of this lengthy album that I don't mind.
The album continues with the forlorn, ghostly emotional dead-end of "Idegrendszer", an infinite sustain on a cold, dissonant and whistling chord, spiralling downward, much like drowning. In another sense, it is like ice, still and unfeeling. Yes, this is 'arctic' ambient music, but unlike Thomas Koner, I don't feel the hushed stillness of being in nature, rather a sucking, vertiginous dread. In the piece's second half, a cloud of feedback engulfs the piece, and filter sweeps in and out shape the sound into swelling beads. It becomes a little too obviously artificial, perhaps, when the artists are clearly modulating the same effects up and down repeatedly.
"Signs of Insanity" piques my interest again immediately with a heated tropical atmosphere and the enchanting low tones of large gamelan bells. I begin to get the sense of each song as an outpost on a larger trip. This track is not unlike the strangely haunted vibe of Lustmord & Robert Rich's "Stalker" album.
At the end, the reverb tail is abruptly cut, almost as if by accident, a strange thing for an album as fluid and slow moving as this one. Occasional sloppiness in the audio editing such as this takes me out of an otherwise organic and well produced soundspace.
Disk 1 closer "Viragvege" maintains a rainy, melancholic tone, again sampling choirs and dissolving them into vast seas of wet, thunderous space. The feeling of looking back in awe at the massiveness of time gone past, and previous generations, which is often central to Raison D'etre's music, is evident here. If someone told me it was he who created this track, I would easily believe it.
"Atszellemulve", first piece of the second disk, is wonderful, a mix of many of the elements previously heard on the album: birds, string drones, choirs, et cetera, presented in a slow motion, zen-like stillness in which individual particles of dust are visible. Shambala Networks' balanced way of presenting the darker and lighter facets of the same wintry moods from track to track becomes clearer.
Longest track on the album at nearly 16 minutes is "Eso. Evszazad. Tenger.", a smooth, divine tone with a full low end that wraps and envelop the listener in a comforting womb. There is much needed love and warmth in this track after the bleak, empty trail-offs of many of the other movements. The patter of the rain which emerges behind the drone should bring back many emotional memories for just about any person.
The other four tracks are also satisfactory gradations of the color palette established thus far. I could describe them but vocabulary becomes redundant. Perhaps of greatest importance is the oddness of the insectoid analog synth noise and bubbling found in the last track "Internet", the only track with an English title.
Shambala Networks makes a valiant attempt at mixing minimalist modern classical and avant garde instrumental playing into digital synthscape ambient ideas. His results are hit and miss from experiment to experiment, and his production could use some deepening, mastering and perfecting. Nothing on the album is grating, but some of it is unengaging, and drags on far too long. If you can handle a sometimes pessimistic and drained feeling in your ambient music, you will find extraordinary moments of sensitivity and hope on this album as well. If you're searching for a quiet, somber soundtrack to your winter, this is likely a journey worth taking for you.Josh Landry