Biosphere - The Senja Recordings [Biophon Records (Norway) - 2019]
Nearly three decades on from his debut as Biosphere, Geir Jenssen is still able to throw curveballs. In fact the last three years have seen some of the Norwegian's finest material with the much loved ambient project, from the primarily choral Departed Glories to the downtempo beats and sample rich pallet of The Petrified Forest. The Senja Recordings have their antecedent in a commissioned work Jenssen completed in 2016 which was released under the title of The Hilvarenbeek Recordings. In that instance the material was composed of field recordings made from the location of a Dutch farm. For the Senja Recordings we find the composer again on the move, this time on the island which lends the record its name, about forty miles from Tromsø, in the arctic circle.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the location this is a very frosty set of ambient recordings; beat-less, sparse and often harnessing some quite unorthodox methods, it also finds Jenssen in a reflective and introspective mood, sifting his archive of recordings, allowing the compositional environment to direct his production and the album's pacing. Skalbrekka is the first of several experiments in manipulating field recordings into unrecognisable shapes. In this case the sounds of ice being thrown onto a frozen lake are transformed into almost synthetic tonal pulses. Tracks like this sit neatly among other entirely instrumental pieces such as Strandby , recorded using a Roland System-100 and Fjolhogget which uses vintage OSC OSCar and Yamaha FB-01 synthesizers. Longer, stand-out tracks from the album's first half come in the form of the eight minute Berg, a lovely drone and delicate electronics piece aptly capturing the sense of the slowing of time as the landscape freezes.
Of the numerous recording locations showcased perhaps the most fascinating has to be the "Military snow shed" which features on all three of the Bergsbotn pieces. Jenssen described it in the notes as a 300m long concrete shed through which the wind blows turning the whole thing into a giant flute. As well as capturing the unique sound of the wind in this structure Jenssen also uses a bamboo flute and hand drum in combination with software processing to further amplify the natural acoustics of the shed. While the wind recording is classic drone horror soundscape, the two variants with the instruments are ghostly isolationist solos where the desolation of the place is foregrounded owing to the sound of a single human presence. You'd be forgiven for missing the dog on the album's first track. The reindeer which feature on Alteret are easier to register owing to the familiar sound of their neck-bells. Other signs of life are absent on what is essentially a landscape and soundscape record.
The final and longest track Ha has Jenssen using hydrophones and the wonderfully named Waldorf Blofeld synth to conjure another ice blasted atmosphere of intriguing tones and mysterious underwater gurgles. Nothing on The Senja Recordings hits home quite like the high points of Substrata or Dropsonde but then it's not really meant to. This is the sound of an artist isolating himself, stripping back his options and distilling the core elements of his craft down to their bare essentials. The results are stark and at times haunting.