Music Reviews

Artist: Sverre Knut Johansen & Robert Rich (@)
Title: Precambrian
Format: CD + Download
Label: Spotted Peccary Music (@)
Rated: *****
'Precambrian,' the latest album by Norwegian electronic music composer Sverre Knut Johansen, in collaboration with iconic American ambient drone artist Robert Rich, focuses on the prehistoric development of planet earth, going all the way back to the Hadean Eon (4.6 billion years ago). In case you need an earth science refresher on the prehistoric periods, one is provided for you on the inside of the 6-panel slipcase the CD comes in. The intention on 'Precambrian' is to take the listener on a journey through the following epochs - Hadean Eon, Archean Eon, Proterozoic Era, Paleozoic Era, Mesozoic Era, Cenozoic Era, then the (modern) Anthropocene, and finally, summing up in Precambrian. This is all quite impressionistic, since there are no actual accounts of what life was like during most of these periods. In a sense, this is more of a fantasia than an actual aural presentation of what these prehistoric times might sound like, which would probably be pretty boring for the most part. Beginning with a rush of white noise, then eerie drones, the earth's initial existence is shrouded in mystery. Weird whistling oscillations and heavy space ambience harken to an unsettled time on earth's cooling crust. Eventually, life bubbles up slowly and a less tumultuous environment emerges, with a bass sequence (eventually embellished with other synth elaborations) to represent the pattern of microbial life being formed. As life evolves the ambience becomes more complex and less alien. Johansen provides most of the atmospheres, ambiences and synth work, while Rich contributes piano, Haken Continuum (a most expressive keyboard instrument that goes well beyond any standard synth controller) and gliss guitar. David Helpling also contributes guitar textures on a couple of tracks. These elements add a certain humanistic factor, even in the pre-human eras. Some (ambient purists) may be put off by the musicality that evolves out of some of the pieces, but there are no memorable tunes to hum, or toe-tapping rhythms. Much of this is likely for dramatic effect, as if you were watching a movie. Still, even with pterodactyl cries and strange bird chirps there is enough ambient atmosphere to please most who enjoy these kind of soundscapes. It isn't until the next to last track, "Anthropocene," where humans enter the picture and impact earth's geological and ecosystems that things get really intense, ominous and scary. (As well it should, considering what we're facing today with the environment.) There's also a bit of sadness to it as well. The summation in the title track (also the longest on the album by a few seconds) is the most orchestrated and dramatic piece on the album, giving the impression that it's better to go out with a bang rather than a whimper. A tremendous amount of effort has been put into this, not only musically, but also in the visual art and text of the 6-panel slipcase and 20 page booklet. It may not trip the trigger of every ambient music enthusiast out there, but should be lauded for its grandeur and the ambitious attempt to stuff the billions of years of earth’s eco-history into a little more than an hour’s worth of music.

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