‘I remembered the effect that the view of the tremendous and ever-moving glacier had produced upon my mind when I first saw it. It had filled me with a sublime ecstasy that gave wings to the soul and allowed it to soar from the obscure world to light and joy. The sight of the awful and majestic in nature had indeed always the effect of solemnizing my mind and causing me to forget the passing cares of life.’
It’s a rare occasion that I revisit an album I’ve removed from my iPod. As a rule of thumb, once something has received five to six listens and has clicked with me, it’s time to bid adieu! Last week was one of those rare occasions, a trip to Norway providing me with the motivation to revisit an ambient classic my ears first delighted to four years ago.
After becoming accustomed to the sights (and costliness!) of Oslo, we ventured up into the Arctic Circle to visit the island-city Tromsø, noted in musical terms for being the birthplace of the two members of Röyksopp and Geir Jenssen – the real name of the man behind Biosphere.
In case you were wondering, the above quotation is a snippet from Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ and it does a good job of defining the notion of the ‘sublime’ – in effect, an overwhelming feeling of terror mixed with a deep sense of awe in the face of the vastness of nature. A big reason for the enduring appeal of ‘Substrata’ is it’s distillation of this condition, a state of mind I was lucky to experience more than once in Tromsø – her hulking mountains, vast stretches of snowy wilderness and view of the spectral northern lights all sculpting this northerly outpost into an eerie mould of beauty.
‘As The Sun Kissed The Horizon’ begins our journey with a field recording. An icy wind can be felt, rooting the listener firmly in an Arctic expanse. Distant shouts of children playing and the lurching drone of an aeroplane offer a sense of humanity’s presence, but these are only interspersed noises; the gale’s cold dominance is certain.
The next couple of tracks jockey for position as my favourite slice on the whole release. ‘Poa Alpina’ – Latin for alpine meadow grass (most tracks on here derive from the names of Arctic or Nepalese vegetation) – is an evocative soul-searcher dowsed with a sharp sense of melancholy. It’s composed of three main elements: that mournful opening progression, then the solemnly plucked guitar strings followed by the track’s master stroke – that ingenious flourish that first occurs at about 1.28ish. But it’s more the space in between the elements than the separate elements themselves that makes this piece of music so immersive and riveting, transporting you onto a lonely and boundless plane of snow-submerged land with only the thin blades of native grass poking up through the cover to offer you a greeting.
The pitter-patter of rain immediately creates a more sombre mood for ‘Chukhung.’ A menacing, reverberating throb elicits a feeling of foreboding before a wispy synth beams forth, lending the track a mystical reverence. Next, an Eastern-sounding instrument drifts in, it too looping back on itself, further deepening the track’s hypnotic spell. The title of this track comes from a Nepalese village up in the Himalayas. Jenssen is an avid mountaineer and it seems likely that a visit to this place inspired this piece and would offer an explanation for its exotic twang.
‘The Things I Tell You’ emits a low drone at its outset before a haunting pair of synths begin their dance, oscillating and coiling, twinkling and gleaming like the bewitching sway of the Aurora Borealis across a starry sky. Halfway through, we are met with a surreal sample from the scene in ‘Twin Peaks’ when the Giant contacts Dale Cooper during Cooper’s sleep. The unexpected, softly spoken voice summons the listener from their trance – ‘Sorry to wake you…’ A cold, bleepy melody then serves to soothe them back into their Arctic reverie and it’s soon answered back by those soaring synths when they re-enter. Gorgeous.
We hear the distinct crackle of firewood at the opening of ‘Times When I Know You’ll Be Sad,’ giving the song a campfire intimacy. There’s a cheery sounding guitar offset somewhat by the plaintive lyrics. All the while, a disquieting two-tone drone lurks beneath the surface.
‘Hyperborea’ is another interesting track – it starts out with a low, resonant drone and a clotting of strange clicking and crunching noises. This track is definitely one of the more abstract on the album. In fact, listening to this track is like experiencing a waking dream, thanks in large part to another curious ‘Twins Peaks’ sample – this time it’s the inimitable Major Garland Briggs explaining a moving dream he had to his son Bobby. Briggs’ poetic oration is a perfect match for Jenssen’s otherworldly soundscape: ‘This was a vision, fresh and clear as a mountain stream, the mind revealing itself to itself.’ At about 2.35, an eerie, alien series of bleeps is added in, making it sound almost like we are surveying some extraterrestrial world for the remaining three minutes.
Another mood-setting field recording begins ‘Kobreisa’ – could that indistinct noise be the lapping of icy water on some remote shore of the Arctic Ocean or the distant sounds of some collapsing glacier? We’re then greeted by an epic orchestral swell that awakens panoramic images of Polar grandness – imperious glaciers; great, frozen, cracked rivers; and immense ice sheets all fitting accompaniments to the regal sweep of the violins. Another peculiar vocal sample on this one – this time of a Russian telepathic trying to guess what object has been placed in another room.
‘Antennaria’ opens amid pensive strings before we hear a tense, pronounced chime. There’s a real sense of desolation in this track – again it’s more so in the space between the different sounds rather than the sounds themselves that creates this ‘empty’ feeling, mirroring the forlorn contemplation of a bleak, unwelcoming Polar wilderness. Perhaps this is what the dejected Robert Scott felt when faced with his terminal trek back across the unforgiving Antarctic expanse that was to claim his life. Halfway through the track, the trills of some phantom chorus quavers surreally through our ears, emphasising the threatening beauty of this ominous region.
‘Uva Ursi’ at last offers some signs of life in the wilds – birds chirping and the seeming sounds of footsteps crunching down on snow. A gentle two tone melody rises and falls ahead of a tautly played guitar and soft male coos. Overall, the effect is quiet and mellow, yet decidedly detached.
Meanwhile, the sounds of trickling water and muffled wind play on ‘Sphere Of No-Form’ before we hear a distinct chime and some kind of ethereal hum. Soon after, low, mildly terrifying drones echo out over an uninterrupted space, sounding like the wailing foghorn of some ill-fated ship cut adrift in Arctic waters. All this bestows the track with an unearthly, impenetrable depth. After a while, those strange hums tentatively enter again, the high tension then welcomingly relieved for the last two and a bit minutes by dent of a faint, soothing synth that seems almost to ache. A beautifully subtle track.
‘Silene’ finishes the album on a dark trip, an ominous whir setting the tone at the start. Next, we can discern a barely there, ghostly chant before what seems like a combined string/horn sample is dropped in, giving the piece a hypnotic rhythm to pivot on. The track ends on a field recording that could be that crackling fire again, twigs snapping underfoot or else firewood being chopped. Either way, it serves to underline the distinctly natural theme ‘Substrata’ pursues.
There’s a reason why virtually all critics and listeners will concur that this album is one of the great feats of electronic music (or heck, even just music in general!) It confidently manages to bottle the essence of a particular landscape, absorbing the listener in its glacial sheen. It’s grand to stick on in the background while working or studying, but this is definitely a release that rewards close attention. If you’re looking to lose yourself, I’d recommend playing ‘Substrata,’ hitting the lights, lying down and closing your eyes. You might just wake up having found yourself again.