Unintentionally, I’m becoming something of an expert on cold climates. Not geographically so much, but atmospherically. The furthest North I can personally admit to going is the not-so-beautiful town of Drammen in Norway one October, and any planned trips to Nuuk in Greenland have been put on ice – no pun intended – due to my travel companions dropping out at the last minute for fear that the Arctic Liner would sink. As to why the Liners specifically round the Arctic regions are more prone to sinking in the imaginations of my peers is a continued source of mystery to me, maybe it’s just the idea of drowning in sub-zero waters rather than warm Mediterranean ones that seems less appealing, or, like underserviced Middle Eastern aeroplanes which seem to drop from the sky like rocks every couple of weeks, they feel the hardware isn’t quite up to the requirements of the job. At least if you were to drown off the coast of Dubai you wouldn’t feel like you were turning into a berg in the process.
In the UK we’re suffering from what the tabloids are gleefully calling a “washout summer”, even though it falls in line with the kinds of weather we’re used to getting here. As yet the temperatures haven’t reached their seasonal highs. But if you’re a sufferer of Summer Seasonal Affective Disorder and you can’t bear the mercury climbing above 24C, you could do yourself a favour by getting immersed in the frozen sonic landscapes of Thomas Köner, playing some Penumbra: Black Plague and watching reruns of The Thing. Köner has been at the forefront of creating cold dark ambience ever since the early 90s and Novaya Zemlya is another quiver to his bow, this time providing us with a sonic interpretation of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago: two islands off the North coast of Russia forming the extreme North-Eastern point of Europe. Not used for much these days apart from the odd traveller going on spiritual journeys to find themselves among the brittle remains of Soviet nuclear test sites, Novaya Zemlya is an empty, unforgiving plateau. Through 36 minutes Köner lands us somewhere within its coordinates and forces us to experience the unnerving reality of its climate.
Novaya Zemlya carries a different feel from Köner’s earlier works or to similar albums like Sleep Research Facility’s excellent “Deep Frieze” or Parhelion’s “Midnight Sun”. Rather than have us listen to the biting polar winds snake their way round the ice caps or experiencing the crunch of footsteps in the bleak distance, Novaya Zemlya has a far greater anonymity to it, spending most of its time generating a landscape of hollow booming magnitude around us. We find ourselves in an inert land drunk on timelessness and opportunity. Köner realises that the only thing we use to measure time is the distance between two events, so by not punctuating the sonic stream of the album with many events at all, Novaya Zemlya carries an eternal feel. There are occasional cracks in the night air and the untranslatable dialogue of a Russian numbers station transmitting in the distance, but mostly it’s an experience devoid of sensation. The vastness around us encourages us not just to look ground-ward or laterally but upwards, as the importance of our surroundings and the awe of nature take on a galactic feel. These are the sounds of polar stargazing. We are not just looking at the universe, we form an integral part of it.
If there’s one curious fact about Novaya Zemlya, it’s that in spite of its namesake and its intentions, it doesn’t have a particularly cold feel about it. All the things that we largely associate with this level of ambient are missing – the hisses of winds and the glacial ruthlessness. If anything, Novaya Zemlya has a temperate feel to it in parts. It brings home the depth of the universe in which we can never be truly alone: real loneliness and isolation is a mental construct, after all. If we take the grandeur of nature to be our companion, or we see the constellations above us for the unending source of wonder they can provide, there will always be something to accompany us, even through the dark Russian nights. Whether this warmth was intentional or a circumstantial by-product of Köner’s work is irrelevant: it’s a comforting reality, though one which we will only be able to see through clarity and familiarity with our own psychoses.
Its inactivity is what gives Novaya Zemlya its character. Köner has understood and harnessed the essence of timelessness. It’s an incredibly quick 36 minute journey as we realise that time would pass far more swiftly for us in this Russian frostland than it does for us in our busy city days. We freckle our routines with hundreds of different minor and major activities, though in the extreme North, the setting of the sun and the turning of the stars are the only events to feature in our lives. It’s because of this that Novaya Zemlya feels like more of a statement than an album to be constantly replayed: yes, it’s an enjoyable experience but there’s still not enough here to really involve us or our imaginations, especially with so much other atmospheric ambience on the market. A little more cold and a little less inertia would make this all the more effective and personal. As wondrous as Novaya Zemlya is, it would be better to enjoy its construction than its message.
01. Novaya Zemlya 1
02. Novaya Zemlya 2
03. Novaya Zemlya 3