I consider myself excited whenever metal—black metal especially—sets its sights on the cosmos. The cold, unforgiving nature of outer space is a perfect companion for metal; I can’t think of another theme with such a vast potential for atmosphere. On the other hand, I do feel ‘space metal’ acts get the rep of getting locked in a niche. It’s nigh-impossible to consider a project like Darkspace without keeping its astronomical inspirations in mind. Frozen Ocean is not a space-themed project per se, but the name itself already echoed coldness and vastness alike before the multi-instrumentalist Vaarwel decided to move his music to the stars. To Frozen Ocean’s credit, The Dyson Swarm sounds appropriately frigid and futuristic. I might even say Vaarwel’s shift from black metal to industrial-come-space metal is a success; unfortunately however, there’s not a lot to these monotonous compositions to keep things interesting once the initial charms have worn off.
The Dyson Swarm is not a weak album, at least not by any objective standard. A lot of black metal musicians who experiment with an electronic or ambient turn do so unsuccessfully. For Vaarwel, his skill with the mostly electronic instrumentation here is well-rounded. The fact that the guy delivers a relatively solid execution for each of his albums is arguably the most impressive thing about Frozen Ocean, considering the project’s versatility. The album before this, Natt Over Meg, was crust-infused black metal. Albums following The Dyson Swarm have been predominantly trip-hop and drone-based—and that’s just based on the sample I’ve heard. In a broad sense, I’m closely reminded of another Russian artist, the intensely prolific Senmuth. Industrial, metal, electronic and ambient are all fair game for both of these musicians, and it just so happens that The Dyson Swarm focuses on a mellower shade of Vaarwel’s creativity.
The electronic sound is well-rounded, and the arrangements are pleasantly dense without getting too crowded. Undermixed industrial guitars, robotic percussion and mechanical leads run steady throughout this album. In terms of pure sound, I was reminded a fair bit of Blut aus Nord circa 2011’s The Desanctification. It’s all very cold and steady, just the way it was meant to be. However, I have gotten the nagging sense throughout The Dyson Swarm that Vaarwel’s executions feel more lifeless than the context usually demands. That doesn’t just apply to this album either. Even Natt Over Meg felt restrained, as if a sentient computer had become an overnight fan of Taake and wanted to make music for itself. The cold, digitized feel obviously works a lot better for The Dyson Swarm’s aesthetic, but it does serve to rob the music of its full atmosphere. All of the pieces are technically in their right place; the way it all comes together just doesn’t feel inspired, much less inspiring to listen to.
I actually use Blut aus Nord as an example of what this album could have been. BaN are every bit as cold and unfeeling as Frozen Ocean with this album, but their arrangements practically demand the listener’s rapt attention. Whether it’s a result of the production or a more engaging sense of composition, I can’t listen to that band without feeling chills up my spine. I’ve never had that same feeling on The Dyson Swarm. Blut Aus Nord sounds like music created by misanthropic aliens. Frozen Ocean sounds like a decently talented guy making music on his computer. The difference between the two grows a bit wider every time I listen to the album.
03) Sloan Great Wall
05) Exoplanet (HD 85512 b)
06) The Dyson Swarm