Dark ambient appears to be at a crossroads. There are those who claim the genre has been dead for some time, and while this is a debatable statement, there’s certainly evidence to support it. Much of what the genre has recently seen falls into familiar tropes that have, arguably, been explored time and again ever since Lustmord first took his recording gear into the bowels of the earth. The resulting dark ambient formula has been dissected, reversed, switched, and analyzed since then, and while there have undoubtedly been some outstanding works of technical and conceptual prowess, one could say that they’ve all been variations on a theme. As the saying goes, imagination is simply the rearranging of existing ideas.
Recently, there’s been an emergent trend of dark ambient releases containing heavy cinematic and traditional qualities. The brooding, ominous isolationism that has defined so many dark ambient albums has taken a backseat to established emotional snapshots; that is to say, music that aims to capture a particular mood or feeling that exists in a singular moment. The focus is neither on extended immersion nor on the examination of a particular concept, but rather on the expression of feeling. The experimentation of sound is noticeably absent, replaced by recognizable instrumentation following traditional musical structures.
Such a hybrid of the ambient and cinematic is Self Destruction Themes, the second release from Pedro Pimentel‘s Wordclock. Here are ten ambient-cinematic tracks of varying length, from two minutes to eleven, with heavy elements of violin and piano sounding their emotive chords just as they have since the instruments were invented. Soaked in reverb to impart a sepia-tinged filter of wistful melancholy, the album’s sound is nowhere near as dire as its title may suggest. “It May Come,” for example, is three parts beauty to one part despair, its delicately looped piano recalling dust motes floating lazily through afternoon sunbeams warming the wooden floorboards of a mountain cabin. The mournful strings of “Something More” wail and keen, echoed by quiet keys; this is musical composition with the shadow of ambience floating in the background as an afterthought, rather than the focus.
Self Destruction Themes isn’t purely analog, however. There are plenty of elements which will be familiar to anyone who’s heard electronic ambient over the last decade: field recordings, snippets of sampled conversations, long backing synths, and scatterings of noise. But Pimentel keeps these features on the fringes of his hazy autumnal compositions. He uses electronic beats in the album’s later tracks (“32 Walls,” “Lack of Language”) which add obvious tension to the jangling strings, distant piano, panoramic atmospheres, and whispering voices, but following the sound of the album, these are added detail to the central piano and string.
There seem to be a growing number of albums in a similar vein, merging the scope—and synthetically enhanced atmosphere—of dark ambient with traditional sounds and stripped-down chord sequences that evoke singular moments of feeling; it’s in the latter where the faux-soundtrack half of Wordclock’s identity dwells. There’s the sense, too, with the Lustmordian limit perhaps being reached, that structural and conceptual experimentation is being traded in for a more straightforward approach.
Wordclock’s latest falls into a difficult place between styles. While it succeeds at establishing and maintaining an emotional center, it doesn’t provide the same free-form immersive qualities of ambient; it’s too directed an album for that. Nonetheless, what’s here is well-done and well-conceived, if a bit short on textural and atmospheric variety. Self Destruction Themes is one more freshly installed signpost along a still-under-construction branch of the ambient road which is, perhaps, leading us to places we’ve not yet visited.
01) Here We’ll Be Gone
02) The Fever of Our Waiting
03) It May Come
04) When Indecision Strikes
05) Something More
06) More Often Than Not
07) Every Shade
08) Something Else
09) 32 Walls
10) Lack of Language