The nineties were something of a golden age for dark ambient. Sweden’s Cold Meat Industry label was regularly releasing music by the likes of Raison d’être, In Slaughter Natives, and Deutsch Nepal, and in the process defining the Cold Meat Industry sound that was so influential in the minimal corners of industrial music at that time. It was on that label that Johan Levin‘s Desiderii Marginis emerged with Songs over Ruins. In the two decades since then, Levin has continued making music, further refining the more melancholic end of that seminal Cold-Meat sound. He now has eight full-length albums plus a couple of retrospectives to his name. Since the demise of Cold Meat Industry in 2013 (“a sinking ship with a captain who drank all the rum himself,” as Tomas Pettersson once put it, though not without fondness), Levin has found a new home with the Cyclic Law imprint, and it’s Cyclic Law who have, for this twenty-year anniversary, re-issued Songs over Ruins.
As dark ambient albums go, Songs over Ruins has a high degree of musicality. Despite the bass drones that hum through many of the tracks and the occasional spoken samples buried in the mix, it is a very long way from drone ambient or sound collage. There are rhythms and melodies in every track, slow and repetitive as they may be. The tracks are constructed from seemingly few simple parts: bass drone, reverb-soaked crashes, melancholic synth lines, and whispers of electronic noise. Many of the tracks feature tribal or martial drumming, driving along the more energetic tracks. Bells also form an important part of the sound, from the simple mechanical chiming rhythm that opens the album, through to the melancholic subterranean rumble of the bells that underpin “Ashes,” and the electronically twisted peals in “Songs over Ruins II.”
As you would expect from an album made in 1997—and a debut album at that—the sound can seem a little primitive to modern ears. In particular, the synth sounds are very much of the nineties. That doesn’t detract from the album (indeed, it’s part of its charm), but clearly Levin has greatly developed as a musician since then. With his later albums, there’s a greater sense that the sounds are blended together as part of the same organic environment, while on this album the music is more diagrammatic and has a more overtly electronic feel to it. Even so, one of Levin’s strengths as a musician is his ear for subtle change. Even in the most straightforward tracks on Songs over Ruins, there are subtle variations throughout that mean that the music is never boring.
The mood of the album only varies a bit, mostly ranging from the sinister foreboding of tracks such as “Embossed in Bones” through to more solemn and melancholic atmospheres such as the crushing gloom of “Ashes” or the sacral yearning of “Ephemeral.” It’s with the latter sound that the album is at its most compelling. On tracks such as “Scintillate II,” however, Levin shows a more forceful side to his music with blasts of electronic screeching that hint at the harsher, noisier aesthetic that he later explored on Strife.
The musical approach to ambient is something that has been present to varying degrees in his later work. While That Which Is Tragic and Timeless was very much an album of musical ambient, others such as Deadbeat and his most recent album, Hypnosis, are much more oriented towards drones and sound collage.
While it’s tempting to look for the foreshadowing of his later work in this album, that may not be a helpful way to view it. With each new album, Levin has brought something new to his music: the aggressive electronics of Strife, the processed guitars of That Which Is Tragic and Timeless, the quiet exoticism of Procession. One way to look at Songs over Ruins is as an experiment with rhythmic ambient music, and that it was merely coincidental that it happened to be his first album. Certainly, the martial snares on Songs over Ruins are one sound that has never made it into his later work.
What to say of the remastering? Well, it’s louder, which will put it more in line with the volumes of most of your music collection. But apart from that, the effects are subtle. When I took a close listen to “The Core of Hell II” on the original release and the reissue, I could hear a subtle distortion on the reissue, which is an unfortunate consequence of trying to compete in the loudness war. It’s not something you’d notice if you didn’t go looking for it, but it does seem like a retrograde step and will dismay the audiophiles.
However you look at it, the emergence of Desiderii Marginis was an important event in dark ambient music. Starting with Songs over Ruins, Desiderii Marginis has been a master of the genre. While there’s no doubt that this is an early album, it is nonetheless a high-quality work of dark ambient—one that speaks with its own unique voice. It’s a pleasure to revisit it now, twenty years later, and it’s certainly worthy of this re-issue.
01) Songs over Ruins I
02) Scintillate II
07) Solemn Descent
08) The Core of Hell II
09) Embossed in Bones
10) Songs over Ruins II