Tuesday 2 December 2014

Echo-logy: Shadow Biosphere

It's always a thrill when you find an album that gives you no obvious reference points to work with. I've been living with 'Parallel Evolution' - the startlingly original album from Shadow Biosphere - for some weeks now. And every time I think of something to compare it to, a whole host of reasons flood my brain to show me how it actually leaves that particular example far behind, or wrong-foots it completely.

First, the facts. The record is electronic, and instrumental. It's a concept album - in fact, SB are something of a concept band. The name 'shadow biosphere' refers to the proposition (real, serious but not proven) that other lifeforms exist on earth which have evolved entirely separately - hence the album's title - and remained at the microbe level, hidden from the 'known' world.

Caroline Jago and Lesley Malone, the duo behind SB, have a fascinating creative partnership which here reminds me very much of a lyricist/tunesmith team - except there are no lyrics. Instead, Lesley has fashioned the entire theme of the project - right through to the imagery used in the artwork/video - and Caroline provides the sound. With the ideas so thoroughly worked through in this way, the end result is music that brings this theme to life so completely, any words (on top of the sparse, enigmatic phrases in the CD inlay) would be redundant.

If we assume that any instrumental record is the soundtrack to whatever it conjures up in the listener's mind, then the shadow biosphere is a fantastic, magnetic subject in itself. While it may exist in the realm of possibility, it is curious and strange enough to evoke science fiction as well as fact, and - with the idea that other creatures are among us, developing in the gaps between what we see and recognise as the natural world, and what we don't - a kind of reverse-Lovecraft touch of horror.

The album has a vast atmosphere. Where you might expect earthy acoustic tones (typical of the folk world, 'neo' or otherwise) for reconnecting and identifying with nature, this music sounds like science. The opening title track is a textbook example: it introduces what sounds like the 'ping' of a sonar, only for the tone to fit perfectly with the synth that wells up beneath it. It's what I'd put on the stereo if I drove a bathysphere.

Everything about the way the record is put together cements the underlying idea. The album sounds completely 'current' - that is to say, its warm, robust synths and beats can hint at both the past (Kraftwerk, say, or the BBC Radiophonic Workshop) and the glitchy futurism of someone like Shackleton without relying on any of them. Making electronic music seem timeless is some achievement - successfully avoiding the twin pitfalls of sounding 'retro' and 'like nothing on earth' - and underlines the idea that the sound is referencing something equally eternal: it should concern us now, but it has always been there, and it always will be.

It's almost impossible to pick highlights, but some individual numbers display particularly brilliant and inventive ways of depicting how these two worlds rub together. Tracks like 'Bylakupee' (the name of a Tibetan refugee settlement in India - again, an artificial substitute home) and 'Multiversal' establish their outer parameters: for the former it's a huge beat and stately low synth, while the latter has a relentless, driving keyboard riff that allows the percussion to bounce around it. Then, the layers of extra keyboard and ambient noise build up from the inside of the production, and the 'middle' of what you're hearing increases in intensity, pushing at the edges until you feel the whole thing might burst - as though the subterranean species are finally breaking through into our consciousness. While the extraordinary 'Interstellar Endoliths' sets up two short figures at similar pitches, one a brief resolving melody, the other more of a discordant drone: they grind against each other, seeming to clash at first until it all coalesces into quiet. The ambiguous closer, 'Mycelium Dreaming', moves more or less into total ambient territory, foregrounding a light but persistent pulse, and leaving it up to us to decide if this really is a march of the microbes, sharing our space at last.

If Caroline's and Lesley's names are familiar, it may be because you know them from their work with other bands, particularly the neo-classical group Seventh Harmonic, the main vehicle for Caroline's band compositions. I mention this not just because I think you should check out Seventh Harmonic - and you should - but because I'm sure that Shadow Biosphere's music has such a distinctive character because it is electronica put together by people who know how to make acoustic music work: where to place sounds for an overall '3D' effect, when it's a good thing to have chords clash, why you sometimes want the drums to be quieter than everything else - and so on.

It's also a very pleasing thought that musicians and artists like C and L, appearing in various guises and with like-minded 'non-mainstream' individuals in various UK/Europe concerts and festivals that give dark ambient / folk / classical the space it deserves - are hiding in plain sight, ready to break through.

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You can help, of course, by buying the record. It's a very limited edition on CD - only 100 copies were made, so don't hang about. Currently, you can still order one directly from the band through their Facebook page here. However, if you are too late to get hold of one, the download is forever. Find the details (and possibly a few more physical copies) at the record label's Bandcamp page.

I know this blog is a little bit global on its day, so - if you're in Estonia (or just passing through!) you may catch the band's live debut. This promises to include Lesley's ace live percussion skills alongside Caroline's synth sorcery, so will bring the album to thunderous life. Alas, I have no teleport, but please go in my stead - here's the Facebook event page.

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