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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Album Review: Borealis - Voidness

Album Rating: B
If I were to jump off this review and leave you lying there, frustrated and unsatisfied, with only a single word of description, I’d describe Voidness as ‘murky.’ Murky in the sense that everything seems submerged beneath this swirling residue of crackles and ambience; nothing clear except the slow thump of bass. Now it would be tempting, based on the short description you’ve just read, to dismiss Borealis’ debut LP under this new alias as borrowing just a little too much content from Burial. Indeed, a lot of what we now attribute to the work of this decade’s Dubstep superhero is in play here: from the minimalistic structure to sporadic use of pitched-up vocal samples. Both in mood and direction, however, Voidness is very much its own beast. It’s an album that, despite introducing itself as quite downbeat - drawing from the ever popular melancholic, urban feeling - emerges as rather hopeful.

Considering the label’s description that accompanied the release of the album, I guess we should be thankful for this. Amidst lines such as “an infinite void where we find total freedom and where we find room to dream the waking dream,”  we’re given the sense that Voidness is in part about looking towards the future. Borealis has given himself 19 tracks to explore this, and as such we see a healthy mix of ambience between his more urban sentiments. Not padding, per se, because the more ambient-based sections are where Voidness truly shines, but necessary time for reflection in an album claiming to deal with such heavy ideas.

Unsurprisingly, given the title of the album, Borealis works to make his compositions stretch into as much space as possible. The ever present hum of bass, strings or acapella vocals offers a base from which percussion, keyboard and vocal samples can launch, reverberate or sink into. At its worst, Voidness relegates itself to (albeit rather good) background noise as thumping percussion rattles in the background and keyboard notes echo outdated organ synths without really choosing to progress to any meaningful point. Tracks like “Orphan Fire” are most guilty of this: holding itself in a perpetual state of about-to-go-somewhere without ever really doing so. In fact, the entire first segment of the album is somewhat plagued by it, with tracks thundering in with a relatively aggressive manner only to lack the oomph to really carry it off. Often going for an ‘abandoned fairground’ vibe in a move that, while interesting, doesn’t really connect with the rest of the album. At its best, however, Voidness is incredibly successful. The album mellows out around “Not of This Reality,” and from therein we start to see a much more confident and partially experimental attitude. “Wearied, We Keep Awake” is an absolutely fantastic maelstrom of bass, tribalistic vocal hums and synths as they all tumble over each other, struggling for centre stage. Little skips and cuts within each instrument make this not so much a swirl of liquid but one with disjointed lumps of ice constantly crashing and grating into each other; partially reminiscent of mid-00’s Tim Hecker were it not for the military-parade-like force of the percussion. Most surprisingly, the result of all this perceived chaos is a strong, uplifting sense of bliss. The sign of a track that more than lives up to Borealis’ grandeus mission statement.

“Wearied, We Keep Awake” marks a turning point for Voidness, as the handful of tracks proceeding it are very good indeed. Other highlights include “Nightfall,” which sees the percussion scale back to beats in the ambience in order to give room for a slow, powerful built to crescendo. It’s deceptively simple, as what first appears like a standard progression of chords reveals itself to be a densely layered sea of sound of the likes of Listening Mirror and Shrine that we rarely see outside of pure Ambient. A great deal of care has been taken with the contours and texture of the piece, which in English means that it sounds pretty special on decent headphones.

In between these two aforementioned segments of the album, we see Borealis playing it a little safe as the Burial influences really start to show though. With looser, more laid back percussion, pumps of bass and a higher concentration of vocal samples, the tracks “Black Drop” and “Not of the Reality” echo sections of “Ashtray Wasp” and other, more recent Burial releases. This isn’t to discredit the middle of Voidness as it’s certainly enjoyable, but the resemblance is just a little bit too noticeable. Considering, too, that Borealis is based under the same collective as Volor Flex and the like, it seems that we’re seeing just a little too much of this style of music as of late. It also feels just a little bit out of place in an album that is otherwise very successful at defining its own sound.

I guess the inconsistency in the tone of the album was always expected when we consider the sheer amount of music it contains. Likewise, since Borealis was so intent on going for such an ambitious sentiment the chances of him pulling it off without a fault were one in a million. In the end, we’re left with an album with three distinct parts which dramatically improves as it progresses. As a whole, it shows the potential to act as a singular movement, but in the end the changes that occur are too discreet for the parts to seamlessly blend together. Despite this, the album is still of remarkable quality, and the highlights may rank amongst some of the best electronic tracks of the year. It’s just a shame that the few flaws Voidness possesses hold it back from truly becoming the life changing album Borealis wanted it to be.



Voidness is available on Bandcamp as "name your price." So free, basically, unless you're nicer/richer than I am.


Or just give him a like on Facebook to quench your guilt.


Tracklist

01. Eye Green
02. Dark Water
03. Orphan Fire
04. Unseen & Uncalled
05. To Hear Her Burial
06. Coal Angels
07. Crimson Purple
08. Not Of This Reality
09. WoMb
10. Black Drop
11. Intravenous
12. Nightingale
13. Wearied, We Keep Awake
14. Razor Fragrance
15. Afterswarm
16. Minerva
17. Nightfall
18. Morningcell, Still
19. You Were Away

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