Monday, April 8, 2013

Album Review: Petrels - Onkalo

Album Rating: A

Onkalo takes name and inspiration from a spent nuclear fuel depository currently under construction in Finland: a structure with a planned lifetime of 100,000 years, approximately similar to the age of the human race. The timescale is preposterous -the oldest human structures standing today barely scratch a single percent of it- and if our modern world is anything to go by Onkalo (aptly translated to “hiding place”) will soon be our legacy. The album focuses on the mere thought that in 100,000 years something might be looking back at the now decaying depository, as well as all the questions they may have. Will mankind’s sole lasting contribution to the earth be nuclear? It’s a piece full of uncertainty, timeless beauty and, above all else, fear.
You could call it ambitious, to reflect on both the past and future of human existence within the confines of drone ambient, but after his critically acclaimed debut Haeligeweille it could not be in more capable hands. Besides, Petrels barely confines himself at all: with huge variations in texture which expands the album’s range from the darkest of dark ambient to something more delicate and airy, and brief inserts of rhythmic techno add a sense of urgent progression when needed. With tracks ranging from four minutes to 20, there’s also a sense that they will go on for as long as they have to. The music is therefore allowed to breathe and mould itself subtly over time, something even the more restrained producers struggle with.

Take “Characterisation Level,” the 20 minute goliath occupying the penultimate “peak spot” on Onkalo. The track begins with pretty dramatic shifts in pitch in the rhaspy, horn-like outlying layer of drone in a very direct and punctuate approach. Individually the progression is unremarkable, but as it slowly decays into itself we witness the true power of Onkalo. Structure gives in to chaos; hope gives in to fear; and when it breaks down to two interwoven chords -when an uplifting high note is continuously swept away by unstoppable, never-ending waves of deep drone- “Characterisation Level” seems almost spiritual. It’s a reflection on the inescapable truth in the argument between life and death: death will always win. The same sentiment is present throughout the album, as in the notes’ fractured and uncertain state Onkalo already feels as if it’s in a state of pre-decomposition.

There’s never any sense of an easy answer in Onkalo, and it betrays its grandiose starting point by being far more descriptive than explanatory. It raises the questions, runs with the questions, but ultimately lets these questions fly around the imagination of the listener instead of supplying any answers of its own. It’s even pretty clear Onkalo doesn’t have any answers, just the reflections of Petrels and his fascination with death and time. In the end, the album feels like a calm, thoughtful place in the centre of a universe slowly tearing itself apart. In a way, it is.

Buy and/or stream the first two tracks here!
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1. Hinkley Point Balloon Release
2. Giulio's Throat
3. On The Dark Great Sea
4. Time Buries The Door
5. White And Dodger Herald The Atomic Age
6. Trim Tab (Pt. 1)
7. Trim Tab (Pt. 2)
8. Characterisation Level
9. Kindertransport

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