Sleep Research Facility – Stealth
Posted In: Cold Spring Records, James Catchpole, Sleep Research Facility, Sleep Research Facility - Stealth, Stealth
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Fear of the unknown, of a potential darkness yet to come, and our reluctant embracing of the unforeseen future, are phobias that are prevalent all throughout life, as they cast their dark shadows over one’s thoughts. Our seemingly limitless list of phobias can act as a protective firewall, but all too often they dismantle abilities and dominate our thoughts with a shocking sense of speed and malevolent purpose. It may not be such a shock to the system, then, to discover that these phobias can smoothly manifest themselves in areas of music. The pitch black, isolated soul of dark ambient music can make for a particularly suitable pairing for nightmares to sink in and quietly announce themselves, and Sleep Research Facility is one who easily turns the darkest of atmospheres into very real manifestations.
For the music to leave a lasting effect and weave into the listener’s subconcious, there must exist a hidden, yet menacing intent. One of the rules for the successful manipulation of mood is not to force itself on the listener and cry for its attention, as seen in many a blood and guts horror film score. In some ways, that would be too easy; it’s an escape route that many take. Instead, it seems that the most effective way of capturing an atmosphere, and twisting it into a reality where the listener can drift away – it is ambient music, after all – is to approach it with subtlety and care, building up to a climax that rises above the most frightening of films. It is this that leaves an affecting imprint on the listener’s psyche. It requires a careful balancing act between subtlety and atmospheric development, while also retaining the lighter, almost meditative qualities of pure ambient music. Atmosphere is the key here, and Sleep Reseach Facility has this close to perfection. It raises an interesting question, too – can the darkest of dark ambient be considered relaxing? Surely, that contradicts the very purpose of what it sets out to do; it wants to seep into our subconcious and lie in wait, playing upon our nerves with a silent intent. For his project, sounds were sourced from a U.S. Air Force base in Cambridgeshire, England. Deep inside the hangars lay a B-2 Stealth Bomber. These field recordings were taken during maintenance on the craft, and scrambled and cut almost beyond their original state. The bomber itself is the quietly threatening, yet cooly motionless voice of the record.
Lustmord and Robert Rich’s masterpiece, Stalker, held us in a state of suspense for the whole duration of its unnerving experience, where we were effectively left on our own, deserted on a mysterious island full of whisperings and unknown terrain. Subtlety reigned supreme, and the fear of what we could not see made the heart beat faster. And while Sleep Research Facility exists in a similar world, his palette of sounds are extremely minimal (he once turned a three minute field recording of a fan into an hour long piece), and this helps to restrict and confine the sound, like a constrictor slowly suffocating the listener, and where one only glimpses out of the corners of vision phantoms evil with intent. These fears lie in wait, ready to strike, filling us with an insurmountable, impending sense of dread. Yet it seems this task is not an easy one to create; levels of atmosphere must slowly and patiently revolve in a constant set-up, expectancy and anticipation cycle endlessly for what may yet come. Sometimes, it doesn’t manifest itself fully, and that can be a part of the appeal, rather than a sweet disappointment. It would seem the pleasure is in the ride, and not in the arrival. Sleep Research Facility is one who can develop this atmosphere with stunning effect, leading the listener alone into the darkest of voids. Stealth, his third release, is probably a good entry point into his music for newcomers, although I wouldn’t say it is instantly accessible. It demands attention; darkened places and headphones, away from all distractions. It isn’t as dark as some of his past records, though; in particular the shivering dread of his debut, Nostromo. Yet, what darkness there is buried in this record is one full of a sinister threat, one that is cold and calculating in malevolent intelligence.
Stealth explores the top secret American bomber, and utilises sounds sourced completely from the aircraft. This authenticity is essential to capturing the distinctly dark mood, as the hums and engine noise whine through in an endless, threatening cycle; a machine breathing with the cold power of high technology, and one which could destroy anything at any time with ease. Whether or not we make it back out to the other side of this exploration is only a distant concern, as SRF wraps us up in the unceasingly cold claws of the plane’s gravity. The atmosphere he creates can work to a stunning effect, amplifying isolation; his music is an abyss lacking any entering light. As the seconds pass, the five pieces can seem to move with very little change. In reality, it’s constantly developing and taking us to places far beyond anywhere else.
Entombed in secrecy for years, America’s Stealth Bomber was, and still remains, iconic; the black, sleek cutting edge design possessed a dark, cool edge of a threat. A smooth ride is ensured in a noticeable lack of bass, aside from occasional rumbles similar to distant thunder. The emptiness this leaves allows the thin drones of only a couple of layers to slice through, making the music seem lighter, almost gliding through the air. It may very well be better to properly describe Stealth as one long piece, as the five tracks stick together in a cohesive web. Due to the deep listening experience, it will leave different thoughts planted in different minds – one of the true beauties inherent to music – and listeners will take different thoughts away from the record. But SRF has always, to date, utilised these fears to a stunning effect, using the isolationist, nightmare inducing backdrops of deepest space inNostromo, the undiluted horror of the doomed ship which became hostage to a malevolent entity inAlien. Set during the eerie first ten minutes of the film, it was a place where no one could hear you scream as the listener slowly descended the decks of the eerie ship, where something inhuman was breathing. It was a masterpiece of the darkest, droning ambience, as was his sophomore, Deep Frieze. Again, isolation was used highly effectively, albeit closer to home in an exploration of the arctic; the stark purity and beauty in the ice, and the immensity of its structures; of the freezing arctic which, while a long haul for the listener, was still effective at leaving us snow-blind, a landscape where nature could be as beautiful as it could be brutal. He displays degrees of subtlety which match the atmospheres tightly; this is often more powerful than a scream. The possibilities to gently tug on the fears, like a playful puppeteer haunting an old, abandoned and creaking circus, where shadows increase the tension, are almost endless. Stealth runs the same isolated theme; only instead of setting, the isolation remains in our world, and is much more contemporary – a secrecy which was hidden away from the eyes of the world and away from view. Almost completely void of melody, unlike the ocassionally icy, cold blasts of melody seen in his past, Stealth uses the static heavy voice of pilot chatter, breathing high up through the masks, silently gliding thousands of feet above, whirs and rumbles of the craft, and electronic blips transmitting quietly. Rumbles of thunder drift through the stormy skies, passing through clouds of turbulence.
We must feel our way through this darkness, with only ourselves and whatever awaits. Cycling engines lay ready, at ease and awaiting runway clearance. The low rumbles slowly and steadily rise like the power of the jet’s engines. Sleep Research Facility is at the controls here, and we have the view from the cockpit. The ghostly static that emerges at points is strangely foreboding, but keeps a comforting human presence against the mechanical, unemotional machine. The drones drift much like the aircraft’s mileage, over oceans, deserts and cities. The drones aren’t the major contribution, though, although they do flow cooly around the pieces. There is a sense of a movement being played out. However, it is one of subtlety and not one of shocks. Because of this, it is all the more potent.
As the bomber glides in the airspace, static codes communicate a complex mission, indecipherable, ghostly chatter mixes with computer noise, and the pilots voices become glitched in G-force, overwhelmed in an airwave of static. Melodies have vanished as the plane begins to bank ominously, unseen against an unlit sky coveted in black.
The aircraft inside the music is not an outdated relic, however. It very much breathes, alive in its technological prime. Descending glitches mirror the descent of the plane, the soft engine-whine creating the important lulling, hypnotising effect. Stealth may be his most active release in terms of musical movement, which is an increase – albeit very slightly – on his past work. It has immense atmospheres, confined and blended with innovative, cutting edge technology.
Like the secret flightpaths blackened by the night, Stealth leaves behind a silent, imposing shadow, retaining its unseen mystery away from watching eyes, an eerie outcast from the world which passes over all without anyone becoming aware of its presence above. The sense of travel is more pronounced in this record than any in his past, and although it can seem hard to hold onto and remain attentive, there is always a continual movement.
Stealth isn’t for the faint hearted, and it requires some drive and persistence, but listeners will already know that part of the pleasure is in the slow moving nature. Sink in deep, and it’s an excellent exploration of one of the most mysterious aircraft of recent times. The darkness and tension never lets up, even during the finale, mirroring the cold, realistic intent of the aircraft. Sleep Research Facility is creating some of the best dark ambient music out there. Like our own fears, they sometimes never completely let us go; yet somewhere, there is a stark, beautiful acceptance of our fate, and our inability to escape, in that thought.
- James Catchpole (@UKStratBoy) for Fluid Radio