Time Released Sound continues to pair incredibly elaborate art design to audio works of distinctive quality with ‘Polarlicht’, the most recent release by the increasingly prolific Monolyth & Cobalt. The album is an exploration of arctic textures: the temperature of wind and snow, the shifting mass of ice and water and the refracted and reflected glare of sunlight on icecaps. As usual, the release is available in two versions: a deluxe issue limited to 65 copies (already sold out, the TRS website informs) and a standard digipack issue limited to 150 copies (still apparently very much available). Photos of the deluxe release show it to be characteristically elaborate – hand labeled, collaged and stamped: high resolution satellite photos of the polar ice caps, sewn and stranded strings of aerial shots, vintage rounded photos of frozen polar explorers and a disc hubbed to the inside of the lid of an antique metal 5″ 16mm film can. Quite something, really.
The audio is quite something as well. Monolyth & Cobalt is the solo project of Mathias Van Eecloo, a multi-instrumentalist and visual artist from France, likely already well known to the readers of this site. Sporting a creative drive that has seen numerous releases through several labels since 2008, ‘Polarlicht’ showcases a well-developed and multilayered approach to audio arrangement that both compliments the bold design aesthetic and functions strongly as a conceptually themed album.
The tracks are wide open and deep, with fitting levels of snow-driven reverb. The components are varied: some tracks utilize melodic layering (“Blooming Stones”), some have drone as a base but also incorporate found sounds and microtonal glitch elements (“Skyscrapers/ Sleepwalkers”, “Titanium (Geology)”). Almost all present as very densely constructed sound fields, whilst not feeling overly full. There is some sparse, well-placed bottom end mixed into the midrange, so listeners using earbuds still get a hint of the polar winds. The approach of mixing disparate found sound elements into dense collages is not a new one, but is done here with such a level of deliberate incautious abandon that it functions on a higher plane (“Dùthaich”).
Where the album really hits its straps is where the material hints directly at polar history and arctic isolation. Some of the more evocative numbers wear their emotive content more overtly, which makes them easier to connect to on a number of levels. “Adolf Wolfi Never Died” would be a good example, despite (or perhaps even because of) the title aligning it to one of the more extreme exponents of the inaccessibility of outsider art. This is also the case with closing track “Licht”, which blends double bass, panicked sonorities and whispered vocal samples under an opaque surround of melting ice.
‘Polarlicht’ fits the criteria of an concept album better than many similar experimental releases, which can often present as collections of disconnected slices of audio; the eleven tracks breathe at different rates, allowing the listener to experience both peaks and troughs. The trip may be cold, but feeling the ice in your lungs is refreshing.