Thursday, 26 September 2019

Sumatran Black - Elegy for a Lost Cosmonaut EP.

Album: Elegy for a Lost Cosmonaut EP
Artist: Sumatran Black
Label: Sumatran Black Records
Catalogue no: N/A

     1.      The Mission
     2.      Is this Heaven? (это рай)
     3.      Elegy for a Lost Cosmonaut.

This three-track EP is based around what could possibly be an astronaut’s/cosmonaut’s worst nightmare: being stranded in space, unable to reach the safety of one’s spacecraft, and unable to return home while still able to see that home hanging gloriously, tantalisingly, right in front of you. Think about it – if you’re lost here, you’ll be condemned to float along with the satellites forever, just another inert piece of space junk. Of course, for us mere mortals the wonder is that in spite of such dangers spacefarers are still more than willing to venture beyond the atmosphere in pursuit of knowledge and adventure.

Sumatran Black is a Turkish project based in Istanbul, the famed cosmopolitan and storied city centred on the stunning Hagia Sofia, the point where Europe ends and Asia begins, and the shining city which occupied the secular and religious imaginations of the West and East alike for centuries. Constantinople, as Istanbul once was known, was itself a prize, coveted by both Europeans and Asians, in spite of the dangers inherent in attempting to conquer it. And here, this time it’s the airless vacuum of space that’s the new prize and frontier, attended by its own dangers. And, just as imagination was central to the idea of Byzantium, so is imagination central to Elegy for a Lost Cosmonaut.

Cosmonaut is an apt choice of word here: there have been many allegations that the very secretive USSR (as it was then) deliberately hid the fact that quite a few cosmonauts were lost and had died in space. This EP plays on that theme, the story of an unfortunate Soviet pioneer spaceman, somehow unable to get back to his capsule and is now drifting away into the deeps. To that end we begin with deep rumbling drones informing us about ‘The Mission’, an extended 10-minute essay in darkly unsettling sonics, aptly describing the sheer vastness in which the cosmonaut finds himself and the oppressive isolation consequent to it. He’s slowly moving away from earth and safety, the capsule becoming smaller and smaller the further he gets away from it. He has no means of communications, plus his oxygen supply is slowly becoming depleted, and it won’t be long before he loses consciousness, to be followed by death. Rescue is impossible – help is too far away.

Just before death, however, a form of hypoxia sets in as the brain begins to be starved of oxygen, causing the brain to misfire and create hallucinations. ‘Is this Heaven? (это рай)’ (It is Paradise) offers us visions of brightness and ineffable light, a warm transition between this life and the next. Perhaps this is what the doomed cosmonaut sees as consciousness slips away – a glimpse of a state of bliss and a place where he no longer has to worry, somewhere where all his concerns melt away while his spirit enters some kind of universal otherwhere.

Of course, there comes a point where those on the ground must realise that their man is lost, dead and drifting alone, far away from his home world, heading off to who knows where. He left without saying goodbye to friends and loved ones, his last glimpse of Earth a slowly receding beautiful blue/green globe. The ultimate insult though is that, rather than honour his undoubted bravery, his name would forever be expunged from the record, his failure probably seen as an embarrassment to Soviet pride. This nameless man was a human, a man with his own worries and pursuits, his own loves and desires, who was sent on a quest that was larger and more significant than humanity itself, but ultimately (as some would say) he was still nothing more than a political pawn, a chess piece in a huge game the workings of which he probably had no understanding of. The sad fact is that he lost, and by extension Russia also lost.

‘Elegy for a Lost Cosmonaut’ the track is a beautiful testimony to the unknown pioneer, every bit as worthy of remembrance as the unknown soldier honoured at the Menin Gate in Ypres, alongside all those other cosmonauts reputedly lost in similar fashion. We may never know if the stories and rumours are indeed true: if so, unless the Russian authorities decide to confirm the authenticity (or otherwise) of the deaths, then we will also never know the names of those who laid down their lives. Sweeping chords, whistles, and drones speak of the vast spectacle of the universe, a colourful and spectacular backdrop as a strange object (the inert body of a man long frozen dressed in a spacesuit) moves silently through the spaces between planets. The body’s been doing this for a long time, and will never be recovered. Yes, it’s a romanticised vision, but still one must acknowledge his part, albeit suppressed, in furthering knowledge of the worlds beyond our own.

A haunting suite of compositions which will, at the very least, leave you wondering whether this is all true or just conspiracy nonsense: the point is, though, whether true or otherwise, here is something that’s bigger than it sounds, using a honed imagination to fill infinite spaces, and to tell a story that is at once unbelievable and harrowing. It’s chillingly cold and infinitely lonely, a story that will have no happy ending: it also makes you wonder about how some humans see others, as expendables in pursuit of something superficially grand but in reality quite sordid. This will keep me thinking for some time yet.

Streaming and download available from Bandcamp:

Psymon Marshall 2019. 

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