Thursday, 17 October 2019

Netherworld - Algida Bellezza.

Album: Algida Bellezza
Artist: Netherworld
Catalogue no: GM039

     1.      Vulpes Lagopus
     2.      Somniosus Microcephalus
     3.      Orcinus Orca
     4.      Monodon Monoceros
     5.      Ursus Maritimus

Alessandro Tedeschi’s Glacial Movements label has been around quite a while now, and in this latest release it’s Alessandro’s own turn to shine under the spotlight. And, as the label name suggests, it’s entirely devoted to releasing ambient music of the cold and isolationist variety, music as a soundtrack to Arctic and Antarctic expeditions. Let’s face it, many of us must have wondered what it would be like to visit either of the coldest regions on earth. Additionally, both the Arctic and Antarctic continents have appeared in popular culture (Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, Lovecraft’s ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ to name but two) and also in conspiracy theory (the hollow earth theory for one, the place insideour planet where all kinds of weirdnesses abound and having its entrance in the polar regions…). There’s no denying that it has captured the imaginations of a great many people throughout history.

But let us not forget that both Polar Circles are home to an array of purely earth-based animals, and this album concentrates on those living within the Arctic. They are: Arctic Fox (Vulpes Lagopus), Greenland Shark (Somniosus Microcephalus), Killer Whale (Orcinus Orca), Narwhal (Monodon Monoceros), and Polar Bear (Ursus Maritimus). And it would be as well to remember that, as robust and as implacable as both continents appear to the untrained eye, these creatures live within an extremely delicate and fragile environment, and it is this that makes them precious. Over and above that, Alessandro was inspired to record this album by something equally precious, delicate, and fragile – the birth of his daughter, who he would often cradle in his arm whilst recording.

What delights, then, does Algida Bellezza (which is Italian for ‘icy beauty’) hold for the listener? Beginning with ‘Vulpes Lagopus’, the stunning Arctic Fox notable for its pure white fur, we are immediately greeted with wispy ethereal tones, a cold but gentle wind whipping up little flurries of snow. In the snowfield is a small mound, a noticeable bulge in an otherwise flat landscape. We may be tempted to move on, thinking it just another oddity in an odd land, but to our surprise the mound moves, and up pops the face of an Arctic Fox, whose slumbers we’ve just disturbed. It eyes us with disdain, and then gets up and trots off, until it disappears, a white shape on a white background, an astonishingly beautiful animal merging into an equally gloriously stunning landscape. The little fox is as ethereal as its surroundings, and its presence seems as ephemeral as a snowflake’s.

‘Somniosus Microcephalus’, the Greenland Shark, is a member of the sleeper shark family, and is also the longest-living vertebrate known (in fact, females are only sexually mature when they grow longer than 13 feet, which scientists believe takes 150 years to achieve). In Netherworld’s mini-bestiary it is described via ghostly whistles that start off just on the verge of audibility before gaining in strength, becoming a slow-moving howl that is perhaps descriptive of the creature itself. The shark’s life is a slow one, lasting for up to 400 years, swimming endlessly in the frigid waters of the Arctic. Nevertheless, the icy sweep of the drones here also describe a species of majesty, a kind of imperious movement befitting a creature that outlives many of the species it shares its environment with. ‘Orcinus Orca’ is also slow, but deeply imbued with a sense of mystery. Killer whales have been studied extensively, yet there are still many things that remain elusive about them. Cold tones combined with a crawling deep bass framework floating just below the surface somehow captures the essence of these highly sociable but predatory creatures. There’s even a sense of drama unfolding, as if a pod has been caught in the act of hunting, which they do cooperatively. Above all, we get the idea that, in spite of their looks, they are efficient hunters, and that it would be wise to avoid them.

‘Monodon Monoceros’ (Narwhals) seem to appear right out of some medieval bestiary, a creature of myth and legend whose horn gave rise to the legend of the unicorn. They’re curious creatures to be sure, but also possessed of a profound mystery, a biological curio that somehow defies the natural order of things. Netherworld’s rendering appears to reach out to us from some deep distance in time, perhaps to the youth of the world, with gentle, plangent tones, almost human in nature. It sets the hairs on the back of your neck to standing up, while a deep, deep rumbling can be heard, and felt, from time to time. This is deep time indeed, or so it seems, as well as a message from the depths of the ocean. Sonorous, magisterial, and deeply magical.

Finally, we get to ‘Ursus Maritimus’, the polar bear, perhaps the most iconic Arctic species of all, and also the one animal most associated with the fragile state of its habitat due to climate concerns. It is as much of a ghost these days as the ethereal Arctic Fox is that I mentioned above. It is majestic, a visible symbol of survival in a harsh climate, a fighter, and the creature that most people would recognise. The track itself is a beautiful aurorae of harmonics and shifting percussive shuffles, moving precariously just like the floating islets of sea ice the bears use to get around and hunt. One can imagine a bear sniffing the breeze, or staring up at the twinkly lights above, or gazing at the strange dancing lights as the chords float and drift. It’s a solitary existence, here at the end of the world, but it means a measure of freedom, which the animal innately understands even it can’t articulate it to itself.

One of the strongest things I got from listening to this, apart from revelling in the beauty of these far-flung lands, is that out of sight, out of mind. These creatures, this album seemed to be telling me, are living on borrowed time, but because we don’t see them (unless it’s on a TV screen) we forget about their plight. But it’s the very achingly beautiful vistas presented by these five pieces that should remind us that, while we live within four comfortable, warm walls, these wonderful and exotic creatures are perhaps heading for extinction, and once gone they’ll be gone for good. It’s sobering to think that even while I am sitting here typing these words, half a world away, there might be a polar bear wondering when (or if) it’s going to get its next meal. Behind the staggering beauty lies a sobering reality.

Available from October 18th, it can be pre-ordered as a limited run CD in an edition of 300 from the Glacial Movements website:

or from their Bandcamp page (where there’s an ongoing special offer to get two Netherworld CDs for a special price):

Psymon Marshall 2019. 

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