Polar Ambient, a closer look – By Michael Barnett
Polar ambient is a sort of style or sub-genre falling under the dark ambient umbrella. Polar ambient best fits this criteria of darkness because it focuses on a bitter climate. A climate which often conveys feelings of isolation, and cabin-fever. There is also the phenomenon of dark winter. Dark winter is a period of time, often months, when the sun never rises above the horizon. This happens in the far northern and southern regions of the world. It happens in places like Siberia and Antarctica. Polar ambient, on the surface, is not dark in the sinister sense. Yet, polar ambient is a perfect sub-genre for dealing with psychological break-downs.
Many artists over the years have tapped into this musical realm. We can look back to the early days of Cyclic Law, to an album entitled Nord Ambient Alliance. Nord Ambient Alliance, true to its name, focused on five artists from Scandinavia. It included Northaunt, Kammarheit, Svartsinn, Instincts and Predominance. Northaunt is of particular interest to this topic. In tracks “Barren Land” and “A Shadow Among Shadows” listeners got their first taste of the Northaunt signature sound. Entrenched in field recordings, Northaunt sought to capture the feel of a sub-zero winter day in the northern reaches of Europe. The sound they established would continue through the next 15 years and beyond. Over this time, Northaunt became recognized as one of the greatest within this style.
Let us look back a little further. The albums Nuuk (1997) and Permafrost (1993) by Thomas Köner are earlier examples of the formation of this style. Thomas Köner works his magic in a similar fashion to Northaunt. Thomas Köner builds the foundation of his albums with field recordings of icy landscapes and white noise. Subtle and rolling synths complement this frigged layer. The final product is relaxing yet bleak, barren yet full of emotion.
THOMAS KÖNER – PERMAFROST
Fast-forward to 2012. Ugasanie (pronounced Ew-Gah-Shay-Nee-Uh), hails from Vitebsk, Belarus. He entered the scene with his debut album The Edge Of The Earth. On The Edge Of The Earth, Ugasanie incorporates the minimalism of previous polar ambient artists. Yet he successfully builds upon it. What comes from this evolution is a signature sound. A sound which can immediately cue recognition by his loyal fans. Ugasanie builds upon previous works with his unique field recordings and folk instruments. Ugasanie manipulates sounds of nature in a curious manner. For instance, he takes the caws of some native birds and molds them into something that sounds darker. He gives nature a more sinister feel. He adds to these field recordings with instruments like flute and the jaw harp. Some throat singing enters the mix. An old shaman chants his incantations. Topping this all off is a conservative use of drone.
After Ugasanie created this trademark sound, it wasn’t long before Cryo Chamber took notice. His first offering on Cryo Chamber was, the lauded album, White Silence. White Silence gave listeners an extra potent dose of the sound he perfected over the previous year or so. Now, Simon Heath backed Ugasanie with his revered mastering skills. The album starts on a lonely shore in some unnamed cold northern territory. The album progresses through frozen landscapes. It takes time to revere some of the dark old gods of the North. With each album that followed, Ugasanie honed his talents even more.
UGASANIE – CALL OF THE NORTH
Coming to the present day, Border Of Worlds again tantalizes its listeners. An album that takes the occasional influence of the gods and amplifies them to the central theme. Border of Worlds conveys the concept of these terrifying gods through dark shamans. Intoxicated by the amanita mushroom, the shamans summon the gods to Earth. Ugasanie combines frigged field recordings with sparse ritual elements and subtle drones. Combined they form an album which is easily his best to-date.
If frigid soundscapes are your thing, there are plenty available to delve into. On Cryo Chamber, Ugasanie carries the torch. He is accompanied by Aveparthe. On the 2014 release, Landscapes Over The Sea, Aveparthe combines the talents of Sádon with those of Astral&Shit. Together they form a brilliant dark ambient soundscape delivered from the heart of Russia. Also in 2014, Mystified, delivered Eschate Thule. It is an album which Cryo Chamber describes as a frozen wasteland of dark ambient. A place where the horns of the never ending tundra shatter the skies.
If one still craves more frozen soundscapes they are in luck. The label Glacial Movements focuses specifically on this polar ambient genre. Cyclic Law has presented many works by Northaunt. Cyclic Law also presented chilling albums by Parhelion, the first being Midnight Sun. Later, Parhelion submitted a collaboration with Zac Keiller entitled Farthest North. There are still more polar ambient releases to discover if one desires to dig deep enough to find them. These are but a sample of some of the more noteworthy of the releases in this frigid sub-genre.
Links to mentioned albums:
Nord Ambient Alliance – Various Artists
Ugasanie – The Edge of Earth
Ugasanie – White Silence
Ugasanie – Border of Worlds
Aveparthe – Landscapes Over The Sea
Mystified – Eschate Thule
Glacial Movements Label
Parhelion – Midnight Sun
Parhelion & Zac Keiller – Farthest North