[album review] thomas köner: permafrost
January 31, 2011
Originally released in 1993, Permafrost was the final work in sound artist Thomas Köner‘s seminal arctic ambient trilogy – the others being Nunatak Gongamur (1990) and Teimo (1992); both excellent.
The two earlier works (Köner’s first CD releases) sought to locate and reveal an underlying musicality in the frozen landscapes of the North Pole. Nunatak explored a sonic analogy between treated gong recordings and the crystalline, waterlogged drifts to sometimes disturbing effect, while Teimo divined meditative harmonies from the subsonic rumblings of centuries old glaciers.
Permafrost saw Köner going deeper into the ice to find its core, its essence. In it overt musical language is sublimated by an unrelenting sound climate that creates the eponymous permafrost: throbs, hisses, gusts and a strange kind of audible silence.
The effect, simultaneously unnerving and comforting, feels profound.
The music hasn’t been excised entirely. On “Firn”, for example, the crackling hum is joined by a distant, intangible choral harmony, and the final piece’s (“…”) drone resolves to a tantalisingly tonal state. But music is perhaps present only as a memory of what came before.
The album’s titular centrepiece captures its true form most persuasively – its overwhelming emptiness leads you to grab at any hint of musical sustenance as if your life depended on it. The sense it leaves behind, as it disappears like melting ice, is one of sublime hunger.
In Permafrost (and its companion albums) Köner manufactured the sound – the entire atmosphere – of a world perpetually frozen so utterly that it almost transcends experience of the real thing. (Though not quite; see my review of Chris Watson’s “Vatnajökull”.)
As a genuine work of art it requires silent, undisturbed contemplation and focus to fully appreciate it. Take the trouble to immerse yourself in its habitat and the rewards are substantial.
Long out of print, Köner’s trilogy was re-released on all formats last year by Type Records. Not only that, it is available to listen to for free via Type’s SoundCloud presence. Bitter, beautiful cold is but one click away.
close to 94 rating: ★★★★★★★
This review is part of close to 94‘s [emusic club], which reviews releases from the eMusic catalogue.