The Dyson Swarm: in deep space alone with soundtracks to imaginary SF films

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Frozen Ocean, The Dyson Swarm, Kristallblut Records, CD digipak KBR013 (2014)

I’ve come in at the tail end of this prolific Russian BM act’s discography when sole member Vaarwel was moving into more electronic ambient soundtrack territory. “The Dyson Swarm” certainly sounds like a soundtrack in search of a suitable sci-fi film that meditates on connections between and among the universe, one’s inner space and humanity’s place in the great scheme of everything. What better than to plug into the record and supply our own (inner) movie in the private cinema that opens up behind our eyelids when they are shut at night?

So let’s set the controls for the heart of the universe and off we go … the launch has its fair share of glum goodbyes as we space travellers farewell loved ones we’re unlikely to see for a long time (say, about several hundred years) and solemn moments of long siren synth drone and organ rumble as the nation cheers on its heroes as our ship flies high into the firmament and breaches the event horizon. Once settled in for the long haul, listeners and travellers alike discover how long and stretched out time can be: how astronauts cope with long spells zooming between stars we cannot yet say, being pioneers, but listeners exposed to repetitive synth and organ melody loops – and very ordinary ones at that – might consider the deep-sleep option beloved of films like “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Alien” and “Interstellar” as too much of the music on tracks like “CE-4” come across as cheesy and B-grade kitsch in sound, melody and riffing. There is very little pause for the contemplation needed when spaceships approach giant exoplanets surrounded by glittering rings of dust and ice crystals reflecting the light of their binary suns.

A big problem is that far too much of the recording is busy with disco rhythms dictating the pace. We find ourselves always rushing to the next astral destination, like a coachload full of tourists having to tick off a list of activities to do and sights to see, and therefore only able to spend five minutes per hot spot and half an hour at the souvenir shops associated with the place of interest. No time is allowed to listeners to linger and savour the experience of being fully immersed in deep space or of orbiting a massive planet and seeing storms hundreds of kilometres in diameter raging across its surface. By necessity, tracks need to be fairly long, at least 10 minutes, for full immersion and yet the longest track on the album is only just over nine minutes.

The decision to create epic, massive music in nearly all tracks must have seemed a good idea on paper; when translated into music to be heard, the epic and the monumental can end up too ponderous and pretentious. To work effectively, such music needs to be balanced by passages of delicacy or periods of quiet, even dead silence. Such variation helps to create peaks and troughs, crescendos, climaxes and denouements which are needed in long instrumental music of the nature and themes the album has.

When all is said and done, I’m not convinced that Vaarwel really understands what creating a soundtrack to a journey in inner and outer space involves. There’s none of the sense of being awed and overwhelmed by the sheer size and majesty of the universe, its great silences, the brightness of the galaxies and how everything came into existence and whether it all might have an end. The music comes across as sterile and self-absorbed. Whatever emotion exists, is flat. The heavy reliance on synthesiser keyboard rhythms turns the music into a mechanical construct with generic sounds and effects.

I was prepared for an album of music that, however ambitious it was, might find its journey and goal arduous and which fails to convey fully the glories and hazards of space travel. “The Dyson Swarm” does not even come close to being a noble failure.

Those TSP readers who thought “The Dyson Swarm” had something to do with being attacked by an army of poltergeist-driven vacuum cleaners probably had a better inner movie experience than we did here.

Contact: Kristallblut Records

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