Wormwood and Flame: dark ambient dronescape meditation on the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown

Michal Turowski, Wormwood and Flame, Poland, Gazawat, limited CDR / Mozdok, CDR / Positive Regression, cassette special reissue PR9 (2019)

Released 26 April 2019, 33 years after the nuclear meltdown accident at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, in northern Ukraine, Michal Turowski’s “Wormwood and Flame” is a dark ambient / noise / industrial album whose themes are based around that incident, with perhaps an emphasis on the nature of the culture of bureaucracy in which incompetence, human error and people’s lack of engagement with their work or loyalty to their employer combined with a dangerous working environment to produce a disaster whose effects still endure to the present day, and which continues to be a threat in a country that has steadily grown more impoverished and unstable over the past several years. (Incidentally the name “Chernobyl” means “wormwood”.)

Unlike other work of Turowski’s that I have so far heard (two albums by his industrial electronic techno duo Mazut), “Wormwood …” is dominated by darkly sinister, even sometimes menacing ambient dronescapes that ebb and flow or loop over and over, all the while dominated by sharp tones and textures, plenty of background shadow and a constant atmosphere of dread. In the majority of tracks, the endless repetition of rough, gritty textures – usually machine-like or suggestive of a factory ambience – adds to the dreary mood and the sense of impending disaster or a gradual breakdown.

Put together, track titles suggest a travelogue of abandoned sites in the Chernobyl ghost city, all of them alluding to the accident that occurred in 1986 and the extreme sense of isolation and relative lack of human life (some parts of Chernobyl and the surrounding countryside are still inhabited by elderly residents) in the area. The track titles aren’t always a good indication of what music you might actually hear though “The Woodpecker” does suggest the existence of bird life in an otherwise desolate wasteland through high-pitched tone bleeps. As you can imagine, the music doesn’t readily endear itself to listeners though “The Woodpecker” is not bad and “Avanhard Stadium” has the air of a piece perched perilously close to falling into hysterical insanity. “Life After People” is a quiet and contemplative farewell with an air (it seems to me) of resignation and exasperation: an air of “well, what did you expect with disaffected people in a situation where incompetent bureaucracy dominates?”

For some reason I still can’t quite put my finger on, I don’t find this album all that memorable: perhaps there is too much unnecessary and prolonged repetition on several tracks – indeed some just loop over and over and that’s it – and the album could have been pruned for length. Maybe there is also an attitude ready to condemn a past authoritarian system and ideology, and not consider that the current replacement political / economic / social system is also proving incapable of responding to and serving people’s needs, and just as likely to host nuclear-related catastrophes because its ideology and demands also turn out mediocrity, incompetence and bureaucratic pettiness and indifference.

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