Review: Biosphere, Departed Glories

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Geir Jenssen, the ambient stalwart who records as Biosphere, has traditionally made his best music when he pushes himself outside his comfort zone. It’s easy to forget what a hard left turn his 1997 album Substrata, often listed as one of the best ambient albums ever made, was from the post-Orb comedown techno he’d been making for years before. And his best work since, including the deep drone of 2004’s Autour De La Lune and the paranoid synth experiments of 2011’s excellent N-Plants, have departed dramatically from expectations for the Biosphere project.

Departed Glories, the twelfth Biosphere album and first since N-Plants, is a throwback to the sample-sourced drones of 2002’s Shenzhou. That album was built from snippets of Impressionist composer Claude Debussy; same deal with Departed Glories except with samples of Russian and Polish folk music, inspired by Jenssen’s sojourn in the latter country. It’s some of his least inspired work yet and his worst album since 2006’s jazz-inspired dud Dropsonde.

Part of this comes from how complacent Jenssen sounds in making these tracks, none of which sound like they took a whole lot of effort to make, let alone the five years since N-Plants. Though Jenssen used something called “Argeïphontes Lyre” to warp the tracks here, I suspect one could get a similar effect from putting a whole ton of GarageBand distortion on the original songs. He doesn’t seem to have added much else to the mix, though N-Plants and Autour De La Lune suggests he’s blown more than enough gig money on synths and other nifty gadgets.

The textures here alternate between two poles: trebly and bassy. Frequencies are substituted for real soundscaping. The same criticism could be made of Autour De La Lune, but there was a deep mystery to those drones, evoking the void of space that inspired it. The tracks here, by contrast, hang in dead air. They’re neither particularly evocative nor pleasant to listen to, meaning they fail at being ambient music in all respects but slipping into the background. It doesn’t help that for most of the album, the source material has been utterly swallowed, robbing the music of any texture the sampled folk songs might have added on their own merit.

As with Shenzhou, which came alive with brief flourishes of flute and piano, the best music here comes when Jenssen lets his sources shine through a bit. “Aura in the Kitchen with Candlesticks,” built around an eerie, slow-burning organ, is patient and almost liturgical. A few tracks, like “Sweet Dreams Form a Shade” and the title track, appear to be built around close-harmony choirs; the effect is similar to Julianna Barwick’s sparest work or Popol Vuh’s tape experiments on the Aguirre: The Wrath Of God soundtrack. These are the album’s most texturally intriguing tracks, but most of the 70-minute album is frustratingly indistinct.

Jenssen mentions the medieval queen Bronislawa in press releases for the album, alleging the Polish woods where he lived once served as a refuge for the royal during her realm’s invasion. The music here, perhaps, is what Bronislawa imagined in her own head during those long days in the forest with nothing to think about. She may have heard something similar to the folk tunes sampled here at her court and played them over in her head while waiting out the invasion — albeit in a refracted form as here — to comfort her. But if this is what comfort music sounded like a millennium ago, it’s worth noting people wiped their asses with rocks back then, too. C