Ambient music requires a kind of patience that’s in short supply these days. More often than not, the work of artists like Brian Eno, William Basinski, and Norwegian producer Helge Sten, who records under the name Deathprod, is relegated to background noise, providing the atmospherics for other activities. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; when Eno coined the term for this genre in the ‘70s, he acknowledged that he wanted the music to be “as ignorable as it is interesting.”
In theory, the work of Deathprod doesn’t lend itself well to this theory. These three albums, newly reissued by Smalltown Supersound, aren’t often what you’d call pretty or soothing. There are far too many creaking violin parts and dark, billowing clouds of noise for that. The closing minutes of “Towboat” from Treetop Drive, for example, sounds like a trio of shortwave radios having a heated argument. Yet, through Sten’s use of repetition, naturally decaying sound and a plenitude of empty space, this music takes on a hypnotic form, allowing it to recede into the distance or stay in the foreground, depending on your wont.
The most strangely soothing of these releases is Morals and Dogma. The four songs that make up this collection are slowly moving works that flow with the heat and intensity of fresh lava. Tracks like “Tron” and the 18 plus minute “Dead People’s Things” don’t so much as fade in as they emerge from the shadows, with their looping drones folding and melding together like multi-colored wisps of smoke. But where the former song aims for a kind of growing immersion with a rise in volume and rumble, the latter remains sedate even as the sound of straining violin and a singing saw (both played by Ole Henrik Moe) sneak into the mix.
Far more intense and eventful is Treetop Drive, another collaboration with Moe that was recorded in the early ‘90s. It opens sweetly enough with the loop of warm synth chords but the track is quickly subsumed by a violin part that sounds like either the report of a small surface to air missile or a dying animal. Other tracks waste no time getting to their point with huge swells of distortion and drone. Not the kind of sounds that are easily brushed off, but in the right setting, they could set a darkly ruminative mood.
The third of these re-releases Imaginary Songs For Tristan da Cunha is the most conceptual of the bunch. Recorded in 1996, Sten pays tribute to a remote group of islands in the South Atlantic Ocean by creating mostly short, experimental tracks using violin, banjo and electronics and having them pressed onto wax cylinders. The effect is a haunting one, putting the music at even more of a remove. It’s like listening to a radio broadcast from REM sleep. The album culminates in a 30-minute composition that is presented more conventionally and uses a vocal choir and theremin to build and recede waves of sound.
What you take away from these Deathprod reissues depends on what you bring to them. If you want to use them as a new soundtrack to some of your favorite Buñuel or Maya Deren films, it will fit perfectly. Or if you want to let it burble and pop in the middle distance while you meditate, entertain or stare ruminatively off onto the horizon, it works for that too. That’s the pliable beauty of ambient music like this: pour it upon any situation and it will likely bend to your will. Perhaps that wasn’t Sten’s intention with these albums, but in the years since they were made, the music world has evolved and risen to its level. Being ahead of your time eventually pays off.