In my first netlabel-related post I praised the phenomenon for the wealth of music it brings us and the opportunities it provides talented musicians who lack an outlet. Netaudio does indeed fulfill this function, but there is a darker side, which is that even with netlabels providing a reliable source of quality music, there’s still just a ton of free music out there, some good and some horrible, and individual releases can get lost in the avalanche. Now, I don’t know if that result applies to this release in particular, but in case it does, I’m going to tell you about this recording, and you will be duly impressed.
I’ve downloaded hundreds of netlabel ambient and experimental releases, and over time there are some I find myself returning to again and again, which means they are effing good. This is one such album. It was released by the fine Test Tube netlabel, which does great work, and I’ve found most of the material on the site worth downloading.
Peaceful Atom is an astonishing work by an Italian musician and laptop composer named Guglielmo Cherchi, but there’s nothing Italian-sounding or feeling about this recording. As the label page says, “Peaceful Atom was intended to be a concept work about the Chernobyl disaster, and as a result of this some tracks are ideally connected to that topic.” Your humble writer here has a minor obsession with the mysteries of Russia and the calculated insanity of the Soviet regime, and I have to say this release frighteningly captures in sound the very bizarre industrial and spiritual soul of the U.S.S.R. The mood is encapsulated in the excellent choice of cover art (weird space-age electricity pylons) and the music accentuates it.
Essentially, the music on Peaceful Atom is a juxtaposition of an ever-present underlying series of clicks, pops and scraping sounds, which could easily (and was probably intended to) represent the background radiation of a poisoned landscape, with really eerie, spectral, keyboard- and guitar-generated soundscapes. Apparently this recording was “built from scratch using laptop-based synthesizers and electric guitar, with the exception of a few samples,” which is really, really impressive. In particular, the ethereal melodic sounds on “Pylons,” “Yenisei,” “Leaving Pripyat,” “Ignalina’s Sunset” and “Worm Wood Forest” leave a quite unsettling impression on the listener — you’re not sure whether to find it all very beautiful or very disturbing.
A couple more notes from the site on samples: “On ‘Worm Wood Forest’: Arboretum Bad Grund by Inchadney at The Free Sound Project, on ‘Radiologos’: Soviet jingle and radio recordings taken with an old military tubes HF radio and on ‘Leaving Pripyat’: electrostatic hiss taken from an old Kenwood amplifier dating from the eighties at high volume.”
What sets this album apart is its sense of purpose and its unity. The album may be a lost art in the age of digital EPs and singles, but this is an entire listening experience that takes you into another world, part beautiful Caucasus landscape/Soviet future dreamworld and part netherworld of sickness and radiation. The effect is quite stunning.
What Cherchi has achieved here is an expression of the appeal of desolation — it’s the same thing that makes people want to visit the ruined towns around Chernobyl, or the decrepit houses of Detroit, or the nasty polluted waterfront of their hometown. There’s a beauty in entropy, in watching human dreams crumbling as time or disaster reclaim them for the Earth. You either get it or you don’t.
A final netlabel-related note. There are tons of netlabels putting out all kinds of stuff, but there is a disproportionate number putting out music that is claimed to be “experimental”. Unfortunately, this often means they put out music by people who have figured out how to make funny noises on their laptops, but don’t understand that there’s an art to working with new sounds or with dissonance. Many of these releases aren’t worth the download due to their rank amateurism. Releases like Peaceful Atom show how this kind of music is done properly.