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UnicaZürn
Dark Earth Distillery Joe Banks , September 25th, 2013 10:56

These days, you're never more than an idle click away from the latest addition to the ever-expanding dark ambient/drone/chillwave catalogue, a vast miasma of processed sounds made by an army of MBV fans working overtime on the sonic cathedral assembly line. And you know, some of it's pretty good. But Christ, there's a lot of it, and after a while it can feel overwhelming – not in a 'mind blown open' way, but in a 'sod this, I'm going to listen to something with an actual tune' way. In other words, for music of a dronic persuasion to make any impression on these tired ears, it has to hold my attention and actively take me somewhere. Enter UnicaZürn.

UnicaZürn is an ongoing collaboration between David Knight and Stephen Thrower, two musicians with some serious avant rock credentials – Knight was a key member of Shock Headed Peters and songwriting partner to the divine Danielle Dax, while Thrower was with Coil for eight years and is also one half of Cyclobe. The music they make together using a variety of vintage keys and reed instruments is a viscerally organic strain of proto-ambient, strongly influenced by the pre-sequencer Tangerine Dream of Zeit and Atem. We're firmly in drone territory here, but a long way away from throwing a few synth loops into GarageBand and hoping for the best.

Dark Earth Distillery is based on a series of live performances which have then been edited in the studio into two expansive, exploratory soundscapes. The title puts me in mind of the alchemical mixing and filtering processes that UnicaZürn use to manipulate the base material they create, presenting it from a variety of perspectives until it almost becomes three dimensional. Dark Earth Distillery's cover, meanwhile, continues the duo's fascination with aquatic imagery, something they first began exploring on their Temporal Bends debut, and the music once again generates a feeling of deep-sea suspension. (The impulse to respond to this music in visual and symbolic terms is pretty much irresistible, so excuse me if I go into metaphor overdrive here).

The splendidly titled 'Hard Dawn Of The Atomic Ghost' fades up like the aftermath of an A-bomb test above a Pacific atoll, a blindingly bright drone shimmering in the sky, direct from the Heavenly Music Corporation (Fripp & Eno being another salient influence here). Slowly, a darker undercurrent makes its presence felt as we leave the sun behind and descend into the ocean below, plunging through analogue shoals of fast-moving iridescent fish. As we continue to sink, the sound of Thrower's distressed clarinet rises up to meet us, deep frozen jazz playing among the shadowy hulks of decaying shipwrecks. UnicaZürn reference early Roxy Music in terms of reeds plus electronics, but this section also has me thinking of a half-speed Van Der Graaf Generator or the 'seagull' cries in the middle of Pink Floyd's 'Echoes'. Finally, we hit the seabed and begin to drill down into the magnetic tides at the earth's core…

Which takes us onto the album's second side, 'The Infernal Kernel', a vision of hell as cold metallic chamber, snatches of demented angel choirs bouncing of the walls. The sound here is at its most inhuman, recalling the early works of krautrock pioneer Klaus Schulze, particularly Cyborg and Black Dance. At the eight minute mark, a nebulous melodic cloudburst of synth softens the tone before a squelchy demonic heartbeat gradually asserts itself. The sound of spitting fires in a hall of mirrors sits behind this insistent pulse before resolving into a more calming muzak for robots.

Dark Earth Distillery is intended to be a stopgap release prior to UnicaZürn's next studio album in 2014, but it's a fully realised work in its own right. If your ears have also had enough of being pummelled into submission by the digital drone police, then this could well be the aural balm they need to begin a new type of fantastic voyage.

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