When an album starts off with a track called “Hymn to the Eternal Void,” you know it’s probably not going to be the cheeriest of releases. The artist’s challenge, then, is to present a work that’s at once uncompromising and engaging; this kind of album must not sacrifice any of its existential melancholia in the name of accessibility yet also should retain the listener’s attention and even be, yes, enjoyable.
German microsound artist Nils Quak achieves this delicate balance on his latest album, Aether. This is the sound of machines whispering dark secrets, of dirty synths brought down from the abandoned attic and dusted off with all the careful consideration of an archaeologist discovering a fossil. Third track “Machen Weiter” (German for make further or continue) is all humming feedback and false starts; we’re descending deeper into the blackness. The title of “Indigo Sun” might seem to indicate some sort of reprieve from the bleakness, but any half-stabs at melody are overpowered by an ever-present mechanical drone that manages to go from sinister to strangely soothing in just four minutes’ time. And “Sinterbecken” (German for “rocky sintered basin,” duh) opens with noirish strings that quickly get swallowed by an impenetrable yet almost iridescent layer of noise.
To say that the musical shifts on Aether are subtle would be an overstatement, but they’re nonetheless present. It’s like getting acclimated to a darkened room; at first everything seems pitch black, but over time your eyes adjust and you start to make out the shadowy, once-familiar furnishings of your environment. Aether rarely gets abrasive or even noisy, really, choosing instead to patiently weave its drones into a tapestry of dimly lit corridors and subterranean rumblings. That said, there’s more going on here than first meets the ear, and the intrepid spelunker will find many faded gemstones hiding amidst the modular synthesizers and spiraling digital detritus that comprise much of this album. Godspeed.