For Novaya Zemlya Thomas Köner returns to the icy climes in which he made his most revered work. Nunatak Gongamur, Teimo and Permafrost stand as three of the most important dark ambient records of all time, recorded by Köner using deceptively simple methods (electronically manipulated gong sounds, mainly) but echoing through the eras still. The artist has visited these areas since -most notably for the epic Daikan - but in 2010 he strayed altogether and released La Barca, a more expansive album of field recordings whose song titles referred to various coordinates around the world from Sweden to Azerbaijan.
Novaya Zemlya is, perhaps predictably, an archipelago off the coast of northern Russia. The album is as cold as you’d imagine, taking many of the sounds Köner has made his name with – the deepest drones, the deadliest creaks – and producing three new tracks, each of which clocks in at around twelve minutes in length. But the music is not quite as menacing as it was on his earliest records; it unravels slowly and slightly tentatively, like a deep sea diver’s life line, and the initial shock of being submerged passes as ‘Novaya Zemlya 1′ progresses and the bubbles float swiftly to the surface. Your ears are flooded with sound and there are no spaces in which to breath, making ‘Novaya Zemlya 1′ the most typical piece of music on the record, but there are welcome additions to ‘Novaya Zemlya 2′ and ‘Novaya Zemlya 3′ that serve to separate them from the rest of the Köner canon. First, the subtle bass pulse that underscores the second track and the spookily human knocks that seem to emerge from it as the sound of breathing apparatus glug and crackle, and then the uncharacteristic inclusion of voices (albeit submerged, mangled ones) – something the artist resolutely did without during his telling of the Scott tragedy on Nunatak, hereto his most ‘narrative’ work. Here they serve to plant the music firmly on a human scale and provide a sign of life that might briefly settle your nerves. Wherever you are, you’re not alone… but then it all dies out again.
‘Novaya Zemlya 3′ has an openness that suggests a form of freedom and brings in another new element, namely piano. Almost imperceptible to begin with, accompanying a far heavier beat that almost drowns it, it emerges towards the close with a sound of running water. This plateaux is disarmingly pretty in the way it drifts (any seasoned dark ambient listener might know better than to trust it), and it hints at an escape of sorts. Whether it’s one in which you’ll see your wife and children again is debatable – the otherworldly crackle and boom that takes over as the album draws to a close suggests otherwise.