Geir Jensen is a native of Tromsø, the most northerly city in Norway, home to 60,000 people, the world’s most northerly university and the world’s most northerly brewery. Of all his albums under the Biosphere moniker, none captures the essence of the Arctic quite like Substrata.
Ambient music is too often little more than clichéd, mellow chill-out pap – soporific and dull. At its best, though, it paints aural pictures – unforgettable landscapes of sound. Opener “As the Sun Kissed the Horizon” is a perfect example. It’s nothing more than a field recording of the near-silence of the endless daylight of an Arctic summer night. The distant drone of an aeroplane is the only distinct sound, and yet it captures perfectly the clear stillness, and vast skies of the far north. You can almost smell the salt air. “Poa Alpina” introduces a gossamer melody so fragile it feels remembered rather than heard.
Substrata is more than just a collection of sweeping sound-pictures. “The Things I Tell You” is like the surreal experience of waking in a dream, only to eventually realise that you’re still dreaming. “Times When I Know You’ll Be Sad” is a strange cyclical song built on a chugging, plucked guitar figure, and “Hyperborea” continues the weird corporeal sequence, with lapping, icy water overlaid by a sample from Twin Peaks – a description of a dream by the Major Briggs character. Best of all is the icy chill of “Kobresia”. A Russian speaker coughs and shivers his way through a monologue as a looped synth motif swells and falls before fading into radio static, and distant, dimly heard voices. “Antennaria” is even darker, juxtaposing a sense of threat with the almost playful clinking of wooden chimes. It ends the sound of running water as “Uva-Ursi” brings the promise of spring and new life in the form of twittering fledglings.
The bellowing foghorns of “Sphere of No-Form” echo through the fog, and the lonely chime of a ship’s bell conjours images of the ghosts of great vessels calling from a watery grave. “Silene’s” chugging engines struggle to pierce the desolate oceanic emptiness, and drift away leaving the final sound that of the recordist himself. Setting a fire? Packing away his equipment? It’s hard to tell, but it’s a very intimate and small scale way to end an hour of music that emphasizes the beauty, but also the untamed threat, of nature.
Substrata was reissued in 2001 by Touch (TO:50) with an extra disc of odds and ends, including music written to accompany the Russian silent film classic Man With a Movie Camera. The main disc remains Jensen’s finest work to date, and one of the best musical interpretations of the natural world ever recorded.
1 As The Sun Kissed The Horizon 1:45
2 Poa Alpina 4:10
3 Chukhung 7:33
4 The Things I Tell You 6:29
5 Times When I Know You’ll Be Sad 3:44
6 Hyperborea 5:48
7 Kobresia 7:10
8 Antennaria 5:06
9 Uva-Ursi 2:51
10 Sphere Of No-Form 5:56
11 Silene 7:56
Substrata was originally issued as All Saints ASCD33 in the UK, and as Origo Sound 19 in Norway.
Kobresia performed live at the Leigo Festival in Estonia.