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Thomas Köner: Novaya Zemlya (Touch)

It’s been some time since I’ve heard new material from dark ambient master Thomas Köner. His initial series of ambient albums in the 90s has probably reached legendary status by now, especially after a deluxe reissue from esteemed experimental label Type Records last year. This is not to mention his collaborative role in Porter Ricks, the dub techno duo that made waves in the Chain Reaction / Basic Channel heyday. Novaya Zemlya refers to an archipelago off the northern coast of Russia, jutting toward the North Pole. According to my poking around online, the region was used as a nuclear test site by the Russians during the Cold War, and the fallout from that period of time remains buried under a layer of tundra. With the looming prospect of global warming, Köner seems honed in on not only the desolation of the terrain, but also the potential catastrophe of its future; this massive sense of dread is at the core of this music. The album is split into 3 parts, starting off with a deep rumble, like cracks in the earth that eventually allow an airy haze to seep out. This is by far more gaseous and involved than those albums that long preceded it, and by far my favorite material from him to date. The second act begins with a deep, murmurous tones that are like a sedate death march before things come to more of a boil midway through. Despite the intense darkness of these pieces, there is something positively luminous in their vibrance, and in the final act of part three, Köner looks upward from the depths into something more human — is that a touch of optimism? Perhaps Köner doesn’t see things as quite so hopeless as the first many minutes of Novaya Zemlya suggest, or maybe he’s just reflecting on the ever so delicate balance between the past, present and future, and the consequences of time.

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