Listening to an album by an artist who calls the ambient/drone genre home is always an interesting experience, not always for the music, but for the questions the genre so often brings with it—namely, what constitutes “music”? Is music simply sound with a “frame”, that is, does any sound that the artist chooses to call music therefore become music? Or should there be melody, or if not melody, should there at least be notes, musical pitches that are recognized as such? Should music have some semblance of structure, or can it be completely free of form?
The interesting thing about such a debate is that both sides truly have merit—where one chooses to draw the line between “sound” and “music” is largely a matter of personal preference, and that line will shift from person to person. One listener’s static is another listener’s minimalist noise masterpiece.
Uton, as you may have guessed by now, contributes to this conversation as an ambient/drone artist. A native of Finland and a major part of that country’s bourgening dark ambient scene, Uton has actually had enough success with the genre to break through the boundaries of his native Finland, finding an audience that spans the rest of Europe, even drawing interest from niche American audiences.
And for the life of me, based on latest album Mystery Revolution, I can’t figure out why.
While the definition of what “music” is might be open for debate, it’s a given that in order to move beyond a discussion of whatever academic description one chooses to ascribe to and into the realm of the music’s quality, the music must be able to draw out some sort of emotion in the listener. This, whether one finds atmospheric, ambient albums to be music or not, is where Uton fails: In spending his efforts creating a unique sound, Uton has neglected to use that sound to evoke anything beyond surface analysis. There are some computer generated noises, some synth tones, and some sampled field noises, and, admittedly, the way that Uton uses them does contribute to a sound that manages to set itself apart from other bands of this ilk. “Taivaan Sini Sokea (Soikea)” uses arrhythmic bell tones, dissonant keyboard notes, and what sounds like the world’s sickest (in the medical sense) electric guitar to evoke vague dread, as does “Nukkuvainen Kääntyväinen”, via a hollow-sounding drone (sort of a distant school-bus-idling-in-a-steel-tunnel type of sound) and some bendy, high-pitched noises. And if my descriptions sound fairly generic, that’s because they sound that way.
Some might argue that the above-mentioned “dread” is the point—that Uton is evoking unease with his palette, and it’s his ability to do that which makes him a great artist. Many of the same tricks as early, How to Destroy Angels-era Coil used, things like distant bells, occasional atonal synth melodies, and the odd burst of noise, intending to startle the listener out of a drone-induced stupor. Still, they’re not supposed to sound like “tricks”, they’re supposed to add to the experience, and they just… don’t. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for anything, it’s all just pieces put together to create a “track”. Tracks don’t begin and end for any good reason, they just happen.
Such frustration comes to a head in the aforementioned “Taivaan Sini Sokea (Soikea)”, where one of those blasts of noise pops up in the last five seconds, sticks around for a bit, and then drops off the face of the earth. What the hell? Just when a song starts to get a little interesting, it gets cut off? The same could be said for “Avarus Meresssä”, a track built around a bass drone that actually manages to work in some fairly interesting keyboards way off in the background. Right at the end, however, there’s a fast-paced rhythm that seems to be building in from the static, and just as it sounds as though it’s going to go from obscenely, frustratingly muffled to something worth hearing, we get nothing. The song ends.
Maybe that’s the point. Maybe the album is meant to frustrate the listener in such ways. If so, it worked on me, right?
I’ll blast Mystery Revolution out my window on Halloween this year, and perhaps for years to come. As vaguely unsettling background noise that won’t piss off the neighbors too much, it’ll be just fine. Then, I’ll happily ignore it for the other 364 days. You would be wise to do the same.
- multiple songs MySpace
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.