Deaf Center's Erik Skodvin resurfaces as Svarte Greiner with a doom ambient masterpiece, seductive in its melding of sensuality and terror, and already one of the best records of 2009.
Svarte Greiner's Kappe put me back in touch with, of all things, a computer game: Roberta Williams' live action horror attempt, Phantasmagoria. I spotted it sitting on the shelf in an Office Depot when I was all of 12, and, lured by the promise of blood, gore, and possible nudity, I bought it behind my parents' back. The anticipated sex and violence scenes were rare and gameplay was no great shakes -- too plodding and obvious -- but what I was left with still haunts me now, likely to the delight of Sierra Entertainment: an unforgettably frightening atmosphere, creepy as hell and absolutely breathtaking. Williams revisited the tired cliché of the haunted house, blew it up, and slathered it with intimidating opulence. Rooms led to other rooms that led to hidden spaces, whose aberrance and grandiosity beckoned me toward them like a moth to the flame. How wicked it seemed that the mansion's most gorgeous locations (a stone chapel, a velvety, cavernous living room, a Victorian parlor) were also the most dangerous.
Interestingly, I don't much remember the music, but Norwegian multi-instrumentalist Svarte Greiner (real name Erik Skodvin, one-half of Deaf Center) would have been a stellar choice to man the soundtrack. On Kappe, his second effort after 2006's Knive, he does on an album what Williams did in a game: stirring together beauty and diablerie in a way that makes the "benefit" of experiencing beautiful music and the "cost" of hearing evil incarnate essentially indistinguishable. Music can't physically hurt us, but the challenge of how far we can venture into Greiner's world without freaking is still a thrilling one. Indeed, the dominant force Kappe exerts over us is that of being pulled into increasing blackness. Greiner has been likened to some musical neighbors in the past, but let it be known that Kappe's rich, dark sensuality is not the meditative stasis of Gas, nor is it the black metal doom-and-gloom of Sunn 0))). Where Knive borrowed from sources like Acid Mothers Temple, the No Neck Blues Band and Greiner's own Deaf Center, Kappe swallows up reference points in its vacuum and nullifies them as if they never existed. Just as it's meant to swallow you.
Kappe begins with "Tunnel of Love", a euphemism if ever there were one. It's more like a slow descent to the bottom of a 700-foot well, the beginning of a journey we wouldn't want to be taking if it weren't so weirdly seductive. Sounds of swing sets, footsteps, bells, and banshee wails, all of them warped and distant, turn in on themselves and cohere into a kind of death susurrus. They're the ghosts of things we've worked to suppress but that God or whoever is pulling the ropes forces us to confront again. After a minute and a half, a sepulchral drone of disembodied horns and strings signifies a fundamental changing of the atmosphere and a setting in of reality: We aren't escaping. Infused with the filigree of percussive rattles, the drone becomes chilly and thick, gaining intensity as we continue moving deeper underground. And then, suddenly, Greiner muffles the noises and reveals a vast space for us to breathe and move around in for the first time since the track began seven minutes prior. But the darkness is now so omnipresent we can hardly see the hand in front of our face.
Where are we? Good question, and Greiner probably figured we'd ask it, because the next track is called "Where Am I". It doesn't give us an answer; instead, we spend the following 12 minutes tiptoeing through wherever we are in terrified exploration. The song's base is the intermittent roar of a guitar, smeared and stretched. It sounds like a gong hit with the impact clipped off, and for some reason that I can't identify, that metallic texture lends it a sinister quality. When it flares up it resembles the resined light of a lantern, casting shadows on stone walls. When it retreats, back into the void we go. I'm reminded of Vincenzo Natali's indie sci-fi film Cube, in which a handful of people find that their universe has become a giant cube whose rooms are either harmless or fatal. So they'd throw one of their shoes into the next room over to see if it would leave the shoe alone or slice it into bullion cubes. "Where Am I" invokes the same idea of testing the environment on the assumption that something lurking out of view is inimical to us, through Greiner's careful calibration of alternating density and expansiveness. Each guitar yowl is a reluctant step forward, yet the stunning production values make the walk impossible to resist.
That Greiner has suspended our disbelief up to this point is a rare achievement, and it would have been enough, but those two tracks prove only to be an introduction to the jaw-dropping main act. The key difference between the 17-minute "Candle Light Dinner Actress" and what's come before it is that we've now arrived somewhere and at something. Even the title refers to an object that's substantive and present, rather than open zones through which to travel. The image of a candlelit dinner actress (I picture a young Lauren Bacall, sitting at a table with a candelabra in whatever godforsaken cave we've found ourselves in, fingering a glass of garnet-colored wine) is not, in and of itself, threatening. But watching enough horror films and dreaming enough nightmares has associated this tableau with morbidity for us pretty effectively.
And that's where Greiner meets us musically: in a place both elegant and supremely creeped-out, like a jewel-encrusted dungeon, where something important is happening. The guitars' melody is less noticeable than their tonal attributes, which range from deep and hollow to steely and nerve-wracked and everything in between. They lunge and expand, shriek and cower, twist around helically and repeat. A third of the way in, they're joined by a guitar that could be someone's voice rising out of the underworld, pained and malformed from years of being locked away. (Only Greiner and a few others could pull this off without an ounce of camp.) Two thirds in, the sounds completely dissociate from their sources and swirl around the cavern, leaving atonal vapor trails behind, until, in the last minute, they scream their final screams and leave us to be. A stunning synthesis of atmosphere and action, "Candle Light Dinner Actress" is more powerful a justification for the doom ambient genre as a going concern than you're likely to hear all year. The secret ingredient is the ambiguity of imagery, like the actress herself. Where Sunn 0))) might have given it all away, Greiner makes us sit with the tension of not knowing what anything means (other than that it's B-A-D), or what is going to happen next.
"Candle Light Dinner Actress" is so beautifully conceived and so masterfully executed that the final track, "Last Light", really doesn't have to do anything to cement Kappe as one of the best records of 2009. And indeed, it doesn't do much beyond what we've heard already. But this story calls for an ending, and the guttural drone of "Last Light" has an unmistakable note of finality, and for us as characters in a twisted world, the sense of being finished off. In some respects the most "typically" doomy of Kappe's four pieces, it consists largely of a groaning guitar depleted of sexiness and hope. High-frequency strings and wispy keyboards enter the picture as the guitar continues to rumble like a slumbering monster, before all of them disappear uneventfully into infinite darkness. And that's it. Game over. The best of this stripe of music makes you believe that it can relinquish your power for the sake of its own. And if you should place your faith in Kappe, it can be both transportive and transformative. Transportive in the way that it drops us out of the blah and into the exciting, terrifying unknown, and transformative in the way that it turns whatever once frightened us but has since become lame with age -- a ride, a "Goosebumps" book, a certain computer game that received middling reviews -- scary again, as if we were facing it, trembling, for the first time.