At the end of 1943, the Soviet government declared the entirety of its just-retaken south-eastern district of Kalmykia guilty of German collaboration. In punishment, the war-beleaguered, predominantly Buddhist population was completely uprooted and dispersed across far reaches of Siberia and central Asia. The deportation took place with no advance warning, leaving the Kalmyk people without any chance to prepare or gather their possessions before they were loaded onto unheated, overcrowded cattle cars. Without food, water, or proper protection from the bitter cold, a full third of the Kalmyk population succumbed en route, or immediately upon arrival. Those who survived were forced to eke out an existence in harsh and unfamiliar lands; when Khrushchev finally ended the exile 13 years later, few Kalmyks remained to reclaim their homes.
This obscure, chilling episode in Soviet history may or may not have been the inspiration for the debut studio album of drone-noise trio Angel, but it’s easy to imagine it is: Kalmukia is bleak, terrifying, and yet edged in a sense of awe verging on horror (or horror verging on awe). Knowing this story, I can’t listen without visualizing the historic Kalmyk Buddhists, starved and displaced and travel-exhausted, cast down to make sense of their new ice-swept and unfathomably vast surroundings. Or perhaps the album diverges in its interpretation, transmuting the exile, by its end, into a pilgrimage to some site of deadly wonder, some forgotten Kirghiz Light.
Angel may be blandly named — a quick search places them among scores of unsuccessful acts sharing the moniker — but its constituents are anything but boring. The project began in 1999 as a live noise vehicle of Pan Sonic’s Ilpo Väisänen and Schneider TM’s Dirk Dresselhaus (who I’ve severely under-estimated, if such subtlety and atmosphere are within his range), and has since been rounded out by Icelandic cellist Hildur Gudnadottir. Together, the three use the vehicle of drone to spin their stories, but it’s a drone of uncommon vision and scope, from microscopic detailing to monolith force to utter swallowing void.
Overture “Bones in the Sand” is the obvious crowd pleaser here, tethered by sparse but heavy guitar notes trailing away into emptiness. It’s what Earth would sound like with the actual riffs dead and sun-bleached to a mere few notes and the gaps between them, emphasizing the absolute solitude of their pale desert landscapes. As such, it’s the most generic track (apparently Siberia sounds a lot like the American West), but also the most directly enjoyable, and it does stretch its oeuvre into some new territory, particularly when cello takes the reigns near the finish.
The 20-minute title track is a more lingering study of desolation, with a slow cello dirge dropping to rasp, then into a near-subliminal hum of broken electronics, and finally into a silence from which only the faintest of percussive death rattles can break free for most of the duration. Somehow, impressively, without dragging or losing focus for the entire length. The following “Effect of Discovery” discards the previous traces of melody for a study of faintly-tonal texture. When high, whining synth tones eventually rise into the mix, like spotlights raking charred ground, there’s no brightening: the sounds have a certain grandeur, but it’s the dust-blown grandeur of madness.
Closer “Aftermath” diverges from the three preceding tracks by, at long last, brightening and expanding as an insistent rattle of faintly melodic percussion and echoed guitar notes usher in the gleaming, faintly ominous sense of wonder I alluded to before. I tend to be very suspicious of the trappings of mysticism in this sort of sound, cluttered as the field is with sampled world-music monk-chant drivel, but the effect here is much more subtle, mysterious, and perhaps moving. It’s those scattered Kalmyks again, clutching, perhaps at shreds of enlightenment out on the frozen steppe.
The word cinematic gets thrown around a lot these days, but here it’s especially apt. There’s an undeniable narrative arc here, through shadings of windswept isolation and answer-seeking struggle, though the exact nature of it is unclear and perhaps ultimately irrelevant. Don’t care for my Siberian saga? There’s material for plenty more, sparkling grimly amid those string scratches and electronic vibration. With Kalmukia, Angel seems to have created a sort of maximal minimalism, probing deep emptiness through an uncommonly rich variety of elements. There’s no excess here, nothing especially self-indulgent despite the track lengths (together, the four clock in at just under an hour), but simply an extraordinary attention to detail and continuous progression. The blank spaces are still as integral and telling as the filled ones, it just seems that even they are crafted in minute and terrible detail.