Relentlessly Dreamy, Until It Isn’t
The long-winded, dreamy, ambient album is a beaten-to-death idea, yet listeners are endlessly drawn to this concept. Whether it be a side effect of drugs or simply the infinite allure of meditation, this tired genre has yet to collapse under the weight of its own limitations, and has, in recent years, continued to grow despite an ongoing lack of inspiration taking place within its confines. Luckily, a flourishing genre means contributions from boundary-pushers elsewhere in the realm of music. BardSpec sees Steve Austin (of Today is the Day) and Ivar Bjørnson (of Enslaved) bring their metal and psych-rock sensibilities to a tired genre in the hopes of breathing new life into it.
Despite the high hopes and potential for the project, Hydrogen falls into many of the same trappings as most ambient/psych-rock albums: each track bleeds too strongly into the other and the album as a whole sort of whisks by the listener without really leaving a statement as to why it exists. While many people believe this to be the point of an ambient album, one needs look no further than the classic Music for Airports, which, while ambient, is arguably one of the most compelling pieces of music ever written. On Hydrogen, BardSpec do not stumble into an interesting track until the middle of “Gamma,” which, despite being hidden among some rather unremarkable tracks, is one of the most exciting pieces of ambient music this decade. “Gamma” blends the raw, more noisy elements that one would expect from two metal musicians into the song structure of more experimental ambient pieces, and the result is a rather stunning work of music that one is rare to come across even outside of the genre.
After “Gamma,” the upturn continues with “Salt,” which begins with Blade Runner synths and a pulsing bass note that recalls a heartbeat. The song feels like a womb, a birth, the beginning of something that the album should have had much earlier; yet it lingers in the back. Despite all the comfort this piece brings, there is an innate uneasiness to it. The synths are repetitive and droning while atmospheric guitars pluck away wistfully in the background, but, every cycle, one of the notes seems dropped out, as if to suggest a conflict or some danger slowly approaching our calm scenes. By the time the danger hits, it is too late. Our once-tranquil track has evolved into a fierce, almost danceable track. The heartbeats have faded, traded for ripping guitar notes that pull listeners away from any sense of ease they may have had, as Austin and Bjørnson take perfect advantage of their skillsets by subverting the expectations of the ambient genre.
Hydrogen is not everything it could have been — few things are — but it does touch on some of the more interesting sides of the ambient genre by taking the expectations of safety and meditation that the listener expects and interrupting them with noisy guitars and harsh drones, creating a strange sense of uneasiness in all but the most hardened of music lovers. Sadly, the first half of the album touches very little on these things, holding off for far too long before subverting the expectations of the audience; it should have been done during the second track rather than the third. All in all, Hydrogen should be studied as a case of how to flip a genre on its head in order to shock, surprise and even disturb an audience.