Dark ambient’s a bit of a peculiar beast when it comes to judgments of quality and originality. Distinctions in arrangements, instrumentation and depth of production often aren’t immediately apparent in material which moves at a glacial pace and whose tones start at stygian and slowly spiral downwards. Like EBM (evidence-based medicine – what did you think I meant?), dark ambient holds itself to the standard of the effects it produces in those being treated to it. Harlow MacFarlane has been producing dark ambient as Funerary Call for nearly twenty years now, and, as evidenced by the results of subjecting myself to his latest release for a full weekend, it shows. Nightside Emanations is the best work I’ve heard from the Vancouver-based producer, capable of drawing the listener into deep waters of self-reflection, while it consciously impresses with its fluid and wonderfully developed soundscapes.
From the opening bell chime, McFarlane quickly sets in motion a wide range of sounds which subtly wax and wane over the course of individual compositions: deeply quavering gongs and drums, atmospheric crackles, sustained pads, and sampled percussive sounds drawn from scrap metal and bone which are alternately scratchily discordant and resonantly harmonious. Factor in the odd snippet of vocals downtuned past the diaphragm and into the lower intestine level and it’s a thick stew, but these elements never clash or impinge upon each other. It’s akin to an old plate-spinning act…if the plates were fashioned from obsidian discs the size of city blocks which completed a rotation once every lunar year.
While Nightside Emanations definitely skews heavily towards the pure dark ambient side of Funerary Call’s ethos (Fragments From The Aethyr, also released earlier this year, incorporated more noise and death industrial sounds into its three lengthy tracks), it feels like a fully balanced listen. Its six pieces flow into each other yet still feel wholly distinct, and while it’s perfectly suitable for late night reading it never fades into the background the way more drone-oriented fare can. It’s a very present record which builds up a real sense of purposeful direction, and by the time the excellent revisiting of earlier piece “Upon The Heath” closes things out, there’s a tidal inevitability to its slowly repeating drumming which is fully arresting. If you’re a comparative dark ambient neophyte, you couldn’t do much better this year than Nightside Emanations. MacFarlane has steadily stepped his game up over the years and has put on a tour de force here.
In closing, I should note that as a milquetoast non-occultist I can’t speak to Nightside Emanations‘ utility to or resonance with more arcane contexts, but after spending a weekend with this rough beast I’ll be damned if I didn’t catch myself mouthing along with the words “Thee I invoke, Serpent of the Deep”, and feeling a chill which wasn’t there when I first encountered them in the famed “Simon” Necronomicon. If that’s not evidence of transformational ritual, I don’t know what is.