Biosphere – L’incoronazione di Poppea (2012)

I’ve been listening to some weird stuff lately; Japanese electroacoustic, Danish folktronica, Polish glitch, the list goes on. It was nice to have Biosphere’s latest release appear so suddenly and unexpectedly in the midst of all this oddness.

His 12th album over his 21 year career goes that little bit further to show just how far this pioneering Norwegian ambient artist has come from his deep house/ambient techno beginnings in the early 90’s. Last year brought us N-Plants, a tribute to Japan’s nuclear power stations (created before the disaster) bringing a surprisingly electronic, techno approach that was emotionally significant at the time but felt quite weak musically. Well Poppea is certainly the cure, tightening the focus on a very ambient, opera inspired sound (from Claude Monteverdi’s opera of the same name)

Although short, Poppea packs a huge, huge amount in. Openers “Qual Linea Al Centro” and “Alla Diletta Mia” are delicate creations; permeated with a light drone fuzz, the faux string sequences and careful electronic twinkles rise up, oscillating and wobbling, a kind of vibrato sound if you will, as they play out. Unlike the album that follows, these two pieces are optimistic and bright melodies, balancing out the incoming fugue.

This wobbling continues throughout the album, reappearing again with the vocally powered “Tornerai” and “Tornerai II” couplet; a softly cooing female voice dips in and out, distorted by the various effects as well as being overlain by a more fragmented version of itself, all the while the Fennesz-esque electroacoustic meanderings play out in the background, intermittently surging forwards as new chords are played through the reverb.

As we begin to move towards the middle of this short release (a mere 30 minutes in length), the vocals are banished to the shadows in the dark and quiet “Il Mia Tormento” and more mournful in “Addio”, all the while this very carefully applied damaged glitch fuzz softly saturates in the background, akin to the soft hum of a record.

“Transformati” blasts open with what sounds like a processed harpsichord (the instrument that pervades most of this album but is never really heard properly), blaring with the power of an organ but cut with a soft electronic lilt. “Mutata”, one of my favourites, keeps the harpsichord’s true sound alive, spinning it out for over 6 minutes with quite a repetitive loop but warping its sound (shortening/lengthening) and with that incredible vibrato, all the while a real organ begins to move in and add its own textural imprint and a sense of scale and grandeur to the dark mystique, before it decays into more familiar Biosphere electronics toward the end.

The slow downhill descent then begins with “Tentati” with its smothered strings and careful drums, and “Adagiati” with its focus on the drone and delicate electronic sound. Finally, or perhaps sadly, we close out with “Rimanti In Pace”, quite an optimistic piece in some respects, considering how the general feel of the album is so melancholic. Uplifting drone carries distal operatic vocals in one of the most conservative, quiet and brilliant album closers I’ve heard in a while.

Poppea may only be 30 minutes long but it certainly condenses that opera scale and feel into an extremely digestible, not to mention palatable, release. In terms of Biosphere’s discography this is one of my favourites. In terms of 2012 albums, this is certainly up there as a contender. Just an incredibly mature, sophisticated and engaging listen. Brilliant.