Thomas Koner – Novaya Zemlya (2012)

Thomas Koner’s 11th LP, Novaya Zemlya.

This actually came out months ago but, frustratingly, it was limited initially to CD only. Being cheap I decided to hold out until it became available digitally. Ok so I forgot about it until this week but it doesn’t matter, I got round to it eventually.

Koner’s entire discography revolves predominantly around geographical locations but are normally more sweeping generalisations of large expanses rather than specific places. The sound they present all trends in the same direction; quiet, menacing and vast dronescapes mirroring the same qualities found in the cold, bleak expanses of boreal climes. Novaya Zemlya on the other hand breaks this trend and tightens down the focus by honing in on a remote archipelago leaning out into the Arctic Ocean.

Looking it up it’s easy to see why Koner chose to create an album based on this place; aside from its remoteness and Northerly location, it also has a rich history as an atmospheric nuclear weapon testing site. The first of the three tracks litters much of its drone background with deep, sub-bass punctuations, its own little nuclear weapons; these distal pulses vaguely disturb the air, echoes of an abrupt and alarming past. But as all these go on, life below and elsewhere remains remarkably unchanged, with only the most meagre of fluctations in the drone to represent the influence of these powerful events on the surrounding environment and its few inhabitants, human or otherwise.

Track 2 is considerably more active with huge throbs of bass rattling their way through, indicative of the increasing military presence here as time went by. The drone begins to oscillate and waver, static begins to knead its way through in tangled rushes and bursts of Russian radio transmissions push through it all. Swathes of near silence sound almost like the rushing of air between these bass pulses, the sudden wash of the shockwaves from monstrous yet far removed events. The fear is stronger here as the booms get closer, clearer, louder, more frequent, a lingering air of insecurity. The track eventually begins to fade away like a bad memory, but not before we get a few parting shots.

Novaya Zemlya is known for something else also, and it’s something much more pleasant than nuclear weapons testing. A known meteorological effect, called the Novaya Zemlya Effect (imaginatively), is named after this region. It is a very particular kind of mirage that allows the Sun to be seen at Sunrise a few degrees below the horizon thanks to very large and extremely still air masses refracting the sunlight. I feel like track 3 is telling me something less depressing and more magical than the previous 2, and it is related (in my head) to this effect. Its tracts of near nothing ripple with caustic white noise fragments from afar and waves of increased drone activity briefly overwhelm the quietness with a menacing oppression, but it feels like standing alone watching this phenomenon unfold over a small settlement in this harsh place. There is a real sense of beauty, of pride and of humility here that resonates with the history of this place; that people could eak out a living and survive in this historically damaged and desolate place is incredible and somehow depressing, but it is made worthwhile by the natural beauty of the region. The last few minutes of this track really are stunning, and I implore any fan and non-fan of drone to sit in a darkened, quiet room and listen to this majestic piece unfold.

Novaya Zemlya in many ways propogates a stereotype now attached to Koner’s name, but if that stereotype is one of creating incredibly sensitive and introspective music then who cares? Koner is a drone master, drawing up almost nothing from nothing and yet managing to fill it to capacity with history, politics, geography and most importantly emotion. The title points us in the direction in which Koner wants us to focus and the music does the rest, allowing our imagination to fill in the gaps. Stunning release.