Nicholas Szczepanik – Not Knowing (2014)


Released today on his Bandcamp page, Not Knowing is Szczepanik’s 9th full length album by my count, and I was lucky enough for Nicholas to send me a copy of the album pre-release to formulate some words on. The prospect of a new, 50 minute Ambient/Drone album from the producer of one of my favourite Drone albums of all time (Please Stop Loving Me) was an exciting one, but my thoughts on this latest LP are somewhat mixed.

Whilst Please Stop Loving Me basks in warm, sunlit drones and extensive synth onlaps, the opening moments of Not Knowing are almost entirely the opposite of these. The dark, brooding pur of a thick and oscillating sub-bass note throbs menacingly in the foreground and continues to do so for quite some time, like some sort of big, black cat. Still, despite the generally menacing sound, unwavering in its pulsing tones, there’s something almost lulling and soothing in its presentation, something vaguely comforting about its determined rhythms, not to mention more than just a hint of mystery; where is it going and how is it going to unfold from here? Well, for all we know it could very well go on forever at this point, and perhaps that wouldnt be a shame.

At some point (I dont really know when) a thin, quivering drone slowly sneaks its way into the mix, a piercing but somehow subtle ray of light floating through this eternal darkness, slowly coming into view but still a far off and distant, indistinct blob. It heralds change within the sound and finally, 13 minutes in we get the first semblance of music and melody, soft swells of sound shepherded in on the shoulders of that drone splinter, opening and exploiting the crack, the chink in the armour of this persistent night. It should be instantly recognisable by pretty much anyone who’s ever listened to Classical music as the slowed and slightly smeared tones of Elgar’s famous “Nimrod”and how appropriate it is. “Nimrod” comes from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, each piece crafted with something “missing”, hidden themes that remain unknown and unsolved. And so Nicholas has folded Elgar’s mysterious music into his own, reappropriating it for his own devices, creating it in debt to another person in the same way as Elgar did originally (in this case French composer Eliane Radique) whilst leaving an air of mystery to proceedings.

And so “Nimrod” almost entirely takes over the piece, cycling over and over again with something of the same echoic and bright instrumentation we’ve seen before, the notes slow and deliberate, vaguely mournful but also with that certain enigmatic quality that makes it hover on the border of optimism and relief. All of the original darkness is castigated and abandoned during this main phase of instrumentation, with none of the oppressive drone to be heard except for the soft thrum of some deep, dark and smothered sub-bass undercurrent that scarcely allows itself to be seen. Yet somehow these empowered melodies somehow allow themselves to become subservient to these bassy waves, rapidly pushing themselves under and slipping away around the 25 minute mark to a far distant place in which only their echoes can be heard and some new, creeping and mysterious phase comes through in pulses of uncomfortable drone coos.

At some point those vaguely melancholic drones seem to just slowly and imperceptibly melt away and once more we’re left with the original core of the piece; those purring bass notes and thin drone lines in the closing 10 minutes, reversing the clock and slowly descending back into the original darkness from whence they came. It all seems like a wonderful and all too brief dream, a quick foray into a bright and optimistic world that slowly unfurls as we slip deeper into the dreamspace before we’re slowly and blearily brought back into the real world once more. Sleep is the solace, that welcome reprieve from the all-to-often dismal day-to-day existence. It’s a fascinating and an engrossing listen if you take the time to engage with the piece but I fear that many may not have sufficient patience to fully explore and enjoy this rather long and oftentimes cumbersome release.