Thomas Köner – Permafrost (Barooni/Type, 1993/2010)

“We desire not merely to know the sorts of things that are revealed in scientific papers but to know what is beautiful and edifying in a faraway place.”

Those are the words of Barry Lopez from his acclaimed book Arctic Dreams. So often these days we hear the news of climate change and the effects of our damage upon the world: polar bears are starving, sea levels are rising, the permafrost is unleashing trapped methane into the atmosphere. Every piece, and rightfully so, has an alarmist tone, filled with fear wrapped in the clinical analysis of science. What we don’t experience, what is never conveyed to us, are these places themselves. The arctic world has often been one of distant mystery and strange folk, desolate and unforgiving lands seemingly devoid of life. Indeed, the collapse of the arctic ecosystem is more often presented not as the local catastrophe that it is, but of a global crisis; but then, it is hard to be sympathetic when all that is presented to us is a cold and frigid waste whose value apparently lies more in the maintenance of our current climate than what it possesses itself.

So what of the Arctic then? Is it remote, isolationist, treacherous, stark, wild, and all the other things? Yes, of course it is. It’s a barely tempered wilderness where life clings to a knife edge, whose progress through time is measured on slower scales compared to temperate regions, yet can kill faster than the rest. It is a punishing, foreboding expanse, and a siren for the curious and the foolhardy.

Permafrost makes no claim to paint these frozen places in an explicitly beautiful light, in fact most of the tracks here are underpinned by a vague sense of appropriate threat or menace in the rumbling sub-bass fixtures throughout, though signs peek out here and there through its darkling veil. There is, of course, a beauty in its mystery and cool stillness. My favourite, interior “Firn”, hangs in a snowy fuzz and a wintry curtain, the faintest suggestions of the world beyond are caught like snatches between flurries. Valley troughs and glacial mounds and dark peaks float through perception, apparitions swaddled under a cloak of white: virginal country.

Curiosity drives exploration, and “Meta Incognita” skirts the edge of possibility like a ship rounding some unknown fjord, gazing down the throat of this mysterious land. It lurks quietly, slowly rising and sharpening in focus as the scene resolves: dark walls rise up on either side, barren gulfs of rock scraping against the sky, a distant glacier disgorging chunks of ice out into the open ocean and barring our passage. It does much to seem unappealing, and yet it’s exactly this threatening, impenetrable visage which heightens desire and intrigue further.

Suggestions of life delicately permeate the fabric too; title track “Permafrost” yawns into view with a dense vein of bass drone, a vertiginous sensory collapse that reels in scale. Understanding evolves, macro and micro systems are uncovered and a growing perception of complexity in form mutates. Haunted drones float through its core with an icy breath, the muted undercurrents of unseen activity betraying life’s presence in this unforgiving land. Thin strands of light unfold carefully, a delicate web of life hovering impressively, elegantly, in katabatic suspension.

This is an album you’ll strain to hear, especially in closing track “…”, whose life-signs are so minimal that its softly pulsating rhythms can scarcely be felt, yet there it is all the same. It’s always been there, quiet and unobtrusive and waiting to be discovered. There is value there, not just because it’s a strange land on distant shores, whose slow erosive loss cascades down to the wider world that otherwise couldn’t care less, but because it is a beautiful and untouched place, untamed and raw and filled with life we fail to appreciate or comprehend. That value isn’t contrived from scientists or researchers, but from the natives who live to its tune and the wildlife that follow its whims and the intrepid who venture in to its heartland, returning with tales of its splendour and majesty, difficult though it is.