Another ASC release, another spurt of uncritical fanboy love from myself. Honestly, I've had to forcefully stop myself from listening to every track, remix and podcast James Clements puts out or signs to his label, because otherwise there'd be no time left in my life for non-ASC-related music.
He's back with his second ambient album in the space of a year, this time in collaboration with minimalist drum 'n bass producer Sam KDC, who is awesome in his own right and has already contributed fruitfully to ASC's Auxiliary label with the excellent Symbol #3 EP last year. KDC's music was always imbued with a hefty dose of enveloping ambience even when he was in drum 'n bass mode, so it's not entirely surprising to hear them come together on a fully fledged ambient LP.
Decayed Society is, according to ASC, "loosely based around the events of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe of 1986", and so as you'd expect it's an extremely bleak and haunting listen. That's no bad thing though, as ambient generally needs to be centred around a controlling idea or concept if it's to become more distinctive and memorable than the vast array of unfocused wishy-washy pleasant noodle-muzak out there. All the best ambient records have strong themes that permeat every second of the listening time and create a strong atmosphere. which is clearly something the endless hordes of laptop-wielding blogbient producers still need to realise. On Decayed Society the duo also avoid going the opposite direction into the unremitting despair of dark ambient, which is oppressively and directionlessly bleak, and as such equally boring as blog-friendly blandbient. ASC and Sam KDC manage the crucial trick of emotional contrast by tempering the bleakness of some of these pieces with an edge of melancholic beauty that sounds all the more touching given the emotional context.
ASC's last ambient album, The Light That Burns Twice As Bright, was in many places equally grimey and desolate, but in technique generally more droney and loop-based, with also a stronger prevelance of grainy, "misty" textures, as befitted the theme of label Silent Season, which aims to put out music to soundtrack the dew-soaked rainforests of Vancouver Island. Decayed Society is a sparser and more sonically dynamic record, with KDC's fondness for embedding found sounds and field recordings into the mix also shining through. Chimes, drops of water in the dark and fragmented radio transmissions can all be heard in places, not quite looping in linear fashion but cropping up at resonant moments. There's more space in the mix, and so these fragments of real-world noise become more isolated and anguished.
The album unfolds slowly, the opening tracks more dark and less beautiful, and it only really starts to hit home with the brilliant Block 4 halfway through, where flowing subterranean water fill ups the soundscape and underpins the emotional outpouring of the piece. The second half of the album allows more moments of beauty and sadness to creep through the crumbling brickwork - the last minute or so of Skala is particularly affecting - and No Safety Zone is a perfect piece to end on. The slow and low-lit opening stretches of the record may initially seem a little inert and uninvolving, but they perfectly set up the second half of the record, and help construct the kind of emotional development that great albums possess.
The Light That Burns Twice As Bright was undoubtedly a very good album, but Decayed Society is markedly superior in almost every respect, to the point where it's prompting some serious re-evaluation of that previous record. The controlling idea combined with the influence of Sam KDC's techniques on ASC's typical excellence really take it up a notch, and this is sure to be one of the ambient records of the year. Like the last album, it's only available on limited release, so if you want a physical copy to treasure, head on over to Surus and snap up a copy. This one's going up there alongside the Intex Systems album and the Sci-Fi Files series in the pantheon of ASC genius.
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 9/10