The term “psychogeography” is often used, and possibly misused, by music journalists these days, including myself. It is a very tempting and useful shorthand when discussing the likes of Burial, Demdike Stare and Richard Skelton, but not always appropriate, at least if you understand “psychogeography” in the same terms as the Lettrist movement, who coined it, did. Luckily for us scribes (especially those, like me, who want to seem smarter than they are), language evolves, and if there is an album most fitting to be described in terms of psychogeography, it is this fascinating new opus by German ambient great Thomas Köner.
Which is ironic, in a way, because the prefix in psychogeography, by definition, suggests people. The presence of minds that populate space. Yet Köner has chosen to create a piece of music – and, despite consisting of three tracks, Novaya Zemlya feels very much like a single piece – that reflects one of the most extreme, unpopulated and far-flung places on earth, an archipelago in Northern Siberia whose indigenous population were relocated by the Soviet authorities so that it could be used for some of the most powerful nuclear tests in human history. If that wasn’t foreboding enough, it is also the easternmost place in Europe, and situated very close to the Arctic wastes. This subtext of Cold War, diaspora and isolation was always going to be perfect inspiration for Thomas Köner, a man whose work has long been renowned for it austerity and desolation, and who had already established his fascination with, and ability to map out a musical semaphore for, the bleak wastelands close to the North Pole on his seminal early-nineties trio of albums Nunatuk Gongamur, Teimo and Permafrost.
Novaya Zemlya differs from the aforementioned trio through the specificity of the location he seeks to evoke, although obviously few people who hear it will have ever visited the titular archipelago. But the charged historical and geographical contexts of the place, those of one buffeted by time and the elements, imbue the album with a greater resonance even than Permafrost, and with a more emphasised sense of what Thierry Charollais refers to in his liner notes as “metaphysical geography” than ‘97’s Nuuk. Only minimal information about Novaya Zemlya is needed to feel absorbed, and, in the right conditions, even overwhelmed by this album.
One of Köner’s greatest strengths is his use of silence. Novaya Zemlya is a quiet album, with some sounds verging on the imperceptible, but that doesn’t affect the potency. Instead, sounds are perceived at a clear distance, from the crackle of a radio to remote industrial groans that instantly bring to mind those nuclear tests. This ability to so expertly control the spatiality of his music is a talent I’ve seen in few “ambient” artists apart from Köner, and one that forces concentration (this is not the kind of ambient music you can put in the background), and from this coerced engagement the psychogeography builds, one of pure austerity and bleakness, as dark as any more openly tenebrous noise or drone album. This music is tangible, for all the prolonged silences and elusive field recording snippets, and therefore unsettlingly immediate. Landscapes surge into consciousness on the back of deep, reverberating drones and cavernous low-end pulsations: ice and glaciers drift on the Bering strait, machines can be heard releasing their toxic radium under the islands’ rocks, and sheets of constrained white noise evoke the howling winds that whip and slam against this far-off no-man’s land. The imagery is potent, even if it is essentially devoid of romanticism: there is a hint of Touch labelmate Chris Watson to Thomas Köner’s grim musical portrayal of this forbidding outcrop of humanity and geology.
Such bleakness could quickly become overbearing and hostile were it not for Köner’s equally innate sense of melody. Indistinct exoskeletons of tunes emerge from the silences or screes like delicate wafts of air, inchoate burbles and trickles that nuance the emotional potency of the album, lifting it from pure bleakness to something more ambiguous. Novaya Zemlya is not merely a cold and impersonal geographical study, but rather a consideration of the natural and human impacts on a random, but intriguing, parcel of land. Each time the haze breaks and a melodic line pierces the subsequent aural space, Novaya Zemlya is imbued with something approaching pathos, or at least a wistfulness and thoughtfulness to counterbalance the oppressive claustrophobia that dominates a lot of the rest of the album, especially the first track. In fact, if any image dominates the curious psychogeography of Novaya Zemlya, it’s unsurprisingly the rain-lashed and blurry cover photo: this land (and its people, for there are still people on Novaya Zemlya) is bleak but not ruined, desolate but not destroyed. This watery, indistinct vista brings to mind the great post-nuclear film Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky, with its isolated protagonists drifting through a harsh and unforgiving landscape in search of existential fulfilment: the Novaya Zemlya of Thomas Köner is a distant, blighted world, one punished by time, space and history, but, crucially, one still inhabited by the presence of humanity and desire.