(self released, 2013)
Well, winter is finally here; somebody call George R.R. Martin and ask what’s next. The streets are shrouded in snow; the cold air bites into my skin; the houses are draped with colorful lights, and I’m awaiting my last few packages to wrap for Christmas. Seems like the perfect time to listen to an album with the name Winter Forest Drones. As a matter of fact, I went for a walk on Saturday night, in the midst of our first good snow, with this album playing through headphones. It made for a nice effect, but I might’ve been imagining that because I was so ecstatic about all the snow. Either way, I know I was excited to see new albums from Photophob on my roster of new music to listen to a few days ago. Self-described “bedroom producer” Herwig Holzmann is one of the first, and possibly, the best musician I was introduced to after I began reading articles on Critical Masses a while back. I was intrigued by the versatility of his style, and I’m still in awe of the fact that he can be so prolific while still producing albums of such fine quality. His album Skaphander Skanks blew me away!
Anyway, let’s get on to the new album.
Winter Forest Drones is deeply atmospheric from the start, calling to mind the Jonsi & Alex album Riceboy Sleeps. Where this album differs from other similar pieces, however, is that it’s not afraid to go into new territory. Holzmann creates an ambience, yes, but he doesn’t simply leave it at that. He builds on it, until it’s not just a sound, or a series of sounds; it’s a complete song. Something that came to mind on my first few listens was that it made me want to fall asleep, but in a good way; the same way the patter of rain on the roof or the sound of cars passing quietly just makes me want to kick my feet up and gently fall into dreamland.
The first song, aptly titled “First Drone,” is a beautifully hypnotizing song that I would almost put into the straight-up “ambient” category straightaway, but that would be my mistake. If you listen attentively, the song really does quite a lot more than simply “drone.” It’s a long song at eight and a half minutes, which means Photophob can make such subtle changes in tone and rhythm that you hardly notice them. It’s easy to slip into a sort of tune-out stupor when you listen to music like this the first time around, which is a shame because most people won’t go back and re-listen. Very slowly … very deliberately … he begins introducing a rhythm to the song. At first it’s a kind of pulse, slowly repeating notes, while introducing new ones. Then the pulse begins to transform into something stronger, almost a thump. The notes become waves, crashing over our ears again and again, in clear patterns and with obvious purpose. Really, it’s a beautiful slow burn of a song, and deserving of multiple listens.
Track 2 is called “Snowsteps and Dogs,” and we’re met with, naturally, the sound of someone walking in the snow and breathing heavily. Under this noise, a few notes begin, until eventually they become the main subject of the song, and the footsteps are essentially a rhythm instrument in the background. Low, howling synthesizers; futuristic, repetitive noises; soft drones underlying everything … these are the Photophob’s weapons of choice for “Snowsteps,” and they work rather effectively in providing the listener with an atmosphere of the snowy outdoors.
“Cold Forest Bleeping” is the third song on the album; again, very aptly titled. OK, I promised myself I wouldn’t mention The Thing when I wrote this review, but damn if this song doesn’t make me think of the John Carpenter film every time I hear it! It’s the bleeping sound; I can just see Kurt Russell with an awesome beard dumping coffee into his chess-playing computer and walking out into the snow. Thinking about The Thing and giant beards will help your listening experience with pretty much any song, but don’t let that fool you into a misconception that this one is a weak link. Another very hypnotic, pulsating song, with a pretty little synth chorus in the background.
The fourth song is “Winter Breath.” Now, I’m sure an image immediately comes to most of your minds when you hear that title, which is what makes pretty much this whole album work. The album is a series of small observations about winter, or minor experiences that we all share, such as the inexplicable excitement of seeing your breath for the first time since it’s started getting cold. The song is pretty nice, although it’s got a bit less to offer than the previous three. Very slow, quiet and atmospheric, but it doesn’t build on itself as much as it might. A low-ish point in an otherwise very good album.
Track 5 on the album is called “Pitchshifting the February Air.” The process of pitch-shifting has a lot of potential to it, and I’m not sure how much of this song utilizes the technique, but it makes for a great little interlude. It starts off on a much sharper and louder tone that most of the previous tracks, almost as if it’s there only to grab your attention in anticipation of the final song, “Slow Pulse till Spring.”
Aaaand it’s worth it. The sixth and final track of Winter Forest Drones plays out almost as an outro to the season of winter itself. The opening drone is a fairly mid-range note, followed by a fairly high note, repeating with a beat that sounds almost like a funeral drum playing underneath it all. As we’ve grown accustomed over the course of the album, Holzmann slowly builds on the song, much in the same way one would build with a set of LEGOs. That is to say, he doesn’t morph the melody into something else, or the harmony, or anything for that matter. What he DOES do is add and remove entire pieces of music, leaving some to play for a time and then replacing them with others. It’s a beautifully effective style, and we see the “funeral drum” beat slowly change into something more fun – almost funky even – as the music gets changed out for lighter, happier sounds.
As with any ambient or electronic music, Winter Forest Drones isn’t for everyone, and that’s fine; but to those who will enjoy such an experience, this is one of the best albums in the genre I’ve heard this past year. As I write this, my fingers are feeling a bit cold and I’m wearing a heavy sweater; outside, crazy people are shuffling around in Santa hats and scrounging for stubbed out cigarettes on the ground (I’m right next to a nursing home), and at home my Christmas tree is shining through the window for all to see and enjoy … Winter Forest Drones couldn’t have come at a better time, which certainly helps with my appreciation of it. Another winner from Photophob. This album is a beautifully executed and totally sincere tribute to winter and everything that comes with it, and it receives a very high recommendation!
Ed Note: We’ve talked about Herwig Holzmann a lot here at Critical Masses, and we do indeed love his work. Check out our reviews of these albums as well: