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Artist: Deathprod

Album: Deathprod

Label: Rune Grammofon

Review date: Jul. 8, 2004

Norwegian producer Deathprod is the mad scientist of ambient music. Armed with his self-described “audio virus” – an aural Pandora’s box of decomposing electronics, primitive samplers and all things drone and hiss – Helge Sten has tweaked and twiddled himself into the all to rare position of being an unyieldingly original ambient composer. Furthermore, Sten began piecing together his haunting collages over a decade ago, well before the current boom in all things minimal.

This self-titled set, released on Oslo’s superb Rune Grammofon, collects four CDs of Sten’s work under the Deathprod moniker. Morals and Dogma, the first Deathprod release in eight years – and only disc available individually – is a mammoth album. Yet, the meat of this set lies in its wealth of early material, providing the listener with the chance to study how Sten has refined (or in some cases, not) his sound during the past 15 years.

Reference Frequencies, Treetop Drive and Imaginary Songs From Tristan da Cunha, the three albums that round out the set, offer a commanding look into Deathprod’s dense world of sound.

Spanning 1991-2001, Reference Frequencies is the most varied of the discs, containing an overview of Sten’s metamorphosis from conjuror of tremendous roars, to mastermind of delicate drones. The four “Reference Frequencies” pieces contained, (“#3,” “#7,” “#8” and “#5”), are raw, loud examinations of noise, examples of Sten’s earliest work under the Deathprod name. “Reference Frequencies #8” begins with a cavernous cry like the sound of a foghorn bleating into an impossibly dark night. As the track progresses, the sound is corrupted, spiking and sliding into often terrifying waves. The four electronic improvisations were recorded directly to cassette, using skeletal, basic equipment. Both source material and recording process imbue the tracks with touches of the minute curving and failings of sound that dominate Deathprod’s later work. “Recording the Jürg Mager Trio: La Luna,” and “Recording the Jürg Mager Trio: A Shortcut to the Stars,” from August ’95, find Sten on Hammond organ and test oscillator, joined by drummer Bent Sæther and organist/percussionist Hans Magnus Ryan. Recorded live to two-track, the pieces are swinging, proto-post-rock instrumentals. In the latter, Sten’s oscillator screams forth from the bed of spiked Hammond swirls and skittering percussion, soaring through a spine-tingling melody.

“6:15” is a collaborative piece with American poet Matt Burt. As Burt recites his verse in a syncopated, almost computer-clipped voice, Deathprod provides accompaniment in the form of a near-silent, digital “shhh.” The final cut, “Dora,” is a duet with Ole Henrik Moe on violin, providing the perfect primer for the work found later in the set.

Treetop Drive, recorded between 1993 and ’94, features four collaborations between Deathprod’s audio virus and Ryan’s violin. “Treetop Drive 1” finds a single chord rising and falling in a damaged wave as squeals and slants of processed violin fly overhead. “Treetop Drive 2” repeats the formula, setting a shrill burst in place of the first track’s soothing undulation. An impossibly low rumble blurts out in reply, creating a sinister call-and-response. The closing “Towboat” is the record’s most expressive moment. Here, Deathprod demonstrates the pinnacle of his ability to transform an orchestra of the blackest sounds into a transcendent epic.

The 40-minute Songs From Tristan da Cunha, from 1996, is Deathprod’s homage to the world’s most remote island. Poking through the most distant reaches of the South Atlantic, and nearly inaccessible to tourists and visitors, the island epitomizes isolation. Using sampled field recordings of Moe’s violin, Deathprod provides a soundtrack to this nearly inhospitable volcanic mass. With each note mangled by his audio virus, Deathprod had the tracks transferred to phonographic cylinders, increasing the otherworldly creaking and cracks. Yet, while Deathprod creates a work indebted to the island’s loneliness, he also captures its rare beauty. The wintry calls of “Boatharbour Bay” and airy clangs of “Hotentott Gulch” define this windswept wasteland.

Songs From Tristan da Cunha’s final track, “The Contraceptive Briefcase II,” utilizes a quartet of musicians on “voice and glass.” Moe’s violin is also present and Deathprod adds Theremin to his arsenal. The piece is a grand summation of the themes resonating through the album. Sten casts sprays of digital fuzz into the air, bathing the wordless female vocals in washes of sound.

Finally, Morals and Dogma showcases some of the most glacial of Deathprod’s works. Album centerpiece “Dead People’s Things” finds Ryan coaxing unearthly rattles and shivers from the strings of his violin. The 20-minute track, recorded in 1994, creeps forward with Deathprod adding haunting howls from his test oscillator. It is an exercise in extreme subtlety, a massive, frigid composition.

“Tron” and “Cloudchamber” were both initially recorded for Kreutzer Kompani’s dance performance Vaakum. The former features the usual pairing of Moe’s violin and audio virus, while the later finds Moe switching to saw. “Tron” is much like “Dead People’s Things,” an epic construction of subliminal shifts and billowing noise. “Cloudchamber” is crafted from grand rumbles, evoking stormy climatic ruptures and the titanic crash of thunder.

Designer Kim Hiorthøy’s brilliant black-on-black packaging provides the perfect home for this collection of mind-bending art. While Deathprod has proven himself to be an engaging improvisor with death-jazzers Supersilent and a talented engineer, he is clearly most at home hovering in his studio allowing his virus to chew away at a world of unsuspecting sound.

By Ethan Covey

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