The Iranian duo NUM’s most recent work of electro-acoustic horror is False Awakening—a nightmare scape in two acts. NUM’s music mixes evocatively crisp—albeit sometimes heavily processed—vocals, instruments, and field recordings with a smooth, dark watercolor of intricately layered drone soundscapes to create some of the most frightening ambient music I have heard in recent memory. The album’s credits imply that Maryam Sirvan takes charge of most of the acoustic work—providing vocals, guitar, and field recordings—while Milad Bagheri takes care of most of the electronic manipulation and engineering—although both are credited with “electronics.” Then beyond that Rezno Kiknadze’s elegantly haunting saxophone is featured throughout the album. Together these three create a remarkably graphic piece of oneiric terror in a brisk 32 minutes.
I say “graphic” because of the album’s especially cinematic mode of expression. This starts with the track titles: “Watching Myself from the Corner” and “I’m Flying Over the City.” But musically speaking, the album’s opening vocals, Sirvan’s unsettling moan, “Is this a dream or a nightmare?”—which enters after about a minute and a half of introductory droning—set the tone for something like the soundtrack to a movie based on a Stephen King novel or something (but not The Shining—that’s The Caretaker’s domain). Then the entry of Kiknadze’s improvisational, free-jazzy sax work adds depth to the image, like a clandestine club in smoky alleyways, illumed only by the soft light of the city. Or perhaps if we stick to the image suggested by the album’s cover, these elements are meant to evoke descension into some deep well, something filled only with despair, perhaps a wraith. But the actual subject of the image matters little, the point is that this music has just such a power, despite being mostly “ambient” and “drone” music.
What’s more is the dreamlike—actually nightmarish—quality suggested not only the lyrics, but also by the slow mingling of the acoustic elements and electronic elements in an abyss of reverb. If reverb is a form of sonic memory, and dreams are a kind of unconscious memory, this mingling seems to try to bring us directly into the nightmare aurally. Then the delay on Kiknadze’s saxophone—how it seems to mingle with and confuses itself—works to compound this play with memory and dream. For me the playing and production of the sax most recalls another sinister electro-acoustic track—Terry Riley’s “Poppy Nogood & The Phantom Band”
As the opening song/movement progresses, the acoustic elements give way to noisier samples and found sounds—bringing us formally into the realm of proper Dark Ambient music, which derived from Industrial music. The re-entry of saxophone and other acoustic-sounding instrumentation makes for a brilliant cacophony at the track’s climax, and these moments would appear to be state the essence of NUM’s sound.
After the noise subsides, the album’s latter half takes a more subdued tone. Here the acoustic elements mostly take a droning backseat to the prominent noise samples. They progress an build over the course of more than ten minutes, shifting and developing as if we were descending further and further into this dark void of sound. Ultimately, the mixture becomes too great to distinguish individual sounds and noises, and by that point individual instruments are beginning to fade out anyway. Over them enters something like white noise, a great black wave of soft static, which comes in and out until the album’s conclusion.
Ultimately I really enjoy this album, but I find it difficult to reconcile the incredibly clear moments that open each track with the blurred drones and noises one finds as they progress, and indeed the intelligible vocals and sax playing of the album’s opening minutes seems to be exceptional within the complete work. This kind of thematic or conceptual discontinuity (though I will clarify that musically the album is quite continuous) detracts from the overarching cohesiveness of the work, in part because the opening few minutes are the best to be found across the album’s half-hour. Nonetheless, despite these qualms NUM have created an especially visual work of sound, and that is a feat that I cannot help but congratulate them on. I look forward to seeing where they take this sound next.
By Isak McCune