Thanks to the countless sci-fi films we’ve had over the last century or so (or whenever the genre came into existence in the film world exactly) we have some idea of what we think space sounds like. Alien taught us that “in space no one can hear you scream” while the 2013 film Gravity taught us that space is a lonely, empty, and scary place when you have no one speaking to you through the other end of your communication equipment. But how often do we actually hear space? How often do we get treated to the vacuum of space instead of the bleeps and bloops of the insides of some spaceship?
These sounds exist, that’s for sure, and Welsh “dark ambience” creator Brian Williams (aka Lustmord) has known this for some time. On his most recent album, Dark Matter, his material comes from a variety of sources recorded from 1993 to 2003 by the likes of NASA, The Very Large Array, and The National Radio Astronomy Observatory. He takes the unidentifiable sounds of the universe and cast them in his own unsettling sound worlds that make space out to be a creepy, unsettling place to be (or even just to listen to).
Where the source material ends and Lustmord’s own sounds begin is a near-impossible thing to determine when listening to this music, and thus it’s much more satisfying to imagine that this is all the sound of the space, mixed together into three 20+ minute tracks. For the most part it sounds like one might imagine a vacuum to be: empty, but full of heaviness that becomes surrounding all too quickly; any light from the stars burning light years away feels very, very distant here. The atmosphere (if indeed there can accurately be said to be one) is one that relishes in being unsettling and unnerving. It fills the air of the room you’re listening in, and makes something unidentifiable feel like it’s gradually getting closer and closer.
There are specific sounds that emerge from the darkness of space here, and they add a certain quality to the music which makes it feel like the soundtrack to a slow-burning sci-fi horror movie. The latter half of final track “Black Static” radiates an energy that feels deceptively warm, like the automatic heating system of a spaceship working away on a now empty ship. On “Subspace” a noise that could either be a heavy piece of machinery working away, or a sliding door repeatedly trying to close fully sings out mournfully into the void. Equally it could be the whalesong-like call of a distant life form from far off. The ambiguity is the best feature: it’s impossible to know what it is, but something is present and it’s impossible not to let one’s imagination go wild. A similar feature crops up again on “Astronomicon,” as a high-pitch, sonar-like noise plays out, gradually getting louder and louder before fading out of view. Again, whether it’s robotic or organic is impossible to determine, but the noise rings out lonely as a heavy, undulating presence surrounds it.
Being between 27 and 20 minutes long, the tracks here have plenty of time to unfurl at a judicious, if not unnerving pace. This is ambient music that can be played as background music, but it often becomes too disconcerting to let simply it play out; it’s absorbing, like a black hole sucking away your attention gradually before you become fully immersed. If there’s any fault with Dark Matter then it’s that it’s almost too big, which feels like something of a stupid thing to say. The universe is incomprehensively huge, so it only makes sense that music trying to capture it in some form is equally large and unwieldy. I don’t seek to fault the size of the tracks here, but I feel inclined to fault that it doesn’t present enough variety. Some short tracks, or even just more cuts across another disc might have made this a truly cosmic experience.
But, as said, such remarks lend themselves to fault and cater more to personal taste in ambient music; two discs of even the best ambient music is undeniably overwhelming, and it’s not a case that space is exciting and full of wonderful noises. The dark matter out there (which makes about 27% of the universe), isn’t exactly teeming with life and the pew pew of fighting spaceships like Star Wars might lead you think (or at least as far as we know). Space is space, and space is a vacuum where noises are lost forever. And it’s hardly like Dark Matter is unconsidered. The album has been in the works for some 15 years or so, and Lustmord himself admits that the album is “long delayed.” Finding fault is worthless when you’re taken over by the gigantic, impending force of the music here. Space surrounds us, and Lustmord’s music does the exact same thing here – and it make the universe sounds so very, very disquieting.