Clouds Under the Bridges by Winterberg is a consistent album both in structure and execution: of its seven ambient tracks none are under five minutes long, none over seven, and all are worth hearing. Hailing from Dresden, Winterberg is a member of Sitar Beat, a world music group, but his solo project prefers tickling the ear to wobbling the head. His album is less a cloud under the bridge than a troll: stop to peer into the gloom and it instantly drags you into its dark and mysterious world. According to Phonocake netlabel's blurb, he likes to make live recordings with analogue instruments in large spaces such as churches rather than be tucked up in a cosy studio with a warm laptop whilst drinking cocoa, clutching a teddy bear and watching the snow fall outside his double-glazed window. I may have altered Phonocake's blurb a tad.
Despite its optimistic title, the opener, Auf der Helle I, opens a crack in the floor and lets out an underlay of white noise, the sound of far-off manhole covers being dragged who knows where, gentle filter sweeps, and slow sine-wave-ish notes that punctuate the boundless gloom in which something breathes heavily. It's not a dance number. By the end, the synths have lengthened slightly to become bell-like and hypnotic. Believe it or not, it's quite a warm, relaxing track. This is fortunate because Auf der Helle II is more of the same, although its bass digs deeper and there's also a gently descending scratchy synth to signal the end of the proceedings.
The third track, Abend, ignores the usual studio production rules by placing alternating bass pulses to the far left and right of the aural field and leaving the centre to a high-pitched drone. These unprepossessing elements are joined by a noise that is akin to one of the world's most unpopular sounds: the squealing of train wheels as they navigate a sharp curve or even... a bend. (Yes! Pun of the week.) However, the constant panning of this sound and its placement in a cavernous reverb transforms it into a spooky presence that slides from ear to ear. There's no development as such but that doesn't mean it's not an enthralling listen.
Now, here's something that will irritiate music geeks who like to keep their mp3 collection immaculate: a track entitled ...und der Mond scheint in der Finsternis. That ellipsis is going to drive tag editors insane. The tuneful slabs of pinkish noise, which a fanciful ear might imagine to be robots having a friendly chat, remind me of the previously reviewed Machinarium soundtrack. The slow, deep, bass throbs could further convince that over-imaginative ear that it was hearing a sentient fog-horn. Ambient: the musical equivalent of absinthe.
All of which brings me to declare that despite the lack of human involvement (voices, traditional instruments, etc.), Clouds Under the Bridges is a strangely warm and intimate album. The tracks hit that ambient sweet spot: not so long as to outstay their welcome, but long enough to transport the listener to another world.
Not only that, the fifth track, Septembre, will be clutched to the breast of all those who like Vangelis. A track summary: a keening synth fires long notes off into the distance where they slowly descend or rise into a background of bubbling white noise that sounds like electronic rain. A track suggestion: play it over the opening scene of Bladerunner. Have a listen and see if it brings out your inner Decker:
There's also a video for Septembre that's less exciting than my sci-fi dystopian Los Angeles video idea, but at least this one will prompt you to clean your computer's screen:
Next up is Sonntag, whose chief component is a martial rhythm played on a hollow-sounding synth preset, backed by an organ drone. By rights, the foreboding atmosphere should build into a traditional climax but instead does the opposite when Winterberg suddenly drops the reverb so that the sounds come close to the ear, a clever and unsettling effect that provides a crest of sorts.
Things come to an end with Im Schatten von etwas. Its gritty drone, oscillating synths, haunting pad and sudden pitch changes might prove harsh fare on its own if the previous six tracks had not attuned the listener to Winterberg's soundscape.
If you enjoy this album, please think about sending a thank you email, tweet, IM, poke, pile of high-denomination notes wrapped in brown paper to the talented Winterberg and/or the routinely lovely Phonocake netlabel. There's not much money to be had in the world of Creative Commons music, but a complimentary message left in an inbox could brighten a grey day.