When Dirk Serries officially retired his vidnaObmana moniker in 2007, he closed the book on a remarkably prolific musical project. There have been over a hundred (official) vidnaObmana releases, not to mention numerous compilation appearances and collaborations with the likes of Alio Die, Jeff Pearce, Steve Roach, and Black Tape For a Blue Girl’s Sam Rosenthal (to name a few).
With such a wealth of music spanning genres (e.g., ambient, power electronics, industrial) and labels (e.g., Ladd-Frith, Projekt, Soleilmoon), some might find it hard to pinpoint their favorite vidnaObmana album. Not me.
I enjoy, and have written about, a number of vidnaObmana releases — including 1990’s Near the Flogging Landscape and 1992’s Shadowing in Sorrow — but there’s one vidnaObmana album that I return to most often, and that continues to hold a very special place in my heart: The River of Appearance, which was originally released by Projekt Records on November 8, 1996.
Admittedly, that may be partially due to the fact that it was also the first vidnaObmana album that I ever bought, after seeing Soulwhirlingsomewhere’s Michael Plaster describe it as the sort of music one hears upon entering heaven. Soulwhirlingsomewhere’s Eating the Sea was my favorite album at the time, so I put great stock in Plaster’s words — and as it turns out, he wasn’t too far off.
Put simply, The River of Appearance is a masterpiece of serene, contemplative ambient music for which terms like “heavenly” and “ethereal” are perfectly apt even as they fail to adequately capture its essence. I return to this album when I need refuge, be it from the torment of a migraine or illness, or from a world that feels increasingly insane. With its shimmering electronics and elegant arrangements, The River of Appearance handily provides just such a tranquil space.
It’s a testament to Serries’ skill as a composer and musician that each one of the album’s eight songs feels like a little world in and of itself. So to celebrate The River of Appearance’s 25th anniversary, I’m going to explore and contemplate — terms like “break down” and “analyze” seem too crude and vulgar — each one of its eight songs and the sonic richness contained therein.
“The Angelic Appearance” quickly — or slowly, given its languid pace — sets the tone for The River of Appearance. The album’s primary sonic elements all make appearances here: stark and minimalist piano and guitar arrangements, a flourish of ethnic (i.e., non-Western) instrumentation (rainsticks, in this case), and most important of all, layer upon layer of serene, melancholy synthesizer tones and drones.
All manner of descriptions can be employed to describe Serries’ arrangements and soundscapes. They unfold slowly like a delicate flower; drift lazily like clouds in an endless blue sky; spread out like ripples across the surface of a hidden forest pond; shimmer like stars in the night sky… you get the idea. Such descriptions sound incredibly pretentious, but that doesn’t mean they’re not accurate or apropos.
The most rhythmic of the album’s eight songs, though it takes nearly five minutes for the rhythms to kick in. Until then, you’re treated to more of Serries’ evocative synth-work. And it’s here that you realize that his synths, for all of their melancholy and serenity, also contain an eerie, otherworldly aspect that makes them all the more intriguing.
As for the song’s rhythms, they initially seem like a simple loop. But a closer listen reveals possible imperfections (e.g., a beat is slightly off, a strike isn’t as clear or crisp as it was before), suggesting that they were recorded live. Rather than mar or ruin the mood or listening experience, though, such flaws add a certain human quality to the song.
Prior to The River of Appearance, vidnaObmana collaborated with ambient maestro Steve Roach on a double album titled Well of Souls. I mention that because “A Scenic Fall” has a Steve Roach-esque feel to it, what with the twinkling synthesizer notes shimmering against a seemingly infinite backdrop, like stars gracefully suspended in the endless night sky. (Remember what I said about those descriptions?)
Unlike some of the other songs on The River of Appearance, like “The Angelic Appearance,” this one’s all about texture and pure ambience. As such, it feels very much of a piece with Roach’s 1984 ambient masterpiece, Structures From Silence.
I mentioned earlier that the lush synths on The River of Appearance can be as eerie as they are melancholy. That’s readily apparent on “Night-blooming.” As befitting its name, the song conjures up that liminal moment when the sun has just sunk below the horizon and the darkness of night is beginning to cover the land.
Serries’ synthesizers are both woeful and beguiling here, as if lamenting the previous day while also looking forward to the promise of the incoming nocturnal. Meanwhile, various wind instruments make their way in and amongst the electronics, their forlorn and even ominous sounds adding to the song’s tonal complexity.
One of the things that I enjoy the most about The River of Appearance is how it maintains a very fine balance between being incredibly atmospheric and ethereal, and also very structured — with the two sides accenting and enhancing each other.
On “The Solitary Circle,” Serries places a simple, stark piano melody bathed in reverb à la Harold Budd (RIP) against more textured synth-work and soaring drones, and allows them play off, mirror, and echo one another. The resulting song feels incredibly simple in structure while also very intricate and even playful (relatively speaking).
At this point, I feel I must confess that I’m far more familiar with the first half of The River of Appearance than its second half — mainly because I’m usually asleep during the second half. But I mean that as a compliment, a testament to its supremely relaxing nature. As such, I feel like I’m still discovering things whenever I listen to “Weaving Cluster” all the way through, such as the gong-like tones that sound out in the song’s depths and evoke distant temple ruins.
More simple, solitary piano notes begin “Streamers of Stillness,” and they sound almost like a coda to the melody that opened the album on “The Angelic Appearance” — only they feel more fragile and tremulous here. Which seems ironic because they’re also more of the focus here than in previous songs, even as they’re eventually joined by a gentle cacophony of bird-like flutes.
Put another way, if “Night-blooming” evoked the oncoming of night, then “Streamers of Stillness” seems to evoke the dawn, with sunlight streaking across the brightening sky as nature rises to meet it.
The best description of vidnaObmana’s music that I’ve ever read came courtesy of an obscure email list back in the mid ’90s, and it’s stuck with me ever since: Dirk Serries’ ambience is the perfect soundtrack for watching ivy grow on ruins. “The Ominous Dwelling” captures that sense of loss and lament, of time’s passage, and of faded glory courtesy of its mournful synth arrangements. Like “A Scenic Fall,” this song’s all about texture and atmosphere, and letting yourself get wrapped up in them.
You could classify “The Ominous Dwelling” as “dark ambient” — it wouldn’t sound too far out of place alongside the likes of Raison d’être and Desiderii Marginis — but it’s far more refined than what often emerges from that harrowing genre. All of the serenity, beauty, melancholy, and haunting otherworldliness that flow throughout the preceding seven songs find their culmination here, and Serries ends The River of Appearance on an elegantly bittersweet coda.
The last 25 years have done nothing to diminish my appreciation of The River of Appearance. To the contrary, the last few decades have only refined the album, its soundscapes and arrangements growing in sublimity and elegance with the passage of time.
Its songs never cease pulling me into their strange yet beguiling worlds. Indeed, I listened to it just a few days ago after a terrible headache drove me to bed early, and I was in sore need of escape. Within just a few minutes of pressing “Play,” I felt myself growing more at ease as the album’s qualities — serene, contemplative, atmospheric — took hold.
Although vidnaObmana officially shut down over a decade ago, the project was so prolific that Serries still occasionally releases vidnaObmana albums culled from old compilations and collaborations, as well as previously unreleased music — some of which, like 2020’s Out of Solitude, was actually recorded years before The River of Appearance.
Even so, The River of Appearance remains a singular achievement, a high-water mark in vidnaObmana’s vast catalog — and the ambient music genre as a whole.