When Dirk Serries retired his vidnaObmana project in 2007, he left behind a considerable discography consisting of nearly 70 albums, numerous compilation appearances and production credits, and a host of collaborations with like-minded musicians including Steve Roach, PBK, Black Tape for a Blue Girl’s Sam Rosenthal, and Asmus Tietchens.
I first became aware of vidnaObmana (and by extension, Serries) via 1996’s enthralling The River of Appearance. That album still ranks as my favorite Serries release, as well as one of my favorite ambient albums, thanks to its lovely blend of serene atmospherics, tribal rhythms, and field recordings. It’s a masterpiece of ethno-ambience and I wouldn’t be surprised if many consider The River of Appearance to be the definitive vidnaObmana album (I certainly do).
However, even a brief time spent with vidnaObmana’s early output — much of which Serries has uploaded to Bandcamp over the last few years — reveals that vidnaObmana’s sound underwent some pretty dramatic shifts over the course of the project’s existence. It took two decades of experimentation, exploration, and refinement to arrive at The River of Appearance’s evocative sounds — which only makes me appreciate the album all the more so.
Still, it’s interesting to go back through those early recordings to see just how much Serries’ skill and focus as a composer, arranger, and producer evolved over time. I’ve highlighted several early vidnaObmana releases, with notes and short reviews that document how they fit within the vidnaObmana oeuvre and mark Serries’ development as an ambient musician.
The first vidnaObmana album, released in 1985 on cassette by Belgium’s Therapie Organisation (and reissued on vinyl in 2014 by the Italian “harsh noise” label Urashima). Later vidnaObmana releases would have song titles like “Echoing Delight,” “Glass Splendour,” and “The Angelic Appearance.” Here, we listen to “Skinned Alive,” “Hell of Victory,” and “Suck Blood.” Not surprisingly, these songs are about as far as you can get from The River of Appearance, aesthetically speaking; their nasty, brutish walls of noise, piercing feedback, and guttural vocals are quite shocking and unsettling compared to Serries’ later works.
Originally released in 1986 as a split with The Thunder Orchestra by the influential Ladd-Frith label (home of Blackhouse, Mandible Chatter, and Controlled Bleeding, to name a few). From the Beast Inside is still a far cry from vidnaObmana’s contemplative ambience but it is slightly more controlled than the chaos of previous recordings. “Second Praise for Little Hope II” is actually an honest-to-goodness ambient piece, though it consists of unsettling drones rather than calming soundscapes.
Released in 1987, Hope and Die reveals vidnaObmana at its most brutal and abrasive, even more so than The Ultimated Sign of Burning Death. Serries’ tortured tape loops are full of feedback squalls, ghoulish distorted vocals, and bowel-quaking frequencies that seem to have only one purpose: shredding speakers (and possibly eardrums) to pieces. The music’s confrontational and unsettling stance even carries through to the grindcore-ish song titles (e.g., “Cry of Fuck,” “Blow-Out Entrails”). Not for the faint of heart, this stage of vidnaObmana has much more in common with power electronics and noise producers like Brighter Death Now and Merzbow than, say, Steve Roach or Robert Rich.
Originally released in 1988 on an untitled Climax Productions-released 7″ with The Thunder Orchestra, these two tracks continue with the refinement heard on 1986’s From the Beast Inside. However, refinement here doesn’t mean gentle or polished. These tracks are foreboding slabs of industrial ambience that evoke ancient ceremonies carried out in haunted factories and ruins-filled wastelands. (If released today, they wouldn’t be out of place on the Cryo Chamber label.)
But there’s an interesting subtlety and restraint present in this release’s martial rhythms and ominous drones that was lacking in earlier releases. Although they’re a far cry from Serries’ later atmospheres, the sense of actual composition rather than chaos indicates that the same attention to detail is present here, albeit in a nascent form.
The Ambient Wax Ritual compiles over a dozen compilation appearances, many on long-defunct labels like ZNS Tapes, Extrema Pasion, and Serries’ own Mechanical Orchestration Music, as well as four tracks from the Deathchamber-Trancedreamed album. All together, these 17 songs mark something of a transitional period for Serries.
Overall, they’re far more ambient than preceding releases. “Earthscape” and “From His Eternal Voice” are minimal drone pieces that, through shifting layers of pure tones, prove more interesting than their minimal set-up would indicate. Meanwhile, “The Dominion” is a 15-minute piece of ominous-yet-beguiling atmospherics that feels like you’re walking through a haunted forest while unseen denizens and otherworldly creatures sing out all around.
But while these songs are often less harsh and chaotic than earlier material, they still possess a suspenseful aspect. One of the most intriguing qualities of vidnaObmana’s music is that even a serene title like The River of Appearance is marked by an eerie, otherworldly presence whose shadow adds intrigue to the music. You can hear Serries figuring out how to achieve that balance on these songs.
This collaboration with PBK was originally released in 1989 on vidnaObmana’s own private label, Decade Collection and later reissued in 1994 by Sam Rosenthal’s Relic label as part of the first Memories Compiled compilation. These seven songs continue the progression from harsh noise and industrial sounds. Instead, they opt for voluminous tones and ambient drift that recall Steve Roach (with whom Serries has collaborated several times).
However, there’s still an ominous quality to these compositions. Opening track “Neo-Noir” sets the stage with dark loops and wisps of noise that suggest alien beacons emanating from the deepest reaches of space. But there are hints of vidnaObmana’s final stage on “Insects to Harmony”; some simple melodic work deep in the background gives the piece a forlorn and melancholy air.
An improvisational piece originally recorded in 1990 for the Belgian pirate radio station Radio Centraal, Towards the Enfolding Flower is one of vidnaObmana’s stranger recordings (if not the strangest). Over the course of 24 minutes, the piece oscillates between eerie synth tones, radio noise, bizarre electronic squiggles, and piping flute arrangements that suggest both German kosmische music and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop on a serious acid trip. Some of that weirdness is likely due to collaborator Magthea (a founding member of the Belgian underground/experimental outfit Hybryds).
Of all of the releases on the vidnaObmana Bandcamp page, Near the Flogging Landscape might be my favorite. Which isn’t too surprising since its eight tracks come the closest to the mindful ambience of The River of Appearance.
Originally released in 1990 on the Violet Glass Oracle Tapes label and reissued in 1998 by Projekt: Archive in the second Memories Compiled compilation, Near the Flogging Landscape finds Serries incorporating melodic elements more prominently into his soundscapes, such as the delicate synth-work drifting through “Dwells Into the Heart.”
Austere, Harold Budd-esque piano notes tumble through shifting loops on “Floes on Miracles” and “Floes on Miracles 2.” Finally, “To the Primary Land” evokes some of the same foreboding terrain that Serries’ earlier releases do, but its synth-work is lighter and sadder — as if Serries decided to stop focusing on the dread and instead, contemplate the beauty that might be found in such places.
In various interviews, Dirk Serries has discussed his restless approach to developing and evolving as a musician while also expressing some regret (for lack of a better term) concerning his earlier releases. In this 2006 interview, for instance, Serries discusses his reluctance concerning those releases and describes their genesis as being “more out of a form of attitude than being creative with sound” (which, among other things, might explain those disturbing, misanthropic song titles).
Serries has never completely abandoned his noisier side, though. In the early ’00s, he released a trilogy of albums under the vidnaObmana moniker that was inspired by Dante’s Inferno and featured a return to his earlier, harsher, more experimental style. Furthermore, he’s released music under other monikers (e.g., Fear Falls Burning) that feature a more intense and noise-centric aesthetic.
As I’ve made my way through Serries’ discography — and admittedly, I’ve barely scratched the surface of his numerous non-vidnaObmana projects — I must confess that I always return to more refined and purely atmospheric releases like The Trilogy, Into the Heart of the Eternal, Near the Flogging Landscape, and of course, The River of Appearance. Still, working through earlier vidnaObmana releases — as raw, difficult, and punishing as they could be at times — has given me a new appreciation for the skill, grace, and beauty that are associated with the vidnaObmana name.