I’ve commented before on how there are some things that immediately pique my curiosity when it comes to albums (e.g., cosmic imagery for your album cover). Another thing is an evocative artist or band name. Which brings us to Antarctic Wastelands, a solo ambient project from Hong Kong-based producer Ben Tatlow.
But Tatlow’s moniker turns out to be something of a misnomer. A name like Antarctic Wastelands obviously lends itself to expectations of barren, desolate soundscapes full of icy synths and iceberg-sized slabs of noise that imagine, well, antarctic wastelands à la Rapoon’s Time Frost or Thomas Köner’s Arctic-themed albums. However, Antarctic Wasteland’s latest album, Mysteries, is more subtle than that.
As befitting its title, as well as song titles like “Dark Skies, Fading” and “The Mists of Time,” the music on Mysteries evokes abandoned, weatherbeaten places that lie far removed from the realm of normal human activity. Enigmatic places like fog-shrouded forests or ivy-covered ruins that might easily be haunted or “thin” (to use the Celtic Christianity term), where the barrier between this world and the next seems all but nonexistent.
You could certainly describe the album’s seven songs as “dark,” given their minor melodies and spectral tones. But they’re not ominous or oppressive, like what you’d hear from the Cyclic Law or Cryo Chamber labels. Tatlow’s compositions are certainly haunting, but they’re also serene and even contemplative, be it “For the Forests“ ‘s string-like synths, the title track’s piano coda, or the mournful atmospherics on “Static Iridescence.” Mysteries even ends on a hopeful note with “Together We Shelter,” its gentle textures and piano notes evoking a sense of rest after a long, fraught journey.
Furthermore, none of Mysteries’ songs cross the four-minute mark. While we tend to think of ambient pieces as being long and expansive, so as to completely surround and envelop the listener, Tatlow’s “short n’ sweet” approach is not without its own merits. The fact that these songs feel like they’re over and done far too soon imbues them with a sense of fragility and impermanence that only heightens their emotional effect.
Mysteries was released on the Echoes Blue Music label, which was founded by Tatlow and his wife Anita in part to “create experiences that transport the listener into spaces of reflection, peace, and inspiration.” With its evocative and melancholy arrangements, I’d say that Mysteries more than ably fulfills that mission.