Submers by Loscil (Review)

I could only fully appreciate Submers’ nautical-themed soundscapes once I listened to them over headphones.
Submers - Loscil

Looking back on it all, I’d say the one thing that really helped me get through high school was my Walkman. On the bus to and from school, or anytime I stayed late for some Science Club meeting, I forgo any real human conversation and instead slip on my headphones. I devoured tapes, frantically absorbing them and experiencing, for the first time, what it meant to truly love music. Subsequently, I also developed a love for listening to music via headphones.

No matter how kick-ass your $1000 stereo may be, you’ll never convince me that it’s better than listening to music on headphones. In fact, some releases can only be fully appreciated when you’ve got those things strapped to your head. It allows you to pick up nuances, subtle shifts in texture that would be missed otherwise. Loscil’s Submers is just such an album.

Indeed, I could only fully appreciate Submers once I listened to it over headphones, at work, letting it sink into the background whilst I wrangled with some PHP. As with the best “background music,” you pick up details that you would’ve otherwise missed had you been actively listening to the album.

If you want to get a general idea of what Submers sounds like, the cover art is a pretty good first clue. Light barely penetrating the rippling water, it’s the final image a submarine might glimpse just before the murky depths took hold. And it’s just this sort of underwater terrain that Scott Morgan maps throughout these 9 tracks. A further clue would be the song titles themselves, each named for a submarine (including the doomed Russian sub, “Kursk”).

Luckily, Morgan doesn’t resort to cheap audio gimmicks to conduct his underwater journey. There’s nary a sonar ping nor Das Boot sample within range. Rather, he takes sparse rhythms that contain just the slightest hint of glitch and suspends them within drones and shimmering aquatic melodies of seemingly endless depth. Loscil treads similar water as Pan American’s latest works, minus the heavy bossa nova/dub fascination.

“Nautilus,” named for the first submarine to sail under the North Pole, evokes the feeling of sailing under the Arctic Circle with echoing clicks and rhythms that suggest periscopes and antennae scraping the icecap above and icy, reverberating dronework that hints at the dark, freezing depths below. “Diable Marin” is a fine example of the advantages of listening to Submers on headphones. Otherwise, you would miss the soft layering of aquamarine ambient textures, faint bass pulses, and light rhythmic elements. Picture a livelier Vidna Obmana composing a piece after looking at the sunlight filter through about 20 fathoms.

Thankfully, one thing that Loscil avoids is over-dramatizing his sound. It might be tempting to turn these submarine-inspired tunes into dark-ambient passages hinting at the fears of the deep, the psychological pressures of being trapped in a metal tube breathing recycled oxygen for weeks on end, and other such inspiration. Wisely, Loscil leaves that to the Lustmords of the world, instead focusing hinting at the wonders of the undersea world in ways that would make Cousteau proud.

Granted, the tracks all contain darker elements, but they add depth and color to each piece, rather than define it. If one were to make a song inspired by the one submarine to circumvent the globe submerged, it might be tempting to try and convey the stress and anxiety one might feel after being submerged for over 60 days. Rather, Loscil’s treatment hints at the mystery and adventure of it, albeit in a restrained manner. There is a sense of foreboding, almost akin to some of Steve Roach’s work, but it’s a foreboding that comes with any entry into the unknown.

“Kursk,” named after the doomed Russian submarine that sunk, has a similar treatment as “Triton.” While the piece isn’t exactly elegiac, it contains the same sense of solemnity that all of the tracks possess. And again, I’m thankful that Loscil doesn’t throw in some cheap, obligatory naval sample, or worse, doomed clanks and metallic groans meant to paint a picture of the dying sailors’ final moments. Instead, “Kursk” has a rather warm, comforting feel to it, again conveyed through muted, wavering synths and gurgling glitch that punch through the darker surrounding drones like the faintest of lights from above.

But this is the sort of detail you’d miss without the aid of headphones. Without them, this might sound like another entry into the genre of glitchy, post-something or other ambience. But there’s a lot more going on below the surface waiting for you to make the descent.

Read more reviews of Loscil.