Review Summary: the things I tell you will not be wrong...
When I listen to ambient, I find that usually I put it on for the sole reason of not having to pay attention to it. Of course, this isn't always the case, but for workload productivity ambient generally works the best to fill the gap of silence while not degrading the attention I can give to whatever it is that I'm doing. Occasionally interspersed with other records, Biosphere's Substrata
was my go-to album for this occasion for the longest time. I'd have a paper due or some research to finish and send this album through the speakers to give me something to occupy my mind in the spaces when it wasn't occupied with something else. But something strange happened. I eventually began to notice that I was paying more and more attention to the actual record with each successive play through. Instead of using Substrata to fill a void in-between thoughts, I began to contemplate on the record itself, devoting the time to it that I would have to any other album. It was then that Substrata
was much more than a record of background noise, it was a brilliant exercise in subtlety.
Remember being in high school and having nothing else to occupy your time other than staring at the wall and fantasizing on how much of a hero you would be if a crazed gunman came into the classroom so that you had anything to do that didn't involve paying attention? The listening experience of Substrata can sort of be likened to those days of infinite boredom spent accomplishing nothing in particular. The biggest spectacle always was always the first to grab your attention, whether it was a pretty girl or some poster on the wall with a horribly contrived motivational message on it. They could hold an attention span much more reliably than most other elements of the mundane environment of being with 40 other people every day. But as time went by, and those interesting spectacles began to fade into the background and lose their initial luster, it gave you the chance to finally begin to notice the rest of the world around you, and if you were lucky, you finally began to notice the small parts of your environment that you would have never given a passing thought to otherwise.
You only glanced at first, but more and more as each day passed, and the time of exposure began to build up upon itself, you began to realize that there was more to this picture than initial spectacle. You began to listen to things the forgotten parts of your surroundings had to say. You noticed the small cracks, the imperfections, and hidden parts of a world that under the weight of spectacle you had never before paid the attention it was afforded. You then began to imagine yourself as a living, breathing part of this environment, a functioning participant in a lock background world of information that the mind blocks in the interest of consistency and efficiency. That, in a long-long winded nutshell, is exactly how I feel Substrata
is most generally approached. It's hard to sit down and love this album after one or two listens. It is the kind of music that thrives on not being completely present nor totally absent; it is an aural exercise in familiarity.
So, as the exposure begins to frequent your environment, the individual elements take form and grow in your head, even when you're not actively listening to the album. Substrata isn't a formless piece of sound; each section, or chapter, has a definite core structure that the listener can dwell on for the duration. Tracks like Kobresia
, Times When I Know You'll Be Sad
, and Chukhung
have a clearly defined structure that relies on a single melody to progress its way through the track. It is a careful contemplation on the power of repetition of a single idea. The second a motif or idea is finished you find yourself wanting to hear that sound again, and again, and again. That subtlety is really the true power that lies beneath Substrata
. Nothing about it grabs your attention violently but rather seeps into your mind over time, slowly growing and growing until you can no longer ignore it. Again, like forgotten and ignored environment, you being to learn each and every curve of the sounds and the shapes. It is the hidden beauty that makes affection all the more exciting, and always keeps you coming back for more.