Review Summary: An often discordant, confrontational and haunting portrait of a world descending into unprecedented fear.
Out of a hollow backdrop of electronic chirps and a grim distant bell a huge dissonant string rings out like a humongous cryptid awakening from its eons-long slumber, twisting and contorting dizzily as "Wuhan: Breathing" opens this ode to a global catastrophe.
Albinoi is an experimental/electronic/ whatchamacallit project and their 2020 album "Those Were The Days" is a monstrous behemoth of sound collages that chronicle the plummet of humanity over the first leg of that wretched year, in no small thanks to a certain highly contagious virus. It's also criminally underheard: stumbling on this by pure accident I was shocked by the woeful amount of streams it had and decided to take it upon myself to herald it, albeit belatedly, as the go-to album for anyone looking to torture themselves with some creative interpretation of the hellscape we've all been living for a while now.
On the word "hellscape". When describing harsh, noisy music one often can't help but resolve to using Hell as a metaphor but here it somehow feels more appropriate than ever given the real-world events that are thematically followed throughout the album's runtime. Tracks are arranged in an order that more or less follows the spread of the pandemic, starting from Wuhan, moving on to Seoul and culminating in Moscow. Given the presence of such track names as "Minneapolis: I Can't Breathe" and "Minsk: Bloody Sunday" I assume there's more to the narrative than simply following the pandemic; "Those Were The Days" is commenting on the time period as a whole and I guess it's ironic that writing this review in 2022 I don't see much improvement around, which somehow makes this album resonate with me even more.
The tapestry is rather varied - from icy warbling synths, pounding drum machines and atonal string wails to ghostly organ tones, solemn keys, metallic clangs, spurts of wooden percussion and chopped up samples (including one rather odd instance of Arabic folk music on "Riyadh: Voice Changing", evidently recorded live on the street). The album doesn't seem to repeat the instrumentation once over its 50+ min length, yet nothing here feels inconsistent. Maybe it's the perc of the album's theme moving around geographically as well as temporally but every other permutation seems to fit its overarching grim mood.
While mostly "Those Were The Days" is creepily swiveling in and out your ear canals, looking for loose threads in your mind to pick at, occasionally it lurches in a more kinetic direction. "Tehran: Lick My Fence" is borderline danceable - that is if you like your dance music to be simultaneously threatening, anxiety-inducing and groovy. A very similar rhythm pops up again on "Nagorny Karabakh: Motherland" - this time feeling more militaristic and seemingly constructed from pieces of metal screeching while bent to their breaking point. "Venice: Masquerade" jumps around in an odd funky electro-swing bounce that did rub me the wrong way initially but then it fades out into an eerie coda of plucked strings and (maybe?) woodwinds that gave me strong latter-day Coil vibes.
"Atmosphere" is the name of the game here, however tired that statement may seem for ambient music. After dragging you through the muck and the grime of the more abrasive cuts and the sombre emptiness of the more downtrodden ones, the album closes on a majestically funereal note with the one-two punch of "Minsk" and "Moscow: Coronation" where synthesized wails are disrupted by a lumbering drum pattern that then gives way to a gorgeously apocalyptic chord progression, drenched in despondent drones. Upon first listen the sudden injection of drama was so severe I literally burst out laughing in joy. An extremely cinematic finale to a gargantuan record.
"Those Were The Days" is the time capsule of the world going onward from 2020. It may not be the one we'd like but it's the one you need to hear if nuanced atmospheric electronic music about the end of the world is something that's in your daily diet.