SONIC EXPOSURE :: Northumbria

“I’ve always enjoyed setting self-imposed parameters within which to work, it makes you think in a more creative way. Having limitless possibilities like we do in this age of digital recording can be something of a hindrance, ironically, too many options can be confusing. We decided to make Northumbria a predominantly live band. Conceptually raw, using almost no overdubs or layering in the recordings. Purely guitar and bass.”

SONIC EXPOSURE :: Northumbria

Northumbria (Photo by Amy Williamson)

Swimming against the current

Northumbria is the brainchild of former Holoscene members Jim Field (guitar) and Dorian Williamson (bass). On March this year, cult dark ambient label Cryo Chamber released Northumbria’s latest work, a brand new album entitled Helluland, the land of flat stone in Old Norse. A distinct deviation from the label’s ethos, Helluland exhibits more accessible sonic streams, generated by guitar, bass and an array of effects only. Inspired by mythical stories of Helluland (today known as Baffin Island), the music ebbs and flows, expands and contracts, hypnotically and cinematically, conjuring up panoramic images of bleak wide landscapes forever haunted by ancient spirits and bound eternally by mystical skies. Atmospherically charged, emotionally raw. The duo’s eccentric modus operandi allows the listener to experience the honesty, energy and nuance of a live show through studio recordings. Hammock, Slow Dancing Society and even Sigur Rós might come to mind while exploring these narrative-saturated landscapes, but Field and Williamson don’t do imitations, they have a unique voice, a powerful sound of their own. Holding a sense of adventure and an alluring balance between light and dark, Helluland is definitely one of the most captivating outputs in Cryo Chamber’s extensive catalog, and one of the most effective ambient albums of the year.

Igloo logo The story?

Dorian :: Thanks a lot for the interview… we’re big fans of the Igloo! Northumbria is based out of Toronto, although I live just outside the city in Northumberland County and Jim lives in the West end of the city. I’d been aware of Jim’s music for a long time, going back to the late 90’s when he was the leader of Rhea’s Obsession. Years later in 2007 I was playing in a Post-Rock band called Holoscene, and we played a show with Jim on the bill. He was doing an improvised ambient guitar set as Spacenoiz which I hadn’t heard until then, and I was totally floored. The depth, diversity and control he could summon from a guitar was awe-inspiring. A year or so later when one of Holoscene’s guitar players left the band, Jim was our first choice as a replacement. Sadly we didn’t last too much longer after that, but what did come out of it all was a continuation of our musical partnership, which eventually morphed into Northumbria. After being in very structured bands for a long time, we wanted to pursue a more improvisational approach based on the interplay of guitar and bass. I’ve always enjoyed setting self-imposed parameters within which to work, it makes you think in a more creative way. Having limitless possibilities like we do in this age of digital recording can be something of a hindrance, ironically, too many options can be confusing. We decided to make Northumbria a predominantly live band. Conceptually raw, using almost no overdubs or layering in the recordings. Purely guitar and bass.

The first release (Northumbria) was recorded in early 2012 across a couple of day-long sessions. We tracked in a beautiful 19th Century church around the corner of my house in Northumberland County, hence the band name. That kind of set the tone for everything that’s followed. Really it kind of just gave birth to itself before our eyes and ears. Partly because Jim and I were very familiar with each other, but also because we had a pretty clear idea of what we wanted to do, without overintellectualizing the specifics. More mood, tone and feel. It was without a doubt one of the loudest experiences I’ve ever had in a session. That was the beauty of recording in a big, acoustically vibrant space. We could really turn our amps up to blistering levels and get the heaving, heavy tones that wouldn’t have been possible in a normal studio. Montreal based TQA Records, operated by our friend Eric Quach, released it on a very limited CDR. After a few live shows in 2012 and 2013, Altar of Waste Records put out All Days Begin as Night, which featured remixes of our tracks by friends. Next up in early 2014 we did a split with another Toronto-based ambient band called North Atlantic Drift (which Igloo kindly reviewed), as well as a live collaboration with Famine called ‘Blood Orchid’. That piece was originally recorded for a live session on UK-based Mantis Radio.

Our second proper full length, ‘Bring Down the Sky’, came out last November through experimental Belgian label Consouling Sounds, a wonderful label with a very eclectic roster. Metal in all it’s various mutated forms, ambient, drone, doom. They also run a very cool record shop in Gent.

Igloo logo Sound & style?

Dorian :: We’re lucky to be very synchronous in what we’re trying to do, while at the same time using the band as a way to push ourselves in new directions and create new soundscapes. Our background involves a lot of the heavier, darker end of the music spectrum. Bands like Godflesh and early Swans are big influences… early Industrial. That kind of crushing, raw power comes out in the way we play, even though stylistically Northumbria is far more ambient and atmospheric than a lot of Industrial and Metal. Fripp and Eno really set the wheels in motion for this kind of music as well with the early 70’s recordings like Evening Star. In terms of sound though, nothing has directly influenced Northumbria or what we’re trying to achieve. It’s actually quite ritualistic. The outcome might not sound like ritual ambient in it’s more traditional form, but we are trying to tap into that almost mystical energy that can be created by playing something very minimalistic and powerful, to the point of being trance inducing. Of course in an all enveloping, Maximalist sort of way. When the power is right, it really takes on a life of its own and we just kind of direct it and try to control its shape. Or let entropy completely take over :) Without sounding flakey, it really is kind of an out of body experience. I hope that translates beyond us and into the listener.

Igloo logo The new album?

Dorian :: After several sonic and loud albums we wanted to do something more minimal and ambient, even by our own austere standards. We started tracking songs in a very subdued and more measured way, experimenting with more of a dark ambient sound. I suppose it began with a track from the split we did with North Atlantic Drift called Cold Wind Rising. Both Jim and I liked the idea of doing something inspired by the North, specifically the Viking exploration of the ancient Canadian arctic. Such a rich, mysterious history, and tragic present. That’s where the inspiration for Helluland came from, which roughly translates into “the land of flat stones” in Old Norse. It’s now universally agreed to be Baffin Island. Helluland’s mentioned in the Icelandic and Greenlandic Sagas, as well as numerous Skaldic poems as one of the three lands in Canada visited by the Vikings. The other two being Markland and Vinland.

Thinking about the Norse discovery of this totally primordial and mythically intimidating landscape really got our creative juices flowing. Jim is incredible at creating these vast, spacious guitar soundscapes, that evoked what it must have felt like witnessing and exploring Baffin Island all those years ago, through the eyes of the Vikings. The music’s instrumental so the narrative is quite abstract and very personal, but I think it comes across on the album. We hope it reflects the emotions that would have been felt; leaving your loved ones in Greenland to embark on such a treacherous journey, to far off lands across the ocean, so much danger, fear, curiosity and violence. It’s mind-blowing to think of how brutal and hostile the conditions were back then, and the harshness of trans-atlantic sea voyages. Yet at that time the landscape was pure and pristine, uncorrupted by man. There’s a lot of recent archaeological evidence being unearthed on Baffin Island that paints quite a different picture of how long the Vikings stayed, and where they explored. Loads of Norse artifacts have been found on Baffin Island, all dating to around the turn of the first millennium, and evidence of permanent settlements. Dr. Patricia Sutherland, a Canadian Archaeologist, has been a leading researcher on the subject. Unfortunately her project was shut down by the current Canadian government. We found her discoveries, and the world she was revealing, very inspiring musically.

We’re both big fans of Simon Heath’s music, both as Sabled Sun and Atrium Carceri, so naturally we approached Cryo Chamber early on with some rough mixes and demo’s. He was interested from the beginning and has been awesome to work with, in terms of artwork, Mastering, support, everything. He understood the whole vibe, and we couldn’t be happier that it’s found a home on such a killer label. The entire roster is humbling to be honest. We’re a bit of a departure from their more electronic style, but I think we fit in with the whole aesthetic; cold, cinematic and with a narrative theme.

Igloo logo Live?

Dorian :: We’re definitely trying to play live more often. We recently had the opportunity to perform in Montreal as part of a new day dedicated to Drone music in Canada…National Drone Day. This is the second year that an arts organization here in Canada called “Weird Canada” have called for Drone related activities to happen all across Canada at the same time. Live shows were staged from coast to coast, and even in the arctic! We joined over 20 other musicians in Montreal for a 2 hour Megadrone, which was recorded and broadcast live on CJLO radio. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be mixed and given a release as well. It was quite the experience, and a lot more cohesive and harmonious that one might expect! We all set up in a circle against the walls in this massive loft gallery in Montreal, with a quad PA and huge cushions for people to sit and lie on. The dynamic shifts across such a long period of time were massive, with all sorts of call and response happening on the fly. One person would create a sonic event and then all of these other things would follow, in a very organic and surprising way! At times it was very spacious and ambient, but then could bloom and swell into a total wall of sound.

Igloo logo Memorable reaction?

Dorian :: A friend who was suffering from a really bad bit of lower back pain came to hear us play last December. Apparently the bass was so loud that it actually adjusted his spine. He was so happy because he felt so much better after the show. Chiropractic Drone could be a whole new division of music therapy; Subluxation would be a pretty rad name for a band ;)

Igloo logo On heavy rotation?

Dorian :: At the moment I’ve been listening to the new Marissa Nadler release ‘July’ a lot, as well as thisquietarmy’s ‘Anthems for Catharsis’. Simon turned me on to an incredible Norwegian band called Wardruna, and they’ve been getting a lot of play.

Northumbria | Helluland | Cryo Chamber | Northumbria on Bandcamp

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