Brick Mask






For the love of every spiritual entity, please don't let the formation B/B/S be a one-time affair! Formed in Berlin sometime in 2012, the trio comprises of convoluted percussionist Andrea Belfi from Italy, portentous bass guitarist, clasically trained flutist and Nadja member Aidan Baker from Canada as well as Dark Ambient maestro, guitar afficionado and the Miasmah label's shining light Erik K. Skodvin aka Svarte Greiner from Norway who is also one half of Deaf Center. If you consider the instrumental base of this super group as well as the gentlemen's backgrounds, there is anything but one assumption: this has to be a Dark Ambient album with added Doom Metal slivers and percussive (s)traits. Why, indeed, this is one of the stylistic particularities that are baked into the four-track agenda of Brick Mask, released in January 2013 on Skodvin's Miasmah label in an LP edition (limited to 500 copies, comes with an included download code) and a dedicated digital download version, with a digipack CD coming out in February. The album's cryptic title conceptually harks back to Skodvin's vivaciously uncanny naming conventions such as Man Bird Dress (2008) or Penpals Forever (And Ever) (2008/2010) which seem perfectly harmless, even amicably quirky and romantic at first sight, but the music itself – and we're mostly talking about music here – turns the titles into grotesquely exaggerated fabrics that allow a completely new reading of both the music and its surrounding text. Consequentially, the first track is called Brick while the second is christened Mask, but the actual surprises undoubtedly occur during the album's second half. To give you a slight hint in advance: B/B/S do not exclusively depend on dark, scary material, but are keen on decreasing the tension and decelerating the tempo to reach proper Ambient climes. More about this later. As the press sheet proclaims, each musician leaves his "comfort zone" and is entangled in a setting that would not have been considered otherwise. Brick Mask turns out to be an adventure for each member. It is, however, an incredibly exciting ride for the listener as well. Despite its many drum infusions, the album is decisively Ambient-based. Read more about each track below and all the synergetic pollination (or pollution), brazen bile and mellowly euphonious tone sequences. Wait a minute: euphony and mellowness? What the…?


As with everything Erik K. Skodvin is involved in, the naming convention is a big part of the deal and ennobles the whole package. Whoever came up with a track title like Brick is a genius! This first artifact of the three hussars' teamwork is stricken with duality at best, and constant counteroffensives at worst, making it a brutishly camouflaged beast of luring beauty, or so it seems. The slow crescendo of the prelude gets indubitably eerie once the chain-clanking live drumming of Andrea Belfi kicks in next to Erik K. Skodvin’s glacial sine guitar and Aidan Baker’s bone-drying bass runlets. The soft frizzles of the churning snare drums evoke a diffusely ashen mirage, the mildly screeching guitar layer resembles an iridescent square lead pad. Say what you will, but the feeling is starkly Oriental, there is a shadiness and eminently rising tension woven into the atmosphere that turn a potential lullaby into a danger-evoking jeremiad. I blame Baker’s heartbeat bass for the modification of the Ambient formula, because as soon as it is interwoven after roundabout two and a half minutes, the song’s structure changes from notion to motion. The glacial guitar globs suddenly sound like threnodic lamentations, the incessantly sizzling maracas evoke the friction caused by the movement of one's clothes during a frenzied escape, those oscillating guitar counterattacks induce a heavy heat, everything happens at once, the pressure increases, cor blimey! It is exactly in the middle of the track when Belfi is unleashing the first hit of a cymbal and kicks off a percussive frenzy that is skillfully accompanied by glaringly intensified drone layers. In this rapid-firing zenith, the Ambient backdrop, i.e. the freezing guitar layers, form a strong counterpoint to the thunderous omphalos. Things get worse, though: until now, the trio has only permeated the listener’s skin, now they reach for the bones. Additional kettle drums and swells of respiration streams unchain the savage creature and turn the former panorama of yore into a gridiron-red cataclysm full of glowing gunmetal-tinged particles and purposefully onerous vertebrae which threaten to swallow every endemic element of existence, aaaand… the song ends with legato bass injections.


An end is the beginning of something new, so it is time for the titular foil of Brick, the enigmatic Mask, and even though this is not one of Skodvin’s solo albums, I cannot help myself but notice the theme of deception and unmasking that runs as a golden thread through his work and the cover artworks. Constantly. Time and again. With the help of Baker and Belfi, Skodvin summons another critter. Rest assured that this result is not as rapid-firing and fulminant as Brick, but there is indeed cause for alarm since the presented arrangement is traversed by percussion formations and keeps the listeners on their toes. Mask starts with exotic cymbal-esque shards whose brazen nature jars with both the abyssal bass aorta and the omnipresent insect-oid scuttling. Things start to get really surprising when a wraithlike susurration of polyphonous guitar layers appears flamboyantly in the background. The guitars – or is it Aidan Baker's flute? – sound like seraphic synths, their euphony gleams in an auroral hue which is expectedly penetrated by bumblebee-like pinpricks and braking trains, but it even keeps on maintaining its spirit when Andrea Belfi compounds a steady beat on his classic drum kit. It is exactly here where Mask becomes a hypnotic work of sheer beauty. Instead of eclecticism, Belfi decides to come up with a comparably easygoing steady beat that works marvelously well. Mask neither offers rainbow-coated meadows of exhilaration nor devastated dungeons of eternal doom. It sits on the cusp of these iconographic tropes, the trio forcefully meshes these opposite clichés and creates a façade, a guise which covers the dichotomous malformation that draws from euphoria and squalor, or put simply: a mask.


The third track is called Plants, and the implied vigor, verdure and organic nature (!) are altogether orbiting around this auspicious title. Indeed, the ensuing soundscape is quite streamlined and silky considering its beatless presentation and Drone-fueled haze. Heck, I would even go so far as to call it a Dark New Age vesicle! Whereas Brick resides in an Oriental pandemonium, Plants is, well, rooted in Far Eastern territories. Kicking off the soundscape with a wind chime- or even distantly sitar-like guitar strum full of sincere snugness and modest mellifluousness, the counteracting guitar screeches are less acidic and baneful than usual and do not hurt the aura of peacefulness in the slightest. Gorgeous wood blocks, bamboo claves or similar instruments join the tranquility, and their magnanimous reverberation boosts the grandeur of the scenery. The most important ingredient is also the easiest to create and fastest to forget: the pink noise of the floating tape hiss. It encapsulates every aural element, everything feels misty and whitewashed. The clever hall effect of the admixed drums makes them appear larger than they actually are. They seem like timpani. The setting does not change largely over the course of seven minutes, B/B/S allow the trancelike languorous state to unfold without much perturbation. Only the finale illuminates the balmy outlook when Erik K. Skodvin places a golden shimmering guitar melody in-between the fog, its lucency adding the last genuinely dreamy particle to this primordial soup in order to elevate it into blissful spheres. Plants is a huge surprise – risk even –, for it breaks the illusion of listening to an album made by tough guys who stare frequently into the music-related abyss. Baker, Belfi and Skodvin showcase that there is another way, an unexpectedly soothing alternative to the ubiquitously pernicious threats, and Plants is that place of shelter. If I did not know this piece to derive from the feathers of these three musicians, I would not have ruled it out entirely, true, but raised a brow or two in doubt. This is a masterful Ambient piece with a short drum-infused section in the middle that does not destroy the nurtured aura at all. The dreamy guitar layers near the end are a big plus, as are the tricky filter-related exaggerations of the instruments’ true origins. Things seem larger, cozier and more contemplative than they really are. Yet another mask.


The final Mott is consequently connected to the green color range, that is if the trio refers to the synonym of a lush grove. And by the look of things, this is exactly what B/B/S are doing: taking the dreamy parts of Plants, saturating their colors and offering another gorgeous Dronescape. Right from the get-go, Mott presents coruscating wind chimes, a deliberately warmhearted bass drone and – ye gods! – epicurean Prog Rock glissandos. The atmosphere is incredibly benign, the mild frizzles of the tape hiss augment the moony perception, the short guitar droplets in higher regions are much more akin to birds than braking trains or frightening instruments of torture. Even the cymbals are droning, Andrea Belfi skims over them and ably camouflages the microscopic crevasses of each beat. Aidan Baker places a few pulses in his otherwise sleeked bass placenta, but all these particularities in tandem with a gloomier cacophony in the background cannot deny a certain rise in tension, a leisured crescendo which revs up the exiguity of the material. Suddenly, the cymbals are much more rotor-esque, their staccato resembles venomous snakes, while the backing guitar twangs sound like fully fleshed out orchestra bells; it might well be that B/B/S bolstered or enlarged a perfectly common mallet instrument, but I doubt it. The chirping faux-birds sound more spectral, like whirring sirens or lost souls, but such comparisons are admittedly stereotyped. Darker guitar chords, flashes of fog and groundloop drones round off the tense last third. Mott is supercharged with the simultaneity of its differing ingredients. Sure, the drums, bass and guitar are present again, and the ways they are played do not necessarily fit together on paper, but do so in this synergetic artifact where Drone, New Age, Doom and a tad of Shoegaze are happily united, the result being astonishingly coherent and enthralling. 


Brick Mask came to be due to the well-crafted union of three talented musicians, and whatever the expectations of the listener are or the press sheet may state, B/B/S deliver a great four-track album of grandeur and mystique. The latter really is the most appropriate term, for things are not as enormously dark as one might have originally thought when the first track Brick was presented by the people at Miasmah prior to the release date. While all of the four compositions shift their shapes from time to time, they in the end display a cohesion that is joyful and self-assuring, for the listener is only experiencing a truly wild tour de force in the progressive opener, whereas the remaining three arrangements are more silky, less bone-crushing. There is that noteable apex right in the middle of the album, as previously stated. The first couple is strictly Oriental, dubious in its mildest moments and downright soul-swallowing in its most oppressive sections. This is the destructive, metallic, artificial side of Brick Mask. The second part of the album comprises of vitality, growth, enchantment and euphony. It is much more organic, the various temple gongs, orchestra bells and wind chimes are rhizomatic New Age strata, but not in the least bit de trop or esoteric. The Far Eastern feeling is as luring as it is potentially alienating in the world of B/B/S. Tracks 3 and 4 are thus highly recommended to Drone and Ambient listeners who favor enigmatic, acroamatic washes of calm with a few bits of slight tension and adventure, whereas the first two tracks are prime examples for fans of Erik K. Skodvin's material as Svarte Greiner. Aidan Baker and Andrea Belfi enable what Skodvin cannot do by himself: adding a sinister verve in the forms of polylayered bass creeks and partially labyrinthine, partially underlining percussion frames. The trio undoubtedly has a plan and delivers one hell of a crestfallen, mollifying and calamitous album. Whatever the current state of a song is, never does it feel like a jam session or an improvised scheme à la "Let's see where this is going, guys!" But maybe this is a jam session after all, its spontaneity veiled and coated as if the band had a masterplan. The final bit of the puzzle that completes the mask.




Further listening:
You can listen to Brick Mask in full via this SoundCloud link and purchase all of its physical and digital incarnations in the usual online shops and digital music stores. The vinyl version is completed with an additional 7" called Half Moon, offering another three tracks by B/B/S.




Ambient Review 188: B/B/S – Brick Mask (2013). Originally published on Feb. 27, 2013 at AmbientExotica.com.