Chris Russell






The third time is the charm: Frozen is Chris Russell’s third studio album and the third artifact of John Koch-Northrup’s Relaxed Machinery label, recorded between June 2009 and March 2010 and released in the same year… in July. While that month is the most unfortunate one in regard to the aesthetic principals, the album itself aurally depicts a superb synth-driven progression that is as obvious as it is mind-blowing, for it is rarely realized in such a cohesive manner; more about this in a moment. For now, it is question time: what is the big Relaxed Machinery logo about to represent in its prominently centrical spot? The well-known cogwheel? A snowflake? Or – gasp! – the sun? Notwithstanding the original summerly release date, it could depict both of these natural ingredients, as Frozen is a strikingly dualistic work. Except that the synthesist and producer made sure to cover this perception up, only revealing it slowly and bit by bit. This conceptual realization truly deserves an in-depth review as part of my Winter Ambient Review Cycle 2013. Here is the particular feat Russell achieves and which will be further carved out below: at first, Frozen wondrously glorifies winter in all facets, but goes downhill from here, and literally so, as the temperature drops constantly and the artist places lesser texturized euphonies before a raucous, frostily thin interim state. The track titles nurture and support this perception further. It is thus one of those rare releases that is situated in-between the genres of New Age, Drone and Glitch, and since it is so beautifully carved out and coherently projected before the inner eye, it should not frighten aficionados of either genre away. Start reading this review in your t-shirt… but be advised to wear your coat later on.


The opener of every album marks the important gateway, and no matter how often the death of the music album has been announced, the first track is still the most crucial part, and if the respective work happens to depict a stringent sequence of events or an overarching concept as is clearly the case with Chris Russell’s Frozen, its impact only grows. In this regard, a prelude called Aurora greets the listener. I do often not use the expression of being greeted when I am reviewing wintry music, as it is most often horribly out of place. Here, however, Russell succumbs to the originally Cologne-based formula called Pop Ambient. Aurora is a magnanimously amicable gestalt of radiant billows, thickly wadded crystalline polyphonies and euphonious encapsulations of rapture. Everything feels purified and pristine, and it is this freshness which gives this opener its coldness. However, since Aurora floats and glides like a gently tumbling snowflake, it is too small an artifact to evoke hazardous coldness. The result, therefore, is a multilayered synth susurration of the polished and embracing kind, an anthemic artifact of contemplation in technicolor. The follow-up Thaw is already a tad colder than Aurora, but there is anything wrong with that, given that this is a hibernal album. Stereo-panned skating noises or resemblant wind gusts become enmeshed with contrabass-like synth strings and interstitial globs of contentment. Bliss oozes out of the micro-pentatonic, downwards spiraling coils. Fully fleshed out bolsters meet comparably fragile moments of quiescent tranquility. No matter the phase Thaw is in at any given moment, it is aquiver with pleasure and aglow.


Time Lost is the only artifact which implies a certain fatigue or negative reaction, for there is simply no time to lose nowadays, so why the reminder of finitude, or worse: mortality? The answer is given in the soundscape which comprises of a camouflaged Detroit track, sans beats, naturally. The candela of the synths decreases, letting them glow in turquoise and fir-green emerald-like colors. In tandem with the mysterious tone sequences and interim phases of nullity – with anything but the howling wind – Time Lost is a piece of hachured cascades that is as melancholic as it is timorous. Tundra meanwhile showcases an arrangement whose sine tones and dark matter pads are as emaciated and parched as the landscape it is dedicated to. To make matters more cinematic, the superimposed dissonance of the multiple sinews creates an enigmatic dichotomy that would not be out of place in an X-Files episode. The vibrato of the brazen drones, the bronze undulation of the galactic matter altogether augment the dusky scenery. Shuttling between a potentially apocalyptic afterglow and complete independence of anything prospering and erbacious, Tundra lives up to the album title by not sporting any frilly or glorifying particle. Can Chris Russell create an even colder diorama? He sure can! Numb is a Drone track with striking Glitch flecks: aerose clangs, buzzes of electric current, a nocturnal frostiness as well as icy flute-like New Age shards meet, mesh and depart constantly. Sounds lead to sustain, sustain to silence, and silence to nonentity. The up to this point coldest of all tracks consist of spheroidal thinness, glacial minimalism and bit-crushed slopes. And the temperature is still about to drop-p-p-p…


The sixth track is also the title track: Frozen feels like an appendix to Numb. Being the shortest track with a runtime of four minutes, it is an addendum of metallic whorls, desiccate square lead pads and arcane icicle schemes. The darkness even increases, the tones are now enormously thin, portentous bass flumes run below hibernal ice floes. Both the opener and the title track are similarly important within the boundaries of an album, and here the titular one explicates Chris Russell’s increasingly life-threatening coldness which eliminates the formerly beautiful glorification of winter. Gone is the superstructure of dense synth braidings, and it won’t appear ever again (unless the listener presses repeat, that is). The following Otzi almost crosses the 12-minute mark, and naturally, it spawns another cavalcade of recluded sine tones and incisive pads. The listening subject gazes over the Ötztal Alps. And shiver me timbers, things improve temperature-wise: while there are droplets of retrogressive 8-bit warmth in here, it is the low frequency protrusions that truly serve as a source of thermal diffusion. Euphony is coming back, seemingly gauche, but vibrant enough to create an argentine, tramontane panorama of a pixellated mountain range. In order to keep the longest piece in sync with the concept, its second half turns into a much creepier surrounding of spectral stokehold drones and cosmic laser eruptions. The final track is called Slowly Drifting and gets rid of the self-imposed thinness, embracing – and transfiguring – winter yet again via opalescent faux-vibraphones, ethereal driblets and a stupefyingly gorgeous reconciliation with the coldest of all seasons. A composition with a high plasticity and saturated colors of the light blue range, Slowly Drifting is a Tetsu Inoue-esque ode to the snowflake, an aural macro photography of a shelter-like structure and eminently peaceful self-aware universe that bathes in the beauty of its own existence.


Forwards ever, backwards (almost) never, this adage describes Chris Russell’s firm and adamant progression into sub-zero territories best. Rarely has there been a synth-driven work whose stringency is so sternly inclined to turn the beatific exaltation of a chilling winter’s landscape, complete with oversaturated timbres and tone formations, into a gruesomly emaciated, increasingly Glitch-accentuated work of crepuscular shadows before harkening back to its point of origin in a divine closing track. The constancy and cohesion of the drop in temperature throughout Frozen leads me to believe that this is no accidental or ill-perceived theme based on chance, but the cleverly thought out leitmotif and actual driving factor of the album. Since Russell’s constructions become thinner and more glacial over time, this leads to the risk of deterrence, of testing the listener’s will and finding his or her weak spot, the moment they give up and yearn for the – admittedly super-gorgeous – Pop Ambient-oriented point of origin. Glitch fans will have a field day with the album’s latter half. Most impressively though, the artist does not succumb to eclectic, labyrinthine or acidic tone sequences. As is the case with every good genre-related composition, the joy of jagged dissonances, Geiger counter-like pops and pristine icicles outweighs the increasing horror of being trapped – connoisseurs would say: enshrined – in a no man’s land. To sum my impression up, Frozen sports a cleverly camouflaged diversity, but since it is organically drifting and twirling downwards, one does not perceive the gradual shift as such. Now would be the perfect time to mention the old urban myth of a frog who won’t jump out of the hot water bucket as long as it is slowly heated… but blimey, Frozen sits on the diametrically opposite side of the hinted spectrum!



Further reading:

More info about Frozen – complete with purchase links – is available at Relaxed Machinery.



Ambient Review 295: Chris Russell – Frozen (2010). Originally published on Dec. 18, 2013 at