For over a year now, I’ve been looping back in time, to revisit some of my favourite albums of the past, that still resonate and relish. In this RECITAL column, I dust off not just the record, but also my original words, which have appeared on Headphone Commute more than a decade ago, when I just started sharing thoughts and music. I polish off and remaster the write-up, as the musicians reissue their sounds, as is the case with Biosphere, who, back in December of 2017, reissued his 2002 Shenzhou along with a whole bonus album, nearly doubles the vinyl in size. If you have missed this for any reason, now is as good of a time as any to sit down and become engrossed in this amazing record, channelling not only the orchestral works by Claude Debussy but also the time when you’ve heard it for the very first time.
Prior to doing a proper writeup on Geir Jenssen, I listened to all of his grandiose works. Twice. OK, maybe not all. Jenssen’s discography does not only span albums under his most famous moniker, Biosphere – there is also his debut album, The North Pole By Submarine (SSR, 1989) as Bleep; two volumes of The Fires of Ork in collaboration with Pete Namlook (Fax, 1993 & 2000); two releases with The Higher Intelligence Agency, Polar Sequences (Beyond, 1996) and Birmingham Frequencies (Headphone 2000); an album, Nordheim Transformed (Rune Grammofon, 1998), with Deathprod; and finally a collection of field recordings from Tibet, Cho Oyu (Ash International, 2006), under his real name. And that’s just scratching the surface. However, after spending an entire week (!) revisiting Jenssen’s contributions towards the evolution of ambient sound, I settled on Shenzhou for this writeup. That one, my friends, is a masterpiece.
Shenzhou explores more than just dark atmospheres and loop-based hypnotic soundscapes. Here, Jenssen does something many musicians have tried to accomplish – use classical music as the main ingredient, but without being too overbearing, obvious, or just for its mere sake. In Shenzhou, Jenssen constructs haunting environmental passages based on orchestral works by Claude Debussy‘s La Mer and Jeux. During the beatless layers of lush pads, deep sonic bass, and dusty vinyl samples of strings and woodwinds, Jenssen builds on meditative templates inflicting a trance-like state for the mind relying on its pattern recognition capabilities. The subliminal waves of euphoria wash over the timeless expansion of sound throughout the universe of the void. The subtle contributions of Jenssen’s own sound design only enhance Debussy’s already melancholic impressionist approach. Purely genius.
Jenssen doesn’t set his loops against each other to produce juxtapositions and piquant dissonance; he uses them to describe imagined terrain, at first glance monotonously flat and barren, but on concentration, replete with minute detailing. The overall effect of these pieces is a sense of immensity…
This work solidifies Jenssen’s impact on the ambient movement of the past decade. Previously, Jennsen has been known to pioneer his own personal style – arctic ambient. This genre is thematically named for Jenssen’s geographical and minimalist attributes. Born in Tromsø, a city in the Arctic Circle of Norway, Jenssen evoked the sense of isolation and arctic calm, more prominent in his earlier albums like Substrata (All Saints Records, 1997) and above mentioned Polar Sequences. But in Shenzhou the ice melts away into the ocean of sound. And with it, we drift… and we drift…
For a sensory deprived in-vacuum experience, pick up Biosphere’s Autour de la Lune (Touch, 2004) [headphones with deep bass response recommended], as well as Dropsonde (Touch 2006). In 2007, Norwegian Beatservice Records, re-released the first three of Biosphere’s albums – Microgravity, Patashnik, and Insomnia. And ten years later, Shenzhou returns as 3×12″ re-issue, along with a whole set of previously unreleased tracks! Highly recommended for the likes of Loscil, Gas, Deaf Center and Murcof.