Stars Without Light – Beneath and Before (Cyclic Law) album review

Stars Without Light’s debut is a nightmarish fever dream of ominous dark ambient and industrial soundscapes.

Things start off peacefully enough on Beneath and Before, the debut album as Stars Without Light from veteran dark ambient producer Harlow MacFarlane (Funerary Call, Sistrenatus, Havan). A dreamy drone is dusted with some light piano and some faint silver bells. The reverie doesn’t last long, though. A minute-and-a-half into “Emerge and Decay,” the tranquility is disturbed with vague whispers of rusted metal and distorted voices. Things truly erupt three minutes later, when the surface tension breaks into a cataclysm of pounding industrial percussion and eerie dripping. It conjures image of some rusted metal behemoth emerging from the depths, in a miasma of ancient incantations, and immediately beginning to rot.

“Sunken Ends” is pure horror, with its shrieking Penderecki strings and nerve-shredding razor-on-glass feedback, its submerged echoes and ominous analog electronics.

It all comes boiling over on “Between the Columns,” with an unholy miasma of howling feedback and Risset tones erupting into post-industrial martial rhythms, as if the rusted behemoth brought along a phalanx of Uruk Hai.

“Hueless Dreams” is a nightmare of ritualistic gongs, hunting horns, and creaking wood.

The murmur of distant crowds crumble into winds blowing across vast, unknown landscapes on “Static Veil”

There’s plenty of peace among the terrors and murk, though. “Ceaseless Ebullition” shines like a starry night.

In the liner notes from Cyclic Law, Stars Without Light is frequently described as “cinematic.” They write “

Stars Without Light provides the score to a yet-to-be discovered, disintegrating film reel of the unknowable. With masterful curation of sound and catharsis, this shadowy entity coaxes the aural observer into a spectral Otherscape. Over the course of the disquieting “Beneath and Before”, we attempt to follow this captivating sonic narrative through an ever-shifting apocalyptic landscape, waiting, hiding behind a thin veil of synthetic scrapings, rhythmic grinding, and hissing surface noise, lest we are discovered by what dwells beyond.

The churn of electronic howls, twitching clatter, and all-out scrap metal assault submerges beneath contrapuntal found sounds and manipulated past echoes, selectively relieved by an occasional eerie calm. An unexplainable agoraphobia begins to take hold within this ebb and flow. With just enough analog textures, decaying tape loops, and perceptible instrumentation to fleetingly ground the listener back to tangible reality, we are cruelly reset for the next bout of formless fear. Unexpected thundering percussion and suffocating sub-abyssal rumblings provide momentary stabs of angular rhythm that tear through the apparitional atmosphere. But, only to hold your attention long enough so as to not lose you completely in the tension swarm.”

If Beneath and Before were a soundtrack, it’d be for something like Begotten or a short film Brothers Quay. It’s a true masterclass of dark ambient and experimental techniques, incorporating elements of noise and industrial music, making for a detailed, textured, and nuanced recording that benefits from never becoming cartoonish. An incredible start to an interesting new project and a strong finish to 2023 from Cyclic Law.

Beneath and Before is out now on Cyclic Law.

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