Remains a fascinating, puzzling and, at times, problematic encounter.
If ambient music is designed, as Brian Eno would have it, to “be as ignorable as it is interesting,” its darker cousins are more strident, a touch more eager to generate a mood or feeling. These sub-genres emerged from multiple sources throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. They coalesced around a shared interest in the ways emergent technologies might provide greater compositional subtlety in the manipulation of sound sources, and equally wondered how artists might combine interests, influences and the manifest desire to affect audiences within a musical practice. One of the most influential, and long unavailable, recordings in this field is Zamia Lehmanni: Songs of Byzantine Flowers by SPK. First released in 1986, this was an intriguing release upon its first appearance and remains a fascinating, puzzling and, at times, problematic encounter.
By 1986 SPK had charted a unique trajectory through popular and unpopular music. Formed in Australia in 1978 by expatriate New Zealander Graeme Revell, along with Neil Hill, Danny Rumour and David Hill, SPK was named, initially at least, after the Sozialistisches Patientenkollektiv (Socialist Patients’ Collective,) a ‘70s German Marxist organization. The members would relocate to the UK in 1980 and quickly followed a series of independent single and EP releases with their first album, Information Overload Unit, a scrappy and noisy collection of grinding soundscapes, electronic pulses and stolen pieces of film dialogue mixed with the now compulsory short wave broadcasts. Alongside and underneath, more traditional instruments pulse and struggle, proto-samples and tape loops are manipulated and the whole thing sits comfortably at the Throbbing Gristle-end of the noisy industrial music spectrum.
Leichenschrei, from 1982, further refined the band’s confrontational sound and, with the addition of Brian Williams (Lustmord) and Derek Thompson (Hoodlum Priest), this much more coherent album would demonstrate an enhanced ability to manipulate deeply affective and disturbing atmospheres. The electronic noises that structure these compositions come from the same artistic terrain as Clock DVA’s earlier work but hold a kind of menace in their psycho-sexual narratives that Adi Newton and company would only fully realize on their own Buried Dreams from 1989.
It’s after Leichenschrei that things get blurry. Between that and Zamia Lehmanni, generally considered SPK’s third album, lies the under-regarded and definitely atypical electro-pop 1984 release Machine Age Voodoo. While this album offers a radical stylistic rupture with the previous two, its focus on contemporary popular electronic music would as equally prefigure Revell’s eventual soundtrack work as the superior and vastly different Zamia Lehmanni, which is also Revell’s first solo album. Having then developed a compositional practice with the formal manipulation and structuring of noises, filtered through an emergent pop sensibility in the later album and singles, Revell would return to orchestration and produce a work that was then both a product of certain currents of the moment and which remains an important touchstone for anyone interested in what happens when post-industrial musical practices are filtered through the western orchestral canon.
Despite Zamia Lehmanni evidencing Revell’s mastery of composition, the same themes are present here as in earlier SPK releases, albeit more subtly managed and manipulated. “Invocation to Secular Heresies” opens the album and offers the kinds of sonic mood-setting Dead Can Dance would ultimately make their own and were already experimenting with in Spleen and Ideal, released a year before. Somber brass samples over a heavily reverbed machine rhythm pulse in minor tones while beneath it all a voice chants in a manner that reminds one of nothing so much as Renaldo and the Loaf’s “Extracting the Re-Re – A Ritual Call to Prayer” from 1987. Unlike Renaldo and the Loaf, however, there’s no humor, no surrealist gesturing. Instead this is intended as a new musical form somewhere between world and folk and industrial and classical where longer-form movements appear to more naturally succeed the tape splices and grinding noises of the earlier albums.
“Palms Crossed in Sorrow” plays soft synth strings against skittering vibes, percussive loops and what the album credits euphemistically list as ‘Sounds [Voices],’ before another bass-heavy rhythm rolls into hold all of these pieces together. A little digging reveals that these call-and-response chants are recordings from former inhabitants of the Bikini Atoll, relocated by the U.S Government to make way for the nuclear tests in the Pacific, but there’s no mention of this fact in the album’s original liner notes nor in the re-release. Instead, they float without location, drifting underneath and through the swaths of synthetic noise and rhythm, just another anonymous element utilized as a ready-made sound source.
“In Flagrante Delicto” continues the exploration of unsettling atmospheres. Here, strings and strings samples are punctuated by manipulated percussive noises and “railway yard ambience.” Of all this album’s pieces, this is the one that most obviously stands out as cinematically oriented and it’s no surprise that it would be reworked by Revell for his first film score, 1989’s Dead Calm. It remains a remarkable composition in its own right and its disturbing tones are and is matched by “In the Dying Moments” as longer-form experiments in dark ambience.
“Necropolis” was originally released on the 1986 compilation album Necropolis, Amphibians & Reptiles and is a realization of one of the many graphic scores produced by Adolf Wölfli, one of the first artists to be associated with the Art Brut movement. As before, slow and somber funereal synths and strings roll gently across a field of lightly distorted percussion, such that “Necropolis” feels perfectly at home here, with its occasional bursts of static serving only to further remind of the legacy of Revell’s early work.
What’s noticeable in revisiting this album is the way in which the tropes of so many then-outré genres are being laid into place and given room to develop. The martial bombast of Neo-Folk and Martial Industrial can be glimpsed in the orchestral constructions and sometimes-clattering percussion in the same ways they’re present in the first three Dead Can Dance albums. There’s a nod to the forms of darker ambient works and, indeed, much of Lustmord’s post-SPK work has continued in a similar vein. However, for all that this album establishes or codifies as canon, it’s worth noting that problems emerge with the consideration of how the album uses field recordings of non-European peoples. The presence of culturally-specific material utilized simply because it provides a kind of exotic ambience is ethically troubling, to say the least. As a result, what remains is tainted by a form of exploitation that muddies the intention of an otherwise fascinating album. However, if it’s possible to put that to one side, what remains is a deeply intriguing listen somewhere between orchestral dark wave and post-My Life in the Bush of Ghosts world music. As the various threads of dark ambient have developed and progressed, the ongoing influence remains startlingly clear, such that Zamia Lehmanni: Songs of Byzantine Flowers might no longer be an essential album; but it absolutely remains an important one.