Sonnborner by NadjaRelease date: September 4, 2018
Label: Broken Spine / Daymare Recordings
Sonnborner, the 20th full length studio album from Aidan Baker’s doom-drone duo Nadja finds them pushing out at the edges of their usual ambient doom with mostly pleasing results. A couple of things you notice straight away are the uncharacteristically colourful sleeve (by Le Nevralgie Constanti), in which a face seems to coalesce from aquatic abstract daubs, and the apparently unbalanced tracklist. Title track ‘Sonnborner/Aten’ is a vast half hour long epic, nothing new there perhaps, but the remaining third of the album is made up of four much shorter tracks in what they charmingly describe as their ‘grindgaze’ style.
Clearly the main event ‘Sonnborner/Aten’ begins with steadily soporific strums and dazed vocal mumblings that vaguely recall Spacemen 3 in stoned, sun drenched mood. It’s hazy and slow and comforting. At about the 8 min mark a huge blast of fuzz arrives that sustains for over a minute before sinking into another submerged verse in their more usual ambient doom style. The ‘Aten’ part arrives on a rising, floating violin note. Making up the final third of the track ‘Aten’ is a wonderful hovering drone bringing guest string players Julia Kent, Agathe Max and Simon Goff to the fore. They weave subtly over and under one another creating a continuous resonant sound with shifting details beneath its surface. It’s hypnotic but hangs in the air somewhere between calm and disquiet, relaxing with one eye open it lulls you softly even as you sense horror could be lurking in the trees.
At this point in proceedings the vinyl enthusiasts amongst us can no doubt choose whether or not to get up from their comfortable meditative haze and flip the thing over or not. Those listening to the CD or digital versions are tipped directly into side two. It’s as if we were quietly admiring a stunning view of the mountains only to be knocked unawares into the freezing lake at our feet. Shoulda kept that one eye open. Rejoicing in the magnificent title ‘In The Shadow Of The Wing Of The Thing Too Big To Be Seen’ is quite possibly the fastest, most pummeling, most straightforwardly ‘metal’ thing they’ve ever done. A drum machine panic attack judders into two hectic minutes of thumping, roaring noise before charging straight into ‘Sunwell’, which pushes the same ideas out onto a bigger stage with some more widescreen guitar.
Sonnborner is actually just a local train station in Berlin where the duo now reside but it offers the evocative idea of being born of the sun that runs across the record. A quick look down the titles might suggest these shorter pieces are sketches or ideas for the first side, although they’re very different in approach. They run into one another and hang together slightly awkwardly as a suite. ‘Stillborn (A Fragment)’ calms things for a minute before ‘Sunborn (Coda)’ brings us to a more familiar Nadja paced churn of distortion. It’s entirely possible to imagine them slightly reworked into a single 15-20 min track, a more abrasive yin to the first side’s summery yang and the fact they aren’t leaves the album feeling just a little off balance.
This brings up the conundrum of artists as prolific as Aidan Baker – would a bit more focus, a little more time and editing, present us with fewer but more impressive records or would it just drain away the spontaneity and life in the music? Baker seems to be firmly of the second camp, it sometimes appears as if he makes an album a week just because he can. I like all the ones I get to hear but there’s more than any sane person has time for, I suspect even Leah Buckareff, his partner in Nadja and life, doesn’t listen to everything he releases. That said, it’s actually two years since the last Nadja album proper The Stone Is Not Hit By The Sun, Nor Carved With A Knife. I hadn’t found any real need to listen to its three massive tracks over 80 mins since then, but I returned to it just now. It’s huge and hard to take in but it’s fine and it has the steady coherence Sonnborner slightly lacks. Still, this is a more interesting album, the use of strings and the ‘grindgaze’ tracks point to greater possibilities in future.