[aural time-slip] Desiderii Marginis – Songs Over Ruins


[Reviewed by stark]

The vinyl reissue of Desiderii Marginis’ debut album seems like a good opportunity to take a trip down memory lane. Do not expect a typical review containing technical analysis. There’s no point after 20 years. It’s like reviewing “Apocalypse Now” or “The Shining”. What for? Everything that should be said, has been already said.

The “Songs Over Ruins” release coincided with my dynamic growth of interest in the dark ambient genre. I knew some dark electronic stuff before, but 1996-1997 were the years when I expanded my knowledge drastically, mostly thanks to tape trading and only occasional purchases of the actual CDs, as they were quite difficult to get in Poland, especially for a teenage kid. I remember those first ambient and dark ambient albums and reflections like “damn, so there are artists and albums with such music? I thought this stuff was reserved only for movie soundtracks, because who would bother to listen to these mainly illustrative, rhythmless and voiceless… compositions? Improvisations?” After a while I found out that there were such individuals all around the world, even in Poland, and there was some sort of scene, with the Cold Meat Industry label being a kind of centre around which the most interesting things were happening. The time for other labels came a little bit later.

For me – as well as for many of you – the first meeting with Desiderii Marginis was on the occasion of “The Absolute Supper”, an ideal sampler, the godfather of all compilations. Yeah, I remember the others, that came earlier, like the excellent Slaughter Productions’ “Death Odors” (1994) for that matter, but the CMI.50 was kind of one step closer to the wider audience. I thought that it would seduce the metal audience first and then move further and further towards the surface. None of these things happened, and from the perspective of time I think it’s a good thing. Dark ambient in the mainstream? No, it’s inappropriate. Let’s stay in our own niche of these few thousand people who at least know what’s it’s about.

For many years Desiderii Marginis was considered as probably the best Raison d’être imitator – Roger Karmanik obviously didn’t help in changing that opinion, as the text in “The Absolute Supper” booklet stated: “Desiderii Marginis (…) not only comes from the same little town as Raison d’être, but even the same street. So it is not really surprising that the similarities reach beyond the demographics and into the musical field”. I don’t know whether that was true or whether it was a bit emphasized, but since these similarities were obvious, I wouldn’t say they were bigger than those among some other Scandinavian dark ambient artists of that time. With each new album Johan Levin was developing his own unique path, finding other formal resolutions, implementing vocal declamations (not samples) or acoustic guitars, and taking a different turn in terms of melody as well. I feel that the project’s character and conception became more introverted, concentrating on what’s inside one’s (Johan’s?) psyche. But this is a story for another time.

“Chaos Undivided” quickly became one of my favourite tracks on “The Absolute Supper”. The great triumvirate: this Desiderii Marginis composition, then “R’lyeh” by Sephiroth and Raison d’être’s “The Verge Of Somnolence” (when Peter played this song last year on Tenebrae The Profundis festival in Athens, I thought I’d piss my pants in excitement – sorry for that tasteless personal confession). I was familiar with Raison d’être already, but I knew I needed to get the albums by the other two previously unknown projects. A couple of months later I managed to get the tapes with these albums recorded by some guy. The actual CD I purchased in 2002, in the only edition of Castle Party I’ve ever attended. Ah yes, 2002… the magical year; I met my girlfriend with whom I am until this day, and “Songs Over Ruins” was the object of our first musical “fight”. I played it, she found it annoying and ordered me to turn it off, I said “no”, she threw a fork in my direction and so on… I realized she wasn’t good material for a dark ambient apprentice. Over the years we started to tolerate (more or less) eachother’s sounds.

But getting back to that tape, how I worshipped it. I could see the bridge between Johan’s endeavours and what Peter Andersson was doing with his main project, but at the same time I could tell that he wanted to follow his own path. Maybe it wasn’t so clear back then, yet it was obvious that being Peter’s epigone would not satisfy him at all. “Songs Over Ruins” was less industrialized, the tracks were shorter and of a more song-like structure (always bear in mind of course, that we’re discussing dark ambient here, so remind yourself to maintain the corresponding proportions). The melody was also very important. After a few listens all the pieces were rather easy to remember. And – what later became Johan’s trademark, at least for me – the music wasn’t that epic, despite the titles you didn’t see the majectic images of an earthly wasteland. It was more modest in terms and means of expression, it worked more on a psychological level.

I’m listening to this album as a whole for the first time in a few years, and realize that I still remember it almost by heart. Some tracks accompany me all the time though. “Scintillate II” with its brief industrial intro, the solemn melody and martial drums. “Ashes”, one of the eeriest dark ambient compositions ever made – these creeping drones still make me shiver. “The Core Of Hell II” is still my beloved one. What an emotional journey it is. Lately I found out that I sometimes unconciously tap that simple rhythm with my fingers on the table. It has been drilled so deep in my head, just like these whispered words:

“Integrity, and truth
Who raised our brother from death,
And gives us hope beyond death, here, now
You are our strength and compassion
We believe and trust in you.”

This was so fitting for my state of mind back in those days… And “Songs Over Ruins II”, probably one of the first dark ambient “hits”, dynamic, pulsating and melodic. Sure, the sound is not perfect, you can easily say that Johan’s technical possibilities were limited at that time. Some of the parts sound archaic, perhaps even a bit cheesy, but who cares. It’s a part of history. My personal history, as well as the history of this genre.

Lately I notice a growth of interest in dark ambient among younger people, mostly thanks to the professional and resilient activity of the Cryo Chamber label. Yet – and perhaps I’m wrong – I have the impression, that what they do and release is enough for the majority of the new fans, who don’t feel the urge to learn about the roots of many of their idols. That’s an understandable attitude, the contemporary times almost literally force you to move forward, barely looking back to the past. But sometimes when I read something like “This new Flowers For Bodysnatchers album is the best dark ambient album ever made”, well, it hurts a little bit. Of course, one has the utmost right to express such an opinion, but why do I feel such fellow has never listened to “Songs Over Ruins”, or “The Empty Hollow Unfolds”, “The Place Where The Black Stars Hang” or, say, “Cold Summer”. Of course afterwards you may still consider that exemplary Flowers For Bodysnatchers as the best dark ambient album ever, but at least then you’ll have a bigger, historical picture, the points of reference and the overall image of how it all took shape. This is what younger generations of dark ambient acolytes need, hence Cyclic Law’s effort of reisuing “Songs Over Ruins” in vinyl is in my opinion a very good idea.

Desiderii MarginisSongs Over Ruins
Cold Meat Industry, cmi.56 // Cyclic Law, 89th Cycle
CD/LP/Digital 1997/2017

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