by Niklas Göransson
Allegations of cosmic falsehood stir in dark ambiences. Atrium Carceri and Cryo Chamber mastermind Simon Heath explains how cracks in the façade break pillars of reality, and why fires of clarity burn with existential horror.
– ATRIUM CARCERI is a cinematic dark ambient project, says its solo member Simon Heath, it explores the rift between our world and those beyond it. There is a continuous storyline that spans over 10 albums.
Dark ambient is an umbrella term commonly used for drone and ambient music with a darker focus.
– Through the use of field recordings, synthesisers, looped acoustics, and cinematic sound effects, it’s meant to transform the listener’s headspace.
Field recordings are a crucial building block of ATRIUM CARCERI – applied either as a tool for narrating the story, or to contour the music and establish a thematic mood.
– When you spend as much time in a studio environment as I do, it’s a blessing to be able to visit exotic places and capture their soundscape. It inspires me a lot and works as a well-needed contrast to all the long nights holed up in the studio.
Simon traverses the terrain probing for convolution reverb – digital schematics for recreating the acoustics of a certain space, such as the echo of a cave.
– I used to explore the subway tunnels around Stockholm when I lived there, their resonance is amazing. I’d record impulse response signals for convolution reverb and then work with it in the studio.
Applied using audio software, it gives the impression of whatever instrument is being played resounding from out of those tunnels. It has the same reverb. For the immersive listener, it can instil a feeling of actually being there.
– Most of my field work here in the US is nature-inspired, I travel up into the mountains. That’s one of the reasons why the SABLED SUN project came to fruition.
SABLED SUN is another dark ambient project by Simon Heath, in which recordings brought back from the wild are used to portray a dystopian and post-apocalyptic scenario.
– I often use them as anchor points for the listener. A far-away howl through the right spatial mix can conjure up the immersion of being somewhere else, the whirl of giant machines below your feet will instil a sense of the world as a churning construct, and so on.
Why did you stop doing concerts?
– I find that the live music environment isn’t quite right for this genre, dark ambient is by its very nature rather introspective and best enjoyed in solitude. People generally go to concerts to drink and have fun, not to meditate and explore the soul’s inner sanctum – which dark ambient is a great tool for. It will lead you to a space within yourself you’ve never known before, remote places normally inaccessible to the waking mind.
Allowing oneself to be guided by art into the ethereal is a classic technique, though I’m curious if it might not leave you vulnerable to influence from the artist.
– There’s certainly a possibility for suggestions to take hold, but it’s not the easiest way to manipulate people’s minds. There are far better tools if someone was actually serious about it, vocals would be a start – a precursor for any music meant to push brands or promote agendas.
Tunes without words can easily stir the senses beyond hearing though. Entering a trance state while listening to music isolated through headphones is known to generate a phenomenon called CEV – closed-eyed visuals. Visions of either material or abstract nature will blend together with melodies and rhythms, pulsating and swirling in synchronicity.
– Compositional vibrations act in a similar way to a voice that’s telling you what you’re seeing. It’s likely that listeners will draw up wildly different scenarios listening to instrumental music compared to songs with lyrics, since it leaves more room for interpretation.
Let’s say for argument’s sake that you could implant a thought in someone’s mind, what would it be?
– That ‘identity’ is a societal construct which should always be questioned. That there’s nothing respectful about upholding rigid beliefs or value systems – adaptability is how our species survived for so long, but today’s society is moulding us to be static rather than dynamic.
ATRIUM CARCERI‘s discography began on the legendary Swedish label Cold Meat Industry.
– I remember that label being a much needed place for alternative music and sub-genres back in the day. They did a fine job of collecting some very talented artists.
After the sixth album, “Phrentis” from 2009, Simon left the sinking ship that CMI had become.
– It imploded for a number of reasons, most of which I don’t really care to know. It was an unfortunate time, with a lot of anger directed towards them from many directions.
It’s interesting that dark ambient and similar styles associated with Cold Meat have long enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with black metal, despite vast differences in music style.
– I think the themes are pretty similar in a lot of ways. Look at any commercial genre, the songs are often centred on the singer and his or her life. It’s often a personal story and exploration of feelings or events.
He adds that metal music rarely resorts to this, but instead tends to be thoughts disconnected from the personal experience – almost like fictional short stories.
– Not many black metal lyrics revolve around driving around in your car, drinking beer and having sex. While dark ambient often has no lyrics, the concepts are seldom focused on either mundane or celebrity life.
You won’t find many heart-wrenching ballads, he says, in either genre.
– I think that’s where the overlap happens, the drive to tell stories where your self is not made an icon.
Is that important to you, separation from the ego?
– I have sought the ego death since my teenage years – going from occultism to eastern and western philosophy, to martial arts and psychedelic drugs.
Simon describes the sensation of self-dissolution as one where complete stillness of thought reigns together with a universal connectedness and all-encapsulating love. All sense of self is lost, there is no I.
– I’ve found this easiest to attain through psychedelic drugs, but these moments fade and we are soon back to our normal state. Seeking out these things also forces us to reconsider the meaning of identity and what it really means to be an individual.
One mild psychedelic that Simon has an ongoing artistic relationship with is cannabis, which is legal for recreational use in his home state of Oregon.
– It’s rumoured that Hemingway once said, ‘Write drunk, edit sober’ – I follow that advice as ‘Write high, edit sober’. Mixing CBD and THC in the right dosages will create a perfect inspirational foundation.
THC and CBD are compounds found in the plant, they belong to a class called cannabinoids. They stimulate the body’s Endocannabinoid system, which is involved in a variety of physiological processes such as mood, creativity, pain-management and memory.
– Creating under the influence is an effective way to gently test the waters of neighbouring realms. It distances you from the mundane, which might not be helpful when writing about heartache or separation but is excellent for otherworldly depictions. Editing the material with a clear head afterwards however, is a must.
The output of ATRIUM CARCERI is notoriously strewn with hidden messages – a puzzle that has so far only been partly solved by dedicated fans.
– Most of what goes on is fairly obfuscated, the jumps in time and so forth. I leave a lot of fragmented pieces of vocal samples, complemented by booklet texts that if put together paint a much clearer picture of what’s going on.
At times, one might hear time loops from an earlier album tie into a later one. One example is the song “Red Stains” from 2003 debut album “Cellblock”, which is connected to “Rusty Red Stains” on the 2012 “Reliquiae”.
– I’ve been told I’m a little too vague so I might ease up and open the door a little wider on upcoming albums. I’d say they’re fairly easy to decipher if you approach them as encoded messages – I’ve just never told anyone that’s what they are.
In 2011, Simon left his hometown of Stockholm for the United States.
– It was time to move on. Life in Sweden can be pretty repetitive, especially during wintertime. My wife and I were on the verge of moving to Southern Europe, but decided to try living in the US for a while and to see if we liked it. We did and so we stayed.
Culturally, he says there are some significant differences between his new and old home.
– Americans tend to be a lot more optimistic about life, and quite extroverted. The ideological climate is much more diverse and for someone who likes to process new ideas and being challenged on his own, it’s a most welcome change to the consensus ideology that rules Sweden.
There are however aspects that he feels work better at home.
– Perhaps we could use a bit of socialism to fix the broken healthcare and education systems, but that notion might just be thirty years of Swedish left-wing indoctrination speaking.
In what might be another symptom of his penchant for the proletariat, Simon takes a uniquely cooperative approach to the label he started after his intercontinental relocation. Cryo Chamber is more like a collective of dark ambient artists.
– After having bounced around labels in various music scenes myself, I knew exactly what I wanted from one as a musician seeking a record deal. There was nothing of the kind back then, so that’s what I tried to build; a creative platform to connect with the likeminded.
Simon now enlists support from the roster when working on his own projects.
– They help me grow as a producer and a musician. I couldn’t be happier with what we’ve created together, all of us.
Under the name CRYO CHAMBER COLLABORATION, the bands on the label have an annual tradition of doing a 25-artist collaboration exploring different horror concepts. Thus far, the project has spawned “Nyarlathotep”, “Azathoth” and “Cthulhu”.
– It’s become a yearly tribute to H.P. Lovecraft’s memory. We discuss the various mythos he and other writers created together, then analyse them to come up with a conceptual idea representing a specific deity. Once we’ve agreed on which one, we join forces and set to work.
While researching this article I came across an interview where Simon talks about his ‘addiction to awkwardness’, I kid you not.
Do you mean the type where you’re cringing on someone else’s behalf?
– Certainly, it’s really a portal to self-reflection through forced empathy. Humanity stands naked in situations where it doesn’t know how to react, when the social rules collapse. That’s why I can find strange appeal in decadent reality shows and documentaries in their most base form.
Come to think of it, it’s actually quite remarkable how something as ridiculous as a sitcom can project tangible physical sensations of embarrassment.
– This is the very reason I love the British version of The Office, and anything else that’s socially uncomfortable – even real-life situations. They remind me of myself and the social patterns I’ve learnt. It’s glorious and mostly so because of the recognition; we identify with and somehow share the burden of shame.
Even stronger is the palpable tension when two individuals with an outspoken distaste for each other end up in the same social setting and are forced to interact under the norms of polite conduct.
– I find myself in situations like that as much as anyone else, but I don’t have much hate for others so I’m rarely the opposer. I actually find people of conflicting mind-sets a lot more interesting to talk to, compared to someone who agrees with me on everything.
That’s as clear a sign as any of having resided outside of Sweden for an extended period of time.
What about outright confrontation?
– Undertones of violence change everything – it’s more primal, or tribal, than when they’re just social norms gone haywire. Two clashing parties, neither of which quite know how to act in a conflict because they were never taught how to; it’s like watching a computer program crash.
The so-called reality simulation theory, pioneered by British philosopher Nick Bostrom, is an idea that’s gotten a fair bit of traction the last few years. In 2014, a team of scientists claimed to have found self-correcting computer code in the very fabric of the universe – implying that creation is essentially a video game. Most people scoff at the notion that they might be living in the matrix, but it’s supported by a wide range of scientists from institutions such as NASA, as well as astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson. A few months ago, SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk said, ‘The chance we are not living in a computer simulation is one in billions.’
– That’s a great premise and one that makes a lot of sense, you can definitely draw parallels to the AC storyline. At the end of the day though, I think it’s more interesting as a philosophical viewpoint or an ethical thought-experiment.
The fields of binary consciousness and existential agitation have been set ablaze both in SABLED SUN and on later ATRIUM CARCERI records, whereas the latter’s early albums dealt primarily with traditional horror themes.
– I get a lot of upset fans that wanted me to stick to that horror style of ambient my early work revolves around.
The phrase Atrium Carceri is Latin, and means a form of prison structure. While on earlier records the incarceration was assumed to refer to mental asylums, it now appears to have been accusing the cosmos itself.
– The later albums are about what we do with this information, which leads us to the quest for enlightenment and in search of answers. On “Metropolis” (2015) we follow an expedition deep into the other side, in search of the Demiurge himself.
‘The Demiurge’ is a term used for the protagonist in both Christian and Chaos Gnosticism, the one who weaves the webs of illusion that keeps humanity from its destiny.
Do you personally believe in this god of the blind, the supposed nemesis to the true will of the supreme being?
– I don’t talk openly about my own beliefs, at least not when it comes down to personal spirituality. A lot of the ATRIUM CARCERI project is open for interpretation however, so allow me to refer to the storyline instead.
The timeline, which is published on the project’s website, shows a flowchart of the narrative that plays out over the conceptually linked albums. The idea is to provide a tool for the listeners, so that they can make some kind of sense of the story.
What’s on the other side of the illusion?
– The ancient city, where humanity once ruled as gods before being banished to our reality. This mirage will sometimes break down in single individuals, and the interference usually takes the shape of themes from my early material; trauma, schizophrenia, psychosis and depression.
For explorers of consciousness, derealisation is the most terrifying affliction known to befall the voyager. It’s a powerful alteration to one’s perception of reality – a temporary psychosis. Described as unspeakable existential terror that begins with feelings of a clammy unease where nothing seems real, normality starts flickering like a TV channel losing signal. As the pillars of the familiar come tumbling down, the understanding that life is a mere dream zeniths like a nova; everyone and everything in it is a figment of the imagination. We are all one, so you are all alone and will thus remain, infinitely – attempts to persuade you otherwise are dismissed as the illusion seeking to lull you back to slumber. Parting the veil of falsehood and uncovering naught but void, what’s left is eternal captivity in oblivion; dead but dreaming – trapped in a between-state.
Going by ATRIUM CARCERI’s concept, wouldn’t this in fact be an instant of divine truth?
– Yes, he confirms, spot on – derealisation is the moment of clarity. The trauma and terror that tear down the walls of reality are only the first steps to liberation. Once the illusion has been ripped open and the mind starts assembling the pieces, it moves on to enlightenment and clarity.