Rakka and Rakka II by Vladislav Delay (Cosmo Rhythmatic, 2020/2021) are the sounds of an eldritch awakened by the final bells tolling for humanity.
Human civilisation has entered its twilight phase as the elemental environment reasserts itself.
The soundscape of this transition is an acerbic hum of white and other noises – pink, steel, ochre, black, blue – the sonic indexes of northern cities collapsing, tundra thawing and releasing its paleolithic secrets (and greenhouse gases), Arctic waters warming then freezing again, glaciers calving into the sea.
In this emergent future, landscapes devour as nature reboots.
Rakka by Vladislav Delay (2020) album art by LCR
Vladislav Delay transports the initiated on a heady trip into the future of the Arctic. The album art by LCR depicts a scene that one might encounter on this journey: a rocky shoreline, water rendered in radioactive fuchsia (Rakka) and neon-green (Rakka II).
The barren, rimy shores of the far north evoke the edges of the Earth and the limits of human inhabitation. An unnatural colour palette suggests the toxic traces of industry.
From here, guided by Rakka’s sound design of corroded and weathered textures, listeners are immersed in panoramas of a new wilderness delivered by climate change.
These are the sublime sounds of resurgent nature – an awesome yet agnostic power, which gradually overcomes the darkest human impulses, along with everything else.
Despite the bleakness of the real and implied imagery, Rakka subverts the malevolence that typifies many strains of black metal. It would also be a mistake to regard these albums as “life metal” for casual listening.
Rakka is that rare hybrid of genres which sounds like something thrillingly new while conveying complex moods and narratives. It suggests the fall of Eurowestern civilisation as the forces of Gaia rise from the ashes.
SASU RIPATTI IS VLADISLAV DELAY
Sasu Ripatti, the Finnish musician who records as Vladislav Delay, conjures Rakka’s environments partly through osmosis.
Interestingly, his other aliases, including Conoco, Luomo, Sistol and Uusitalo, have produced experimental house, glitch, ambient and dissonant, minimal techno since the late 1990s.
He lives with his family on the island of Hailuoto, located in the north of the Gulf of Bothnia near the Arctic Circle.
Hailuoto Ice Road by Estormi/Wikimedia Commons
The coast of the island is a rocky, open expanse, continuously reshaped by storms, waves, sea currents and ice thrusts – “the raw, undefined, uncontrolled, and uncorrupted power that exists within,” as described on the artiste’s Bandcamp page.
Unlike coastal regions in southern latitudes, landforms here are slowly rising due to the loss of ice sheets formed during the last ice age.
Hailuoto’s uplands are stabilised by dry pine barrens. During winter, an ice road connects the island to the Finnish mainland.
Further north, as winter temperatures become warmer each year, the tundra biome is supplanted by an advancing tree line. Scots pine and downy birch are hastily establishing new ecosystems.
“Used by humans for tools, houses, fuel, food and medicine, the downy birch is home to microbes, fungi and insects central to the food chain, and it is critical for sheltering other plants needed to make a forest,” explains journalist Ben Rawlance, reporting on the climate crisis in northern Scandinavia.
“The downy birch dictates the terms of what can grow, survive, and move in the areas in which it takes hold. And, as the Arctic heats up, that range is expanding fast.”
The ancient lifeways of the Sami people, reliant on the tundra and seasonal migrations of reindeer, with stable winter temperatures that remain below-freezing, are being erased by the strange new Anthropogenic ecologies.
BLACK METAL OR AMBIENT?
Rakka could be read as an evolution of a black metal trope that celebrates the natural environment.
Musicians in the early Norwegian scene rebelled against the colonising forces of Christianity and American mass culture. The scenic beauty of the fjords and landscapes of the Arctic north provided thematic (albeit nationalistic) counterpoints to mainstream consumer culture.
Thus emerged a curious sub-genre of black metal as sonic eco-terrorism and neo-pagan nature worship. The ideological messaging of black metal and its various subgenres can easily adopt radical left or far right postures, and everything in between.
Black metal is an essentially Romantic genre. It accommodates a multitude of sensibilities or political positions, just like pop music generally.
Vinter ved Sognefjorden (Winter at the Sognefjord) by Johan Christian Dahl (1827)
Rakka exhibits qualities that are both quiet and restless. Psychological magma occasionally explodes into noise and feedback, like a radio transmission interrupted by signals from a Norwegian metal station.
“Rampa”, the centrepiece of the first album, builds over seven minutes into a climax of punishing, barely syncopated drum and bass, punctuated with peals of distortion. The track resolves into a calm-after-the-storm of drone and synth tones.
Within tranquil moments of songs like “Raakile” and “Rakas”, it would not be a stretch to imagine how drone, grainy fuzz and other sonic textures evoke geological deep time – the planetary events that, over millennia, give shape to mountains, basins, deserts, and oceans.
Unfathomably vast expanses of time become, if not comprehensible to the imagination, then accessible.
Geologist James Hutton once observed the processes of soil erosion in the landscapes of the Scottish highlands. He imagined how these forces eventually reshape terrain, creating valleys and watersheds.
The Earth’s surface, he reasoned, is perpetually in motion. He extrapolated forward and backward into timelines which exceeded biblical knowledge, thus “discovering” the concept of deep time.
Rather than linear progress, the geological time of oceans and sedimentary rock is more like entropic variations of the same cycle, the reshaping of Earth’s surface over and over again.
The timeline of humans is a flash of light. The timeline of civilisations barely registers.
Rakka’s violent, raw aesthetic captures the transience of the far north as it is redefined by global warming.
The music video for “Rakkn”, for example, features abstract footage of what appears to be mountainous terrain, distorted through monochromatic filters. Geological forms become claustrophobic and menacing. Entities appear to fold into themselves.
Perhaps a more literal accompaniment for Ripatti’s music would be time-lapse video footage of melting glaciers or Arctic ice disappearing into the sea: sound, plus image as snapshot of environmental trauma, where deep time is temporarily sped-up.
See, for example, the time-lapse video projects created by Extreme Ice Survey: “An innovative, long-term photography programme that integrates art and science to give ‘visual voice’ to the planet’s changing ecosystems.”
ART THAT DENOTES THE FUTURE
Rakka is a field recording from the future, a glimpse into the heart of the advancing, irreversible climate crisis.
It offers wide-screen listening with gradually shifting horizons: landforms, oceans, weather patterns and ecosystems in flux.
Ripatti’s speculative sound worlds recall Murray Shafer’s concept of soundscapes: we are largely unaware of our everyday acoustic environments until they become annoying, jarring or threatening. Noise becomes signal.
This interpretation of Rakka seems more apt than a cliched, dystopian score for the end of the vast geophysical experiment known as fossil fuel capitalism (which, nevertheless, might also be applicable).
A taxonomy of ambient music concepts can be helpful in understanding an album, like Rakka, that defies genre categorisation. A primal feature of ambient music is its latent potential to create an environment.
Wet sounds, serial bubbling sounds, suction and sucking sounds are redolent of water and organic things. They reference the human or animal body. The background noise of voices, room sounds and rustling of everyday objects suggest worldly spaces or architectural interiors.
Field recordings such as the rushing of wind or creaking of trees evoke a natural setting.
Conversely, the absence of sounds external to the recording of (digital) instrumentation, with emphasis on the “pure” tones and chords of the synthesiser, as in genre New Age music, situates the listener within a vacuum or cosmic void.
The sustained notes and slowly-shifting harmonies of drone are ineffable and might refer to consciousness, death, time/duration and the infinite.
More recently, the glitch, corrosion, and crackle of lo-fi audio equipment and decomposed recordings relate to media archeology, hauntology, cultural elision and the postmodern breakdown of recognisable genres.
Oktyabrskiy Settlement, Komchatka, Russia (photographer unknown)
Ripatti deploys the latter modes experimentally, creating sonic tapestries interspersed with noise and buoyed by his expressive percussion. Music and soundscape become indistinguishable.
‘TO MAKE THE SOUNDS DEAD’
Vladislav Delay’s Bandcamp page describes the second album as an “extreme ecosystem of sound populated by fast-moving drones, dense clouds on noise, and tectonic bass rumbles”.
To which we could add Ripatti’s expansive palette of drum and bass, dub and metal percussion. On both albums his use of sustained blast beats operates like a texture, and defines a new direction for ambient black metal.
“I really wanted to apply a physical kind of pressure on the album, to make the sounds dead, and to just really kill all extra stuff, melodies and harmonies,” said Ripatti in an interview.
“I wanted to get rid of everything until only the core remained. Conceptual compression, if you will. I also noticed, having lived in remote areas with no noise or artificial pollution, and also having done extensive hiking in the hardcore tundra, my ability to enjoy brutal and extreme sonic content has grown exponentially.”
The albums were produced electronically and recorded in Ripatti’s stripped-back home studio.
Following a long residence in Berlin, where he sold most of his synthesisers and studio gear while reassessing his relationship with electronic music, Ripatti moved to the island of Hailuoto and took a break from recording.
He then spent several years making do with a stripped-back home studio.
Prior to recording Rakka, Ripatti, a classically trained percussionist, found outlets in playing his drum set and creating musical sketches on his MacBook Pro.
TIM MORTON’S ‘HYPEROBJECT’, SPECULATIVE FUTURES OF THE ARTIC
Vue de l’océan glacial, pêche au morse par des Groënlandais (View of the Polar Sea, Greenlanders Hunting Walruses) by Francois-Auguste Biard (1842)
Rakka’s precedents include Eric Holm’s debut Andoya, which originated with field recordings taken on the eponymous island in northern Norway.
Holm blends his effects-drenched recordings with cinematic textures and layered noise to create an atmosphere of disquiet. The displacement Holm experienced at the edges of the Arctic is translated into eerie mood pieces.
A handful of songs by Bliss Signal, a collaboration between Mumdance and WIFE, perhaps come closest to Rakka’s immersive proto-music of “conceptual compression”.
Bliss Signal create more intentional drama, however, and wear their metal influences more openly.
Ben Frost, Fennesz, Jan Nemecek, Liz Harris/Grouper, Shapednoise, Tim Hecker and others, working at the intersections of ambient, industrial, metal and shoegaze, have created strange LPs that could be considered masterpieces of microgenre, but the resulting albums rarely cohere, as do Rakka and Rakka II, as worldbuilding arranged upon grand themes.
Listening to Rakka with an appreciation of its environmental contexts – past, present, and future(s) of the Arctic – is the basis for visualising landscapes and imagining futurity.
Spaces, textures, noise, and percussive complexity suggest eerie evolutions of civilisation and nature which seem to hover just beyond human perception.
Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World by Timothy Morton (University of Minnesota Press, 2013)
Timothy Morton, a philosopher of ecology, writes about phenomena and objects that are distributed at such enormous scales, or such vast temporal dimensions, that they escape human comprehension.
Styrofoam, radioactive plutonium, cocaine, oil spills and the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic are all examples of what Morton calls “hyperobjects”.
The preeminent example of a hyperobject is global warming, a nonlinear, complex and evolving phenomena which nonetheless has one root cause: too many greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere, most of them put there by human activities.
Morton describes five characteristics of the hyperobject: viscous, molten, nonlocal, phased and interobjective.
Without overreaching for theoretical applications, we can appreciate that future mutations of climate change will be all-encompassing and bewildering.
Climate change becomes ever more incomprehensible but for the bright and violent cataclysms where it manifests locally. Devastating wildfires, desertification, frequent superstorms over the seas, coastal settlements reclaimed by tides, and so forth, are incontrovertible evidence of what novelist Octavia Butler has dubbed the “slow disaster”.
Vessel Naja Arctica near Nuuk, Greenland by Quintin Soloviev (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)
Like other extreme and peripheral environments caught in the climate disaster, Arctic regions will undergo massive transformation.
Ice turns to ocean as tundra is overtaken by forest. The great frozen wildernesses of the far north become tamed as shipping lanes for global trade, further fueling the death drive which is causing Earth to overheat.
If reversal of the planetary symptoms of the Anthropocene is no longer possible, and adaptation and resilience – and eventually, mere survival – are the new signs-of-the-times, then art like Rakka is a necessary societal palliative.
Immersed in headphones or home stereo, we limn the future wastelands of our own making before arriving there permanently.
Special thanks to the artiste, Sasu Ripatti/Vladislav Delay, for permission to use their songs and music video.
Cover Credit: Vladislav Delay
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Writer | Ryan Madson
Ryan Madson is a writer, urban planner, and professor of architecture at the Savannah College of Art & Design. He writes about art, cities and environments, and their intersections with futurity. His essays have been published in CLOT Magazine, Medium, Satellite, Strelka Mag, and as chapters in books published by the Harvard Graduate School of Design.