Substrata is often described as “Arctic ambient.” Though this perception is no doubt colored by Biosphere mastermind Geir Jenssen’s passion for mountaineering and his northern Norway home, it’s an apt description. Jenssen’s heavy use of reverb and echo, particularly on the guitar that pops up throughout the album, creates the illusion of being in a vast space–an ice plain, perhaps, or a mountainous valley. But again, this reference point is slippery. Nearly half of the tracks here are named after plants, and the album’s last third feels more underwater than anything else.
Brian Eno stipulated that ambient music must be as “ignorable as it is interesting.” Substrata is not ignorable. You’d be hard-pressed to find an ambient album this interesting, that crams as many experiments and styles into a flowing piece of work and pulls all of them off so successfully. The more challenging pieces are often just as beautiful as the calmer ones. Much of this owes to Jenssen’s melodic gift; he doesn’t rely on drones to evoke beauty as much as chord progressions and even simple riffs.
This is one of the best sounding ambient albums. Jenssen uses every nook and cranny of the stereo field, and hearing the sounds on “Poa Alpina” slosh from left to right is blissful on headphones. But this isn’t just a headphone album; it’s thick and bass-heavy enough to translate equally well through room speakers. Though you won’t get as much out of it through laptop or phone speakers
Not long before Substrata, Jenssen had been making the sort of Orb-indebted ambient techno that was in no shortage in the ’90s. Shedding rhythm in favor of pure texture is such a common career trajectory for techno producers it’s almost a cliché. But few abandon their old style as thoroughly as Jenssen did for Substrata. Fewer yet come up with something this unique, rule-breaking, and fascinating, let alone one that covers this much ground.