An ambient album that grabs your attention is indeed a paradox, and Substrata does not fade into the background. Most of its tracks are brief, and its longer tracks are usually punctuated by an intrusive vocal sample or field recording. “Kobresia” is the most relaxing thing here, but even that is soon interrupted by the crisp voice of Russian psychic Karl Nikolaev. His voice is deep and soothing, but it’s hard not to notice, and it’s sure to wake up more than a few sleeping listeners.
Most ambient albums create a mood and settle on it. By contrast, Substrata ping-pongs from one emotional pole to another. It kicks off menacingly, with the eerie emptiness of “As the Sun Kissed the Horizon” and “Poa Alpina” leading into the noisy “Chukhung,” named after a Nepalese village, but also an onomatopoeic representation of the song’s clanging texture. This leads into a mellower middle before the album concludes with a series of deep, cavernous tracks that edge into dark ambient territory.
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 speaker.