CHASING THE ODYSSEE by Tobias Fischer, 2011 (written for the 8xLP retrospective box-set on Tonefloat, The Netherlands).
“Chasing the Odysee“ – a typical Vidna Obmana title! Cinematic, evocatively physical, metaphorical, and, in an immediately recognizable way, full of memories, allusions, and innuendos extending beyond the superficial and banal. It may come as a surprise that an artist who has prominently excluded lyrics and vocals from his oeuvre bar a few (albeit notable) exceptions, should strive for such a high degree of precision in finding adequate names for his tracks and albums. On the other hand, defining, delineating and composing even nonmusical aspects in minute detail has been one of the characteristic trademarks of this project. Just as with Steve Roach, a close friend and collaborator, the worlds of sounds and objects are closely connected in the oeuvre of Vidna Obmana, which has grown from raw, unpolished tracks on horrifically hissing C60 tapes to beatifically balanced soundscapes in just under a quarter of a century. What a wonderful and inspiring journey it has been indeed.
Vidna Obmana was born as Dirk Serries in Belgium and despite continuous touring and traveling, he has remained loyal to the country for his entire life. Partly, the longevity of this relationship can be explained by his quest for personal stability to support his musical adventurousness, as well as a need for safety in the structures and personalities surrounding him: His wife Martine (an acclaimed photographer in her own right), his longstanding day job as an office clerk, whose hour-load he has continually reduced over the years as well as an invitingly quiet and comfortingly solitary house in the countryside just outside of Antwerp, offering “refuge from daily rituals” and “a place to enjoy the silence”.
And then, of course, there is a psychological trait of the Belgian national identity which Serries must feel closely attached to The issue of living in a country with many different languages, in effect turning every citizen into a translator, navigating between at least two different cultural circles almost all of the time. The music of Vidna Obmana has, vice versa, taken on interpretational duties between different genres, published by record companies specializing in anything from electronic music to Gothic Rock and Extreme Metal. If there is an apparent common denominator in all of them, it must be their unwithering passion for releasing great music regardless of marketing terminologies and stylistic vocabularies, and their unerring precision in recognizing clarity where others see nothing but confusion.
To be frank, then, and as much as Brian Eno was an influence on the Vidna Obmana sound in the second stage of his career, it was always going to be more than just Ambient. It was always meant to go beyond psychedelic drones or confounding noise collages. Even in the earliest days, with young Dirk hammering out tunes in his childhood room with nothing but a Korg MS20 and an unquenchable thirst for expressing himself, the music might have catered to the demands and standards of the Industrial scene, but inherently pushed towards something infinitely more intricate and deep. When listening to his “Drone/Noise Anthology”, a previously released collection of rarities and all but vanished or forgotten tracks dating back as far as 1984, one can clearly discern youthful aggression and the typically distorted shrieks and moanings. But at the same time,.the nascent emissions of a mature and much more epic script are becoming apparent.
If “Chasing the Odysee” therefore concentrates more on the Ambient and Sound Art side of Vidna Obmana, it does so with a lucid knowledge of its roots in a different musical territory as well as with the realization that no historian could ever determine a fully satisfactory border between where it started and ended: Full marks to those who can listen to tracks like “Mute Grief” and “In hollow embraced” (on LP1 of this set) or to “Before Mutual Grace” and “The first Coil” (on LP2) blindfolded and determine with an unwavering mind which was composed first. To anyone else, however, it will be hard to believe that there are, in fact, more than ten years separating either one of these pairings.
Rather than personifying popular favorites or aiming to create a chronological sense of order, the tracks collected on “Odysee” should be considered as placeholders, each one of them a snapshot of sonic pars pro toto. They represent “phases”, “directions” and “techniques” of Vidna Obmana’s career, conveying a rough impression of what Serries were specifically after at the time of their creation, while simultaneously indicating constants in his work. The fact that pieces have been mixed and combined into a seamlessly floating and interconnected new entity is not an attempt at DJing, but an open acknowledgment that each Vidna Obamana album references its predecessors in many surprising ways
And you can actually take that quite literally. As Serries has pointed out, he has always striven to include certain aspects of the previous record in the directly following one. While this should seem quite an obvious method in relation to his epic album cycles, the latest of which is represented here by two complete discs celebrating the “Dante” trilogy, it is by no means a trivial trait in terms of a dauntingly prolific discography. The dual task of relentlessly demanding unfaltering progress from himself and of creating entire soundworlds from scratch through new processes, set-ups, and timbres for each full-length has more than once led to writer’s blocks and – inevitably – temporary silence.
If the term “Ambient” is used at all in this context, it is done so with regards to its meaning of “atmospheric music”, the only term Serries has personally found adequate for his style, while admitting that the vagueness of the word renders it somewhat “meaningless”. Then again, a high atmospheric density is indeed a common feature of all pieces collected here, and the subtle, but incisive variations of this theme are what separates the various eras from each other.
“Collection”, comprising the two first LPs here, compiles album tracks spanning a total of twelve years, from the time Vidna Obmana started openly distancing himself from his Industrial past and began moving towards a more eclectically expressive mode. “In hollow embraced”, “Before Mutual Grace”, “Guarding Souls” and “Until the glowering Space” are among the very last tape pieces, produced and released shortly before the mass advent of the CD-R and whispering harbingers of change. The inner unrest of the noise years has made way for a spacious wideness and composed calm, resulting in pieces of great delicacy. In terms of arrangement and layering, however, these tracks are still highly minimalistic, driven by slowly moving chord progressions. It only adds to their naive charm and imposing intensity.
“Odysee” then moves on a full four years and towards an exposed track that perfectly summarises Vidna Obmana’s growth: “Charm Mystique” (originally from “Twilight of Perception”) is still a work of concise form and of regal elegance, but first signs of a more intricate buildup are beginning to show, with shifts in all the unexpected places and a drastically more panoramic sound architecture, finely nuanced rainmaker drifts cleverly woven into the texture of the music. While “Charm Mystique” offers a first glimpse at certain signature themes for the next phase, it would take another massive leap to finally carve out the distinct sound Vidna Obmana has become famous for.
That deciding moment in Serries’ biography is represented here by a full five tracks from two subsequent albums, “The River of Appearance” and “Crossing the Trail”. The former, released in 1995, hit the scene like a sweet bomb. Brian Eno’s and Harold Budd’s “The Pearl” was softly taken from its cathedral ambiance and placed inside the confinements of a lonely room. The result was plaintive and thrillingly lacrymose and moved with the grace of a deep and steady breath in slow motion. More importantly, though, it did away with the certainty, safety, and predictability of mechanical repetition once and for all, replacing simple looping techniques with frictional shifts in interwoven harmonic patterns. It was a concept that loosely harked back to Bach and reached out into different directions at the same time, resulting in Vidna Obmana’s unique position in between the chairs. As a previously unreleased live version of “A scenic Fall” proves, Serries was also increasingly able to transfer the minutiae of the album’s sound to the stage.
“Crossing the Trail”, meanwhile, continued the expansion by placing the same factors inside an essentially rhythm-driven context. Vortex-like drones and myriads of splintered effect particles were driven to ecstasy by the pulse of pounding tribal beats, possibly influenced by the budding and intensifying friendship with Steve Roach. Flute echoes haunt these delusional visions like a viral jungle infection, which Serries pushed forward with a steady hand. Just as in later works, grooves are never used in their typical function of steady propulsion, instead being awarded a textural function, an additional layer inside a dance of various, plurally connected elements.
After these landmark releases, the future seemed wide open. Vidna Obmana, once an insider tip on the Belgian underground, had turned into something of an international brand. Serries could either have simply repeated the golden formula, intensified his live presence or added subtle variations to his soundscapes. As it turned out, the next four years would instead be dominated almost exclusively by two ambitious, grand-scale projects – and their completion would coincide with the end of his brainchild.
The first of these projects, his “Dante Trilogy” can certainly be considered both a culmination of and a break with previous lines of development. Harmonic webs were growing in density, and rhythms were becoming gloomier and more insistent. The combination of Fujara flute atonality and majestic guitar chords brushed with a violin bow turned ever more organic and visceral. Future, past, and present of Vidna Obmana came together in a bewilderingly associative amalgam, the underlying distorted drum computer basses hinting at a reconciliation with his past in Industrial culture, the uninterrupted, steady flow of the music still binding it to his more peaceful Ambient releases.
“Tremor”, “Spore” and “Legacy” are not necessarily the logical (in the sense of unavoidable) result of a process that began with “The River of Disappearance”, but they are certainly consistent with this development. Serries found himself having to incessantly increase the inner complexity of his tracks and the number of voices running with and against each other to avoid the kind of repetition he so much despised of. The inclusion of rhythm at first offered relief, but this quickly proved to be a temporary respite only. The ambitiousness and uncompromising radicality of “The Dante Trilogy” were partly born from the struggle of an artist biting his nails to keep the journey going without once turning back. When I saw him perform live in 2003, for all of the concert’s physicality and intricately woven atmospherics, its irresistible tantric groove, and impressive conceptual magnitude, it was also a slightly cerebral affair. And I thought Dirk, concentrated to the point of a shamanic trance, constantly changing instruments and tweaking his sounds and arrangements, looked very lonely up there.
At first, therefore, the second big endeavor of the new millennium seemed even more promising in terms of carving out new directions for Vidna Obmana. In his “Opera for four fusion works”, he not only paid homage to American composer Morton Feldman but also used the latter’s convention-defying, mind-shatteringly beautiful scores as a muse for a string of releases, which could have represented a fresh point of departure. For these albums, which he worked on assiduously and with ardent energy, Serries extended the usual focus of his music to epic proportions, squeezing out the essence of a short idea in meticulous meditations of up to 24 minutes length. The composition of each record as a unique soundspace, as well as their mutual relatedness, turned this into a project which fully tested and testified to his talents.
The term “Opera” therefore seems completely apt and suitable, even though it obviously does not confirm with the usual, classically restricted dictionary definition. Rather, it references the idea of a work of universal meaning and strong integrational capacity. This is also why it includes a breathtaking diversity, ranging from the sensual guitar dream of “Echoes of Steel IV” to the apocalyptic cyber-fanfare “Phrasing the Air VI”, from the delicate spectral sighs of “Reflections on Scale” (featuring declared Morton Feldman fan Kenneth Kirschner) and the serene purity of “The Bowing Harmony”, which featured Steven Wilson and, again, Kirschner.
Acclaim from critics and fans alike proved that the concept was anything but a brain-heavy Avantgarde experiment for freaks. Its completion must also have satisfied Serries and his constant creed of creating more than just chilled-out Ambient to soothe stressed-out manager nerves. And yet, the individual acts of these “Fusion Works” were so utterly refined to the max, so occupied with every single brush stroke that they had the appearance of musical pointillism. Continuing down this road would have meant more abstraction, more seclusion, yet greater lengths, and even grander scales. And, simply put, that was not what Serries wanted.
The departure of Vidna Obmana is therefore not the bitter consequence of arriving at a dead end. Rather, it has everything to do with personal preferences. You can already hear the first signs of Fear Falls Burning approaching in the meandering guitar lines of the “Dante Trilogy” or the delayed echoes of “The Bowed Harmony”. In fact, the guitar had long been gaining in importance for Vidna Obmana and so had the longing for a more spontaneous stage act allowing for plenty of improvising at the moment. After deliberating and considering all options, he decided that he would rather have Vidna Obmana explode in a big bang of untamed distortion frenzy and menacing drone furor than to have it cool down in a chamber musical act of sculpting every muscle and facial feature of his elements to the point of mannerism.
Of course, as Fear Falls Burning keeps selling out ever bigger halls, it seems increasingly unlikely that Vidna Obmana will ever return with new material. On the other hand, Serries has not placed his baby on hold without shedding a tear, let alone lovelessly discarded and disposed of it. Just like there were traces of Fear Falls Burning in the last Vidna Obmana albums, the legacy of Vidna Obmana still lives on as a stemcell inside the booming amplifiers of Serries park of electric guitars – as can be witnessed in the more atmospheric pieces of albums like “He spoke in Dead Tongues” and “Frenzy of the Absolute”. And just like his Fear Falls Burning persona has emphasized the importance of packaging and marked a return to old vices, this staggering box set reinforces Vidna Obmana’s ties to the world of material objects by presenting the music on carefully pressed heavyweight Vinyl discs. Listening to all of them from beginning to end will take you on a personal journey, which, despite its occasional twists and turns, is devoid of stereotypical cliches and mythical transfigurations. “Chasing the Odysee” is not just a collector’s item. Cinematic, evocatively physical, and full of memories, it is a perfect representation of everything that Vidna Obmana has stood for over the last 23 years.”