Af Ursin – Trips to the Other Side

About five or six years ago, I picked up Aura Legato by Af Ursin, initially hooked by its creepy, funereal cover art. Since then I’ve found myself drawn back to it repeatedly by its – not surprisingly – chilling, otherworldly music.

There’s a steady conjuring feeling running through the album, with tracks composed of subtle layers of treated analogue instrumentation that start quietly and build slowly to sustained frenzies that gently subside. I remember being struck by the homemade feeling of it, the deceptive lack of slickness to the production, and how powerful that was in contributing to its unheimlich atmosphere. Aura Legato felt like a remnant retrieved from the attic of an abandoned house, a morbid antique, something deeply personal, not meant for the rest of the world to hear. Listening to it – and I did, over and over – was like listening to a musical grimoire.

Now, thanks to some recent-ish re-issues, I’m finding my way through more of the eerie, ethereal worlds of Af Ursin, aka Timo van Luijk, founder of the Belgian label La Scie Dorée.

On the surface, there’s nothing wildly disparate about these albums. They blend together in one’s memory, existing as components of some larger, brooding, crepuscular mood. But time spent with each release illuminates the differences.

While the entirety of Aika – Un Réveil Sidérant dans le Passé Décomposé is suspended in the manufactured-in-the-present, crackling surface noise of “old” vinyl, the album (first released in 2008) creates and sustains something enveloping, looming, and convincingly antiquated. It’s as if what you’re listening to is a séance from a century ago that was somehow captured and preserved.

The opening track, “Esclarmonde,” taken from the opera of the same name by Jules Massenet, is a solemn, lonely invocation for keys. The timpani on the second piece, “Marche Arrière,” calls to mind early In The Nursery recordings, but that comparison ends with the track’s halting, rusty strings and its call-and-response between a piano and some dusty woodwinds. “Sortilège,” with its distorted, disembodied operatic voices that sound both passionate and tortured, is a highlight. Van Luijk stretches the space of this track out and fills the gaps between the voices with glancing electronic blips and flutters and streaks that build to a manic crescendo before everything suddenly cuts to black, leaving the listener alone in a darkened field. Out of this emptiness comes “Ombre Oubliée,” the forgotten shadow, a cypher dressed in rain, accompanied by a sad melody on an old piano. The album closes with “Un Réveil,” in which the voices heard in “Sortilège” return, only to vaporize in a chill emptiness. The timpani return but sound more muffled, with less thunder. A piano strikes an occasional chord but it floats in ether, bereft of meaning. Suddenly a cymbal crash shreds the dream. Out of the attendant void, a procession is heard, a roaming spectral orchestra of gently rising horns that grows louder as it approaches, punctuated by widely spaced bursts of drums and cymbals. As the ensemble nears, without exactly arriving, the listener is slowly, perhaps unwillingly, brought back to a troubled consciousness before being gently but distinctly abandoned to reality.

Being back in reality, I think it’s worth mentioning that, piano aside on “Ombre Oubliée,” all of the instruments on Aika and the other albums here are played by van Luijk himself. There’s a consistency to the music he creates that I imagine he’s the only one capable of producing.

Originally released in 2012 and recently re-issued this year, Trois Mémoires Discrètes has none of the haunted atmosphere of Aika despite the bleak cover art and van Luijk’s dedication of the album to the memory of a substantial number of people.

What is clear, however, from the plaintive, searching notes of the opening track to the warm, glowing, sustained notes of the final one, is that van Luijk is a master of his craft. “Sylphide” unfurls itself across seventeen minutes in evenly spaced, lamenting, breathy banners of sound cast off from English horns, buttressed by mossy fills from a Hammond organ. There’s a sourness to the music here at times, the sound of instruments that are out of tune or simply not in harmony, but it seems to me that van Luijk is pursuing a feeling, one of loss and mourning, rather than musical perfection. He captures it completely. If you can abide by the idea that this album roughly follows stages of grief, then the next track, “Taciturne,” seems to delve into some of the hurt and confusion that can follow loss. A bleak wind gusts through this track and is echoed in the searching flute that follows it. Van Luijk’s steady bowing on double bass produces a deep growling sound as if some sort of predator were lurking just outside the field of perception. Deeper into the track we hear the sharp crack of a stick breaking, a scuffling of leaves, and the small metallic clink of what sounds like keys – but no door is opened. Instead, the track fades with the distant sound of a slamming gate. The effect is appropriately unnerving. Comfort of a sort can be found in the closing track, “Elegy.” This is a rarity among van Luijk’s music in that it’s imbued with a genuine feeling of peacefulness, a sense of a mind and heart at rest, expressed in a simple organ melody extended over a serene sustained chord. It’s a beautiful, moving finish to an album about the end of everything.

Thomas Sackville, poet and Earl of Dorset, referred to sleep in his poem of the same name as “… the cousin of death.” The original cover of De Overkant, van Luijk’s album from 2014 depicts van Luijk fast asleep and fading into the background.

De Overkant finds van Luijk working with comparatively shorter tracks, but even within these shortened ranges, he manages to get straight to the core of his visions. Highlights would have to include the crisply plucked strings, blushing keyboard washes, and rusty swinging hinges of “De Tweede Persoon,” a title that conjures up to my non-Dutch-speaking mind a kind of hidebound academic but which really means “second person.” Throbbing, wondering organs and crystalline dulcimer strikes sound as evocative as the fabulously titled “Oogsprong,” while the whispering crickets and asthmatic organ groans of “Witte Schemer” take me to a wholly singular place. Things take a surprising turn on “Schijngestalten,” where van Luijk clears a space for an array of percussion instruments. The dreamy, gauzy scrims he usually creates are replaced by the bright punctuation of claves, the call to attention of bells and triangles, and a strange plunging sound that hits like a drum but vibrates like a theremin. It’s music that wouldn’t sound out of place in an early Kurosawa film. All told, the entire album is fantastic and, like all the others here, well worth checking out.

On a brief side note, van Luijk is quite prolific, particularly in his collaborations. Check his work as Elodie with Andrew Chalk, his album Vang Circular with Mark Harwood, his work with Frederik Croene, or some of the music he’s made with Kris Vanderstraeten.

All of which brings us to 2016’s Itinera.

Where the other recordings that make up the Af Ursin oeuvre are played primarily on acoustic instruments with the occasional electric organ and the odd studio tweak, Itinera is van Luijk’s first entirely electronic album. The distinction is telling. The atmosphere of the album feels chillier without the texture and friction of analogue instruments to provide a bit of heat, but titles like “Altitude 111” and “Cepheïde” and “Axis Cosmo” indicate a gesture toward things celestial. Van Luijk himself describes the album as:

“An imaginary one way trip through microcosmic oscillations in seven macrosonic constellations. The space of sound versus the sound of space.”

While Itinera is clearly of a piece with the Af Ursin catalogue, the tracks put me in mind more often than not of speculative soundtracks to science fiction films from the 1950s – without any of the deadening kitsch. “Cepheïde” throbs and sways, kicking up diaphanous waves of queasy-making cosmic dust while “Radiation” is an overwhelming, granulated blizzard of sonic crystals tearing across a lunar landscape. And where “Axis Cosmo” radiates towering dry ice spikes that bloom and flirt with stinging feedback, “Turbulence” casts you out into deepest space before disintegrating you in roving, thousand-mile-high curtains from the aurora borealis. And though I imagine he had something else entirely in mind, Sun Ra’s “Space Loneliness” strikes me as the perfect title for the gorgeous opening and closing tracks, “Altitude 111” and “Meta Libre.” Itinera is a step forward for van Luijk, and like the other albums mentioned here, it’s gripping from start to finish.