Saturday, October 22, 2016

Snowbeasts: Polar Predators

Since 2014, Dark Ambient/Electronic Industrial act Snowbeasts (comprised of Robert Galbraith & Elizabeth Virosa) have been hell-bent on creating Arctic soundscapes for their namesakes to roam.

Their debut record caught the attention of French Electronic label M-Tronic Records and that year were invited to appear on the label’s 10th anniversary compilation

5 Releases later, the Rhode Island based duo returned to M-Tronic last September with album
‘+ -’ which you can listen to below and read my thoughts on after this interview. 

I met up with Rob and Elizabeth to discuss their beginnings, the new album, and find out what the beasts are on the hunt for next...

DMD: First of all, how did you come up with the name Snowbeasts?

Elizabeth: Rob came up with the name. We had a particularly rough and long winter. I think that is why he chose the name since we felt like Snowbeasts.

DMD: How did you both meet?

Elizabeth: We met through a mutual friend in NYC. I was trying to get back into sound art or music at the time and heard that Rob had put a studio together and was looking to collaborate with other musicians.

DMD: What did you work on together musically before Snowbeasts?

Rob: Our other project, Pattern Behavior, pre-dates Snowbeasts by about a year and a half or so.  We have four EPs and a full length out under that name. We will be doing more under that name in the upcoming year. We also record under the name Mon(o)taur  with our friend David Dodson which was started around the same time. Before that I was doing stuff under the names Logiq (with Matt Crofoot of Informatik), Codec, & Raab Codec.

DMD: Snowbeasts began in 2014, how much has changed these past 2 years?

Rob: A ton has changed for us both personally and musically since 2014. It started out as a solo project with a focus on using modular synths to create soundscapes. Over the last couple of years we have added and developed more percussive elements and also use Elizabeth’s processed vocals more prominently. We have also been starting to play more live shows.

DMD: For both of you, what records had a big effect on you throughout your childhood and teens?

Rob: For me, my musical discovery took place around the time I was 15 or so. The Cure's Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss, New Order's Substance, and Depeche Mode's Music for the Masse & Violator all were in heavy rotation. My tastes shifted a bit more industrial as I discovered college radio.

Elizabeth: I listened to whatever records or albums my older brothers were listening to when I was a child, mostly classic rock or whatever was on MTV. Suburban 80’s music. I started going to local shows in Boston when I was around 16. First punk or hardcore shows at places like the Rat, then raves and later in college I discovered more industrial music. I was really into NIN the downward spiral as a teen. I think that was my gateway album into discovering more electronic and experimental music. That and I ended up taking sound art classes while in college.

Snowbeasts live at the Park Church Co-op,
Photo credit: Stella Perish

DMD: Tell me about Component Recordings, are there any exciting new releases coming out this year?

Rob: I started Component in 1999 as a vehicle for putting out my own music. It is something that ballooned very fast after putting together the Integral Components comp.  In Component’s original run I put out music by Mochipet, Dryft, Proem, Xyn, Somatic Responses and a bunch more.  I ended up closing down the first incarnation of the label in 2005 due to changes in the industry and associated financial issues. 

After taking a very long break, I decided to bring things back in 2013 and have built up a new roster over the last few years. We have a core group of great artists who are continually sending me new tracks to put out: Witch Eyes, Alpturer, Cathode Ray Tube, Maduro, Solypsis, & Production Unit Xero. The next couple releases from Component are going to be Cathode Ray Tube's 'Famous Monsters & Solypsis's "Smoke Signals".

DMD: What is the electronic/ambient live scene like in Rhode Island?

Elizabeth: I enjoy the scene here. Providence is kind of more known for its noise and metal scene but it has a good mix of other genres and artists. Some shows will mix genres together but it somehow works. There are a fair amount of spaces to play at for a smaller city. There is almost always something happening.

DMD: What is your live and recording setup?

Rob: We approach live and studio with different mindsets. In the studio, everything from the modular, any external instruments and Elizabeth's voice all get recorded into Ableton and are pretty heavily synced up. Our live setup is pretty organic and improvisational. 
We typically start with a few basic sequences on the modular and then build up a bunch of layers from there. Along with my modular, Elizabeth has a pedal board with a pitch shifter, looper and reverb for her vocal stuff. We try to do something a bit different each time with the live stuff and keep it interesting.

DMD: Apart from music, what else inspires you both to create? 

Rob: For me, I take a lot of inspiration from film. I am a huge horror & sci-fi fan especially of stuff from the late 60’s to early 80’s.  Nature also is a big influence as well as emotions.

Elizabeth: Generally the news, emotions, nature, the city and sometimes visual art.

DMD: Who are your favourite artists on M-tronic?

Rob: Mlada Fronta is really awesome! I also really dig the the new albums from Kuta and Mnemonic.

DMD: Do you have any plans to add lyrics to Elizabeth’s singing or will they remain vocalised?

Elizabeth: We go back and forth on that. We tend to have the vocals in Pattern Behavior be more distinct. But in general we are more interested in capturing a mood or atmosphere than telling a story.

DMD: Is there a meaning behind the album title (+ -)?

Rob: + - is about duality. It is about the struggle that we all have inside of us between positive instincts and self defeating behaviours.  From a musical standpoint, it is a contrast between the beautiful and the harsh.

DMD: How would you both compare the new album to the Snowbeasts’ back catalogue?     
Rob: I would say it is a progression from what we were doing on our last album Instincts. We wanted to explore the directions we laid out on that album and push them out further. I would say that if you compared it to our debut or Ice & Shadow they would seem like quite a departure but if you listen to all the albums back to back a path can be found.

DMD: You guys used a de-tuned Autoharp on the track ‘Midnight’  did you use any other new instruments too? 

Rob: Other than the autoharp we used an EBow on Elizabeth's guitar for some of the textures on 'Tangled Wires'. For this release, our primary instrument was an Elektron Analog Keys. We just picked this up while we were starting the new album and it is all over it. 
My modular rig took a bit of a backseat on + - but we did use a ton of the Basilimus Iteratus from Noise Engineering for the drum sounds.

DMD: Any plans for CD and Vinyl releases in the future?

Rob: There is some talk about that but nothing set in stone.  Right now we are just focusing our energies on writing music and performing.  We would both love to see a Snowbeasts release on Vinyl in the future but in the meantime digital allows us the freedom to do what we want.

DMD: When you guys aren’t writing music or performing how do you spend your time?

Elizabeth: Aside from working as a software developer, I try to travel as much as I can, go to shows and play with our cats. 

Rob: I work full time as an engineer and that takes up a good portion of my waking hours. What is left after that and working on music goes in to running the label, going to shows and watching movies.

DMD: What does the rest of 2016 hold for Snowbeasts?

Elizabeth: We have some remixes planned for a few artists, a collaboration track with Displacer to complete, and possibly some live shows coming up.

DMD: Anybody you want to give a shout out to?

Rob: M-Tronic for releasing + -, everyone who supported the Component releases, DJ Deftly D for his support over the years and all the artists who we have played with and have remixed our music.

My thoughts on + -

First track ‘Disruption’ pauses to take in the view of the vast icy landscape that is ‘+ -.’ Sinister looped strings riding distorted beats with snare cracks resembling falling chunks of ice smashing on the ground set the tone. Elizabeth’s unearthly voice seems to stretch out to the horizon of this imaginary cold world.

‘Phantom Limb’ is a bit more Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross flavoured, a thickened clicky drum pulse, an oozing bass line and a trembling synth pattern all help bring out the sci-fi/horror vibe too.
Third track ‘Secrets’ picks up the pace and threatens to kick into full on dance club tempo but instead pulls back, filling the space with metallic bounces and chants that resemble some kind of esoteric ritual. 

Meanwhile during the more cautionary tones of ‘Bridges to Nowhere’ night has fallen and the beautiful sub-zero scenery now becomes a less inviting place, which leads into my favourite track ‘Midnight.’ 

This is where the eerie-ness on the record reaches fever pitch, a heavy echoing percussive effect kicks the track off and the more distorted beats return this time with cymbal crashes sound off like gun-fire. In between all this lurks a scraping sound interchanged with ghostly tapping.

On the shortest track ‘Empathy Gap’ things get a little more chilled out rather than spine-chilling, Elizabeth’s powerful voice illuminates the glacial earth like the rising sun but it doesn't stay positive for long, and transforms into a sonic breeze that hints of more malevolence to come.

The marching beat and driving feel of ‘The Sky Cracks Open’ replicate an animal colony traversing through dangerous predator ridden territory, while ‘Tangled Wires’ features metallic synths married with guitar drones that evolve into a keyboard melody that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Porcupine Tree record.

Ending track ‘Selfless’ made me envision someone slowly climbing a snow covered mountain, creeping synths build as they get higher and the air thins, a stacked vocal ostinato and locked synth pattern signify them stopping to admire the view before the track fades out. 

In conclusion, the 6th Snowbeasts record delivers a numbing shot of cold energy that will have you reaching for the thermostat, the duo sound 100% focused on grabbing the listener and taking them to another dimension, leaving them wanting to re-experience that journey again and again.

It also helps that this time round they haven’t over indulged on track lengths (‘Selfless’ being the album’s longest at 6:20). ‘+ -’ is a record that I would recommend to anyone from the Witch House crowd, Industrial listeners and fans of the darker side of Ambient/Electronic music. 

Wrap up warm folks, because Snowbeasts are here to stay.


Photo credit: mind on photography

You can also listen to a Snowbeasts ‘best of’ release assembled by the duo here

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