Album review: Tomas Nordmark – ‘Exit Ghosts’: electronic landscapes that move from the amniotic to the apocalyptic

The Breakdown

Tomas's Exit Ghosts broadly explores the country that lies between the womb musics of the modern drone on the one compass point, and the more thrilling, experimental sound decay world on the other; and it's how he wends his path that gives this album its potency. A sorcerer of the musics of the nocturne, he's happy to thrust into the shadows and pull out what he finds there. "Nights" is certainly one of the most beautifully terrifying pieces you'll have heard since Ravedeath 1972 dropped. Sometimes it is just beautiful, and that's absolutely valid; when Tomas allows his amassed aural weaponry to scour, though; that's where this album touches immense.

LIVING these days in London, but hailing originally from the small Swedish coastal town of Västervik, some 280km further down the coast from Stockholm, Tomas Nordmark is a electronica producer and soundscaper with a very complex and organic musical vision.

His interest in the sonic avant-garde was brooked by the 1960s’ art scene in New York – the conceptual approach not just of the community centred on Warhol’s The Factory and the Velvets, natch; but also Yoko Ono, Jasper Johns, even John Cage, et al.

At university in Linköping he studied in the Department of Social Change and Culture, which gave him a more holistic, interdisciplinary feel for where his own creativity was heading and he began in multimedia collaboration, producing works for opera, public installations, short films, plays and exhibitions.

It was actually Valley of Search that opened the door to his first full release, Eternal Search: from 2019, garnering catalogue no. 002 in that label’s catalogue. That eight-track album contained such sweeping, fizzing, by turns beguiling and unsettling delights as “Words” and “Eternal”, seeming to exist in a more open, oxygenated milieu akin to Tim Hecker at times. But those formative concepts remain like a bedrock, underpinning his work.

Now he returns, again for Valley of Search, with Exit Ghosts. While retaining a sonic kinsmanship to Eternal Search, this new work is informed both by the history of film scores and by the writings of sadly missed cultural theorist Mark Fisher, the k-punk writer who brought original insight into music, art and living itself in a late-stage capitalist world; and particularly his writings on lost futures, closing off as society lurches one way and another, glimpsed, but never attainable.

“I believe there are certain things in our society that hinder pop culture from progressing into the future,” he says; “I thought to myself, ‘If I’m going to make music, I want it to be in response to these writings’.

“I wanted to see if I could make something that felt totally new, and by using a strict process, I was able to disconnect myself from the work in a curious way.”

Exit Ghosts thus seeks to build upon the structures and strictures of the first record and take them somewhere new. There’s a constant shift and interplay along the axis from the outright beautiful to the cloudier, the grainier, the sterner.

“I wanted to be very deliberate in my approach,” Tomas explains. “I made a few decisions to strictly limit my technical palette, such as using only one synth.

“I wanted to mirror the process-based work introduced by minimalist composers, but to elaborate and update it. I’ve been working on this process since Eternal Words, and Exit Ghosts is in conversation with that album.” 

Work began in London just as the period surely to be afforded capitalisation by history began: that of Lockdown One. Tomas began with a palette informed by Nordic folk and choral melodic tradition, fragmenting them and layering them into new patterns far removed from their original flows. This initial processing has a strict conceptual basis for Tomas that he calls hyper-anachronism. But from there, its more a process of the heart and intuition; he lets the flow of the recombinant music then begin to guide the composition.

“My system partly begins with math, but it becomes emotional. It twists, and the structure ends in a different place than it began. That’s why I find creation so thrilling,” he says.

So far, so good – but how does it sound, what does it evoke?

Tomas Nordmark, photographed by Martin Croser

Exit Ghosts is partly influenced by the history of film scores and the aesthetics carried by that tradition. As an instrumental album, Nordmark is tasked with conjuring emotions without words, and the way he utilizes specific cues mirrors the process of film scores, in addition to the work of seminal composers such as Tim Hecker, Arthur Russell, and Jóhann Jóhannsson.

Through Tomas’ looking glass, we enter through “Exit”, in which cinematic sweeps of melody and counter-melody of a quintessentially Nordic, chill beauty swell and are immediately fractured by the hoar frost of textural, interjecting beats, used deftly and occasionally. This is music of awe, of the wonder and smallness of each of us in the face of the infinite; it demands glaciers, dormant volcanoes, the frisible pale greens of ice floes. It’s beautiful and somehow seemingly much, much bigger than human in scale.

“Ghosts” is the only track on the album on which Tomas collaborates, and we’ve embedded this erstwhile single for you. It’s the ethereal South London sisters Waterbaby, the avant-garde vocal entwining of Martha and Jessica Kilpatrick, who bring an eerie breathiness to the track, Cocteau Twins meet Grouper and even 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” adrift in some surreal amniotic space of sibilance and shadowy, grainy percussive texture; rotating slowly in an ink-black, oxygenated milieu akin at times to Tim Hecker, at times to something you feel might have soundtracked the holding and harvesting chamber scenes from Under The Skin.

Soothing, open, often unsettling, Tomas says of the track: “There are an abundance of stories embedded within the processed electronics of ‘Ghosts’, like the haunting requiem vocal line translated and taken from the opening chapter of Swedish novelist Mare Kandre’s neo-gothic novel Bestiarium and sung by South London artpop duo Waterbaby over a deconstructed Wagner’s “Tristan chord” slowly falling apart.

“I’m hugely inspired by the British theorist Mark Fisher’s The Weird And The Eerie and I think ‘Ghosts’ is the closest I’ve come of making a piece in response to the text.”

“Dreaming” ushers us ever deeper into Tomas’ vision, and if we pursue the intertextual angle he’s cited above then for a me there’s a correspondence for sure with Dorothea Tanning’s 1943 painting “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”; a nocturne in which both the surreal and the hyperreal float into our world and intermingle. The opening tones have a seafarer’s sadness, morphing slowly into a steelier edge – pretty, of course, but run your finger along that melody and it will pearl crimson. It opens – melts? into an expansive and affecting, gelid melody, components bumping and abrading but never less than working together; and then it seems to fold back in on itself and reverse-flow, darker greys of bass pulling us towards the scour and distorted breathlessness of a Thomas Köner or a Tim Hecker. And it falls into absolute nothingness, that sudden subtraction and void just as revealing about how deeply we’ve been seduced by sound just moments before. It reprises in a slightly less grandiose second movement, an enthralling and gentler cushioning – you’re aware of how high and low Tomas can swing you in the soundscape, now.

“Spirit” crackles like a power current arcing and creaks like ship’s timber, the percussive texture here given centre stage to do as it will; various cross-currents of sound induce an uneasy and yet aesthetically pretty supplication: this sound is bigger than you are, frankly. It gradually begins to resolve into a wheezy, grainy and singing drone, a tone seeming to escape at incredible pressure valved off to reduce tensions within the superstructure of the piece. There’s points where I swear you can hear massed bells ringing, and even I know that’s some illusory quality of the music.

“Aftertime” releases us into a airier place, slow post-rock strings and things scudding through the graceful shadowplay. All glitch and crackle is here shorn away, leaving a slow diminuendo of real elegance. “Nights”, by contrast. is a symphony of slow introspection for synths and a rolling, prismatic beat that at times feels militaristic, but which is scorched to dust by a towering shriek of sound that pans across and detonates like an atomic-era public information film, leaving new growth of chime and hiss to shimmer and lick in its wake. If there were to be an apocalypse, you might select this track when the four-minute warning heralds its imminence; it seems to embody the surge and the doom and the adrenalin in a way that many industrial and noise outfits couldn’t hold a candle to.

“Becoming” again finds us in the slow arrest of sustain and drone, releasing to an aqueous ambience of much beauty. It pulses, laps, with human synth voicings; some sea cave near the Arctic Circle, perhaps. The last track of the eight is, perhaps fittingly, the most spacious, even dubby of the whole set: “Outsides” is happy to play with a strong Kranky palette, the tearful majesty of Stars of the Lid or the like, fizzing with static at the edges, swirling and diving; a fully amped modern compositional sweep, delightful in resolution.

Tomas’s Exit Ghosts broadly explores the country that lies between the womb musics of the modern drone on the one compass point, and the more thrilling, experimental sound decay world on the other; and it’s how he wends his path that gives this album its potency.

It always has real power, not just emotional, but like the hum of pylons; it often has edge, a furnace-forged, strong edge, even when playing with beauty in what you might think are more standard post-rock and leftfield electronica textures. It has a grandeur and a thrilling instability; like clouds over contours, the beauty is in the fleeting collision of harmonies and textures which are so very bold.

A sorcerer of the musics of the nocturne, he’s happy to thrust into the shadows and pull out what he finds there. “Nights” is certainly one of the most beautifully terrifying pieces you’ll have heard since Ravedeath 1972 dropped. Sometimes it is just beautiful, and that’s absolutely valid; when Tomas allows his amassed aural weaponry to scour, though; that’s where this album touches immense.

Tomas Nordmark’s Exit Ghosts will be released by Valley of Search digitally and on trad black and midnight shadows vinyl on May 14th; there’s also an option to bundle it with Tomas’ previous LP, Eternal Words, which seems a rather good idea. You can order your copy here.

Follow Tomas on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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