Review: Richard Knox + Frédéric D. Oberland – The Rustle of the Stars

Whereas countless other string-centric ambient artists tend to soundtrack the ungraspable extents of outer space (Stars of the Lid, Christina Vantzou), Knox and Oberland join the likes of Richard Skelton in having a stronger affiliation (from my perspective as listener) with the earth – in particular, the way in which mood can be mirrored through landscape. The album is intended to represent a voyage from one of the earth’s poles to the other via the arctic sea, with the “rustle of the stars” referring to the process by which ice micro-crystals collide on contact with the warm draught of human breath. Just as this process makes an invisible impact on vast, untouched expanses across the arctic sea and the arctic itself – breathing organic activity into stagnant air – the album plants rich pools of human emotion inside its bitter and unforgiving soundscapes.

Initially, the album swells with the optimism of “Sleeping Land (part 1)”, glowing with the excitement of the journey to follow – simple string harmonies coax in soft vocal swirls and the rather soothing crackles of communication radios, with its overly angelic atmosphere implying a sort of delusional utopian expectation of what lies ahead. This is promptly blustered aside by the incredibly sombre sound that takes over from here on in. Violins weep in minor key, meandering in groans of rise and fall, as the album’s central protagonists begin to fall victim to their harsh and psychologically wearing surroundings. In the case of “The Wreck of Hope”, melody becomes warped and urgent as conditions turn hostile: a clear instance of the wonder of the journey becoming overcast by the primitive concern of survival.

A couple of criticisms though: the heavy plonk of piano doesn’t always compliment as much as it would like to, while the weight of melancholy present in the album’s minor key melodies sometimes stumbles into the excessive (particularly during the album’s mid-section). But this is good stuff in all, and exudes an impressive degree of clarity for a first-time collaborative effort.