Review: Ian Nyquist – Black Earth Cairn

This review was commissioned. However, it bears no weight on the score or decision. All reviews are written from an unbiased standpoint. 

I’ve a huge love / hate relationship with dark ambient, sountrack inspired music. On the rare occasion that it works and works well, I find myself deeply enamored in the artist’s work, hypnotized by the world they have formed through experimental sounds and synths. On the flip side, there are so many borderline bedroom projects who think that pitch shifting one or two synths for ten minutes in a row counts as creativity. Well, it does not, and anyone who tries to get away with that garbage shouldn’t be producing music in the first place. Composer and producer Ian Nyquist, thus polarizes me as his work on “BLACK EARTH CAIRN” is not necessarily a mixture of both, but it is like a double album that should not have been a double album. While songs ‘I’ through ‘V’ sound as if they belong to one composition, ‘VI’ to ‘XII’ sound as if they belong to another. And while I generally appreciated the efforts in the first half of the album, the second half fails to impress.  

I will not be diving into every single track on the album but I will be committing myself to the highs and the lows I’ve uncovered throughout “BLACK EARTH CAIRN”. This starts with the third track, simply titled “III”. At first, nothingness; a slow ride. A build-up of gritty percussion that opens into a solemn outlook around the thirty-second mark thanks to some well-placed strings. Industrial machinations sound out with noisy textures and rattling bits. The climax is an eerie culmination of horrid guitar strings and other such nonsensical sounds that don’t sound so horrid or nonsensical when put to good use – such as this. 

‘IV’ is another excellent ballad, giving us glimpses of electronic noise that cuts in and out in the beginning. This is generally how the song plays out, adding in more and more texture work, cuts, and somewhat glitchy tones before ending. Like an alarm in a hidden base or underground facility. It gives an ominous presence and works well. ‘V’ also deserves mention for its cinematic approach. Quite a creative track beginning with ambiance, slowly working its way to experimental with flashes of guttural synths – as if something’s stalking you. Then it goes right into a sci-fi riddled beat around the three-and-a-half-minute mark which I absolutely adored. 

Then the album starts to go downhill. 

The bad starts with ‘VI’. The first minute is practically nothingness; low rumbling bassline echoed from the pluck of a guitar string, and some violin notes here and there. But this continues for almost two-minutes straight. Even at the end of that two-minutes, there is but the sound of what sounds like a neighbor with a lawn mower off in the distance. The rest of the song is as boring as the start; the lawn mower sound continues through the rest of the track and everything that Nyquist adds in just isn’t that grand.  I feel as if this song is followed up by a block of experimental violin noises that are quite pale in comparison to what Nyquist did on the rest of “BLACK EARTH CAIRN”. Starts with ‘VI’ and continues through ‘VIII’. While some of these experimental sounds make their way into ‘IX’, Nyquist utilizes them in an art form and plunges back into industrial ruins and clever manipulation. 

I also wasn’t a huge fan of ‘XII’. Remember earlier in my intro paragraph when I talked about ambient producers who play with one synth line throughout the song and just kind of pitch it around a bit? This is how I feel about this track. That, combined with the previously mentioned lawn mower sounds, is what this song sounds like. Nyquist does play with his voice in the song and it’s not bad, but layered on top of what is otherwise a bland and boring sound (and, by this point, rather repetitive) it’s not interesting either. 

Closing comments. Nyquist shows a lot of creativity in the first half of the album; each song seems to be lovingly crafted and has its own thing going on. None of these tracks are boring or repetitive, and if songs ‘I’ through ‘V’ were released on their own then I would have likely given this album at least a 7 or higher. But, with the lackluster and, quite frankly, repetitive second half, the score shoots down. It’s not bad production, and sounds crisp, but utilizing the same or at least similar sounds for each song weighs me down and makes me yearn for the other half of Nyquist I experienced. 

Jun 24 2023

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