As a young man involved in Dungeons & Dragons, I once astonished friends by admitting that I’d never read The Hobbit. “How can you play D&D if you’ve never read The Hobbit?” they said. I had the same feeling when David Arkenstone’s Beneath A Darkening Sky showed up at my door. I listen to and review a lot of New Age music, but I’ve never really dug into Arkenstone’s work. How? He’s a pretty vital genre name. To some degree, it’s a partially blind bias I’ve had that placed him within the “puffy shirt” category of New Age, which I’m obviously not all that fond of. But in listening to Beneath A Darkening Sky I find myself drawn in to a storyteller’s tale, its soundtrack packed with sonic narrative and distinct scenery. And while there are spots where it gets a touch trope-laden for my tastes, overall it’s also a pretty gripping listen. Arkenstone’s scope here is global. Celtic influences, sonorous Gregorian chant, tribal-style rhythms, all this and more come into play. I find that I’m most engaged when the music goes as dark as the title suggests–which actually makes up a fair part of the album. We’re not talking dark ambient in the strictest sense, but pieces with notes the color of lowering clouds, of endless nights, of a mysterious uncertainty. The church bells and chant of “The Deep Desolation,” laid over long, mournful string pads, are a massive dose of pure atmosphere. A sadness drips from it like tears, reminding me of the work of classical composer Henryk Górecki. “The Moonless Midnight” follows suit quite closely, adding the ominous snarl of low pads. Offset vocals and choral voices trail through this gloom like a ritualistic recitation. It turns at a point to lace in hang-drum tones that lighten its appearance just slightly, and its pace lifts briefly. I shiver quite gleefully at the power of the pipe organ sounds Arkenstone nails as “The Wind from the North” heads toward it conclusion and the album’s close. (I happen to be a sucker for pipe organ, so that thumb was on the scale.) What a fantastic, gothic tone and potency it has. Where Arkenstone loses me a bit is in the more bombastic later parts of “The Storm,” which starts off more subdued before it rises up to drama, and in the dancing brightness that “The Ice Forest” gets to. Even as a lover of Celtic music, that latter track just gets too light for me in comparison to other tracks–though it must be said that “The ice Forest” moves into an intensity that can be quite gripping. But this minor quibble stems from two places. One, I’m not a big fan of this edge of the New Age spectrum and two, I so enjoy the darker, more directly atmospheric work on this album that the drama and brightness throw me off my grim groove a bit.
Beneath A Darkening Sky will, I’m sure, add a fresh chapter to Arkenstone’s story for listeners who have been following along. For those who, like me, might know the artist’s name solely for its association with the genre and thus figure to pass it by, this is very much worth a listen. I think it’s a departure for Arkenstone, but it’s not like he’s stumbling around in unfamiliar territory. He’s just crafting the story in his head, and from this listener’s standpoint, it’s a story I’m glad I heard.
Available from David Arkenstone’s web site.