Featured Work: “R0 – Spectral Impulse Control”
Website: strom|morts Bandcamp
On July 31, Swiss experimental drone trio strom|morts released the track “Spectral Impulse Control” digitally onto their Bandcamp page. The song stands out from their other material for a number of reasons. Chief among them, “Spectral Impulse Control” is the first entry into their year-long collaborative project with a number of other musical artists worldwide. The project, which they call Colab-20/21, was developed as a response to the coronavirus pandemic – and it comes with a sponsorship by the government of Switzerland.
According to their bandcamp page, strom|morts consists of Olivier Hähnel, Mathieu Jallut and Didier Séverin. European metal fans – especially fans of Swiss metal – may recognize all three of their personnel as alumni from other groups. Hähnel used to be a part of post-metal act ABRAHAM – most recently, he’s credited on their 2018 double album Look, Here Comes the Dark! as performing “vocals, moog, noise.” Likewise, Jallut has been and remains a guitarist for ABRAHAM. Séverin is a veteran of Knut, for whom he sang.
Post-metal is a very far cry from genres like ambient and drone, and obtaining a grant from the government to pursue music is no easy task. strom|morts’s worldwide collaborative effort is the result of chance encounters, canceled tours, adapting to varying lockdown measures and a mountain of paperwork.
—Morts Will Kill Us All
Compared to their other bands, the members of strom|morts have expanded the range of instruments they play. Olivier Hähnel plays analog synthesizers, vocals and azzax while Didier Séverin uses modular synthesizers and Tibetan bowls. Mathieu Jallut plays guitar for strom|morts and has also added shuti to his instruments.
On their Bandcamp page, strom|morts describe their music as “massive alpine electronic dark drones and wise gloom.” Generally, this involves a deep and oddly hypnotic drone from Hähnel and Séverin, which they build upon from the inside out. Hähnel said they spend a lot of time developing the sound for each song, sometimes playing together and other times alone. Most of the time they record at Power Drone Central Studio, located at Hähnel’s residence – which the band invested their own money and two years’ time to build, often working overtime. When they’ve finished, they send it to Jallut to add guitar if they feel the song calls for it. Either way, the result is an ominous soundscape between 11 and 37 minutes long that moves as slowly as the setting sun but manages to constantly command the listener’s attention.
At the same time, though, some aspects of the band remain cloaked in mystery. Their name, a palindrome, is explained cryptically both on their YouTube channel and within the case of their recent physical release Coronal Mass (which has no connection to the coronavirus). “Strom is the lifeblood of this modern world,” reads some text between the album’s two semi-transparent discs. “Strom is life, light, warmth, security and comfort. Strom must circulate at all times and everywhere or else the world stops.” Later, the other half of the name is discussed. “Morts has made the stars invisible, paved the whole world and enclosed its inhabitants in concrete shells. Morts has exceeded nature rhythms and kidnapped the whole world in its frantic course. Morts has given us the illusion of safety, progress and happiness.
“In the end, Morts will kill us all.”
Of course, Switzerland shares a border with France, and the French word for “death” is “mort” – but is that just coincidence? In the realm of strom|morts, with subtly-evolving songs that transform at a glacial pace, one learns never to make assumptions.
The song titles do little to dispel the enigma, their only consistency being that they all seem to be three-word, loosely scientific-sounding names. These include “Deep Adaptation Capacitor,” “Levitating Terminal Rotation” and “Ribosomes Response Transceiver.” When I asked the group where their song titles came from, they simply responded, “They come from the sinister yin yang of strom|morts.”
That yin yang began two years ago in an unlikely venue.
“Mat met Didier in 2018 when they realized that their daughters were at school together,” Hähnel said. “I moved to Conthey later the same year. Didier was in this awesome band, you know, Knut; as I love Knut and knew he was into modular synth, I contacted Didier to start a drone project with him and Mat in October 2018. Since then, we’re droning a lot.”
As Hähnel suggested, strom|morts is nothing if not prolific. Their first album – the aptly titled 0,1 – released digitally on May 7, 2019. In the 16 months that have followed, they’ve expanded their catalog to a total of 12 tracks running a combined three hours, 42 minutes (as of mid-September), with much more to come. Most of their albums are available on the group’s Bandcamp page free of charge or for an optional donation.
While adding to their oeuvre, which includes a 37-minute film on their YouTube channel to accompany their song “Magnetic Cluster Flood,” the group picked up an unusual gig. It centers around screenings of Lars von Trier’s 2009 drama Antichrist, a film that tells the story of a grieving married couple who spend a weekend at a cabin in the woods to escape their pain – only for things to deteriorate dramatically.
“We play live in front of the screen while the movie is playing, with synthesizer, modular synthesizers, guitar, gong and small percussion instruments,” Séverin told me. “It’s basically one more layer of sound added to the movie; we’re not playing all the time but we still intervene a lot throughout the 108 minutes of the movie.”
In order to prepare for the gig – which they call Antichrist Cineconcert – strom|morts spent two months composing music to play over the film and another week of full-time rehearsal before their debut performance. They played their third performance Friday night at Centre de Culture ABC in La Chaux-de-Fonds, which is located on the French-Swiss border just 50 kilometers (31 miles) northwest of Bern.
—From La Chaux-de-Fonds to Beijing
Just as it was in virtually every other nation, the coronavirus was massively disruptive to daily life in Switzerland, whose first confirmed case was reported in late February. Its spread began to spike in the middle of March. According to Worldometers, Switzerland went from 2,217 cases on March 15 to over 30,000 cases by May 5, when the Swiss first flattened the curve. In that time, the country restricted public gatherings, events and travel – all of which spell trouble for a group of touring musicians. Séverin said that strom|morts was no exception. Whereas Hähnel splits his time in the band with a part-time job, Séverin works on strom|morts full-time. Like so many others, he found himself in danger of sudden unemployment this spring.
“When the lockdown period hit us in Switzerland, it pretty much crashed my whole world. As for surviving financially this semester, I was really counting on one week of creation residency and a tour in Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland with Simon Grab from Zürich and Hellmut Neidhart, our labelmate on Midira Records, who is behind the great ambient guitar project from Germany [called] (N).”
His residency and tour were canceled, and the release of Coronal Mass was delayed to September 11. However, a month or so after Swiss lockdown began, strom|morts conceived Colab-20/21 and sought funding for it. COVID-19 was, as Séverin put it, the main incentive behind the collaborative project.
The idea for Colab-20/21 is to produce one trademark strom|morts drone per month, each featuring a guest musician.
“We made this project in order to get art grants and have one year of activity with the worst-case scenario of the pandemic in mind,” Séverin said. “We thought that shows might be canceled or not a real opportunity for small units like ours for a year at least [and] we did not think that streaming shows were that much of a great idea, mostly because we’re really not fans of streaming concerts.
“The collaboration idea came up pretty fast, as it’s really not unusual for musicians to collaborate – especially in the experimental world. We also had the idea really fast to be as wide as possible with the [choices of] collaborators, going from noise to classical, from black metal to hip-hop, from contemporary music to doom. The guests should cover as much territory geographically and musically.”
Collaborators have come to strom|morts from as near as La Chaux-de-Fonds and as far as Hong Kong. The Colab-20/21 process begins similarly to the group’s ordinary recording. Hähnel, Séverin and Jallut record the foundational tracks for a song and send them to the collaborator, either already mixed or – at the collaborator’s request – as separate tracks for remixing. When the collaborator adds their material to it, it’s sent back to strom|morts – usually via the online storage service swisstransfer.com – for finishing touches, mixing and mastering. Finally, it takes one last trip to the collaborator for approval.
“It’s a really fun process; we really enjoy to discover how the collaborators twist our initial intention and take sometimes the piece to an entirely different direction,” Séverin said.
Their first collaboration, “Spectral Impulse Control,” featured Jonathan Nido on guitar. Nido played guitar for The Ocean on three of their full-length releases and is a guitarist for Coilguns. It’s one of the only strom|morts tracks to feature vocals of any kind (provided by Hähnel and Séverin) and Nido’s guitar is instantly recognizable, making the song both definitively strom|morts and still unique from previous offerings. Subsequent guests have included Sin:Ned from Hong Kong and Fargue from Finland and Switzerland. According to Séverin, collaborators from November to January will include Aline Spaltenstein, a cello soloist from the Symphony Orchestra of St. Gallen in Switzerland; Sheng Jie, an electric violin and cello player from Beijing; and Gérard Massini, a contemporary composer and pianist from Lausanne, Switzerland.
However, none of it could have happened without the Swiss government.
—More Paperwork Than Music
“With our extensive careers from ABRAHAM and Knut – especially with the number of years devoted, the number of gigs played and albums done – we are now considered professional musicians and artists in Switzerland, so we can apply to art grant programs and get financial support for our activities,” Séverin said. “This is not quite unusual in Europe; countries like Denmark, Sweden, etc., also financially support the artists. We get paid to help Swiss culture to be represented abroad, as we have such a small music market” – just 8.6 million people live in Switzerland – “it’s really small and almost impossible to make a living out of it unless you go abroad.”
So far, strom|morts have been fortunate enough to be sponsored by Pro Helvetia and the State of Valais. However, Séverin emphasized the difficulty of obtaining grants. They only come after filling out an extensive amount of paperwork that includes proposed budgets and persuasive arguments for their creations. For example, strom|morts has an art exhibition coming up this fall with visual artist Helge Reumann, who provides the cover artwork for their album releases. For the exhibition, strom|morts will “make the sound for an installation of reduced models of warehouses, giving a dystopic landscape result.” Séverin said that each warehouse cast costs $500 USD and there are 16 casts. He spent two months full-time filling in 16 grant applications and, as of press time, has received two acceptances and eight refusals. Additionally, most donors to projects like these will only pay after the installation is over and all the proper reports have been filed and approved. It’s difficult, time-consuming and only occasionally fruitful.
“It’s a lot of paperwork. For the moment I do more paperwork, administration, promotion, etc., than music.”
In May and June, Switzerland seemed to have slowed COVID-19 practically to a stop. July brought a gradual uptick in coronavirus cases, which the country is still fighting. As of September 24, more than 51,000 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed. Tragically, more than 2,000 of the nation’s 8.6 million residents have died of COVID-19 or complications stemming from it. Per capita, it’s the 33rd highest country for coronavirus fatalities. With the number of new cases per day rising and falling, nothing is yet certain for the small European nation. strom|morts have just released a limited-run cassette album, Clock Resistance, on The Tapeworm, but little else is set in stone.
“The situation is changing all the time,” Séverin said. “The number of cases are climbing up; the restrictions are becoming harder. Every project is in a ‘wait and see’ state. We are working hard but we are not sure everything will go as planned until it happens. We hope we don’t have a second lockdown and that cultural activities with assured social distancing can still go on; otherwise that will mean more cancellations for us.
“At least the Colab-20/21 project is COVID-proof and will carry us for sure until June 2021.”