Album Review: The Humming Tapes by Cities Last Broadcast / by Neal Auch

Experimental music is a bit like poetry (or photography for that matter) in that, when a piece works it tends to work because of the confluence of a number of small details working in synchronicity.  This makes the difference between a piece that resonates brilliantly and one that falls flat rather subtle, and it also means that this distinction can be painfully difficult to articulate to listeners who aren't necessarily familiar with the ins and outs of the genre.  Therein lies the difficulty of a reviewing albums like The Humming Tapes.  The album just works and it's hard to put your finger on why it works which is, I suspect, the reason that most reviews of this genre of music tend to linger unhelpfully over visual metaphors and vague references to atmospherics and soundscapes and dense resonances.  This review will be no different, but I shall throw caution to the wind and proceed nonetheless!

Cities Last Broadcast is a solo project of Pär Boström (a veteran of the dark ambient scene who's perhaps best known for his earlier work with Kammarheit).   With Cities Last Broadcast Boström experiments with a decidedly vintage sonic palate; the album is full of the sounds of detuned pianos, old creaking architecture, the warm hiss shortwave static, the warbles of an old radio scanning frequencies, ...  This is the aspect of the album that really resonated with me and the first track, Lights Out, probably best exemplifies this delightful intersection between old-time-y instrumentation and modern creepy dark ambient sensibility.  Lights Out is sadly also the shortest track on the album; I would have loved to hear a lot more of this.

For a while I was obsessed with listening to digitizations of old recordings from the turn of the century (there's lots of be found on the Internet Archive).  I loved hearing all the hiss and crackle and fuzz and imperfections of those old recordings, and it's this fascination that Boström has tapped into with The Humming Tapes.  However, Boström has the benefit of modern mixing tools and is able to capture those gritty noises with a wonderfully deep production that gives the whole record a great sense of space, like we are hearing these tones resonating through an empty cathedral that's been left rotting in some war torn corner of Eastern Europe.  (Remember earlier when I warned you about the unhelpful visual metaphors that plague reviews like this?)

But enough waxing poetic...  The album just works.  For me the first 4 tracks worked the best; there the detuned pianos and crackling hisses and old-time-y noises seem to take centre stage, while for the last 4 tracks the focus feels like it's on more familiar dark ambient mainstays, like slow droning synth melodies.  But this is, of course, just my impression and I have no doubt that other listeners will have different preferences.  All in all a delightful album that I would only be too happy to recommend to fans of dark ambient.