It’s rare that I find music I can appreciate on a superficial, musical and a cerebral level. Too much of the former and it likely won’t stick with me in the long term; too much of the latter and the smell of shit wards me off as groups examine how far they can reach up their rectum. It’s great to hear that ideal fusion of the two, particularly when it comes out of left field – in this case, Russia1. Downstream by Goatpsalm definitely scratches that itch, resonating with a similar impact to Empyrium and Kauan without sounding remotely like either. Its genre is indescribable in a few words but creativity, satisfaction and evil lie at its heart.
Downstream is an amorphous beast. Slivers of different genres leak themselves into the heady concoction of oppressive darkness and East Asian folk which represent the largest fragments. They categorize themselves as ‘dark ambient’ which is, I suppose, a reasonable catch-all for their sound but don’t mistake them for an ambient band who happen to use synths in minor key. Their sound-scape is fleshed out with natural samples, whether that be gentle trickling of water, birdsong, subtle East Asian instrumentation, throat singing or the general aura of darkness over a sparse vista. It is unquestionably heavy on the synths too, but they’ve a more nuanced bed on which they continually construct and de-construct throughout.
Said structures most often take the form of slow, funereal doom. The prevailing strength of the atmosphere, synths and massive tone lands this somewhere near to Monolithe during the doom. Though the largest aspect which can be formally described as metal, the doom never overstays its welcome or ever dips below excellent. It’s deployed as a cathartic release after gradual builds and creeping ambiance and isn’t permitted to devolve into droning filler. Passages where Downstream gets loud without using doom are few but particular mention has to go to “Of Bone and Sinew.” Its blackened opening has a dark beauty and the remainder deftly transitions between this and slower doom extracts.
The greatest success here is how the music is so well arranged. There is a high degree of self-control exercised even though a few passages take too long to reach their destinations. What I mean is that Goatpsalm is careful and frugal as they progress, reserving climaxes for opportune moments and haunting with their ethereal work as much as they crush with their heavy. The builds ramp up tension and hunt for the next gear change, without mindlessly meandering. The effectiveness of their aural illusion is aided by the stellar production. It ticks the baseline boxes which I want ticked – dynamic, good mix and appropriate tones – but it’s the elusive mystical quality and conveyance of the unknown which contributes to much of my appreciation for Downstream.
I’m left hunting for negatives rather than observing any that obviously present themselves, but as previously noted, a few quieter sections could use pruning to be at their most engaging. Indeed, the mix could be bassier where metal is utilized to afford just a little more heft to their sound. This also isn’t for those who demand immediacy as Goatpsalm refuse to rush or offer anything resembling a hook.
In all, I bequeath unto Downstream the hallowed ‘Great’ rating for its initiative and willingness to be creative. It’s a fascinating album and I’ve lost myself in its precise doom and folky mysticism. Dark ambient has never been so appealing.