Before I dive into this amazing album, perhaps it would be nice to know what happened after the concert. 'Collaborations I' was not only a brilliant album, it also opened new doors for some of the people involved in the whole process, myself included. 'Collaborations I' became the starting point for Synchyse, a downtempo ambient band featuring Stratosphere, Distant Fires Burning and Misantronics. It also sparked further cooperations with Ashtoreth, eventually resulting in 'Between Worlds', a guitar-ambient monument, perhaps the best album in its genre. I know, I'm biased. I see Stratosphere as an extremely talented musician and technician, capable of producing things other guitarists can only dream of. But, what's more, he seems to excel when he gets to play with others. Which is exactly what is happening on 'Collaborations II'.
1. Breaking Down Barriers / Revealing The Unknown (Ashtoreth)
The whole 'Collaborations' project, including 'Between Worlds', found its drive when Ronald and Peter decided to do something together. 'Breaking Down Barriers / Revealing The Unknown' was the opener for both 'Collaborations I' and this live album. This track truly was a harbinger for things to come, again on both the album and the concert. It's a slowly evolving piece of drone ambient, where two guitars and Peters shamanic vocals lure everyone in. There is magic happening, careful at first but gradually the whole track blooms and enchants. As could be expected, the track is a bit different than on the album but you can almost feel the two musicians growing towards each other and onto the listener. 'Breaking Down Barriers / Revealing The Unknown' is the perfect starting point for this enigmatic trip.
2. Lesum (N(70))
Another track from the original 'Collaborations I' album is 'Letum', featuring Hellmut Neidhardt. Driving on a steady bass-melody this eerie piece of music balances on the edge between soothing ambient and harsh soundscapes, so lush you can almost float on them. This gem also perfectly reflects the atmosphere of that evening. The intensity slowly rises. You can feel that something mindblowing is about to happen. Stratosphere understands that and knows how to play the audience too. Either subdued or with a massive wall of sound, we're experiencing ambient greatness. By now everyone who listens to this record will know that this experience is going to be ecstatic. (Spoiler alert: it wàs ecstatic).
3. Through Chaos, Cohesion Is Found (Dirk Serries & Tom Malmendier)
You know you're in for something immersive when Dirk Serries grabs his guitar. Dirk and Ronald know each other through and through so hopes were high for this jam. And boy, did they deliver. This track feels like one of those highly impressive Yodok III or The Void Expansion gigs, be it with Tom Malmendier on drums instead of Tomas Järmyr. While Dirk and Ronald captivate the audience, Malmendier slowly warms up towards the grand finale. The result only adds to the enigmatic atmosphere of that evening. The drums come in slow, odd, jazzy but when Malmendier finally goes wild, mouths fall open and hearts beat faster. With a bit over 14 minutes, I still feel this track is a bit too short.
4. Desolation (Tour & Drums) (Dirk Serries & Tom Malmendier)
'Desolation' is Stratosphere's favorite live-track, I think. I've seen him perform it several times and each time it's a neat tune to listen to. Then, one day during a live gig, he suddenly hit a button on his loopstation and the ambient tune became a stunning post rock anthem with forceful drums. On 'Collaboration 1' the track received live drums by Karen Willems and again became a favorite. On 'Collaborations II' Tom Malmendier took his place behind the drums and up went the shoegaze-factor. I know that Malmendier held back here to serve the beauty of the music in favor of the experimental nature but this track is close to perfection. Yes, close, perfection still had to come.
5. Final Conclusion (Ashtoreth, Dirk Serries, N, Aidan Baker, Tom Malmendier)
"And in the end, we play a grand finale, with all artists," Ronald told me. It was at that moment that I knew I was a part of something unforgettable. In fact, this evening is in my top-5 gigs of all time. It's the closest I've ever come to a religious experience or a trance. With six powerhouses on stage, what could go wrong? The grand finale is a psychedelic trip of its own. Careful at first, trying to find the right moment to hit the pedals. Then, chaos, rumble and an overwhelming wall of sound, only to end in, well..., a sonic orgasm? I don't know. I already mentioned Yodok III, well, this epos hits just as deep and just as intense, a perfect conclusion to a perfect evening. Now I want more, dammit.
This album doesn't need a sales-pitch but I'll give you one. If you're into ambient, experimental soundscapes, drone and musical ingenuity, this album definitely needs a spot in your collection. Not only does it feature some of the most talented and hard working guys in the industry, it also shows how cooperating can result in sheer magic. I hope that one day we can go back to experience all this awesomeness live but for now, 'Collaborations II' is the next best thing.
Serge is the founder of Merchants Of Air.