Thomas Köner’s first three albums emerged at the dawn of the IDM/ambient boom of the early ’90s, but they were never a good fit for the chill-out room at raves. They were more akin to Muzak for a meat locker, or a soundtrack for single-digit-degrees Kelvin. Nunatak (1990, originally Nunatak Gongamur when released on Dutch label Barooni, as they all were), Teimo (1991), and Permafrost (1993) represented ambient music reduced to bedrock elements of tone and texture, moving in and out of the shadows at the lower ends of audible volume and frequency. And if the triptych’s chilly-chill conceit seems silly to you, that’s probably because you’ve never experienced these recordings seemingly dropping the temperature of a room as they play. A new Type Records reissue of the three together reveals music devoid of dated electronic trappings or indulgence, as pure and cold and fresh as the day it debuted.
Both the original and reissue covers of Nunatak feature photographs of Robert Scott’s ill-fated 1912 trek to the South Pole, and the 11-piece suite inside channels that level of alien frigidity without Mickey Mousing it. Working solely with manipulated samples of bronze gongs, Köner builds music of groaning, echoing emptiness, punctuated by yawning silences and distant rumblings. And this is the most outgoing recording of the three. Teimo’s sound-sourcing is less obvious, its musical temperature even lower, though something suspiciously resembling melody emerges here and there, most noticeably on the title track. On the concluding “Ruska” the sound of actual instrumentation even peeks through, not unlike the Wagnerian horns unexpectedly calling from the sylvan mists of its experimental-ambient ancestor, GAS’s Königsforst. Köner went on to make a fine fourth album very much in this same icy vein, 2005’s Aubrite, but Permafrost arguably provides the ultimate entropic distillation of his early minimalist approach. Turn it up enough to make out its quietest parts in any detail and the occasional tectonic bass tones would rattle loose your woofers; listen through earbuds in a train station and you might miss its deceptively complex drones altogether. It’s barely there, and yet still engrossing, even 20 years on.