Published on Wednesday, 11 May 2016 19:08
Album title: Unclean
Release date: 25 March 2016
Label: Cyclic Law
01. The Unclean
03. Quiet Darkness
04. Greed Grin
06. The Drunk
08. Steel Cathedral
10. Nothing There, Nothing Left
11. Where Steel Meets The Flesh
12. Mortus Mantrus
Sophia has finally released a new album after roughly 13 years have passed since their last release Deconstruction Of The World on Cyclic Law in 2003. Yet their return is not so surprising when looking at the line-up of this monumental industrial/martial/dark ambient act. Helmed by Peter Bjargo, Sophia has always been a side-project with Arcana as the main focus. Now returning with their latest Unclean, Sophia proves to the world that they may have been out of the spotlight, but they certainly still hold the same magic.
Sophia debuted in 2000 with Sigillum Militum and the follow-ups Herbstwerk and Spite all on the Cold Meat Industry label, later followed by Deconstruction Of The World on Cyclic Law. Now years later they have returned to Cyclic Law for another industrial-fused outing. Where Sigillum Militum was heavy on the martial ambient structuring, Herbstwerk and Spite seemed to be more in tune with a light-industrial feel. Unclean has the most similarities with Deconstruction Of The World, an album which, to me, brought the true talents and formulas of Sophia to the forefront. As Deconstruction Of The World was always my favorite, it is definitely a positive for me to see the similarities on Unclean.
Sticking to their previous formula, Sophia unveils an album that is equal parts ambient and industrial. Going back and forth between these two blueprints, an album comes together which seems to make its biggest statement when listening in its entirety from beginning to end. Equal parts of the album are dedicated to tracks which are heavily atmospheric and ambient, while the rest is an industrial powerhouse unfurling at the blink of an eye. This ebb and flow between the two extremes can seem a bit misplaced on the first play-through, but as I became familiarized with the album, this bouncing between extremes became better understood for me, as a sort of story began to unfold. The story of Unclean, like much of Sophia's subject matter, is focused on our dying world. Modern civilization being "unclean", humanity coming ever closer to the brink of extinction. At a time when our world and humanity itself seems to be at a crossroads in history, this concept is sure to hit home for many listeners.
The first track "Unclean" starts off with a bang. We find ourselves thrown straight into the depths of conflict. The hammering of steel and various drums slowly builds as an eerie voice sings a melody over the beating. The voice sounds beautiful and yet foreboding and nightmarish all at once. Martial horns blare, welcoming the entrance of Sophia. "II" is the first ambient piece, coming out of "Unclean" we hear mechanical noises, as if we are inside some vacant yet still working factory. "Quiet Darkness" has a very sinister feel. We hear distorted breathing and loud yet very soundscape-like industrial ambience. There are whispers in a ghastly airy voice, speaking of the break down of humanity. As the track creeps toward its close there is a shift going from a more structured industrial piece to something much darker and horrific. This is the perfect lead into "Greed Grin" one of the most structured tracks on the album. We hear an industrial-soundscape before us which slowly builds with a beating of drums very similar to the first track of the album. This continuity of song structure and even lyrics continues throughout the album. "V" is the second ambient-interlude track. A high-pitched noise meanders through the track as a constant pounding of metal keeps us in that same martial industrial mindset that pervades the album. "The Drunk" is quite an unusual track, a hammering is prevalent throughout the track but it never builds into an actual beat, rather it seems to only fit the purpose of maintaining atmosphere. "Wardrobe" seems to be a bit of a peek behind the curtains, a look at the mechanics of the world itself, on the surface at least, great rumblings and hammering noises are barely audible in the background as if one is overlooking a vast industrial landscape, with billowing smoke stacks and black oily waters. "Steel Catherdral" returns to the industrial structure of "The Unclean" and "Greed Grin". Yet this time the lyrics become clearer and the structuring even closer to something expected from a strictly industrial act. On "IX", another interlude, we hear someone coughing and a variety of noises, something clattering near us, while a lonely and distorted synth line meanders through the track, giving it an ominous chilling vibe. "Nothing There, Nothing Left" picks up where "Steel Cathedral" left off, again with similar drum patterns and horns working to build suspense in that same fashion. Yet the lyrics have changed, this time they are speaking as if from the aftermath, like the previous sections of the album were more of a warning, we have now moved into a barren wasteland, one which we crafted for ourselves. "Where Steel Meets The Flesh" begins quietly like many of the interludes, but abruptly builds into something more, with their signature hammering of various metallic objects and a deep eerie vocal track, keeping its high pace until the track finally fades out. "Mortus Mantrus" is the least foreboding track on the album, a calming drone builds the basis, with industrial field recordings and almost inaudible whispers dispersed throughout.
What we have here is a reminder of what made Sophia so great through the years, and also a reminder that none of the passion and energy has been lost over that time. Equal parts foreboding ambience and sonic onslaught blend perfectly for the ebb and flow necessary to make a conceptual album like this work so well. The recurring song structures and lyrics gave the album even more of a feeling of continuity and that a story is unfolding. I would recommend this album to any fans of industrial that doesn't follow the beaten path, and also to fans of dark, drone, and martial ambient genres, as there is enough content lending itself to each of these genres to warrant a pleasant reaction from even the most critical of fans. We can only hope now that Unclean stands as a re-invigoration of Sophia and not a farewell.
Review written by: Michael