“I have a quite visual relationship with music, and I tend to close my eyes when listening,” says Simon Heath. “When I listen to black metal, it takes me to abandoned castles and deep northern forests where I can visualize every cracked stone or broken twig. When listening to techno, I visualise the bass pulsating through interdimensional space. I don’t love music for just the sounds. Sounds are just a means to help transport me somewhere interesting beyond the mundane.”
Heath makes music under a few guises—including Atrium Carceri, Sabled Sun, and Krusseldorf—and since 2012, he’s been the proprietor of the dark ambient label Cryo Chamber. But the idea that sound can create a rich, detailed space in the imagination is one that has inspired him since his earliest creative excursions. When Heath first started making music in the early ‘90s in Stockholm, it was to provide the soundtrack for roleplaying game sessions between him and his friends. A particular favorite game was Kult, a notorious Swedish pen-and-paper RPG that abandoned the swords and sorcery of Dungeons & Dragons et al in favor of a modern-day setting influenced by gnostic Christianity, occultism, and the transgressive horror of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. “The mature themes of Kult really got to me,” reflects Heath. “It was packed not so much with gore—although there was a lot of that too—but spirituality, philosophy, conspiracy. It was kind of a framework explanation for the world—almost like a belief system. I was hooked instantly.”
The music that Heath made to soundtrack his Kult sessions gradually evolved to become Atrium Carceri, and between 2003 and 2012 he released a handful of records under that name on the influential Swedish label Cold Meat Industry, home to death industrial acts like Brighter Death Now and Mental Destruction. But, he admits, “I never quite felt at home at Cold Meat Industry. I was more interested in environmental spaces, far-reaching narratives and sonic journeys to other worlds and not so interested in the topics that were commonly explored on the label.” In 2011, he moved from Sweden to America’s West Coast, eventually settling in Portland, Oregon. There, he founded his own label, gradually building a stable of acts characterized by their richly detailed concepts and taste for eerie atmosphere-building. A Cryo Chamber album might transport you to the post-apocalyptic 22nd Century, bury you in the depths of an ancient Egyptian burial chamber, or cast you off in a vessel exploring the distant reaches of deep space. “Our concepts are also a guide for us as producers of music,” says Heath. “A common misconception is that concepts are the things surrounding the music—the art, the text. To us, it’s an integral part of the process.”
Dark ambient music is a niche genre, but Cryo Chamber have demonstrated just how large you can grow a niche. “Cryo Chamber feels like home to me,” says Bruce Moallem, aka New Jersey producer God Body Disconnect, who has released three solo albums to date on Cryo Chamber. “I hate being in a box, so it’s crucial I feel completely comfortable being able to explore my vision. I haven’t been this productive musically in many years, and I owe much of that to Cryo Chamber for giving me the support to develop as an artist.”
Heath’s music might have evolved far beyond its early provenance as a backdrop for dark fantasy storytelling and dice rolls. But the idea that Cryo Chamber’s releases might still work as soundtrack music still holds an appeal. “We tend to do a spatially open mix which does indeed lend itself very well to anything with vocals on top—podcasts, movies, video games,” he says. “My music is almost always mixed in a way where you can crank it really damn loud and still speak to each other over it without raising your voices all that much.”
So crank it really damn loud, and read on as Heath picks out eight stand-out releases from the Cryo Chamber catalogue.
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP, Vinyl
Released in 2018 following three years of work, Heath’s 11th album under the Atrium Carceri name shows off his command of dark ambient soundscaping. Tracks like “Path Of Fallen Gods” and “Sacrifice To The Machine” explore the highways and byways of a dreamlike metropolis using a sound palette of drones, choirs, ritual percussion, and judiciously chosen field recordings. Codex is steeped in the mythos of Heath’s original inspiration, the ‘90s Swedish roleplaying game Kult, a reboot of which also hit shelves in 2018 following a successful Kickstarter campaign. “Talking with the authors, I found that they would at times listen to Atrium Carceri while writing—the loop of inspiration had come full circle,” says Heath. “As of now, I am reading their new Kult edition and getting hugely inspired by it, and round and round it goes.”
Compact Disc (CD)
Heath explains that Cryo Chamber’s music isn’t designed to “railroad” the listener, utilizing an RPG term for a storytelling style that sends players down a particular narrow path, robbing them of any real agency in the process. “Sure, I might use strong artwork, concepts and narratives, but I do want the listener to connect the dots themselves,” he explains. That said, some Cryo Chamber releases spell out their theme so powerfully they feel closer to cinema than music. Take Visitors, the debut album from Dominik Ragančík, aka Exima. Powered by evocative foley sound design, it traces the story of an alien invasion that ultimately leaves mankind extinct. Says Heath: “This album stands out compared to our other albums in that it has almost no harmonic content, no chords—only a melding of beauty and darkness through his meticulous use of microphones on his desolate field recording trips in Eastern Europe.”
Atrium Carceri, Cities Last Broadcast, God Body Disconnect
Miles To Midnight
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP
This 2018 collaboration between three of the label’s stand-out artists constitutes a bit of a curveball by familiar dark ambient standards, although its cinematic, jazzy sound—“Bohren & Der Club Of Gore meets Twin Peaks,” as Heath puts it—has much to recommend it. Heath describes Cryo Chamber as, “a collective workshop of sorts, where we help each other out and collaborate.” Miles To Midnight is a great example of that synergetic approach. God Body Disconnect’s Bruce Moallem plays subtle brushed drums, Cities Last Broadcast’s Pär Boström toys with subdued tape loops, and Heath himself tinkles the ivories, the three tracing a film noir-inflected tale of a detective investigating a hotel with a dark and troubled past.
God Body Disconnect
Compact Disc (CD)
Before Moallem found his way to Cryo Chamber, he played in the experimental death metal group Dripping. His solo project, God Body Disconnect, is realms away from the speed and density of metal, but Moallem’s work is still occupied by themes of mortality. Tracing the story of a man in a coma who is still aware of the world around him, Dredge Portals draws on droning ambience, post-rock structures and occasional spoken word to create something uniquely affecting and philosophical. “It has been celebrated by the scene for its perfection, which comes as no surprise due to Bruce’s skillset and attention to detail,” says Heath.
Compact Disc (CD)
“Markland” was an ancient Norse term for territory on North America’s Eastern coast believed to have been discovered by the Icelandic explorer Leif Eriksson way back in the 11th Century, some 500 years before Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic. Dorian Williamson and Jim Field’s music as Northumbria dramatizes the Norse discovery and exploration of an uncharted land, using bowed guitars and bass to create fluid, improvised ambient music that feels weathered by the elements but shot through with a sense of wonder. “The unique sound this duo creates is beyond anything most have heard before, floaty and cerebral and absolutely beautiful,” says Heath. Markland is the second in a trilogy of releases from Northumbria; it’s available to purchase in a three CD bundle along with its sister albums, Helluland and Vinland.
Compact Disc (CD)
Some of the most celebrated releases in the Cryo Chamber catalogue are its HP Lovecraft tributes—epic collaborative works that enlist names from across the label’s roster to celebrate an entity from the horror author’s sprawling Cthulhu mythos. Clocking in at over two hours long, Hastur—written in honor of one of the Great Old Ones mentioned in Lovecraft’s The Whisperer In The Darkness—goes deep, exploring religious chant, ritual drumming, and submerged post-rock through a thick atmosphere of inky fog and vinyl crackle. “This might not be our longest, but it’s our most detailed album in this series,” says Heath. “The 20-page booklet took a full year to complete all the artwork and text for, and it is probably our most popular album.”
Atrium Carceri & Cities Last Broadcast
Black Corner Den
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP
“A sleepless album created during insomnia from Atrium Carceri and Kammarheit, two Swedes currently separated by the Atlantic Ocean,” explains Heath. If that partly explains the album’s woozy, somewhat befuddled feel, you can put the rest down to the subject matter. Black Corner Den is inspired by the opium dens of the late 19th century, fraternized by a mix of artists and poets, decadents, and lowlifes alike. Tracks like “An Atrementous City” and “Wind-Up Orchestra” feel suitably opiated, with looping pianos and clanking-piston beats drifting sideways through the foggy soundscape.
Compact Disc (CD)
Science fiction makes up a small but significant percentage of Cryo Chamber’s conceptual inspiration, and the debut album from Eric Peterson’s In Quantum project feels like a particularly fleshed-out example of the form. “A cyberpunk dystopian album that uses heavy analogue synthesizers to create gritty neon filled environments that explore transhumanism—it’s a concept not explored that much in this scene, which makes it stand out,” says Heath. But, he adds, you can expect more science fiction-inspired releases on the label in future. “There is a preponderance of love for Blade Runner on the label, but I think we would get into a lot of copyright trouble for tackling something related to any of Philip [K. Dick]’s work or adaptations. We have been discussing other concepts that are close to our heart, but nothing concrete has been put into motion yet… at least, that we can tell you about.”