This is my first encounter with this UK-based improv unit, but Fallout 4 is the latest installment of a series of live documents that began all the way back in 2001. The band/collective itself has existed since 1996, though it seems like there's been at least one decade-long hiatus and the ensemble's members have all been active in other projects ranging from prog to ambient to art pop (while Andrew Ostler has been busy building modular synth hardware, among other things). Notably, Darkroom has recently reactivated and released some new material, but the performance documented here dates back to 2012 and the aesthetic lies somewhere between slow-burning Tarentel-style post-rock and Tangerine Dream-inspired space ambient (though Can was apparently a significant inspiration as well). On a related note, the album was mastered by Jono Podmore, who played a significant role in yet another fine vault project (Can's The Lost Tapes). I suspect Podmore had a challenging task on his hands, as the band tellingly state that he was chosen both for "his ability to control sonic forces" and "to make sure it was finally done." While this album and the Fallout series in general capture the band in a more noirish and shadowy mood than usual, I can see why they were so keen to get these recordings out into the world even a decade late, as much of this album is spacey, slow-motion psych magic.
At the time of the recording, Darkroom were pared down to just the core duo of Michael Bearpark (guitars) and Andrew Ostler (synths) and two of the album's three pieces are taken from the final date of the pair's 2012 tour. Amusingly, Bearpark and Ostler note that some of that performance happened "even after most of the audience had left," as they found themselves in an unusually inspired mood that night and were in no hurry to stop playing. The album's third piece is culled from other recordings from the tour, though it is not specified whether "Tuesday's Ghost" is from a different gig or a rehearsal tape. Regardless of where and when it was recorded, "Tuesday's Ghost" is one hell of a killer piece. It slowly fades into existence with hazy synth drones and a languorous bass pulse, which is a very common theme for the album, but the beauty lies in how the duo organically transform that gently spacey ambient into a hypnotic, immersive, and shoegaze-damaged epic. Each of album's three pieces gets to that place eventually, but "Tuesday's Ghost" captures the pair in especially fine form, transcending their usual fare with inspired touches like a warbling, supernatural-sounding loop; a quavering feedback howl; and a simmering, charmingly Latin-influenced beat (once it all properly catches fire, at least).
The other two pieces offer their own unique pleasures, however, even if the stylistic terrain is roughly the same. The opening "It's Clear From The Air" is the other big highlight, as it is a seething and shimmering slow-motion juggernaut of flickering guitar loops, pulsing chords, spacey electronics, and an unexpectedly sensuous drum pattern. Elsewhere, I can understand how a live audience would find the 25-minute "Quaag" to be something of an endurance test, but that extended duration is more of an asset than a liability for home listening. Granted, it does take a while to get truly rolling, but it feels like a wonderfully out-of-control train once the skittering and scattering drum pattern kicks in. Admittedly, the tense synth motif at the heart of the piece lays on the drama a bit too thick to quite qualify as another flawless triumph, but there are plenty of great moments around it. Bearpark and Ostler were (and maybe still are) quite a formidable improv team on a good night, so I am pleased that some recordings of the nights when they absolutely slayed will now delight some fresh ears. When they are at their best, Darkroom have hive mind-level chemistry and damn near singular talents for slow-building majesty, nuance, and lightness of touch. Beyond that, this is some of the best contemporary space music that I've encountered since Bremen's Second Launch.