Dark Ambient Metamorphosis, by John Claude Smith

(Download the audio version of this story here — read by Mars Homeworld.  Story illustration by Galen Dara.)

illustration by Galen Dara

The following untitled notes for a “review-story” (as far as can be gleaned) were taken from the files of music journalist, John Schnell.  It has been minimally edited for layout.  It is presently the last known written work of any sort from Schnell (see afterward for further details—Ed.).

mtk’hukX’xm-c (band/artist name?  Only on spine.)


O’robdhoramxa (label? Bottom center of back, almost illegible; no country of origin; no website listed.)

Digipak, unknown material (!), colors like oil stains on pavement, no particular image(s) stand out, but there seems a variance in perceptions when viewed from different angles or lighting.

Second spin:

My original impressions seem invalid.  I had written, “Primitive percussion, somewhere between the rawness of Tom Waits’ Bone Machine, the early found sound scrape and clang industrial of Einsterzende Neubuaten or, a little later, the zombie rattle of Memorandum.  The resonance contrasts this, as waves of grinding, concentrated noise and indistinct instrumentation–they seem to mesh within the din–somehow bursts through with crystal clarity and an undefined purpose (though indistinct, there is a real force and presence) that is most ingenious. The whiny, caterwauling vocals are more another instrument than messenger(s) of anything concrete.  Five tracks, sixty-two minutes of intense, strange music that relates to dark ambient, but has much more life than what has occupied that boring sonic terrain for the last few years.”

It is strange, then, that my compulsion to immediately play the disc again is jostled by the sounds that pour out my speakers: the percussion seems minimized now, the ambience congealing as a pulsing mass.  It seems alive, the throb of blood thrusting through concrete arteries, the surge of sentient momentum within a sleeping, abandoned factory.  That said, the sleep seems full of dreams, living extensions, like the futile lashing of tentacles for something just out of reach, that rip and claw for that something more at the brink of reality, unreality…the possibilities are endless: the unconscious wishes of forgotten machinery.  My brain is soaking in this audio miasma, but it seems incomplete, as if in transition.  The vocals, though still harsh and beyond understanding–this is not the pristine melancholic gobbledygook of Sigur Ros, or the abysmal ululations of Thee Parchment Souls—seem to hold both an insect quality as well as something completely alien.  The clattering clicks and chattering nuances seem to speak in tones that fill the night—think the language of insects, of a crowded insect festival—but with a decidedly unearthly, hence, alien, tendency.  And not “alien” in the usual manner.  Many dark ambientists pride themselves on being able to manipulate sounds so as to create unexplored sonic worlds.  Only a few (Inade and Pus Siphon come to mind) really engender something truly unique.  I am both flabbergasted and intrigued by the developments, wondering how this weird alteration is possible.  And yet I am sure that somehow my initial impressions and the results of the second spin are of the same origin. Why?  I do not know.  Something to do with the all around feel of…both versions?  That and the fact that the disc has not left the player between plays…

Funny, but it seems as though something is happening to me as well.  I feel changed or…something.  Not clear.  Must be the beer.

Funny again: now the time on the display reads fifty-five minutes.  I thought it was sixty-two.  Oh well, onward.  (It’s like an addiction–haha.)

Third spin:

Okay, something really out of sync is in motion.  The sounds have mutated again, and “mutate” seems the appropriate word.  It’s obviously the same disc, the feel is intact, but whatever phenomenon (another appropriate word) is transpiring it’s getting under my skin.

The sounds seem hollow, completely devoid of anything remotely human within their creation.  The closest comparison is the pitch black bleakness of Kerovnian, but even that pales by comparison.  Within this black hole of sound, feeble mutterings (well, they seem vocal, kind of…) and nervous, twitchy scraping sequences rise to the surface, squiggly like rats scampering toward hole-in-the-wall exits, only to find the exits have been sealed up, and the rats are made to bounce off the walls in search of other means of escape.  There is also a processional tapping that—

It feels like a beehive has exploded in my body and the buzzing is the sound of tiny chisels as the bees chip their sinister designs into my bones, and they are inexplicably changing me from the inside.

Man, this is one wild experience!

Five tracks still, but thirty-seven minutes—what the hell is going on here?

Fourth spin:

Addictive is an understatement.  I barely waited for the final fade before pressing play again.

I need it!

(Or it needs me…?)

Something is truly amiss: the display reads five tracks, fifteen minutes!  Impossible!  My breath seems rushed.  Reminds me of when I had that problem with heroin ten years ago.  That same desire and necessity is being transferred to the music, the sounds.

No, that’s not it!  The sounds themselves are dictating things now!

There is density within the thickening void, a density that translates within my mind as something of insidious intent.  I am impelled to eject the disc, but my body does not move.

Funny, but no, not funny at all.  My fingers seem clumsy in typing these words; they seem elongated and I am struggling to control them.  My legs feel numb.  They look odd, but then again, the whole of me looks odd.  Then again, the whole of what I see, the way I see, is not as it was before I started playing this disc.  I am feeling a bit disorientated as my eyes seem to be taking in too much, and not what I understand to be my apartment.  Does that make sense?  The flood of patterns and obtuse images nauseate me, but I cannot look away.  Everything seems geometric, hard edged, yet smooth and flexible; indescribable objects shimmer, polished to a painful glare, or waver as if stenciled on my world from another world.  The alien sensations are in full bloom–

What is happening?  What is happening to me?  I want it to stop, but it is too late.  I know it is too late.  I know the intent of the sounds is to—

And then the mantra starts.  Not voices—too corrupted and wrong; not choral–but many as one, drenched in echoes that reflect as colors in my eyes—explosive, prismatic–unknown thoughts in my head—unthought thoughts?–not language, but I am beginning to understand what they mean, what the intonations mean.  I close my eyes (I am allowed to close them—it does not feel as if I have a say in things; as if I have any control anymore) and interpret the mantra as best as possible:

mtk’hukX’xm-c k’ X’xcwaxkP

mtk’hukX’xm-c k’ ZjkUl-mgaiinhthQ’ql

fFowZ’zzc-t mtk’hukX’xm-c

mtk’hukX’xm-c k’ vOrrtc-oVitk-X!

Fifth (’tnx’k) spin:  It is in me.  They are in me.  Objective (f’Xi-ic) to make me (’tk) one (j-g’t) of…them (mtk’hukX’xm-c)…vision atypical…hear (hear? lP’ukt’) only drone (k’dm’St) and mantra (cCeZkt’)…display (‘ckt-c) five tracks, two minutes!  Ggbukt-za’ k’ xWp’-c’J!

help me (kD-plc’t-n’ ‘tk)

(help me) kD-plc’t-n’ ‘tk

kD-plc’t-n’ ‘tk

kD-plc’t-n’ ‘tk!

mtk’hukX’xm-c k’ vOrrtc-oVitk-X!

I discovered the previous document on music journalist and good friend John Schnell’s computer screen when I came by his apartment five days after deadlines for the fourth issue of Chaotic Audio had passed.  I had not heard from Schnell, probably the timeliest writer I know (promptness–a rarity for most writers), since a week before the deadline.

Though he has now been reported missing, this is not the first time he has run off without informing his friends.  When his wanderlust hits, he’s off.  I am not really worried about him.

I am amused by this “review-story” and think it one of his more successful, though wholly bizarre, attempts at fiction.  It must have been the beer or something harder that inspired him.  Then again, I did find a disc in his player that corresponds to the one reviewed (ahem) in the story.

I have decided to publish the piece in the latest issue of Chaotic Audio (the one in your hands as you read these words) because it fits the explorative mindset of the magazine, and knowing Schnell, I know he would not mind, might even get a kick out of seeing it in print (hey, my friend, drop me a line, let me know how you are doing!).  Though it is obviously fiction, don’t we all wish we could find music that inspires us in a similar way, opening us to that which is not familiar, not expected?  Something new and different–dare I say original?–though with that kink for the odd that the readers of this magazine so desire.

The above mentioned disc fits his description, at least to the eye.  The unpronounceable name and label, as far as one can tell, are exactly as he listed them (spine and back of the digipak).  After finishing this brief afterward, the last rush of work before completion of the latest issue, I will click play on the computer’s player and see if it is anywhere near as interesting as Schnell has made it out to be.  Probably not.  We both understand the sad state of affairs when it comes to dark ambience and some of the motley relations it keeps, but I am always open to being shown I am wrong.

Five tracks and sixty-two minutes of music await me, so I’m off!  Enjoy the “review-story” and see you in the next issue.

Vincent Plague, Reviews Editor

Chaotic Audio

John Claude Smith is a writer of dark speculative fiction, music journalism, and poetry. Most of the short fiction veers into horror, while the novels tend to meander into a weird mix of magic realism, psychological and supernatural nuances, and, again, horror. Late 2011 saw the publication of his first book, The Dark is Light Enough for Me, a collection of short stories. He presently exists in the SF Bay Area, though soon he will be in Rome again, where he truly lives.

Illustration by Galen Dara.

If you enjoyed this story, let John know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.

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4 responses to “Dark Ambient Metamorphosis, by John Claude Smith

  1. I enjoyed this original take on a Lovecraft yarn, John. Great job, and the audio reading is an excellent accompaniment. I really like the plot component of swapping the unspeakable tome for an unspeakable compact disc… very cool.


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