Canadian musicians Jim Field and Dorian Williamson formed drone duo Northumbria in 2011, and they’ve since carved out a hypnotic presence, and received a lot of well-deserved praise, with their dark and expressive ambient drones. Field and Williamson use guitars and bass to sculpt spellbinding tracks, and they record Northumbria’s improvised songs entirely live. In lesser hands that could easily result in makeshift music, but Northumbria’s soul-stirring compositions have never lacked conceptual or sonic depth.
In fact, Northumbria’s last full-length, 2015’s Helluland, was stunning in both musical and narrative structure. Helluland was the first album in a trilogy inspired by the Norse discovery of Canada, and it was also Northumbria’s debut release for renowned dark ambient record label Cryo Chamber, which is the perfect home for a cinematic two-piece like Northumbria.
The band’s superb new album, Markland, is the second chapter in their Norse saga, and it’s just as captivating as their first. Markland features 10 evocative drones that tell a dramatic tale without ever uttering a word. The textural tapestries woven on mesmeric tracks like album opener “Torngat”, and the equally haunting “Still Clearing” and “The Shores of the Suffering Wind”, are replete with enthralling atmospherics that capture a vivid sense of time and place.
The powerfully moving “The Stars As My Guide” features the same meditative make-up, and the track’s not only ideal for intronauts seeking to immerse themselves in a colossal drone, it’s also perfect for galaxy-gazers seeking transcendent release in the skies above.
Markland often mixes the firmamental with the celestial, and the feeling that the album represents a physical as much as a mental odyssey is ever present. Northumbria construct music that summons a strong sense of environment from the subtlest of sound manipulations. And earth, water, wind, and woodlands, and a sense of being awed by mysterious discoveries, are all there on sublime tracks like “The Night Wolves / Black Moon” and “Ostara’s Return”.
On Markland, Northumbria make maximum use of their minimalism to strip away the distractions of modernity and tell a tale that resonates with primal emotions buried deep in our marrow. That deep expressiveness means Markland feels like an involving story, infused with a profound and even palpable sense of meaning.
The slow-motion “Wonderstrands” imparts its meaning serenely, while “Sunstone” and “Low Sun I” and “Low Sun II” grip the heart by being achingly beautiful and utterly unnerving at the exact same time. In the end, though, whether it’s via turbulent, low-frequency distortions or more tranquil and plaintive shifts in sound, the most important thing about Markland is that it sweeps you up and takes you on a journey, far away from today’s hectic world.
Markland tackles mythic concepts with Northumbria’s mythic music: music that’s both intimate and immense. The album highlights nature’s eternal majesty, painting a panoramic picture of ancient landscapes where fear and wonder are intertwined. Markland is alive with eerie and ethereal music, evoking both exploration and isolation. It’s heavenly, and heart-rending. Kudos to Northumbria, all over again.