I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
— J. Robert Oppenheimer, 16 July 1945
I grew up during the Cold War era, and, like a lot of kids at that time, deep-set fears of nuclear annihilation haunted my days. I imagined that the horrific scenes depicted in films like Threads or The Day After would become all too real in my lifetime. But then the Berlin Wall fell, and for a brief moment in time there was hope and not an impending nuclear holocaust on the horizon.
Of course, humans being humans, we quickly got back into the business of pouring gasoline on smouldering fears. And it’s memories and anxieties surrounding heightened nuclear tensions, all filtered through a blend of “temporality … nostalgia, and apocalyptic dread”, that Voronoi (aka New Zealand-based outré electronic experimentalist Richard B. Keys) explores on Yucca Flat, Nevada.
Voronoi’s full-length debut is named after the most “irradiated, nuclear-blasted spot on the face of the earth”––Yucca Flat being home to over 730 nuclear tests. Yucca Flat, Nevada examines that intimidating statistic, and all the friction and hostility it entails, via immersive and unnerving drones. But this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered Keys’ explorative or disconcerting electronics.
Keys also plays in dark ambient trio MIR, who released a breathtaking debut with 2015’s In the Dust of this Planet. That album featured ultra-deep and desolate post-industrial drones, and was released by widely hailed New Zealand experimental label End of the Alphabet Records. Yucca Flat, Nevada is similarly stark and chasmic, although the album is being released on Keys’ own and recently founded label VMR. (Keys’ plans for VMR include releasing multimedia works from the “dance floor to avant-garde” end of the experimental electronic spectrum.)
Yucca Flat, Nevada ticks all the boxes in the dark and enthralling electronics department. The core of the album’s appeal—like the work of fellow sonic adventurers such as Daniel Menche, Thomas Köner, or Tim Hecker—is the way Voronoi ensures the album’s three lengthy tracks are as involving as they are enveloping.
Voronoi conjures an often sinister tenor on Yucca Flat, Nevada, with dire tidings expressed via minimalist movements and an evocative atmosphere maintained throughout. Some of that atmosphere reflects the aforementioned exploration of memory and nostalgia—that feel of time and place. However, the album also features towering, widescreen moments. Such as on the eponymous opening track, where waves of electronics, both cruel and kind, sweep a massive tide of noise over a panoramic soundscape.
Throughout the album, Voronoi builds tracks out of “deconstructed rave chords … spliced with samples of electromagnetism” and adds in distortion, harsher electronics, and nuanced layers of noise. Often, tracks feature passages that climb to crystalline heights before shattering into ill-omened drones. That’s wonderfully represented on the album’s second track, “I Have Become Death”, which features the sampled voice of J. Robert Oppenheimer (one of the prime architects of the atomic bomb).
“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” intones Oppenheimer, describing how he felt after witnessing the destructive power of the atom bomb for the first time. His sombre, crackling voice is embedded in “I Have Become Death”’s opening movements, setting an eerie tone on a track that transforms into clouds of aptly tense and ever-denser sound. The work of a discomforting dronescaper like Lustmord springs to mind, because there’s a similar coalescence of claustrophobia and impending doom in the mix.
Yucca Flat, Nevada’s final track, “After_X”, almost feels like a heat flash reflecting off the pitch-black shadow of the album’s previous tracks. At least, “After_X” starts off in a warmer climate, before Voronoi makes deft use of space and ambience to turn the screw and transform serenity into multi-layered and strident noise, with an unnerving undercurrent adding to the static-fed drone.
Like the best albums filled with involving and immersive drones, Yucca Flat, Nevada has a minimalist sound palette that still manages to provide maximum emotional impact. There’s a multimedia component to the album as well. And, if you choose to, you can purchase contextual artwork, and words from writer Jared Wells to flesh the albumout. However, in musical terms alone, Yucca Flat, Nevada is emotionally charged enough to encourage an introspective search for deeper meaning.
In my case, that means Yucca Flat, Nevada calls to mind the end of an epoch laden with tension. But it also reminds me that even though we live in a post-Cold War world, human beings constantly stoke the flames under our fears. Powerful death-fetishising forces are still hell-bent on fostering enmity. And right now, the Doomsday Clock, moving ever closer to the midnight hour of our nuclear annihilation, sits at 11:57 pm.
The chilling aura that shrouds Yucca Flat, Nevada definitely reflects all of that. Voronoi underscores not just a sense of unease with the album, but also horror. The horror of what our species has already inflicted, as well as the world-ending horrors we could yet inflict. Admittedly, those are bleak scenes to contemplate. But there’s no better response to those kinds of scenes than creating compelling and questioning art, just like Yucca Flat, Nevada.
Certainly, Yucca Flat, Nevada is a thrilling album, and a challenging album, but more than anything else it’s an explorative and thought-provoking album. Yucca Flat, Nevada is an excellent and at times exquisite debut from Voronoi. So enjoy it, while you can. The clock’s ticking.