Essential albums: Carbon Based Lifeforms

Hedberg and Segerstad construct their tracks with great care, expertly blending elements of ambient trance, beatless ambient, electro-dub and breaks with patches of static, garbled radio transmissions and disembodied voice bytes. The collision of genre patterns often works brilliantly.

Carbon Based Lifeforms

country of origin:

Ambient trance, acid trance, psy-ambient, breakbeat, spacemusic

decades active:
00's - 10's

essential releases:

  • Hydroponic Garden (2003, Ultimae/Leftfield)
  • World Of Sleepers (2006, Ultimae/Leftfield)
  • Interloper (2010, Ultimae/Leftfield)
  • Twenty Three (2011, Ultimae/Leftfield)
  • Derelicts (2017, Blood Music/Leftfield)

as Sync24:

  • Comfortable Void (2012, Ultimae)

Reviewed by Mike G

Since its inception in 2000, French-based underground label Ultimae Records has been setting the global standard for what could broadly be called ambient trance and its various genre spin-offs. For a broad view of the label check out the superb various-artist collections of the Fahrenheit Project series (2001-2007); for a close-up of individual talent on Ultimae look no further than Swedish duo Johannes Hedberg and Daniel Segerstad, aka Carbon Based Lifeforms.

Carbon Based Lifeforms earliest releases were several self-published albums originally issued through the old portal and since reissued by the band. Listening to them now it's clear at that point that the various elements of their sound were still coalescing.

Their Ultimae debut and breakthrough third album Hydroponic Garden (2003) is the first in a trilogy of sorts, where each successive album seemingly picks up where its predecessor left off. CBL's music revels in mystery, usually charting a course through slow, slightly distorted beats with layered and lush synthetic chords, suggesting something akin to a long scuba dive in the waters of an alien world. The duo constructs their tracks with great care, expertly blending elements of ambient trance, beatless ambient, electro-dub and breaks with patches of static, garbled radio transmissions and disembodied voice bytes.

This collision of genre patterns often works brilliantly. The melancholic "MOS 6581" from Hydroponic Garden, for example, summons the exquisitely-layered liquid harmonies of Tangerine Dream but confounds expectations with its brittle, crunchy trip-hop drum break. These three albums are also wonderfully deep and immersive, still dreamy even amid the dark, urgent intensity of tracks like "Proton/Electron" from World Of Sleepers (2006) with its 303 acid-house snarls and massive bottom end. World Of Sleepers is positively storming at times and the album is particularly well suited to cranking up the volume. Interloper (2010) is noticeably less dark than the other two, with the shimmering "Frog" being perhaps the most luminous, openly loving piece of music they've done.

Post-Interloper, the band has taken some detours into beatless ambience. One of them, VLA (2011), is a single 60 minute track that's rather too minimal to work as anything other than background wallpaper, but Twenty Three (2011) is a stunner. Tracks like "Terpene" and "Somewhere In Russia" offer some of the most cosmic, richly harmonic float music since the late 70's/early 80's heyday of Californian new age. The duo's sound design remains immaculate and its a revelation to hear the duo apply their craft to eight beatless, drone-based compositions. Twenty Three is something of an exception to the classic CBL sound but an absolutely essential one.

More recently there has been a film soundtrack, a remix album, and the excellent Derelicts (2017), a strong release that sits comfortably alongside the original Ultimae trilogy even though it has more beatless ambience than its predecessors. It still revels in the duo’s trademark thumping slow mo beats, dense and lush arpeggios and flirtations with the dark side. Also intact is their knack for using spoken voice bytes to construct odd narratives, such as the fairytale-like “Nattvasen” with its dreamy tale of forest creatures and homes underground.

Also essential for CBL fans is Comfortable Void (2012) from Daniel Segerstad, his second solo release under the name Sync24.  The music has his band's same sense of mystery but is a little more personal and idiosyncratic. "Nanites" is a quite indefinable blend of slow breaks, electric piano sounds and a looped choral sample; pretty yet with a slightly sinister edge. "Sequor" spreads a slow, hypnotic arpeggio from acoustic guitar over a droning bass progression and hints of field recordings. "Something Something" and "Oomph" are probably the most CBL-sounding tracks; layers of bubbling machine bleeps and 303 acid lines beneath soaring, celestial melodies powered by muscular slowbeats. Comfortable Void is superb, up there with anything by CBL.

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