Essential albums: Delerium

Starting out gothic, filmic and tribal, Delerium's dark sound at one point morphed into spacey laid-back acid trance before moving on again to become the highly polished, ethereal ethno-pop for which Delerium is best known. What's consistent between all their albums is the music's generally slow tempo and the duo's exploration of ambient space.


country of origin:

Ambient techno/trance, industrial, world beat, ambient pop, ethno-ambient

decades active:
80's - 00's

essential releases:

  • Faces, Forms & Illusions (1987, Cleopatra)
  • Syrophenikan (1990, Cleopatra)
  • Stone Tower (1991, Cleopatra)
  • Spiritual Archives (1991, Cleopatra)
  • Semantic Spaces (1994, Nettwerk)
  • Karma (1997, Nettwerk)

as Conjure One:

  • Conjure One (2002, Nettwerk)

as Synaesthesia:

  • Desideratum (1995, Hypnotic)
  • Ephemeral (1997, Hypnotic)

Reviewed by Mike G

If Dutch DJ Tiesto's million-selling Eurotrance mix of Delerium's ambient pop song "Silence" has piqued your interest in this Canadian band, then prepare your ears for a shock: Delerium has several past lives that predate that particular commercial milestone. And many parallel lives, too, if you count all other names under which Bill Leeb and Rhys Fulber have released music both together and with others.

Delerium started life as a downtempo spin-off of Leeb's industrial synthpop and proto-techno outfit Front Line Assembly but increasingly became the focus of the pair's creative energy. Starting out gothic, filmic and tribal their dark sound at one point morphed into spacey laid-back acid trance before moving on again to become the highly polished, ethereal ethno-pop for which Delerium is best known.

What's consistent between all their albums is the music's generally slow tempo and the duo's exploration of ambient space. Delerium albums are also a time capsule of how their own development paralleled the technological changes fundamental to the birth and ongoing development of house, trance and techno music.

Early albums

Faces, Forms & Illusions (1987) remains an impressive debut. It was recorded by Leeb and fellow Canadian Michael Balch, with Fulber only in the background at this stage. It still echoes with the industrial clang of their F.L.A. material but is more ambient, landscaped and brooding, flavoured with just hints of the Arabian and Eastern elements that would come to the fore later on. The hypnotic repetition of the final 20 minutes is a brilliant procession of doomy synth marches, Kraftwerk-esque arpeggios and slow-motion tribal techno.

Morpheus (1989) is a misfire, compositionally thin and overly dark. It's easily eclipsed in quality by the band's third album Syrophenikan (1990). Balch is now gone and Fulber is on board as a full-time member. Syrophenikan's opener "Embodying" continues the big drum sounds of Morpheus but now with beautifully eerie vocal chants and drones, while "Shroud" is intensely tribal. By this stage of the band's career native percussion, Arabic melodies and samples of choral chants are starting to appear more obviously in the mix, although the use of the vocals is still subtle and plenty of spaces remain in between. "Twilight Rituals" shows the duo's way with floating, multi-layered keyboards, carried by a creeping pulse and a clear Arabic vocal. "Prophecy" is the odd one out here, a strongly melodic ambient pop instrumental with angelic vocal overlays. In hindsight it's one of the very few instances on Delerium's early albums that hints at the sudden change of direction years later.

Stone Tower (1991) charts similar territory to Syrophenikan, not as warm an album overall but compelling in its detailed, creepy atmospheres that strangely sound gothic and sci-fi all at once. "Lost Passion" is a rich, slow-building epic that shows great understanding of tension-and-release dynamics. "Red Hill" is the kind of ambient that gives you goose bumps, a rich chord progression of strings and synthetic vocals painting a hauntingly beautiful landscape of light and shadow.

Spiritual Archives (1991) is the next logical step in the band's evolution. It's the creative apogee of Delerium's first phase, an electronic gothic masterpiece that's surprisingly accessible in spite its scary medieval surface. "Drama" opens proceedings in grand doomy fashion with a slow executioners drum, male Gregorian vocals and a trancey arpeggio. "Awakenings" and "Aftermath" are melodic, brooding form of ambient trance dripping with atmosphere. Add to that lots of scratchy soundtrack samples and loops throughout and you have a highly cinematic trip.

A spacemusic detour

After the release of Spiritual Archives in 1991 nothing appeared under the Delerium name for the next three years. Then within the space of twelve months the band's direction took not just one but two left turns.

Spheres (1994) and Spheres II (1994) are the sound of Delerium taking off into a cosmos of slow and bleepy breakbeat, Berlin-school melodies and sci-fi movie dialogue. The duo had obviously taken a liking to the Roland 303 bassbox, much revered by purveyors of acid house and trance. The 303's buzz and squelch is over these albums. In fact it's about the only thing that distinguishes the duo's mission - as one reviewer put it - "to go boldly where only several dozen German space-rock groups and a significant proportion of the techno fraternity have gone before". They're not bad albums, but hardly essential either. The best moment is "Hypoxia" from Spheres II, a wonderfully euphoric slice of electropop that dresses clean, Kraftwerk-esque analogue synth structures with spacey psychedelic trimmings.

Ambient dance and the mainstream

With spacemusic out of their system the duo's direction then changed once again.

While ethno-ambient was an essential ingredient in the Delerium sound right up to Spiritual Archives, the sudden lightness of tone and commercial-friendly world beats of Semantic Spaces (1994) and Karma (1997) are still a big surprise. Advances in studio technology and computer synthesis were clearly one of the factors behind this transformation. It wasn't 1987 anymore. But perhaps the best explanation comes from Leeb himself who told Drop-D Magazine: "It's more like an evolution. You move on. You can only paint the walls black in so many ways".

Both albums set an exceptional standard in the slick, exotic dream pop that would be much imitated by ambient dance and chill producers in the years to come. Sure, a few drum loops are rather obvious rip offs - Enigma, Deep Forest, Future Sound Of London - but Semantic Spaces transcends cliche due the sheer quality of the compositions. "Twilight", "Lamentation" and dubby Orb sound-alike "Consensual Worlds" are mesmerising ambient pop instrumentals - lush soaring strings, subtle vocal swells and a trancey arpeggios. Yet when you examine all this global exotica up close its apparent that many elements are quite sparingly applied - an Armenian duduk here, a Gregorian chant there. For all the richness, there's restraint too.

Wary by this stage of the legal dangers of unauthorised sampling of trendy Gregorian chants, the duo recorded their own choir for use on their next album Karma and it sounds completely gorgeous. Karma is also the album on which Leeb's and Fulber's way with a euphoric pop song really shines. "Silence" and "Euphoria" are tender and exceptionally crafted. The lyrics explore themes of love and transcendence with a mystical bent that avoids pretentiousness - not easy to do - and the vocal performances by Sarah McLachlan and Jacqui Hunt are sublime (the guest singers also wrote their own lyrics). Unless you've been living in a cave since 1997 you'll know that "Silence" was remixed several years later as a trance-pop single and became a massive club anthem worldwide. Not coincidently, Karma then became a commercial success after modest initial sales.

Beyond Karma

So what to do once you've hit the pop bigtime? In Delerium's case you homogenise the sound, relegate instrumentals to second place in favour of vocal songs, and keep on making commercial pop records.

Poem (2000), for example, was made without Fulber. Technically it's quite brilliantly produced but for the most part the previous standard of writing just isn't there. Even the Eastern elements are sidelined and the music's classical pretensions tend to grate. Chimera (2003) sees the return of Fulber and new collaborator Carmen Rizzo. Like its predecessor the album seems to bank on its proudly trumpeted list of guest vocalists at the expense of more open-ended and subjective instrumentals. That deep sense of mystery is gone. Likewise on Nuages Du Monde (2006).

Other projects

But never mind. There's always Fulber's sunny self-titled solo album recorded as Conjure One (2002), an expertly-arranged melodic wonder which integrates pop songs with the euphoric and ethno-ambient qualities of classic Delerium far better than anything released under that name since 1997.

Leeb and Fulber together have also recorded three albums under the name Synaesthesia. Two of these, Desideratum (1995) and Ephemeral (1997) are stunning: epic journeys across Eastern and Arabic landscapes with occasional detours into outer space. With their lumbering beats, widescreen synth chords and rich native instrumentation, they are fine examples of dark-edged world beat and an absolute must for Delerium fans.

As for Delerium compilation albums, none of them are definitive and newcomers are better off starting with Semantic Spaces and Karma.

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