In early February 2011, while researching the Japanese post-war economic miracle for a Biosphere project, Geir Jenssen found an old photo of Mihama nuclear plant. The site of this futuristic-looking plant in so lovely a spot by the sea intrigued him. Were they safe from earthquakes and tsunamis? Further reading revealed many to be in quake-prone areas, some even by shores hit by tsunamis previously. Narrowing focus to Japanese plants, he determined to soundtrack them – architecture and design, location, potential risk. N-Plants was finished on February 13th. A month later a friend wrote: ‘Geir, some time ago you asked for a photo of a Japanese nuclear powerplant …how did you actually predict the future?…’
Several months on, Jenssen’s prophetic words take on an eerie resonance, though the mood of N-Plants is far from the dystopian desolation one might have projected. A more ambiguous affair, it reveals itself less of an isolationist gloomfest than a collection of retro-futurist downtempo ambient house that seems to hark back to Biosphere’s early 90s IDM orientation circa Microgravity. The music, deceptively pretty, has about it a robotic undertone, its clipped rhythms of (deliberately?) low timbral interest, tones with a slightly degraded edge, a patina of peripheral hiss and whirr, slender hollowed out drones, as if to represent an alienated view of the still life of these structures, and aspects of their architecture and morality through a quasi-Ballardian sci-fi expressionist haze.
With its hissing effluvia and ominous chord thematics, “Joyo” is closest to the portent the theme might have evoked, but overall there’s a lightness of touch, eye to the bright visions of 60s sci-fi rendered via a slightly askew downtempo IDM. Sonics tap into the retro-future, signalling a certain remote sensed nostalgia. “Sendai-1″ sets the tone, a machine koan with Orientalist marimba-like sequences and a vacated drone at the core; the subsequent “Shika-1” and “Ikata-1” evoke a similar air of serenity with a clinical faintly sinister edge, blithe glaze-eyed synthetics and syncopated beats pulsing functionally under warmly wheezing pads.
But for all Jenssen’s precision sound design, N-Plants strikes as a little underdone and strangely lacking in musical, if not conceptual, substance, from a man responsible for one of the Top Ambient albums of all time, Substrata. Where that album memorably sounded depths, N-Plants scrolls somewhat dead-eyed over flat planes, as on the evacuated chiming recursions of “Fujiko”. Much of the album sounds almost like a decades-old artefact with its intermediate technology synth sounds and blank drum pads. This depletion is doubtless deliberate, sound signifying the faded scientific glory of its subject – tarnished future visions, modernist hopes, revealed as vainglorious hubris. N-Plants is truly a Music for Powerplants, in the way Eno’s was a Music For Airports. But, as with this latter, ideational heft doesn’t suffice to make it the best musical work of a master sonician.
Those seeking more musical meat may appreciate more fully fleshed out realizations from The Sight Below: