The anecdote is well known. On a starry night in the 17th century, mathsyatician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal is lying on his back in an open field. Surrounded by a forest, he stares into the darkness of the sky above him. There, Pascal sees a shadowy landscape floating above him, marked by a cluster of nebulous lights, blistering orbs, and shifting textures. Beyond the realm of the Earth’s atmosphere, the dance of the infinite cosmos greets him. Far from a source of affirmation, however, the experience of infinitude for Pascal instead inspires only cosmic terror. Alone, he makes a confession:
I see those frightful spaces of the universe which surround me, and I find myself tied to one corner of this vast expanse, without knowing why I am put in this place rather than in another, nor why the short time which is given me to live is assigned to me at this point rather than at another of the whole eternity which was before me or which shall come after me. I see nothing but infinites on all sides, which surround me as an atom and as a shadow which endures only for an instant and returns no more. All I know is that I must soon die, but what I know least is this very death which I cannot escape.
Pascal’s black invocation of cosmic indifference summons an anxiety that is both primordial and unavoidable. Aboard this floating mass of rock we term “Earth,” our homeworld is surrounded on all sides by an infinite extension of blackness, speckled here and there by the presence of planets and moons, all of which are apparently indifferent to what Carl Sagan memorably called, our “pale blue dot.”2 Did Pascal have a vision of himself floating on this pale dot in the midst of darkness during that lonely night in 17th century France? Without contact from another solar system, did the indifference of the universe create a cosmic agoraphobia, forcing him back to the enclosure of the Earth, before finally making him utter those immemorial words: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me”?
Pascal’s eternal silence has not been left behind in the 17th century. The recent passing of a giant asteroid a mere 201,700 miles from the surface of Earth is a gentle reminder that we do not need to leave our homeworld to venture into outer space: we are already in the void of cosmic space. And likewise, the void of cosmic space is in us, encroaching upon our everyday existence in every dimension. Ours is not a unique planet, and out there lurks volcanoes, ancient riverbeds, and the incipient evidence of extinct life hibernating in the ruins of outer space. Amongst the cultural products of this cosmic anxiety, recent films such as Another Earth (2011) and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) confront the possibility of rouge planets shadowing and mirroring the boundaries of Earth, thus reinforcing our radical contingency as cosmic entitles.1 In each case, the place of Earth is exposed in its vulnerability via a cosmic view of life, a view that reinforces the sense that human life is fundamentally lost in the silence of the cosmos.
Nowhere is the expression of this terrifying, silent space articulated with greater ferocity than in the music of the Swiss black metal band, Darkspace. The collected works of Darkspace, comprising three albums, engages with the place of the Earth in the the infinite universe. In distinction to the bulk of black metal bands peddling themes of religious evil on the one hand, and eco-friendly paganism on the other hand, Darkspace eschew the human realm in favour a speculative thinking about the nonhuman universe, as the band report on a Pascalian note in a recent interview:
We propose an experiment: Choose a dark and clear night. Lie down on your back. Look out for the stars. You will feel like looking “up” into the sky, but in Space there are no such things as “up” or “down”. You are adhered to the planet by gravitational force only. Visualize that situation and look “down” into the stars. You might feel the fascinating fear to lose planetary contact and soar into the void.
This resistance against the human ordering of space is evident in the numerical arrangement of their albums and songs, each titled ‘Darkspace 1.1′, ‘Darkspace 2.8′, ‘Darkspace, 3.11′ respectively, as though each song was a topographic record of the homogeneity of outer space. Lacking the hyperbolic descriptions often associated with black metal, the thematic content of Darkspace is more ambiguous than issues dealing with religion and nature alone. Their music, instead, breaks free from a human centric perspective of the world, replacing it with an atmosphere suffused with the unknowable regions of outer space. Given their thematic commitment to the universe, the paradox Darkspace must confront in their music is how they can provide a soundtrack to the eternal silence of space, where even the vast motion of black holes swallowing matter and stars collapsing in the great expanse of space is all but a mute process.
Let us begin with Darkspace I, their first album released in 2003 through the label, Haunter of the Dark. The first officially published sound of Darkspace begins with vague whispers and the sound of shifting motion. Two minutes must pass in this ambient whispering before the listener gets a sense of the Darkspace universe. The rupture of ambience is marked by an atonal scream pierced with razorblade distortion from the guitars. The production is thin and raw. The “rhythm section,” as one might loosely call it, is provided by machines, and is often barely audible. The blastbeats of the guitars provide the mechanical pulse of the music’s momentum, a chugging cacophony of spacious chords countered by furious tremolo picking and death metal palm muting. The atmosphere is thick and claustrophobic. The subsequent track of the first album employs an extended quote from Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey, suggesting that the song’s point of departure is the voice of supercomputer, HAL, asserting its authority over human control.
Yet Darkspace’s music is not a violent confrontation with the machines of space, nor does it forecast a future, in which human beings have been outmoded by an advanced civilization. Instead, they explicitly align their organic selves with the technology that enables them to become Darkspace, as they put it: “As we have chosen to work with machines, we are equipped with a machine-human-interface integrating ourselves into a synchronized, electronic organism. Once the biomechanoid is activated, we follow the pulse given by the central nervous system we call “death cube,” mainly consisting of a hard disc recorder”. In keeping with this mechanised interpretation of space, theirs is not a music for space operas. One must look not to the lyrical content to discern the “meaning” of the music, but to the total atmosphere. Indeed, vocal lines are almost certainly irrelevant, as the voice is used more as an instrument of nonverbal language. If the listener hears tortured screams and anguished convulsions in the music of Darkspace, then this is arguably because outer space is the prism of our reflected fantasies and fears. Thus, just as life seeks out life in the cosmos, so the horror of human existence on Earth finds its double in outer space.
Consider here the electromagnetic sounds of Jupiter recorded by the NASA-Voyager, collected together under the title, Symphonies of the Planets. What we hear in these NASA recordings is electromagnetic waves of solar winds, radio waves, and particle changes passing through the planet’s magnetospheres before then being converted into sound waves. While it is true that the audible sound we hear of Jupiter was created by a human on Earth, the objective electromagnetic waves belong to outer space. On an experiential level, the classification of these sounds would easily fit into the genre of “dark ambient,” so inviting the sense that outer space harbours mysteries of an ominous kind. Yet space, as far as we can tell, is neither ominous nor benign, but instead lacking a moral teleology altogether. The power of Darkspace in this respect is that they give voice not only to the moral silence of outer space but also to the human gaze that is reflected back from the cosmos. Seen in this way, the dissonance and undeniable violence of their music is grounded in the experience of Darkspace the embodied musicians confronting their own infinite Pascalian terror.
Yet transient respites from cosmic violence do appear in their landscape. The end of 1.3 and the beginning of 1.6 hints at a more ambient direction that would follow in subsequent albums, whereas 1.4 establishes a spacious quality afforded by the use of recurring broad themes, suggesting repetition in the void. Indeed, if Darkspace’s music is characterised by one motif, then it is repetition of themes. Ideas are pursued, abandoned, and then returned to time and again. The music folds into itself, creating a hypotonic trancelike quality, in which all accounts of the linearity of space and time must be reconsidered.
If Darkspace I treats outer space as a chaotic field of colliding forces in the process of forming, then Darkspace II pushes this chaotic formation in a more compressed direction. With just three tracks, the album comprises a 20 minute opening and closing songs, with a 10 minute ambient interlude in-between. Again, we open with a broad expanse of whispering before erupting once more into a monolithic block of dense noise. Here, the death metal chugging of the first album has been replaced with a more atmospheric use of tremolo picking. The employment of samples is more frequent though no less audible in the mix. Track 2.9 is especially notable for its extended spoken samples. A woman’s voice calls out from the midst of a swirling horizon, snippets of a decipherable message heard in the void only to be swallowed by the blackness once more. The violent cacophony reaches its summit in the final track, a soundtrack to the image of a lifeless astronaut’s body cartwheeling through the cosmos. This is music of the vertiginous heavens. Only instead of celestial entities, it is a heaven that is populated with the kinetic drama of lifeless organisms hurtling from void to void, asteroid to asteroid, and dead star to dead star.
Darkspace III marks the culmination of their musical vision of space, and is arguably their strongest release to date. Reprising the formula of the first two records, the standard ambient intro/violent onslaught is again revisited. This time, the sound is cavernous and rich, a departure from the thin production of the earlier releases. On this release, the mix has also been adjusted, with the synthesizers overlaying a symphonic quality to the album. Indeed, for all its blastbeat violence, the trance aspect of Darkspace is oddly serene. Halfway through 3.11—the first track—the music reaches a soaring quality, solemn motifs build upon one another, creating a wall of sound that resembles less black metal and more the infernal maelstrom of Stravinsky’s “Sacrificial Dance.”
If Darkspace’s use of film samples was enigmatic and fleeting in their earlier albums, then in their third release, the voices being employed are given a central place in the music’s representative content. 3.11 references Paul Anderson’s Event Horizon (1997). The film’s plot concerns the rescue of a spaceship, The Event Horizon in the year 2047. There, the rescue team discover that the ship circumvented the laws of physics, reaching outside the known universe and bearing witness to another dimension, a dimension characterised by a malignant agency. In turn, it becomes clear that the vessel, The Event Horizon, has incorporated this malignancy into its decaying structure, compelling each member of the rescue crew to materialize their secrets and fears.
In many respects, the film is the perfect sonic counterpart to the music of Darkspace. In both works, outer space becomes a witness to the unknown, a dehumanised universe that emits indecipherable distress beacons to the broader universe. This is in keeping with our astrophysical understanding of black holes and event horizons. Whilst we can never develop a relationship with a black hole—given that all matter is consumed by its force—the surrounding event horizon is the black hole’s indirect expression. In the film, the ship acts as a conduit to what exists beyond the astrophysical event horizon, the ship a manifestation of the black hole in phenomenal terms. Likewise, in the music of Darkspace, we never gain access to the secrets and distress beacons of the universe in their phenomenal reality, but instead discern them indirectly. In Event Horizon, what is revealed in this dark cosmos is an infinite burial site, as one character says in the film when boarding the ship, “this place is a tomb.” In the music of Darkspace, this tomb is not localised to one distressed ship, but instead played out in the universe as a whole.
If Darkspace leave us with a series of unanswered questions about the place of the Earth in the universe, then this is largely because they remain resistant to a scientific understanding of the cosmos. They state in an interview:
We do have interest in scientific views of the universe and are curious to read about the results of the CERN’s particle collision experiments. We have also visited the CERN institute in Geneva as well as the synchrotron light source of the Paul Scherrer institute near Zürich. We do believe that a Large Hadron Collider will enlighten our understanding about the birth of the universe, but it will not inform us about the meaning of our existence. Science is descriptive, it illustrates what we perceive with our senses, it speaks in mathematical patterns and allows certain deductions and predictions. As fascinating as it may be—it still is a unilateral approach to the Cosmos and its life forms. We are sure that neither esoterical semi-truth, nor scientific limitations nor any religious dogma spoken for itself may reveal the true nature of the universe.
This resistance to scientific reductionism does not mean that Darkspace lose themselves in a mystically enchanted Gnostic universe, as so many of their black metal counterparts are prepared to do so. Only 3.16 provide us with an indication of Darkspace’s engagement with the idea of a “universal mind” in the form of John Carpenter’s anti-god from the director’s highly underrated film, The Prince of Darkness (1987). In some respects, this reference to an “anti-god, bringing darkness instead of light” appears to be an anomaly in the Darkspace universe. After all, the cosmic vision Darkspace establishes is a fundamentally inhuman one, devoid of the religious trappings of the black metal genre. Yet in many ways, this reference is both logical and necessary. In the violence of their music, the human occupies a place. The human is not dissolved in the unrelenting blackness of space. Thanks to this preservation, the solitary whimper of the human’s need for communion with the beyond breaks through the Earth’s atmosphere, discharging its moral and religious desires in the process.
If the universe, as Sagan puts it, is not made for us, and our place in the universe is thus subject to negation, then in the midst of this eternal silence, Darkspace provide a soundtrack to our status as lost in space. Yet Darkspace do not fill the silence left in the universe’s absence of sound. Nor do they provide the backdrop to the terraformation of outer space, or to any other inter-galactic struggle between alien species. In Darkspace’s music, our place in the universe is forever on the verge of being engulfed by the horrors of Pascal’s terrifying silence, a silence that is given voice in Darkspace’s cosmic vision of infinite terror in infinite space.