In this age of music streaming where cover art and packaging are often just afterthoughts or a slapdash affair, veteran Norwegian electronic artist and composer Sverre Knut Johansen’s latest Spotted Peccary masterpiece Precambrian simply must be experienced in all its illustrative audio visual glory. That’s the best way to understand the deeper context of the earth science he deftly explores – and to realize just how beautiful the earth could look no matter what era of the planet’s history we are peeking in from.
In a single hour divided into eight distinctive tracks of varying lengths, the veteran multi-instrumentalist and sonic architect – in artful collaboration with fellow electronic music maestro and soundscape pioneer Robert Rich – takes us on an extraordinary (and wildly ambitious) journey through the mists and mysteries of time, covering some 4.6 billion years of history in the emergence and evolution of our planet. The booklet and Johansens’ subtitles help us understand what happened during these periods.
The individual musical pieces amass to create what feels like the wildly eclectic score to an endlessly fascinating film where we are the late emerging stars. Only there are as yet no moving images, so we are encouraged to immerse and follow the story in the three-fold, highly colorful geologic timescale, vibrant and informative 20-page booklet and award-winning photography. Precambrian’s cover art, Dreamers and Warriors was created by international award-winning photographer Martin Stranka, a Czech photographer who won first place with the image at the 2019 prestigious Sony World Photography Awards, chosen from 326,000 photographs from 196 countries. Clearly, the artist and label were as invested in the overall presentation as they were in conveying musical impressions of our planet’s wondrous and weird history.
The eras covered are the eerily ambient “Hadeon Eon (Earth’s Formation),” the radiant and vibrantly pulsating “Archean Eon (Life Beginning),” the spacey, moody and deeply liquefied “Proterozoic Eon (Oxygen Crisis and First Snowball Earth),” the dreamy, free-flowing and gently melodic “Paleozoic Era (Transformation – Animals and Plants Emanate onto Land),” the intensely atmospheric, water and cheery, chirp filled “Mesozoic Era (First Mammals and Birds),” the (by design) offbeat, odd metered, often atonal “Cenozoic Era (Climate changes; Homo Habilis and Evolution),” the ominous, deeply disjoined and chaotic “Anthropocene (Humans Impact Earth’s Geology and Ecosystems)” and – serving as a multi-mood, powerfully polyrhythmic, densely textured coda or summary of what we’ve just experienced – the nearly 12 minute closing title track “Precambrian (Earth’s Geologic Time Scale Impact).”
If we didn’t know the project was focused on our planet and how we got here, the intense, only occasionally melodic music, offbeat sounds, visceral tribal rhythms and expansive ambience might best be described as otherworldly. Like that Paleozoic era (541-252 million years ago) of life emerging from the sea and onto land, sounds appear, intensify, grab hold/stake their historic and emotional claim, retreat, evolve and then take on other forms.
The soundscapes are often dizzying in their breakneck presentation of new jarring tones and beats, but that’s perfectly reflective of the whirlwind of geologic time passing that got us to the present. The album is highly impressionistic, sometimes dreamy and mellifluous, but often chaotic, perfectly reflecting the messy realities, including extinctions and rebirth cycles (including an ice age in the Proterozoic Eon) that had to take place long ago so that one day, mankind could emerge in all of our own tangled splendor and complex glory.
The album’s subtitle (Geologic Time Scale) lets us know that Johansen’s ultimate goal – as on previous works like The Vast Expanse, Earth Shapes, Earth From Above, Earth From Above and Antartica = is to get us to think reverently about our incredible planet, its fascinating history and place in the cosmos. Yet he also offers a subtle hint of social consciousness as well. His inclusion of the piece “Anthropocene” is his way of reminding us of our role as caretakers of earth.
FYI, this is not yet an official designation of our era. It is a proposed epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, anthropogenic climate change. As of June 2019, neither the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) nor the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) has yet officially approved the term as a recognized subdivision of geologic time.
So in the context of a music-oriented project, Johansen is taking a great leap of faith in expressing our current realities alongside all that’s gone before as if everything is part of a continuous flow of planetary time. Life has come and gone in every other era. And if we don’t start taking better care of our sacred gift of Mother Earth, those dark parts of the planet’s history may repeat themselves. Through our reverence of history via this eye and ear popping work, the choice to become better stewards so that we may continue to live couldn’t be clearer.