Review of Sky Burial's 'A Revised History of Dreaming'

At this point in the game, Michael Page should need little to no introduction. 

Suffice it to say that if you’re unfamiliar with him, Mr. Page is the mind behind the esteemed Sky Burial and Fire in the Head projects, among others, and has been creating music that regularly pushes the boundaries of dark ambient, experimental, and noise for over a decade. 

Beginning around 2006, Sky Burial discovered a well of continual and astounding inspiration that has seen the project amass a large discography of breathtaking ambient music, with roughly 17 releases consisting of full albums as well as singles and EPs. Each release has seen the artist collaborating with other well-known musicians such as Jarboe (Swans) and Nik Turner(Hawkwind), allowing for growth and experimentation, even as the basic essence of the Sky Burial aesthetic remained intact. Sky Burial boasts the sort of musical résumé and prowess that is often coveted but rarely equaled within the genre. 

But as with all things in this temporal existence, Sky Burial has now come to an end. 

Page announced in April of 2014 that the project was coming to its fateful conclusion and would release one last album, the massive two-disc A Revised History of Dreaming, featuring four long-playing tracks of deep, minimal, and vast dream-like ambience, accompanied by gorgeous artwork by the gifted Abre Ojos. While it might sadden some to know that the project has completed its creative cycle, rest assured that A Revised History of Dreaming is a fitting and powerfully cathartic album to complete Sky Burial’s oeuvre. 

These four movements are extended and vast; each one could very well be an entire album or EP unto itself, with the longest piece, “Movement III”, clocking in at a minute shy of an hour, and the shortest piece, “Movement IV”, still quite lengthy at twenty minutes. Perhaps a less-skilled musical architect would falter in such an undertaking, but over the course of many Sky Burial albums, Page has shown himself to be more than adept at creating immersive material that not only pushes the limits of time but remains captivating throughout each track’s length. 

It might seem as if over two hours is a long time to spend with such abstract, formless, and dark material – and it is a lot to take in, don’t get me wrong – but the music here is far from one-dimensional or tedious. If the mood strikes you right (and yes, let’s say that there might be times when this sort of thing calls out more strongly to you and other times when it doesn’t), it’s almost impossible to be disinterested in anything going on within A Revised History of Dreaming. These works are entire shape-shifting worlds just waiting to be explored by any brave pilgrim willing to step onto the path; wormholes, time glitches, false memories, repressed desires, bizarre visions, frightening creatures, and other curious encounters populate every nook and cranny of this album. 

If you let them, these pieces can have the profound ability to act as gateways into deeper levels of unexplored consciousness. Whether actively listened to during the day, utilized as a background tool to deepen meditation, or as a guide to ease into sleep and eventual dreams, the music has an uncanny ability to weave itself around the listener in a myriad of ways. At times, the music can be overwhelming and utterly consume the listener, becoming the impossible-to-ignore focal point as it rattles you to your core. At other points, it behaves more ephemerally, with sounds drifting in and out of earshot, like the ghostly face of an old lover appearing for a brief moment in a dream only to be snatched away and quickly replaced by something else just as fleeting. 

Though the music here can superficially be described as dark ambient, that wide-ranging phrase doesn’t quite do this music justice as the terrain that makes up these four long-form pieces doesn’t lay itself out according to any strict adherence to a particular musical category. That may or may not be an intentional act of defiance on the part of the artist towards any notion of rigid genre elitism. Rather, in the way that dreams can often be, the music itself defies easy categorization or order, fluidly arranging itself into whatever shape and style it pleases and doing what works best to move each track forward. 

Within each movement on A Revised History of Dreaming, the listener will be greeted by ominous drone, isolating dark ambience, industrial-rhythm, gorgeous synthesizer work, new wave ambience, noise, and a host of other sounds that are skillfully brought together by Page’s keen compositional sense. These numerous styles and sounds were definitely not haphazardly thrown together into a formless, inchoate, and chaotic mess with a hope-for-the-best attitude. No, this music flows with a strong sense of purpose and direction. It’s incredible, actually, considering the amount of material presented here. 

You’d think there would be a dip or a dull spot somewhere, but there just isn’t one to be found. Permeating the entire album is a tremendous sense of structure, pacing, and forethought as to where sounds should be placed and how they will work best together. Sometimes a specific style might be introduced and allowed to breathe on its own, for a time, before another style is layered atop that one. This results in a hypnotic blending of styles, like a cozy sonic blanket you want to snuggle up to after you press play and begin your descent into dreamland. 

Hours could easily be spent discussing and mapping out each second that ticks by. To keep things simple, I’ll focus here on “Movement III”, the first track on the second disc. At close to an hour in running time, it certainly ups the ante already put forth by “Movement I” and “Movement II”, and hints at some of the weirder moments awaiting the listener in “Movement IV”. The song encapsulates all of the elements that make up the other pieces and serves as the album’s spine, with the other tracks working as the various limbs that extend out from it. This movement is a trip of epic proportions that is most definitely the album’s core. 

The song takes its time to get moving–after all, why rush when you have an hour to play with? However, it eventually builds into what sounds like a slow-moving hallucination engine coming online with all systems go, irresistibly pulling you towards a giant, pulsating, crystalline brain that dwells at the heart of all (revised) history. Once you’ve been delivered to the song’s nucleus, you will find every thought, daydream, and nightmare that ever existed–or ever will exist–within a complex system of nerves and light. Planet-sized tectonic dream plates shimmer and continually reconfigure themselves into ever newer and bizarre fantasies in the astral darkness as all manner of spirits and visions are conjured to tantalize and terrify you. 

To safely deliver the listener back to safety and wind the track down, Page orchestrates a rather hypnotic ending, complete with tribal rhythms, droning synthesizers, and a rather playful dancing melody to draw the curtain to a close. It’s both intense and delightful, and possibly one of Sky Burial’s most involved tracks. It also bears mentioning that the beginning of this track resembles the beginning of “Movement II”, which seems intentional to not only keep a sense of continuity within the totality of material presented, but also to serve as a bridge between the two discs. Savvy fans will even discern a very close resemblance to the beginning of these songs and another Sky Burial album, Keihtan. 

A Revised History of Dreaming is a colossal album in an already lengthy line of similarly monolithic albums. It’s magical and full of depth, strangeness, and mystery, but its magic doesn’t rely on whether you believe dreams are visions created by our subconscious desires or if they’re the visitations of angels and demons. 

Thematic elements aside, what really defines the album is the passion and craftsmanship that a lone human being was willing to and capable of pouring into its creation. Though the music has the essence of dark ambient, it doesn’t stagnate in that sometimes inflexible and idle genre, and is a serious raising-of-the-bar that will be hard to top in the genre. Other Sky Burial albums aside, this double-album alone will surely keep both new and longtime listeners occupied and satisfied for a long time as they explore its many worlds and crevices. 

If the project must come to an end, and Page has said that it is truly the end for Sky Burial, then a more fitting musical epitaph probably doesn’t exist.