Spotlight: The Ambitious Sound of Archive 81’s Whaling Adventure

Warning: The following review has some spoilers for previous episodes, and some spoilers for the current episode.

Traveling through the strange horror and magic of Archive 81 has always been its own adventure, reinvented and readjusted every season like looking through one more mirror until something cracks. Usually, their episodes for this season cap out at 30-40 minutes, but the walloping 62 minute episode Exist in the space you are currently occupying was a masterpiece, not just of audio design, but of narrative style and content.

I can see how it would be easy to think that something this long and this complex may have simply suffered from bad editing, and that length doesn’t guarantee quality, of course — but every moment of Exist in the space is a moment that needed to exist in our ears and our minds. It’s an adventure in a dreamworld, in the strange-timed and surreally-constructed City, where Christine goes on an unexpectedly long whaling adventure for ambergris. This is not a journey about ambergris. This is about Christine building a family out of a misfit crew, and building the dread in our own hearts because we know what’s going to happen when she finds something to love that isn’t her brother, that isn’t physical objects like ambergris and blood and hoarded mystical tapes and seawater.

I loved the montage style of this episode; what some may see in other media as a cop-out for a genuine evolution of relationships, I took in as the warped sense of time in this world maxed out to its best for audio. We experience the moments in several dream-years that show how deep the bonds become between Christine and Lou and the ship crew that is taking her to the sperm whales. We experience the odd and the unusual through her eyes, and are both horrified and proud when Christine learns to move through The City with the ease of a long-time resident, to understand Sonder’s language that is simply their own name, to willingly step into a fight for her captain’s honor. Kristen DeMercurio and Alister Austin as Christine and Lou are some of the most impactful voices; it doesn’t matter how many times I hear DeMercurio, I become excited to hear how she’s going to morph for me now, how she’s going to excel at whatever role she’s been given. The entire cast for this episode pulled out every stop they could and some I didn’t even think existed; I still don’t believe that the voice of Ms. Roland isn’t 90 years old.

This story structure could not be pulled off in audio without something holding the pieces together, much like bones or fragile webs, and the sound of the ocean and bells and horn and the creaking of an ancient, living ship are those unions. But this episode is so much more than that; this episode is an intense audio journey of water and ship creaks, sure, but also of tree branches playing a song and firing at an enemy ship and of an ancient woman connected to a breathing apparatus who sends you down that path in the first place. I could listen to this episode multiple times in a row — and did! — and always find something new to love in the sound design that I didn’t notice before. The echo of Ms. Roland’s room and how everything becomes amplified, the varieties of dreamlike and staccato string musics associated with The City, every warbling yell of a new creature and every breath of the ship, The Irons — Dan Powell has woven together every aspect and wrinkle so that listeners can fall into a world bigger and sharper than ever imagined.

This is one of the best episodes Archive 81 has ever made. Period. You can read more about Marc Sollinger’s approach to writing it in this Twitter thread; it’s got tons of spoilers so don’t read it until after you’ve listened. Exist in the space you currently occupy was audio that needed to be in the world, for two reasons: because it breaks the intimate two-person format of the other season 3 episodes in a way that keeps you on your toes, and because it’s about settling into place you don’t understand, the danger of bargains, and the importance of memory.

To be honest, we always knew Christine would go to the sea, every time she vomits up a tape and seawater.

This spotlight was originally published in Audio Dramatic Issue #12, August 13 2018.