I’ve seen a few articles over the past few years detailing the best ambient albums, the state of ambient or the return of ambient, and whilst they’re often very positive for the genre, the artists and every other person involved in making this type of music, I can’t help but feel a bit empty after reading them.
These articles rarely scrape the surface of a genre that has never gone away, and will probably never “make a comeback” but instead, the genre continues to evolve. Ambient music will always remain a sub-culture of many popular music styles out there, or more to the point of this article, be the hidden undercurrent that’s helped inspire many other styles of music.
Whilst I’m not opposed to the genre getting any more popular (hell, I might get more traffic to the site or sell more records), I can’t help but feel a little annoyed when it’s not represented well, especially when some people have been involved for years and so, so, so, so many styles, producers and labels are consistently overlooked.
It’s a big reason why I created this site back in 2008, and it’s why I’m writing now.
Since the inception of this blog, I’ve focused on those who don’t really get the exposure they deserve and the many hidden talents of not only ambient music, but electronica and to a lesser extent, techno. Why stop now? Whilst this article will dive into the early days and influences on the genre, it will also hopefully offer a different perspective from the more popular journalism outlets and instead, focus on the many styles of ambient music and it particular, the producers and labels that have accompanied me on my journey over the years.
Heads-up, it’s long. So take the time to explore the artists and labels featured and pay it a few visits once you’ve hopped off onto Discogs and Youtube. Every album and artist links out to further information, and there’s a full Youtube playlist at the bottom if you can’t wait. For anyone that really wants to dig into ambient music, I’m hoping here might be a good place to start.
Shit. Where the hell do I start?
Let me make an attempt to cover my own ass from the thousands of very opinionated music-heads first. I got into ambient music late. Very late. And I wouldn’t consider myself an expert, but I do spend much of my life listening to and writing about it, so I think it gives me a little bit of authorisation to talk on the subject.
Secondly, I haven’t listened to every ambient record out there. Like every piece of journalism ever written, this will be a subjective take, based on my own biased experiences. The last thing I want is for this to sound like a Wikipedia article on ambient. We’ll get the background done sharp, talk about how ambient music developed for me in the 90’s and then get into the many styles I experience today as a result of exploring the genre further and further. By the end of this, I hope I’ve done it justice, introduced newbies to an ever expanding landscape of music, and helped the veterans of ambient find some new pieces to enjoy.
BACKGROUND FOR BACKGROUND
What is ambient music? (No I’m not joking). Seeing as many of my friends don’t even know what it is, this could prove a very helpful entry point. And to take a quote directly from ambient music pioneer, Brian Eno’s ‘Music For Airports’ (1978) liner notes:
“Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting”.
Which to most people means, it’s background music. But to dive deeper, a more interesting quote reads:
This is where it gets very interesting for me. I’m a big believer in music for different moods, for different times, and different feelings, and this is just one of the reasons why my site/label is inspired by Ulrich Schnauss’ album A Strangely Isolated Place. This type of music transports me to wherever I want to be. It enables me to escape; helps me picture myself somewhere else entirely. And this is often the strength of ambient music – its atmospheres, emotion and the clear intention of depicting different environments.
I listen to ambient music to help me relax and escape. And I’ve now reached a point where I can respect the power of it so much, that I pay attention to the many differences, techniques and subtleties of productions. And that’s why I do what I do, listening to so much, writing about what I love and helping musicians get their own passion of producing this music, out there.
I HEAR 1978?
Well that’s when Brian Eno coined the phrase ambient. I don’t want to dwell too much on the evolution of ambient music, as this is where many other people could tell a better story. It’s my experience. Plus, I wasn’t around in 1978 and wasn’t even listening to music properly until a good fifteen years later.
To give it some context, and in the shortest of summaries, the likes of Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, Jean Michel Jarre, Steve Roach, Harold Budd, Erik Satie, Wendy Carlos, and of course Brian Eno are just a few of the many musicians often attributed as defining the approach we know today, through synthesiser-oriented styles during the 1970’s and 1980’s. And it wasn’t until the late 80’s and early 1990’s that the more electronic styles we associate with today came into play – the style that sparked my love for the genre.
The UK is often seen as the driving force for early electronic ambient music. The Orb will always be referenced for their pioneering work on The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld (1991) helping spur a new approach by combining samples with innovative production techniques, depicting lengthy journeys, often with no defined beginning, middle or end.
The KLF did it one year before in 1990 (with the help of the Orb’s Alex Paterson), and their album Chill Out is often referenced as the best of its kind. I wouldn’t argue. Hang on, so what’s ‘chill out’ music? Not to diverge too much, but the term was used for the more drug-induced clubbing culture who created ‘chill-out rooms’ and without trying to rile up the genre fanatics, we’re still within the loose term of ambient music – you’ll just notice, as with most genres, there’s plenty more ways to describe styles and send you around in circles.
Back on track (like the Brownsville Turnaround on the Tex-Mex Border), and a beginning wouldn’t be a beginning without Aphex Twin. Richard D James gained much of his respect through his Selected Ambient Works – his debut album (as Aphex Twin) released in 1992, documenting many of his productions from ’85 to ’92. This album is one of the most accessible and enjoyable places to start if you’re trying to understand electronic ambient music. This album was followed by Selected Ambient Works Volume II in 1994, and again continued to define much of the electronic ambient music we here today.
SHEEP LEAD TO BLEEPS
The 90’s are often cited as the good years of both electronic and ambient music, and with this growth came a multitude of takes on the style. Electronic equipment became more accessible and an underground electronic music culture began to grow.
Alongside Aphex Twin, the likes of Autechre and µ-Ziq (Mike Paradinas) pushed the electronic (and in particular) “IDM” sound to new places. Whilst neither are strictly ambient artists, both played their part in creating some of the best ambient music during this period and shouldn’t be overlooked. This recent dedication to Mike Paradinas’ ambient work as µ-Ziq, is a great place to start, and Autechre’s, Amber, whilst not often highly praised, will lead you down some seriously dark rabbit holes to explore. Autechre’s VLetrmx21 remains one of my favourite pieces to date - a dramatic, poignant and thought provoking piece. Needless to say, record labels such as Rephlex and Warp
played a big part during this period.
Another innovator pushing the boundaries of ambient music and introducing more urban influences during this time, were The Future Sound of London. The Manchester pair are often overlooked unless you dive deep into their discography, but much like The Orb and The KLF, Lifeforms can be seen as one of those all-encompassing electronic ambient journeys.