Lusine

Neither scene nor heard: a journey through ambient music

 
 

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:

 
An ambience is defined as an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint. My (Brian Eno) intention is to produce original pieces ostensibly (but not exclusively) for particular times and situations with a view to building up a small but versatile catalogue of environmental music suited to a wide variety of moods and atmospheres
— Brian Eno
 
 

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 PlaceThis 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 DreamVangelisJean Michel JarreSteve RoachHarold Budd, Erik SatieWendy Carlosand 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’sAmber, 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.

Global Communication. 1994. Tom Middleton and Mark Pritchard76:14 still remains one of the most ‘underground’ ambient albums despite The Guardian listing it within their 1,000 Albums To Hear Before You Die list. With tracks titled according to length, 76:14, continued to expand on the entire listening experience album we grew to love – not just a set of individual tracks.  I couldn’t tell you the title of a particular track, because I nearly always listen to it from start to finish – the way it should be. Global Communication went on to release several other records, but none came close to the prowess of 76:14. For those who’ve dug around Tom Middleton and Mark Pritchard, their work on The Keongaku EP prior to this release is as close as you’ll get to the 76:14 experience.

Biosphere (Geir Jenssen's) 1997 album Substrata is perhaps the modern-day Brian Eno experience, focusing on intimate listening and the very definition of background ambient music. More genre terms come into play with Biosphere (ambient techno for example) but Geir is a true pioneer of ambient music and to this day can be found sampling in the plains of Norway, playing rare live performances and sometimes putting together an eclectic DJ mix. Geir remains an elusive character within my knowledge of ambient music, but is no doubt one of the most respected.

It was bands like Slowdive and Seefeel that started to put a spanner in the works. Whilst primarily seen as experimental or shoegaze, Slowdive released records such as the 5 EP in 1993, which focused on synthesised sounds – a first for Slowdive and a style that was very similar to that of Global Communication. In fact, Reload’s remix of Slowdive’s In Mind epitomised the ever-expanding ambient music of 1993 and its impact of styles outside of straight-up electronic. I love the comment on the 5 EP’s Discogs page – “The burgeoning ambient techno scene in 1993 was too much for them to resist…”!

Similarly, Seefeel’s 1993 release Quiqe is a perfect example of the genre expanding beyond it’s existing limitations, with steadfast ambient tracks like Signals and more experimental tracks such as Climatic Phase 3.

The late Pete Namlook and his German Label FAX were also a significant driver of ambient music during the early 1990’s (update - see this 2018 article for a great overview). This is an area which I still need more time to explore, but if you read any best of ambient albums you’ll be sure to find a FAX release in there somewhere. As of August 2005, Namlook and company had released 135 albums –  experience some of them through this tribute mix.

Moving towards the second-half of the 90’s, ’96 witnessed the debut of one of the most instrumental characters in the ambient scene today, Wolfgang Voigt. His self-titled album as GAS, triggered a whole new world of dubby, atmospheric ambient music. Wolfgang is undoubtedly the reason why ambient music still has its place on one of the biggest techno labels of our time (as co-owner of Kompakt) and as a result, a big reason why the genre continues to evolve and make an impact on producers today. Released on the influential label Mille Plateaux label, GAS' releases remain some of the rarest LP’s on Discogs.

The late 90’s were pretty much reserved for one special duo, Boards of CanadaIconic releases in ’95, ’96, ’97 and ’98 saw ambient music meld effortlessly with electronica, offering a vintage, warm sound that felt like it had been around for years. The elusive Scottish pairing are solely responsible for the biggest cult of fans within the ambient & electronica genres (second to Aphex Twin maybe). Much like their music, their unique, mysterious ways are still going strong to this day and although many purists would argue until they are white in the face that they aren’t ambient, there’s no doubt they’ve played a massive part in inspiring and making the ambient sound more appealing to others.

Alongside BoC, the late 90’s witnessed Stars of The Lid progress the beautiful drone soundscapes which are so popular in today’s ambient music. Brian McBride and Adam Wiltzie are often included amongst the best-of ambient lists and their pedigree shows to this day with Adam Wiltzie going strong as part of Winged Victory For The Sullen. The Stars of The Lid sound would end up becoming a big influence on the many guitar manipulations we hear in much of today’s ambient and experimental music.


TRANCE AND THE AMBIENT REMIX

This is where I risk a major drop-off in readers, but the late ’90s Trance era played a big part in my addiction to ambient and chill-out music, so I feel it’s important I cover it here. Perhaps this train of thought is new to many, or some don’t want to be associated with a genre which is now quite frankly, an embarrassment and laughing stock to anyone over 18 years of age. But the true Trance era (say pre-2002) was undoubtedly an offshoot of some of the best psychedelic ambient productions, and helped define the true meaning of chill out before it was commercialised by the likes of Ministry of Sound and Hed-Kandi, and ultimately generalised into EDM.

Rabbit In The MoonHumateBTWilliam OrbitThe Art of Tranceeven Tiesto (yes, just listen to his late ’90’s work as Kamaya Painters and Gouryella) and labels such as HoojPlatipusLost Language, and Bonzai were responsible for some of my favourite trance music in the 1990’s and in particular, a trend which emerged to be most relevant to this article; the ambient remix. Whilst this may send shudders down many ambient fans spine, I have no shame in admitting how much I enjoyed some of the remixes to emerge from trance music in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. The ambient remix of Pete Lazonby’s Sacred Cycles (sampling Genesis no-less) and Energy 52’s Cafe Del Mar, remixed by Michael Woods (2000) come straight to the top of the pile and this compilation by Solar Stone (2001) encapsulates some the best remixes to emerge (ironically including Tangerine Dream’s Love On A Real Train).

I won’t dwell on it here, as you’ll know by now I’m a closet Trance fan, but I still visit the likes of Salt TanksSargasso Sea; Chicane’s, Far From The Maddening Crowds and Way Out West’s debut album on a regular basis. And if you still need persuading on the impact of ambient music on trance, Orion & J.Shore’s isolatedmix does a perfect job elaborating on some of the brilliant music being made in this vein today.

I’M STILL IN A TRANCE

Something that’s along the same lines but perhaps more familiar with ambient fans, is the term space ambient or psy-ambient and for me, there’s pretty much just one label responsible for this sound recently: Ultimae Records.

Established in France in 2001 and still churning out quality to this day, Ultimae has become the go-to label for this type of electronic ambient music. Space-ambient is often reserved for similarly trance-like tracks, but can more often be recognised by the expansive pads, washes, atmospheres and futuristic samples each track contains. Whilst I’d be a fool to pigeon-hole Ultimae into this sound, they’ve produced some of my favourite artists in this style, including Carbon Based LifeformsAes Dana (Ultimae co-owner) and Solar Fields.

Perhaps more obvious in design, but another great artist that pioneers this sound, is Lithuania’s Stellardrone (remind me to write an article on Lithuania’s ambient/electronica scene – it’s ridiculous) and randomly, this compilation by an old record store in London called Ambient Soho manages to traverse the ambient-space sound, in particular Innersphere’s Out Of Body, and b12’s VOID/Comm.

Spanning the more trance-inducing side of ambient and hailing from one of my favourite labels growing up, Global Underground’s Electric Calm series is also a well-respected and under-celebrated bunch of mixes and exclusive material that manages to transport you into the ether. Mixed by The Forth, they’re as formulaic as mixes come, but are packed full of great, fairly unknown material.

More recently, the likes of Petar Dundov is pushing the trance-like-ambient sound forward, invoking the spirit of synthesised ambient productions from the likes of Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream. And even beat-less reissues from the likes of Hiroshi Watanabe aka Kaito (Kompakt) draw parallels, with epic strings and countless moments of euphoria.

This may also be a good place to introduce Brock Van Wey aka bvdub. Whilst I definitely wouldn’t describe his music as trance, it’s certainly an original take on trance-inducing productions. His pieces are often over ten-minutes long and are a lesson in progressive atmospheres, peppered with techno undertones and more recently, garage-esque beats. He is a pioneer of the modern-day ambient sound and a must for anyone new to the genre, with an outstanding work ethic and an unparalleled output. I’d recommend starting at his 2011 release, Songs For A Friend I Left Behind, and in particular I Would Have Waited. Or, for that truly euphoric effect, try 2012’s, Don’t Say You Know.

AMBIENT ELECTRONICA AND THE BIRTH OF THE SWEET SPOT

Earyl 00's and some of my favourite labels are setting up shop, evolving the electronic sound. Electronica is a largely debated genre and in my eyes can represent a wide range of electronic music which isn’t necessarily meant for dancing, but more for listening. From glitchy IDM based analogue music, to downtempo and ambient drones infused with sparse beats and heavy melodies. This is where I truly fell in love with music. Ambient electronica managed to combine the escapism and relaxation of ambient music, alongside more interesting and complex electronic production techniques. And none can be more responsible for inspiring me more than City Centre Offices.

Beginning with ArovaneHerrmann & KleineBitstream and Casino Versus Japan, it was 2002’s release of Far Away Trains Passing By, from Ulrich Schnauss that really blew me away. Two years later, and A Strangely Isolated Place followed suite, and finally Arovane’s Goodbye Forever on Lillies presented the power of the piano on a largely IDM focused album. Admittedly, these releases were a far stretch from the beat-less soundscapes of ambient purists such as Brian Eno, but for me, they were just as powerful in emotion and escapism.

It was the early 2000’s that unwittingly birthed one of today’s biggest stars of the genre, Jon Hopkins. Released on British Label Just Music, (also home to Echaskech and Honeyroot – two more gems that need more listens) Jon Hopkins began his career with a sublime style of ambient electronica on Opalescent. Both Cold Out There, and Private Universe are essential ambient tracks that epitomised the promising career Jon had ahead of him scoring films (Monsters); being nominated for a Mercury Music Prize; making head-rattling electronica onImmunity and my favourite; sampling the London Olympic Games opening ceremony fireworks on Abandon Window.

Fast-forward to today, and this style has evolved so much it would be impossible to capture the hundreds of brilliant artists making this type of music. Ghostly International is however a decent place to start.

The birth of Tycho’s Sunrise Projector in 2004 was the beginning of his more recent dominance within the Ghostly family; his blissful sun-drenched guitars and live percussion are the closest you’ll come to Ulrich Schnauss’ early work. And whilst the likes of Ghostly’s Lusine and Recondite can hold any dance-floor, their music remains within the realm of escapism and hits home with many of todays ambient fans who need that up-tempo edge every now-and-then.

Dive further into Ghostly’s catalogue and you’ll find the purest of ambient and experimental music sat alongside the more popular electronic functions it’s now famous for. With artists such as LoscilThe Sight BelowHeathered PearlsChristopher Willits and KILNFor a true round-up of Ghostly’s amazing contribution to modern ambient music, head to their SMM Series.

It’s within this style of music that you also start see the massive impact Boards of Canada have on the evolution of the warm, nostalgic sound. Relatively unknown but highly recommend artists such as Horizon FireNorthcapeFreeschaSarin Sunday (Com Truise in his early days) and even ASIP’s Parks do a great job at capturing this beautiful matrimony of synth-laden electronics and blissful euphoria.

Diving deeper and one of my favourite labels, n5MD has been responsible for some of the most interesting ambient electronica of recent years. LoessCrisopa(ghost)Ocoeur, and Preghost are just some of the artists coming from this brilliant label. n5MD has also played host to more ‘IDM’ style artists such as Arovane and Proem and the more recent ambient crossover with shoegaze & post-rock (see further below) via port-royalLights Out Asia and Bitcrush

POP AMBIENT

Whilst his very own Kompakt Records grew synonymous with the emerging minimal techno scene hailing from Germany in the early 2000’s, Wolfgang Voigt (GAS) quietly coined his own style of ambient music – labelling it Pop Ambient. This yearly series is now synonymous with a very certain production style and ethos, challenging the very meaning of ambient music, but always rooted in layered drones, cyclical sculptures and often traditional instrumentation.

Since its first release in 2001, Pop Ambient has established some of the most respected artists in the genre and similarly, re-established some favourites who would have otherwise been lost amongst a myriad of other guises or musical styles on the label. Markus Guentner has been a staple since the very first release and to this day pushes his unique ambient washes and faint melodies far and wide, including releases here on ASIP and Moodgadget (owned by Heathered Pearls).

Marsen Jules, whilst originally releasing on the aforementioned City Centre Offices, also makes regular appearances on Pop Ambient with his intense poems in sound. As does Argentina’s Leandro Fresco, another master of beautifully composed, richly coloured ambient music.  2015’s edition sees Kompakt continue to push into new realms, bringing regulars such as bvdubUlf LohmannGustavo Lamas and Leandro Fresco back into the fold alongside newcomers like Thore Pfeiffer.

AMBIENT INTELLIGENCE

As techno music grew and evolved in the 2000’s, ambient music was treated to some of its most defining and innovative moments. Ambient techno is an area so rich, that I still discover new (old) titles every week, but it was the likes of Mille Plateaux introducing us to GAS that kickstarted this evolution. 

More recently, German labels such as Traum Schallplatten and Raster-Noton gathered pace in the 00’s (see my tribute mix to Traum’s ambient output here) alongside the likes of Mule Musiq/Mule Electronicartists such as KossMinilogue, (Sebastian Mullaert is releasing a new ambient album with Eitan Reiter on 18th October) and Lawrence with his ambient LP A Day In The Life.

One of my favourite releases to define the ambient techno genre of late, was the Composure Ambient Techno for Japan compilation. Put together to raise funds after the Japanese Tsunami in 2011, this compilation includes some of the finest music to grace the term ambient, techno or indeed ambient techno. From here, if you dig further, your world opens up into the multitude of amazing artists included. From following Donato Dozzy, you’ll find his 2010 release ‘K’  and perhaps stray into the sublime ambient techno world of Voices From The Lake.

The Sandwell District, a couple of techno artists who (unfortunately) came together for just one album, will lead you to Feed Forward - another classic approach to ambient techno. And finally, one of my favourite producers, Donnacha Costello – I’ve done all the hard work for you here and highlighted some of his finest pieces to date.

And perhaps one of the most respected and innovative producers in this area, is Germany’s Carsten Nikolai aka Alva Noto. In 2009 Carsten released Xerrox Vol.2, and with it, Monophaser 2This video does a great job in capturing the sparse, yet emotive composition that sets Carsten apart from the rest.

AIN’T TALKIN ‘BOUT DUB

Given techno is such a wide all-encompassing genre, you can’t blame me for digging even deeper into its ambient half and exploring one of the most recent styles to emerge. Ambient-dub, or dub-techno whilst very similar to the likes of the artists listed above, has seen a particular focus recently, with several producers creating a very unique, deep and bubbly style. It’s often bashed by many as being very boring and repetitive, but when done correctly, it can be as dreamy as the very best beat-less ambient masterpiece.

You can’t mention dub or techno without Echospace and Deepchord. More recently home to the previously mentioned bvdub but more prominently known for releases by Model 500 (Juan Atkins), cv313 and Deepchord himself, the label is a favourite for die-hard techno fans and an innovative outlet for the more atmospheric techno productions that fall into this more ambient style.

Sharpening the ambient side of dub-techno even further, Iceland’s Yagya pioneered his unique style on his widely praised album, Rigning. It came some seven years after his first release in 2002 (Rhythm of Snow), and I can pretty much guarantee that any new fans of Yagya are working their way backwards through his catalogue, especially after his most recent release on Delsin. Despite having earlier albums, it was the sound of rain on your roof, the clap of thunder, emotional, rising pads and a driving dub-techno beat in Rigning that hit home for many. 

It seems as though this style is a thoroughly independent practice at the moment, with most of what I listen to released by the artists direct through the likes of Bandcamp. Finding dub-techno on vinyl is a nearly impossible affair, yet labels such as Dewtone Recordings, and Silent Seasontwo of my favourites, do their very best in pushing this type of independent music forward. Whilst neither are strictly focused on dub-techno, (or vinyl) both have a rich roster of artists that span this style, alongside straight-up ambient and more experimental sounds. ASCEdanticonfPurlAlveolSegueMartin Nonstatic and Adam Michalak come highly recommended. The below track by Textural Being epitomises the slow burning melodies and atmospheres of dub-techno I have grown to love.

#DRONELIFE

Whilst dub-techno added rolling beats to ambient music, there are those stripping away the more obvious mechanics and focusing purely on mood, atmosphere and repeated layers of sound. Drone is one of the more reserved and less accessible styles of ambient music, yet is probably the closest to the genres original conception, and arguably pre-dates Brian Eno through the 1960’s minimalist movement. BUT, they didn’t have a hashtag back in the 60’s.

I remain less familiar with drone music due to the intricacies of its design and origins, mainly because of the appreciation needed for the instruments used in the making of this music. But attending a workshop with Rafael Anton Irisarri aka The Sight Below, (or his Substrata Festival) you begin to see the complexity involved in sound design and the meticulous detail that goes into this style of music. What can seem like one single sound, is often a series of instruments, processors, loops, delays, vocals, samples and hours of hard work. And then sometimes, it’s just a plain and simple improv between the biggest music geeks in the world.

Approaches can vary from the very light and melodic ambient tones of Loscil, through to the legendary tape-loops of William Basinski’s 2002 Disintegration Loops. And further along the spectrum, the haunting wall of noise coming from Tim Hecker.

Any mention of drone or experimental music usually throws up one of the best labels in the business – Kranky. Not only home to Tim Hecker, this label has also pioneered a wide range of ambient, drone and experimental styles from the likes of Stars Of The LidLoscilGrouperWindy & Carl, and Pan American. Kranky can also hold part responsibility for the more recent emergence of the modern-classical sound, with A Winged Victory For The Sullen and Christina Vantzou.

THE TANGIBLE EXPRESSIONISTS

Compositions and performances are often meant to be heard, studied and to a large 
extent, watched – the opposite to how we defined ambient music at the start of this article. But recent years have seen such an emergence of brilliant artists that could be considered ambient via their modern-classical success. 

Composers such as Ryuichi Sakamoto played a large part in integrating modern classical into the ambient or techno genres, partnering with the previously mentioned Alva Noto for example, alongside the well-known re-interpretations from Max Richter or the lesser-known (but hugely respected) Murcof. But more recently there’s just one label that’s heavily influenced me: Erased Tapes.

Their unbelievably talented German wizard Nils Frahm has consistently released beautiful piano compositions on the label since the very beginning, but has only recently seen his greatest acclaim with Spaces. And rightly so, this was my favourite album of last year, hands-down and his recent Boiler Room set captures his magic perfectly.

Often alongside Nils is Ólafur Arnalds, the Icelandic multi-instrumentalist. Likewise, Ólafur is a genius with the piano and together the pair have propelled the modern classical genre forward in recent years, simultaneously restoring my faith in the live performance at the same time – spellbinding, magical and utterly breath-taking every time. Expanding even further into the Nordic realm, and Otto A Totland’s Pino, (hailing from the brilliant duo Deaf Center) is another great composer (Pino boasts a beautifully packaged CD to boot).

I’ve also seen a resurgence of young talented composers. The likes of ASIP’s very own Levi Patel and Halo, both under 25 and creating masterpieces that wouldn’t sound out of place in-front of an expectant crowd of hundreds. Their talent never fails to baffle me.

Young emerging label Serein recently presented us with Brambles. And Luke Howard’s Sun, Cloud remains a gorgeous yet powerful dose of theatre. New Zealand’s Rhian Sheehan continues to release some of the most spellbinding work I’ve ever heard, often traversing into an ambient guise on releases such as Seven Tales Of The North Wind.

Once I’m down this route, I often find myself leaning towards some of the masters of post-rock too. Balancing the emotion of the modern classical composition; with the raw power of guitars and drums; signed off with subtle ambient undercurrents; this style of music is yet another rabbit-hole of wonders.

The American Dollar, while specialising in post-rock, have recorded several ambient versions of their releases, highlighting the close melodic ties between the two styles. Similarly, Hammock are the true masters in this approach, producing some of the most emotional and climatic pieces of ambient, drone and post-rock you’ll come across. And should you need to dive in any further, I’ve long appreciated Stray Theories and Good Weather For An Airstrike – doing their own independent thing and definitely deserving of more ears.

And lastly, where instruments add depth and character, there are those that use them with subtlety, adding colour to an otherwise calm ambient drone. Keith Kenniff, (or Helios to many), is a great example of this approach, alongside 36 - an independent musician from the UK releasing some of the most powerful, tear-jerking, melancholic music possible. As are the many, many artists that seem to hail from Japan like Arc of DovesEx ConfusionNobuto Suda and the Home Normal collective.

THE NEXT CHAPTER

As I’ve already mentioned with the strength of recent modern classical music, I’m hoping we see plenty more prodigies like Nils Frahm shine. If a young pianist needs any inspiration they needn’t look any further than his Spaces album, or any of his live shows.

There’s a lot of love for what Burial started a few years back and I’m enjoying seeing this type of music evolve, (especially as I absorbed plenty of UK Garage when I was younger!) Artists such as Borealis and Sven Weisemann’s Desolate project nail the fine-line between this urban approach to electronica and the subtleties of ambient atmospheres. It’s hard to come across this type of stuff on a regular basis without it feeling too repetitive, but news of a new Desolate album is sure to keep it moving along nicely.

Similarly, the blissful sparse beats coming from the likes of Kiyoko push a new style forward, along with James Clements’ more ambient focused work as ASC and his label Auxiliary. With drum’n bass influences, productions range from industrial ambient to 170 BPM electronica (the Autonomic sound).

Recently we’ve seen a few artists start to integrate ambient textures and in particular modern classical elements into house and techno music. Max Cooper has been doing this brilliantly for the past few years, mainly through his remixes, and now Erased Tapes’ Kiasmos (Ólafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen) are set to show what it truly means to integrate a piano composition into dance-floor-oriented music.

~

There’s no doubt that ambient music is at one of its strongest points for a long time (as FACT Mag politely pointed out recently – and to answer the question I don’t think we’ll ever beat the 90’s!) It would be easy for me to list some releases that are coming up this year which excite me, but that’s one of the main reasons my site exists. Ambient music, drone and modern classical in its purest form, will undoubtedly remain the same, as they aren’t scenes revolving around a place, a movement or a bunch of people. But I’m always excited by the producers, labels and artists that are looking to push this type of music further.

 I’m guessing ambient music will always be in the background, like Eno meant it to be. It will continue to take many forms, add different perspectives to more popular styles, and appear in places you probably wouldn’t expect it (hell, Zain Lowe may even launch Apple Music with an ambient track).

But that’s the magic of it for me; the modest, fluid, and intimate nature of ambient music demands attention, and if it’s given, you’ll be rewarded with some of the best music out there.  

I started this article to help dive a little deeper into ambient music, but upon reflection I’ve still only scratched the surface. There’s no doubt some subjective inconsistencies, a whole heap of brilliant artists and labels missing, and I’ve probably riled the genre police in every paragraph.

Hopefully I’ve either introduced you to a new genre, style, artist or label and from there, you’ll never know where you end up. You may even be inspired to set up a blog, site or record label after your favourite album…

Below is a Spotify playlist featuring some of my favourite tracks mentioned in this article. It should keep you going for a very, very long time. And lastly, always remember to support the many artists featured in this article, doing their own thing and making our lives much more pleasurable. Thank you for reading this far.

An edited version of this article was featured in the final Substrata 2015 festival program.

 

Passing by: Parks & Norge, Sebastian Mulleart, Segue & Lusine

 
 

Parks & Norge – Eggbox 011

ASIP’s very own Russian ambient mafia has put together the latest instalment for Eggbox. Featuring nothing but Russian music, this is a rather brilliant insight into the world of Father and Son – master and young prodigy, full of warm textures, analog sounds and wacky samples. Listen to Parks and Norge’s ASIP releases over on Bandcamp and give the full article below a read for a nice interview with them both.

DownloadRead the interview.

 
 

Tracklist:

01. Unit21 -­ Baltic Morrow
02. Alexander Chereshnev -­ Akhmatova
03. Dront
04. 4elovek40 ­- Summer Time
05. Norge -­ Haftungur
06. Topj -­ Padali Listya (Топь ­ Падали Листья)
07. Roman Sidorov -­ Kryg Odinokogo Dereva (Роман Сидоров ­ Круг одинокого дерева)
08. YARA ­- steam
09. Unit 21 ­- October, 18th
10. Sleepy Town Manufacture & Unit 21 ­- We Don’t Sell This Dress
11.Fear Konstruktor ­- Octagon Temples
12.Sergey Akhunov ­- Psalm
13. Unit21 -­ Call Up The Silence And See
14. Norge -­ Óbó

Sebastian Mullaert (Minilogue) – Ambient mix for Mule

I’m not going to say too much on Sebastian right now as he has an isolatedmix coming soon… so here’s a nice taste of what to expect. It is however important to note he has album coming out soon on Mule! “I’m releasing a freestyle album that I recorded together with my friend Eitan Reiter in February 2014. The album is called “Reflections of nothingness” and will be released on Mule Musiq in the end of October. To honour the release of that album I made a mix with some ambient music, inspired by the autumn that is coming here in Sweden”.

 
 

Download

Tracklist:

01. Sandwell District – 7A
02. Wa Wu We – untitled
03. Edit Select – Blissfully Unaware
04. Lackluster – You’re Me
05. Wa Wu We – 001 B2
06. Sebastian Mullaert & Eitan Reiter – Water Burns Air
07. Laurel Halo – Dr Echt
08. Whitetree & Ludovico Einaudi – Derek’s Garden
09. Whitetree & Ludovico Einaudi – Light on light
10. Ooze – untitled
11. S100 – Atomrelish
12. Donato Dozzy & Tin Man – Test 3
13. Thomas Fehlmann – Berliner Luftikuss (Move D remix)
14. Daisuke Miyatani – Hum

Segue – Decibel Festival Podcast / Silent Season Sessions

I’m gutted to be missing Decibel this year, and for one massive reason – the Silent Season showcase. Friday will see the amazing SS crew take the stage, including ASC, Jamie McCue (Label owner) and our fav dub-techno-head Segue. More info on that special lineup here.

 
 

Tracklist:

01. Turning Patterns (The Here and Now LP)
02. Identity Dub (Unreleased)
03. Tape Dub (Athabasca EP)
04. La Rue (Pacifica LP)
05. Hozho – Traverser Les Mirroirs (Segue Remix/Unreleased)
06. Snow Dub (Pacifica LP)

Lusine – Slumber Session

Just dropping this morning, Ghostly stalwart Lusine entertaining us with some of his more ‘downtempo’ gems – a lovely colourful palette of a mix, that really makes me miss summer already.

 
 

Tracklist:

01. Kid Smpl – I Think It’s Gone (DJAO Cover)
02. Lusine – Quiet Day
03. Philip Grass – All I Need
04. Shigeto – Ritual Howl
05. Rival Consoles – Soul (feat. Peter Broderick)
06. Chrome Sparks – The Meaning of Love
07. Dabrye – Magic Says
08. Nosaj Thing – Voices (Dorian Concept Remix)
09. Shinamo Moki – Rowena’s Wedding
10. Paul White – Hustle (Bullion Remix)
11. Teebs – Hi Hat (feat. Populous)
12. Fulgeance – Nightwalker
13. Letherette – Boosted
14. Nicolas Jaar – Variations
15. Sun Glitters – Insane

Photo by astrangelyisolatedplace


Decibel X In Review

After years watching Decibel Festival unfold across the Atlantic from England, I was finally able to attend this year after my recent relocation to the Pacific North West. Five days later, as I sit on the Coast Starlight from Seattle back to Portland, I feel lucky to have experienced a very special tenth anniversary Decibel festival. Here’s my own personal low-down of the week, but I obviously didn’t get to see it all. So for anybody else who went feel free to comment below with your own experiences.

Wednesday: Venue pit-stops. No Order. Performances by Ben Klock & Kode9.

Arriving early evening on the Wednesday, the only performance I was interested in seeing was Peter Hook and The Light, where he was due to perform New Order’s classic ‘Power, Corruption and Lies’. We arrived at around 10.30pm and couldn’t get in as the venue (Neumos) was already at capacity – I expected it to be busy but it was a disappointing start to my festival experience. I later learnt that Moby went up and performed with him on stage, but after a chat with someone later on in the week, apparently any die-hard New Order or Joy Division fans were cringing the whole way through as Moby destroyed Ian Curtis’ unique and legendary vocals…

A quick walk down the road to ‘Q’ Nightclub and it felt like we had walked into a european super-club; with Funktion One speakers adorning each wall, a glitzy light show on the ceiling and Ben Klock getting down to his dirty business. We didn’t stay long, as the sound engineer that night was obviously intent on demonstrating the lowest spectrum of the Funktion One without any treble, and my trousers were rattling against my legs.

On to The Crocodile for a quick blast of Kode9 – it seemed like a good performance and the perfect venue, but we decided to call it a night as the best was undoubtedly yet to come.

Thursday. The kings of improv. Performances by Peter Broderick, Oliveray, Haushka, Moby.

Thursday got off to a great start as my planned interview with Nils Frahm was moved to 1pm. A skip over to the W Hotel to meet the Erased Tapes crew including Peter, Hauschka, Olafur, Nils and label owner Robert, and my excitement for the Optical Showcases that were to begin that night had reached new heights. (More on my interview with Nils and Ólafur to come very soon!)

The Optical Showcase kicked off in the Nordstrom Performance Hall and I was quick to bag a front-row seat. Peter Broderick introduced himself via his choice of outfit – a suit “chosen by a gay friend in Portland” he said. His modest and charming demeanour won the crowd over straight away and his equally brilliant voice was quick to draw gasps from the audience. Switching from the banjo, to acapella and violin, Peter’s warmth and charm shone through as he played new material “he was trying out”. I’m not sure if everything he played that night will make his new album though – his unexpected improvised rapping was the perfect end to his set and the ideal crowd-warmer for Oliveray.

Nils Frahm then joined Peter on stage and as expected took to the piano to accompany Peter’s vocals. What followed, was again more unexpected improvisation as these two musical genius’ decided to tap, drum and loop their way across the stage, intersecting delicate Oliveray tracks with surprise, laughter and smiles from the crowd. Nils was already a magician in my books, but I think he found another partner-in-crime that night.

 
 

Hauschka, the legendary king of improvised piano began with an introduction to his work schedule, apparently consisting of many haunting film-scores, he warned the audience he had been in a dark place recently. With a Grand Piano full of unknown gadgets and tidbits, and a full screen linked to a camera peeking inside the hood, Hauschka pelted out a 45 minute, non-stop piece that went from skittering tight notes to blasts of bass and rolling melodies. Mind-blowing and all-consuming, Hauschka took advantage of coins, tins, drumsticks and what I think were a couple of vibrators pinned down with tape (!) to conjure up scores of euphoria, dictating his very own improvised movie soundtrack. Despite his unorthodox approach, he said he “likes the purity” of the piano, and like a musical cleansing process, proceeded to remove the trinkets that adorned the piano, throwing them on the floor for all to see just how much experimentation and ingenuity went into his performance. An amazing first night of Optical performances.

 
 

From here, we headed over to Showbox Sodo, mainly because it was right next to where we were staying so we could see the night through in comfort. Also, after our first night’s experience trying to get into Neumos we didn’t want to risk turning up late to see Teen Daze (who I heard had a stormer), but on hindsight we could’ve made a better choice. Whilst Moby’s warm-up act were terrible, The Little Idiot did a good job banging out some dirty techno which at times was just perfect, but some atrocious mixing moments and the weirdest crowd i’ve ever been dancing with, put a quick end to the night. More for the energy bank though and the highly anticipated Friday schedule.

Friday. D-day. Decibel Conferences and Performances by Nils Frahm, Olafur Arnalds, Dauwd, Beacon, Lusine, Shigeto, Max Cooper.

The big day. My Decibel day of choice, started with a visit to the Broadway Performance Hall to get a download on sound-related topics, which are for the most part over my head. An intimate session with Olafur as he took a crowd of twenty through his Ableton setup, his loops and his very earnest approach to production – a sneak peak into what was to come that evening. This was followed with a lecture by Rafael Anton Irisarri who took a room through his surround-sound manipulation techniques. Then, a quick glimpse into Ghostly’s Dauwd and Lusine’s setup before I made a dash back to the Performance Hall to make sure I was in line for the Erased Tapes special showcase with Nils and Olafur.

 
 

Seats taken, and the space filled 20-minutes before the first note was played. Nils and Olafur have become infamous for their performance on this tour and this was destined to be one of the highlights. Nils didn’t waste any time in taking to the piano and beginning his ‘Spaces’ performance with Olafur joining him shortly at the start with a glass of wine (or juice as Nils may have it). My review of ‘Spaces’ pretty much sums up how fantastic it was should you want an overview of the entire performance, however in a twist of fate relating to his album inspiration, a raggae sounding ring-tone interrupted Nils’ flow in the middle of his switch into ‘Hammers’, only for Nils to stop, give a smile to the crowd (as if to thank them for the inspiration of his latest album) and switch from the Rhodes straight back into his emotional flow. This moment happened at almost exactly the same time as it does in his new album ‘Spaces’…

Nils quoted on ‘Spaces’ that the audience are his main inspiration for how a performance will grow and develop, and during “Over There it’s Raining”, the silence felt from the room was almost unreal – it seemed to inspire Nils to approach this particular track even more softly than normal. Some of the most, quiet, delicate and intricate piano playing I’ve ever witnessed, balanced with his multi-piano manipulations.

Nils stood up to end the set with the synth-laden “Says” and powered his way through to a well-deserved crowd joining him with a standing ovation. I experienced his genuine gentleness and humour when i interviewed him the day before, but watching him perform is like witnessing a dark-magician alter-ego conjuring up a musical storm – a genius, mystical, out-of-this-world experience.

Ólafur started with his audience-sample loop, similar to my experience at Hackney Empire last November and continued with tracks from ‘For Now I am Winter’, delivered as always, in spectacular fashion alongside plenty of audience banter. Every girl in the room was swooning at his Icelandic charm and modest jokes. Whilst Ólafur is an easy focus of attention, he gave plenty of room for his violinist to shine, who delivered a ridiculous solo. And the unselfishness continued as Ólafur invited ‘For Now I am Winter’ vocalist, Arnor Dan to the stage to deliver the album’s title track – an amazing voice which really shone on the big stage. As Arnor walked off to leave Ólafur to finsih, he gave a little punch to the air as if to congratulate himself on how well it went.

Like every single Optical performance at Decibel so far, Ólafur was greeted with a standing ovation from the crowd and once again, these musical geniuses had won the hearts of every single person in the room.

The night wasn’t even finished and I was rushing over to The Crocodile for another highly-anticipated showcase by Ghostly International. Label newcomer Dauwd began the night amongst a fire-alarm evacuation and finished on spectacular form with his melodic, layered driving electronica. This is only his second tour with Ghostly and he already looks a part of the Ghostly furniture.

Beacon followed and sent the room into a hazy, dreamy state as eager eyes fixed on the duos silhouettes and angelic vocals. Lusine was quick to follow and like a forgotten godfather of electronic music, laid down the dance-floor friendly electronica law – simple, clean and just damn good, people can’t help but smile and enjoy Jeff’s productions, especially as he debuted some brilliant new material.

Two-years ago, Shigeto was warming up for his label-mates, but now takes centre stage after his recent album has caused a stir. Adorning Portland-esque trendy lightbulbs amongst his synths and drum kit, Shigeto wasted no time in sending an expected Ghostly crowd into a hip-chopped electronic frenzy. Amongst thanks to Decibel and gratuities to the other performing artists, Shigeto, as always, gave it 110% and is now a well-deserved head-liner.

One last performance of the night and I was off to catch Max Cooper at Q. Despite the millions of remixes, live sets and DJ recordings i’ve heard from Max this was to be my first time catching him live. Walking in, and you could immediately sense a different vibe from the first night’s experience at Q – the sound was much better, the crowd were already in full flow and Max was dropping his signature sound from one-track to the next. He even paid homage to the earlier Olafur performance with a subtle little remix from (what I can remember) ‘For Now I Am Winter’ – maybe an unreleased gem we can look forward to?

Saturday. The original heroes. Performances by Juan Atkins, The Orb, John Tejada, Matias Aguayo, Thomas Fehlmann.

There was only really one act I wanted to see on the Saturday – The Orb. Everything else took a back-seat, however it ended up being one of, if not my favourite nights.

I chose to skip the Zola Jesus Optical show at The Triple Door, which going by everyone else’s feedback was a mistake – an acoustic set backed by an orchestra apparently. However, my absence meant I got to the Showbox venue early enough to grab a table and wait for The Orb to appear.

I forgot that Juan Atkins was also on the bill and as soon as he stepped up with his choppy mixing and energetic detroit techno, I was gravitating towards the dance floor. Not a moment too soon and the legendary Alex Paterson and Thomas Fehlmann graced the stage to a rapturous applause.

What followed may not have been an original performance – it was raw, it was familiar, it was swampy, it had Alex Paterson smiling from ear-to-ear and Fehlmann rocking like a possessed doctor, but it was The Orb and it was great. Edits of ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’ amongst other classic cuts, a quick glean at the crowd and every single person, including The Orb were witnessing a rather special reunion set. Apart from the Optical Showcases, this was the only crowd I witnessed at Decibel who seemed 100% obsessed and locked into who they were watching. It was great to see middle-aged balding men (no comment – I’m one of them) and psychedelically dressed hippies grinning and nodding to their heroes from years gone by.

 
 

Any tiredness I had collected until that point was replaced with adrenalin and we quickly stomped over to the Kompakt after-hours at Neumos. Thomas Fehlmann was due to perform a live set, but at 5am this seemed a little unrealistic to stick out. However, I have to thank John Tejada and Matias Aguayo for keeping me rocking until the time came. Tejada, with an emphatic minimal techno set that would lead me to buying every single record played if I had a way of finding out, and Aguayo with a unique vocal-looping-latin-inspired performance that kept the energy rolling. Listen to Tejada’s set here.

Fehlmann arrived on cue at 5am and with a half-empty club, proceeded to rip the place apart with edits of his own productions on the likes of ‘Gute Luft’. Again, Fehlmann gently rocking as he stared into his laptop, only to break out into subtle little arm-dances and cheeky smiles as he realised his beloved following had stayed with him until the very end. Listen to Thomas Fehlmann’s set here.

Sunday. A grand-bient finale. Performances by Raime, The Sight Below, Nosaj Thing.

I was tired by now, but there was one last Optical Showcase and it was set to be a stunner. Arriving early at the infamous Triple Door (it was my first time and is quite a legendary place after hearing many ambient live sets recorded here), I had a brief chat with HC (Headphone Commute) and waited out an unexpected delay to the show as Decibel tried to compensate for Oren Ambarchi’s delayed flight.

My venue inexperience showed as the seats we were given placed us at right-angles with the stage – great for a band, not so good for any AV performance. Raime were up first and the english duo wasted no time in delivering a harrowing soundtrack, whilst hunched over their laptops in the stage’s dark corner. You could tell these two hail from a dubstep background with their subtle appreciation of beats, but the progressive bells and washes were from the (twisted and brilliant) mind of a couple of ambient masters.

After a brief break and a well-deserved Decibel thank-you procession, The Sight Below took centre stage, laden with his laptop, numerous loop pedals and his infamous hoodie. I was lucky to see Rafael perform as himself at Substrata a few months back but i’ve never seen him perform as The Sight Below – the guise which induced my entry into Rafael’s productions. His performance can be summed up pretty simply – #dronelife. Rafael shook The Triple Door to the ground, teetering on the edge of the maximum output, as subtle guitar loops grew into an atmospheric monster. My friend had to leave as he said he was getting heart palpitations – no joke – I wasn’t surprised. This gentle dinner setting was being assaulted by a wonderful, rich ambient performance from Seattle’s finest. The subtle introduction of vocals into the last enveloping track blew my mind, and pretty much everything else in sight.

Oren Ambarchi was due to cap the night but couldn’t make it due to a delayed flight, so Nosaj Thing was lined up at last minute to close proceedings with a debut ambient AV set. I enjoyed it. It was unique and melodic as you’d expect from him, similar to the likes of Sun Glitters and Teen Daze, but I couldn’t help but think Oren’s set would’ve capped this night off perfectly. After The Sight Below, I wanted something dark, dramatic and transcending.  But, i’ve been spoilt and had got used to such perfect programming. Decibel did an amazing job getting Nosaj in at last minute and it was a testament to the hard work put into this festival. For a great in-depth review of the Optical 4 night, have a read of Kexp.

From the showcases, to the set-orders, it was an unbelievable week of music and without a doubt the best ‘city’ festivals I’ve been to. It’s not often you get to see the faces of the grafters, nor is it often you see a festival curator such as Sean Horton at nearly every single performance you go to, running around making things happen. Top this off with a dream lineup and it’s one hell of a festival. I missed out on so much; Machinedrum, Aeroplane, Lorn, Âme, Teen Daze, Lapalux, Cajmere, Gold Panda, Zola Jesus to name just a few sacrifices, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Thank you Decibel for a mind-blowing musical week, and here’s to another ten.

Top 5 festival moments (a list of complete performances was too hard)

1. Alex Paterson and Thomas Fehlmann glancing at each other on stage with total satisfaction and happiness (because I was in it with them!)Main picture.
2. The Sight Below rattling the hell out of The Triple Door. Is it still standing?
3. Peter Broderick freestyle rapping at the end of his performance.
4. Singer, Arnor Dan joining Olafur Arnalds on stage – what a voice.
5. Nils Frahm’s emphatic standing ovation at the Optical Showcase. Grins from ear-to-ear.

Five tips for next year:

1. Get to the venue early if there’s something you really want to see.
2. Avoid the pasta at Lost Lake Cafe opposite Neumos.
3. Try not to get a seat down the side of the Triple Door at any AV led performance.
4. Avoid the Neumos / Q area after 2pm. It’s a war-zone.
5. Don’t take a mate with a dodgy heart to see The Sight Below.