Slowdive

ASIP - Reflection on 2017

 
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2017 was undoubtedly a year for many of us turning to a softer, more comforting style of music to help heal and escape the real world. Many of you reading this probably use the type of music covered here on ASIP as a remedy and form of escapism, and some may just be getting acquainted. Now more than ever, I feel like people are connecting with ambient music, and I see it in the comments, feedback, support and thoughts that accompany each release, friends releases, mixes etc, and and in the growing popularity of the genre in the wider-music spectrum. 

We’ve managed to present three vinyl releases this year, and I'm extremely proud of each one. Starting with the organic calming of Lav & Purl'sA State Of Becoming; we then went denser and deeper with Leandro Fresco & Rafael Anton Irisarri'sLa Equidistancia. In August, Arovane & Hior Chronik returned for their second album, Into my own. And in the middle of all of this, we experienced the worst possible outcome with our vinyl production (as did many others), but that was put into balance with your amazing support and kind donations for La Espera; the companion EP by Leandro and Rafael, which helped raise funds and get us back on track to continue with a new press (more to come on that one soon, along with news on the vinyl for La Equidistancia).

We're already looking forward to 2018's releases, with the announcement of Christian Kleine's upcoming album in January. But before we get ahead of ourselves, it's time to look back at all the music that kept the inspiration high and the mind elsewhere over the last year...

Here's a breathless-quick rundown on what’s included...

~

Young composer, Sophia Jani opens up our mix; Kai Schumacher reimagines a Moderat favorite; and South Africa's Jason Van Wyk finds the magical atmospheric piano balance on his Home Normal release. Leandro Fresco pairs up with Kompakt companion Thore Pfeiffer (who also just dropped a new album with Max Wurden); whilst Warmth is back on the year-end list with another pure blanket of warm ambience. I watched Earthen Sea play live in a church this year, and his Silent Season anniversary release was one of the best of a brilliant bunch from the label. ASC strayed away from his Silent Season ambient home to put out a deep-cut on his own label Auxiliary. The powerful, heart-pulls of Black Swan, 36 and Secret Pyramid were some of my favorite tear-jerkers of the year, whilst Rafael Anton Irisarri's political masterpiece on Umor Rex took our emotions to the next level. Noveller moved to LA recently, which might've  inspired one of my favorites of hers in a long time. Ryuichi Sakamoto returned with a twisted and interesting set of compositions, whilst PAN released an intriguing dig through relatively new and unheard ambient artists on their highly regarded compilation, Mono No Aware. Field Records and Acronym are no strangers to us individually, but their combined output was undoubtedly one of this years best pieces of ambient music. The one sweeping piece of ambient from nthng’s original and innovative techno record makes the cut, triggering some deepness from Luigi Tozzi in a rare ambient remix- a break from his bubbling techno on the high-flying Hypnus label. Wanderwelle landed strong with one of the most innovative dub-techno records we've heard in a very long time, whilst my fandom for Alexsi Perälä went up a notch, via his relentless Colundi Sequence compositions. We get deeper with Primal Code (Hypnus with another great release) and then Artefakt pull out the swirling, progressive techno-stomp and another must-own album. Joachim Spieth finally unveils a full-length album spanning ambient and techno- one of the only people who could strike this balance so well. Loess is another big return for 2017 with their signature deep and unique glitches, and Purl continues his many guises with one of this years most original pieces under his Illuvia moniker. Speaking of originality, no-one comes close to the bvdub style, but again he manages to surprise and delight. Loscil pairs with Mark Bridges as High Plains in their brooding instrumental piece, which is followed by our very own modern-classical prodigy Hior Chronik and his debut album on 7K!. Ghostly's, Christoper Willits scores a film on The Art Of Listening with some beautiful textures and Leyland Kirby scored a lifetime of mental degradation this year with his Caretaker series, but chose to release some of his best stuff for free. Hammock and Billow Observatory were once again on point to soothe with their dreamy lulls and enchanting melodies. The Thesis Project continued to present unique collaborations with Anna Rose Carter and Dag Rosenqvist just one of the many standouts from the series. The Susumu Yokota stylings of Poppy Ackroyd, are followed by the now legendary sounds of Four Tet. And with one of my most anticipated returns in a while, The Gentleman Losers begin to end proceedings with their Air/Bibio/Quiet Village dreaminess. And finally, the curtain closer coming from the biggest return of the year, Slowdive.

~

Despite a hefty 36 tracks, and 2hr 42mins total,  I've still left-out a bunch of my favorite releases of the year from this mix. But, I let the flow of the mix dictate what is included whilst pulling from my whittled-down playlist from the past year. It's restrictive whilst also liberating doing it this way, as putting together lists is a near impossible task for me. This method forces my hand, whilst also presenting something a little different to the normal year-end lists. 

To all those artists I’ve missed out, keep doing what you’re doing, we’re still listening. If you need to see more of the music I've been enjoying, well, this blog is of course a good place to start, as well as everything I've purchased and supported on Bandcamp, shown in my Fan Collection (go Bandcamp!).

Thank you to all the artists and labels featured, and a big thank you to everyone for continuing to support ASIP this year, buy our records and listen to the music featured on the blog and the label.  Next year will be ten years since the very first ASIP blog post, so we’ll be celebrating with some very special projects.

Until then, enjoy a look back at 2017...

Download
Stream tracklist (Spotify/Apple Music). (Not all tracks included)

Tracklist [label & link to buy] (ASIP links) rough start time.

01. Sophia Jani - Those Who Stay [Unreleased / Soundcloud] 00.00>
02. Kai Schumacher - A New Error [Neue Meister] 04.04>
03. Jason Van Wyk - Clouds [Home Normal] (Review) 07.55>
04. Fresco & Pfeiffer - Splinter [Kompakt] (Review) 10.16>
05. Warmth - Isolation [Archives] (isolatedmix) 14.00>
06. Earthen Sea - The Time Past [Silent Season] 17.50>
07. ASC - Quaoar [Auxiliary] (ASC isolatedmix) (Review) 22.22>
08. Black Swan - The Escapist [Self] 27.06>
09. Secret Pyramid - Two Shadows [Ba Da Bing!] (isolatedmix) 30.48>
10. 36 - Black Soma [Self] (artist page) (isolatedmix) 34.30>
11. Rafael Anton Irisarri - RH Negative [Umor Rex] (artist page) 39.34>
12. Noveller - The Unveiling [Fire Records] 43.40>
13. Ryuichi Sakamoto - honj [Milan Records] 46.30>
14. Malibu - Held [PAN] 48.30>
15. Acronym - The Final Decision [Field Records] (Review) 49.32>
16. nthng - Touches [Lobster Theremin] 55.34>
17. Luigi Tozzi - Yavin (Ambient remix) [Hypnus] 60.42>
18. Wanderwelle - The Starry Night [Silent Season] (isolatedmix) 63.28>
19. Aleksi Perälä - NLL561606935 [Clone Basement Series] 68.36>
20. Primal Code - Junkan [Hypnus] 71.47>
21. Artefakt - Entering The City [Delsin] 77.58>
22. Joachim Spieth - Radiance [Affin] (isolatedmix) 88.17>
23. Loess - Wrikken [n5MD] (Review) (isolatedmix) 94.02>
24. Illuvia - Illuvia (Exaltation) [Eternell] (Review) 99.00>
25. bvdub - Limitless [n5MD] (interview) (isolatedmix) 108.18>
26. High Plains - Ten Sleep [Kranky] (isolatedmix) 113.42>
27. Hior Chronik - That Mistery Again [7K!] (artist page) (isolatedmix) 116.30>
28. Christopher Willits - Beginning [Ghostly] 118.52>
29. Leyland Kirby - Dig Deep March On [History Always Favours The Winners] 122.12>
30. Hammock - Dust Swirling Into Your Shape [Hammock music] 127.04>
31. Billow Observatory - Montclair [Azure Vista] (Review) (isolatedmix) 130.00>
32. Anna Rose Carter & Dag Rosenqvist - Nothing Ever [Thesis] (Feature) 133.26>
33. Poppy Ackroyd - The Calm Before [One Little Indian] 137.50>
34. Four Tet - You Are Loved [Text Records] 143.38>
35. The Gentleman Losers - Holding Back The Night [Grainy Records] 149.30>
36. Slowdive - Falling Ashes [Dead Oceans] 154.24>

 

isolatedmix 74 - Secret Pyramid

 
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When I stumbled across Amir Abbey's work as Secret Pyramid, I was immediately struck by the pure emotive power of his productions, alongside his ability to portray vivid, dense and often dark atmospheres. A well-walked path for many ambient producers, but Secret Pyramid manages to break free of any traditional dark-drones, with more intense sounds, progressive synthesizers and analog elements that complete a vibrant organic feel.

In a similar vein to the brooding drones of the likes of Rafael Anton Irisarri and Abul MogardAmir often combines these analog textures with slow-climbing synthesizers that evolve into walls-of-sound and emotional hooks we're often used to coming from the likes of 36. One of my favorites being  the siren call of 'IV' from Distant Works II - an album that also ended strongly with 'VII' - a more ghostly and mysterious pattern set against the static hiss of a failed radio signal, a desolate end to a superb collection of music. 

Secret Pyramid just released his latest album on Ba Da Bing! titled Two Shadows Collide, which, "deepens Abbey's relationship with modern composition and abstract songcraft". An album that's proving to be one of my favorites from the year so far; Amir dances with slowly intensifying movements and textures in ways that leave your eyes wide open, and your heart yearning for more.

His influences may sound familiar, but we had no way of knowing unless he got behind the controls of an isolatedmix, to present us with the many intricate styles that go into the work and mind of Secret Pyramid.  

"This mix consists of a range material that influenced my recent LP, newer sounds that I've been listening to lately, and also some all-time favorites. The mix came together pretty naturally, and I'm happy with how it works as a reflection of the variety of styles and moods that continuously inspire me. I took inspiration from some modern classic composers like Scelsi, Ligeti, and Penderecki while making "Two Shadows Collide", as I find their use of space and dissonance, coupled with the sheer intensity to be very engaging. Badalamenti has always been a huge source of inspiration, and this piece from the recent Twin Peaks reboot is sublime. The Abul Mogard and High Plains pieces are recent works that I’ve been enjoying, and the mix ends with a lovely piece of cosmic minimalism from the great Laurie Spiegel." - Secret Pyramid /AA

Download.

Tracklist:

01. Vikki Jackman, Andrew Chalk & Jean-Nöel Rebilly – Mist
02. Giacinto Scelsi – String Quartet No. 3 Avec Une Grande Tendresse, dolcissimo
03. Abul Mogard – Bound Universe
04. Angelo Badalamenti – The Fireman
05. Broadcast & The Focus Group – A Quiet Moment
06. Alireza Mashayekhi – Chahargah No.2 Op.140
07. High Plains – Black Shimmer
08. Bohren & der Club of Gore – Constant Fear
09. György Ligeti – String Quartet No.2 Sostenuto, molto calmo
10. Slowdive – Cello
11. Krzysztof Penderecki – Polymorphia
12. Laurie Spiegel – East River Dawn

Secret Pyramid | Bandcamp | Web | Soundcloud | Facebook

 

ASIP Wantlist #1

 
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Introducing a new feature series for the diggers out there; the ASIP Wantlist. We'll be asking friends and artists for the five records that sit at the top of their wish list, the records they make a beeline for every time they step into a record store, the covers they've never ran their finger across, the pieces of wax that long for a space on their shelf. 

Finding these elusive records has been made increasingly easier over the years with the likes of Discogs and eBay, but if you ask any record collector, nothing beats finding a piece of vinyl without the means of the internet; wrongly filed, turned backwards, hanging on to an original, busted sleeve, and inappropriately priced. The moment that goes through all of our heads; "is this it? Is it the original? Is it in OK condition? Yes! Why is it it filed in the Jazz section?? OK, how much is it..."

Some submissions in the series will undoubtedly be easily found on the internet, maybe at an extortionate black-market price, but this isn't just about highlighting the rarest LP's with only one acetate ever pressed. Instead, it's a personal love affair with a cherished format. It's a chance for the people who appreciate the physical product, to talk about the pieces they've wanted for some time, and the copies they long to find in a dusty old store - the earned find, not the one-click buy. Nothing beats it. 

I'll kick things off.

Doing this was harder than I thought given how many sought-after records have been re-pressed recently, but I found this to be a proof point in why this feature could be interesting. It wont be a list to show-off peoples collections; "hey why don't you tell me about all those great records you have?" No. It will probably end up being a weird anomaly of records that unearth a bit of nostalgia and personality surrounding said person. I toyed with including some wants from my techno list, my trance list even, but ultimately settled on an ambient theme to begin proceedings. 

And as a reference for all the true crate diggers, I've been collecting for about fifteen years now, which is not that much compared to many people, so expect a relatively modern list, all things considered. Future Wantlist features will undoubtedly dig even deeper...

 

1. Gas - Gas. 1996. Mille Plateaux [Discogs]

 
 

I'm yet to find a Gas vinyl in a record store  and I don't own any Gas on vinyl. It kills me. And given the quality across his four albums between '96 and '00, any of them could be on this list.  

The grandfather of ambient techno (you could say) Wolfgang Voigt, released his defining self-titled LP on the just-as-legendary Mille Plateaux label in 1996 and has seen nothing but praise and imitators (in the good sense) ever since. His sound undoubtedly went on to influence his curations for Pop Ambient  (this is where it started) and likely spawned a generation of washed-out, blissful techno music that straddled between ambient and dance-floor techno. 

Wolfgang is a big influence to many of the artists I listen to today and is responsible for Kompakt's infamous contribution to the ambient world, making his LP's top of my Wantlist by a long way. 

2. Slowdive - 5 EP. 1993. Creation Records. (12") [Discogs]

 
 
 
 

Perhaps an obvious choice, but I don't own many Slowdive records. I'm not sure if it's down to them generally being hard to come across; if I haven't had the urge to dig them out; or if deep down I can't even begin collecting Slowdive records properly until this one is in my collection (I'm an all-or-nothing type of person). 

In Mind is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever created and Rachel's soft, angelic voice sounds even better on a warm, crackly piece of vinyl. I also want this to accompany my treasured Reload remixes of In Mind 12". Which leads me nicely on to...

3. Chapterhouse Retranslated By Global Communication ‎– Pentamerous Metamorphosis. 1993. Dedicated. (2xLP)  [Discogs

 
 
 
 

Another shoegaze related want, with Chapterhouse receiving the remix treatment from Global Communication at the very beginning of their infamous ambient era. Tom Middleton and Mark Pritchard set the bar high in 1993 with this unexpected remix album, yet managed to better it even further with the release of their genre defining 76:14 album a year later. Whilst I'm lucky enough to own an original copy of 76:14, it's this remix album I'm on the hunt for now. Each track, taking the core of a Chapterhouse melody, feeling or vocal and capturing the very essence of Global Communication each and every time. 

4. Brian Eno With Daniel Lanois & Roger Eno ‎– Apollo - Atmospheres & Soundtracks. 1983. Editions EG. (2xLP) [Discogs]

 
 

This is an example of an LP that is commonly available online, but one I long to come across in a record store, in pristine condition, sat there patiently waiting for me. It's a classic ambient album, inspired by America's conquest of new frontiers, and contains one of my favorite tracks of all time, An Anding (Ascent)It's the the blueprint for the likes of the KLF's Chillout album (combining elements of Country music for example), undoubtedly some of the Aphex ambient sound, and plenty of Pop Ambient musicians who went on to use subtle guitar loops as textures. It's heralded as one of the best-ever ambient albums for many reasons. Not to mention the track, Deep Blue Day, used in that infamous Trainspotting toilet scene. A must have in any collection, and surprisingly, one still missing from mine...

5. Alessandro Cortini - Forse 1. 2013. Important. (2xLP) [Discogs]

 
 
 
 

This last one took me a while to think about. There's hundreds of older records I'm on the hunt for (which I'll no doubt have to cover in later features), but I wanted to provide variety across the five, so I looked to more recent 'misses' which are now on my hit-list.

Alessandro Cortini (of Nine Inch Nails fame) has released three Forse albums and I unfortunately jumped on the bandwagon just a little too late, picking up the third (purple) last year.  I now need to track down the previous two, because not only do I have an obsession with completing sets (for example, I'm still on the hunt for a few remaining Donnacha Costello Color Series 12"s and a couple more Pop Ambient LP's to complete those collections) but Alessandro's albums are similarly worthwhile collectors items. Beautifully presented, color vinyls, quality packaging and above all, include some powerful, stunning music by Alessandro and his synth-obsessed world.

I think Alessandro's albums will undoubtedly become some of the most sought after records for ambient/ drone/ experimental fans in years to come. If you see Forse 1 or 2 in the store, you know where to send them...

~

Wantlist #2 coming soon, featuring five selects from friend, Jamie Mccue of Silent Season.

 
 

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.