Digging in Japan: ten of Tokyo's best record stores

I just returned from a dream trip to Tokyo, traveling alone, allowing me the complete freedom to do what I've always wanted to do; spend my entire time in some of the many great record shops Tokyo has to offer, listening to music and taking pictures of a pastime I admire. Tokyo is renowned for being an audiophile's dream in both store and equipment terms, and I'm sure by the end of this you'll see why. 

There were ~25 record shops/locations on my shortlist to visit. This Resident Advisor article was a good start for research along with some great venues too, along with this one on Discogs. Some general internet digging and a couple of hot tips from some of you also helped. I had been to Tokyo a couple of times before, but I never had the time to truly dig in, so a few stores had been on my 'must revisit' list for a few years. Now, it was time for a visit with nothing on the agenda other than "DITC". 

I managed to get around to about 15 shops in total. One of them was no longer around and one was a new addition after stumbling across it by accident. Ten of them, I felt were worth capturing here for future reference. At the very bottom of this article you'll find the full list I amassed. I only really scraped the surface...

This series was originally published as a series of photos on Instagram (@astrangelyisolatedplace) and I will continue to add stores to it via the #ASIPRecordStores hashtag, as life and digging goes on. 

Technique (Shibuya, Tokyo)

Technique is undoubtedly the best store in Tokyo for electronic DJ’s. There's not much you can’t find here if it has anything to do with the best of the deep and dark stuff. Technique stocks a bunch of the latest techno, local labels and an extensive used section - where I ultimately spent most of my time, as the staff on the day didn't speak much English, so I didn't want to waste my time asking him for some obscure Japanese bits. 

I came for the techno, but walked away with a copy of Arovane's ‘Tides’ (still missing from my collection) and Pete Namlook's ‘Definitive Ambient Collection’. They were also spinning Eternal Beams feat Laraaji whilst I was shopping, and as with most record store experiences, I had to pick up a copy to remind me of the time I spent browsing. 

Average cost: $$$ (3/5)
Specialty: Techno, used and new. 
http://www.technique.co.jp/

Big Love (Harajuku, Tokyo) 

If you can find it, two floors up and set back into the Harajuku neighborhood, you’ll think you just stumbled across someones living room. You wouldn’t be wrong - it’s the record collectors dream living room.

Records from the Big Love label, plenty of independent rock, pop and a decent electronic and ambient/experimental section (Northern Electronics on full albeit expensive show) plus a small bar serving up Japanese Craft Beers (IPA's, Ales etc) and a lovely selection of merch to rep the shop, if you can ever drag yourself away from this haven. 

Pretty sure they do food too, but that tips plate made me worried about trying to do anything else other than buying music. 

Average cost: $$$$
Specialty: Independent rock, pop and alternative with a good selection of ambient and electronic. 
http://www.bigloverecords.jp/

Disc Shop Zero (Shimokitazawa, Tokyo)

20+years in existence, E-Jima san tells me he went to Bristol many years back and continued to make friends, falling in love with all kinds of bass music, from Dubstep to drum & bass.

This shop is hard to walk around but you only need your arms to dig through the many hundreds of records - often left in their promo boxes, sent from his UK friends. Signed albums adorn the walls from many of Bristol’s biggest bass and dubstep musicians. And because people probably don’t come here looking for electronica, I found some great stuff hidden amongst a neglected electronica section, including: a Metamatics 7”, an Autechre ATP compilation, a Static Caravan picture disc and a classic ISAN album.

Average cost: $$$
Specialty: Bass, dubstep, jungle, electronic. 
http://www.discshopzero.com/

Next Records (Shibuya, Tokyo)

Without a doubt the most pristine, meticulous, well curated used house section I’ve ever come across. 8x2ft of perfectly alphabetized pristine House records, with many first presses in perfect condition. 

From the early days of Mr Fingers and Frankie Knuckles up until the prime-era of Strictly Rhythm and Masters at Work (the good years!) they have it all. Many are ordered per pressing or edition so you can walk out with 2/3 copies of the same record if you’re after the originals plus other versions. This is the kind of place that spins a record whilst you're on the floor, and your eyes look up after hearing an early house sample you didn’t even know existed as its own record. Learn "What's playing right now?" in Japanese before going here.

Average cost: $$$$
Specialty: Used Jazz, Hip-hop and House
http://www.nextrecordsjapan.net/

Lighthouse Records (Shibuya, Tokyo)

Overlooking the busy streets of Shibuya, Lighthouse is another DJ oriented shop similar to Technique, but focused more on House, Nu-Disco and all things Balearic. A rare and unusual gem to find in the busy streets of Tokyo, as soon as you step into the store it emits warmth, space and calm. Big speakers and a legit turntable setup, the space also sells some audiophile merch and headphones like Phonon

I managed to find the classic drum’n bass remix of The Beloved's Sun Rising, by Tom Middleton, and Vol.3 of the Italian Dream House compilation (the first two volumes are bankers!) Lighthouse is also the perfect home for Japanese selector, Chee Simizu (video). 

Average cost: $$
Specialty: Balearic house, Disco, Nu-Disco.

Face Records (Shibuya, Tokyo)

Another little gem in Shibuya across the street from Next Records, this shop has a bit of everything and apparently (although I seemed to have missed it) some brilliant Japanese ambient. I did however manage to score some cheap dub-techno classics from Arovane, Basic Channel and Monolake. 

Average cost: $
Specialty: Techno, Hip-Hop, Jazz, Japanese Ambient. 
http://www.facerecords.com/

Jet Set Records (Shimokitazawa, Tokyo)

I turned up in the lovely neighborhood of Shimokitazawa way too early, quickly learning that record stores in Japan don’t open until about 1-2pm. But if it wasn’t for trying to find Jet Set that early (I walked past it twice) I wouldn’t have spent all morning exploring and walking around the lovely neighborhood.

Jet Set features mostly new music, curated from popular western labels and new Pop from Japan. Apparently the Jet Set store in Kyoto is much bigger and has a more extensive selection as a home base. 

Average cost: $$
Specialty: Pop, Hip-hop, Rock, Japanese artists and new releases. 
https://www.jetsetrecords.net/

Jazzy Sport (Shimokitazawa, Tokyo)

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Half store, half record label (and Yoga studio by the looks of things), this is a small outlet with more of a merch selection than records, with that island above, the center piece for the store. 

I didn’t find any vinyl of interest as it seemed more hip-hop and jazz focused, but I did have fun not fitting into some XL Japan size t-shirts. I have no doubt the selection here however is good given the collective behind the store apparently run some of Tokyo's best parties.

Average cost: $$$
Specialty: Hip-hop, Jazz.
http://www.jazzysport.com/

Be-In Records (Koenji, Tokyo)

I stumbled across this shop by accident whilst exploring the Koenji neighborhood, spotting the sandwich board as I stumbled down a mall of vintage clothing stores.

If you’re a fan of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, welcome to heaven. They have entire sections devoted to individual band members, and many expensive first pressings adorn the walls priced $700+. I have no idea what I'm looking at when it comes to pop music, but the sheer organization and scale of the obsessiveness was enough to keep me peering through the crates for a good hour. The guy behind the counter obsessively scrubbed and cleaned records behind his mask the entire time I was there. This is serious collector business.

Average cost: $$$$$
Specialty: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and anything to do with either of them.

City Country City,  (Shimokitazawa, Tokyo)

The very first shop I visited on my visit this time around, known to the locals as 'CCC'. After sitting at a coffee shop waiting for it to open, I was first through the doors, as the blankets were slowly lifted off the shelves on a hot Tokyo morning. 

Most people seem to come for the amazing pasta that's cooked freshly in a small kitchen, and local coffee whilst soft folk, ambient or jazz music plays in the background. An old piano sits in the corner and a member of staff cleans the records ready for sale, as the smell of freshly cooked garlic mixes with the dusty scent of used vinyl.

I picked up my biggest haul from CCC, including some classic Detroit house and techno, but it was probably the inviting environment that kept me going, urging me to find more. not only that, but I was able to have a beer, eat good food, and meet up with friends after a couple of hours in the crates, without even leaving the building. 

Average cost: $$
Specialty: House, Jazz, Folk, Experimental. 
http://city-country-city.com/about-en/

Bonus! Disk Union (various locations)

DiscUnionShimo.JPG

You can't mention record shops without mentioning Disc Union. Whilst it may seem like the commercial equivalent of a megastore, its second-hand selection is second-to-none. If you're looking for essentials from any genre, or classic albums from your favorite artists, this is your spot. I found a first pressing of BOC's Hi-Scores 12" amongst many other things. I made the mistake of going here last, and went way over budget as a result. You can't walk out of here empty handed.

Average cost: $$
Specialty: Everything (even ASIP releases!)
http://diskunion.net/

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 My full Tokyo record store hit-list (July 2018)

  • Technique (Shibuya) [listed above]

  • Disk Union (Shibuya, Shimo and Shinjuku) [listed above]

  • Face Records (Shibuya) [listed above]

  • Next Records (Shibuya) [listed above]

  • Lighthouse Records (Shibuya) [listed above]

  • Hi-Fi (Shibuya) [Visited, but only old classic jazz - pictured above)

  • Guhroovy (Shibuya) [PERMANENTLY CLOSED]

  • El Sur Records (Shibuya)

  • Tower Records (Shibuya) [Visited, but mainly CDs + pop/chart music]

  • Recofan (Shibuya)

  • Dessinee (Shibuya)

  • Manhattan Records (Shibuya) [Visited, but mainly rap, hip-hop, RnB]

  • Big Love (Harajuku) [listed above]

  • City Country City (Shimokitazawa) [listed above]

  • Disc Shop Zero (Shimokitazawa) [listed above]

  • Jazzy Sport (Shimokitazawa) [listed above]

  • Flash Disk Ranch (Shimokitazawa)

  • Jet Set ((Shimokitazawa & Kyoto) [listed above]

  • Coconuts Disk (Various locations)

  • Be-In Records (Koenji) [listed above]

  • Ella Records (Nishihara)

  • Meditations (Kyoto) [Comes highly recommended, but no time this time around]

  • Neds (Shinjuku) [Comes highly recommended, only open 7-9pm, but missed out this time - see you soon Tokyo!)

Interested in what records I purchased? See the Discogs list here. Overall, I didn't get any special Japanese editions or extreme rarities, but that's not my style anyway. Interestingly, I did the math based on the lowest selling price on Discogs right now, and it worked out I probably overspent by around $150. However, that doesn't take in consideration the condition of the records for sale (all mine were 'A/B / excellent) nor does it take into account any postage prices if you bought through Discogs. And most of all, it doesn't take into consideration the very action of spending time in a record store, searching through the crates and finding a record you've wanted for ages - that's priceless!

What did I miss? What were your favorites? Let me know in the comments below so I know for next time. Just off to start my life savings again... 

Also, listen to our latest Portal’s feature ‘Stories from Tokyo’ which includes some of the many field recordings from this trip in one mix alongside some awesome Japanese ambient music.

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City Centre Offices: The final transmission

 

Countless hours have been spent exploring and collecting the music to be found on the infamous City Centre Offices label. Should you have missed it, even the ASIP name is a rip of an album by one of CCO's most successful artists. The label's impact and inspiration on the music here at ASIP, is second to none. 

CCO pushed a style of music that was relatively new at the time and the label went on to host many of the names that have graced the blog pages and even the releases here on ASIP including, Ulrich Schnauss, Arovane, Herrmann & Kleine, Christian Kleine, Bitstream, Miwon, Casino Versus Japan, Xela, Marsen Jules, The Gentlemen Losers... I could keep going.

These names were brought together by a group of friends between two thriving music cities of the late '90s; Berlin and Manchester, in what was perhaps the worlds first truly international, independent (DIY) electronica label. But at the time, they didn't know of the impact they would eventually have on the music world.

Unfortunately, the end of CCO is here. You may have already thought that CCO was long gone, and it was, until label co-founder, Thaddeus Herrmann decided to release just one more record under its mighty guise this year. That record, a sublime slice of electronica by Boy Robot titled Final Transmission, echoes CCO in its purest, and arrives March 24th 2017.

Now felt like a good time to look back on the label and celebrate its success and last hurrah, with label co-founder Thaddeus Herrmann.  From his home in Berlin, in between many emails and his work on DasFilter, the CCO mastermind took the time to respond in depth to a few questions we sent his way, looking back on the might of electronica's finest, City Centre Offices

As one of CCO's biggest fans, I pulled together some of my favorite tracks from (& associated with) the label in this Spotify playlist, to accompany your read and remind us all how brilliant, timeless and pioneering their catalog truly is.  

Did you know at the time that the sound of CCO was so unique and forward-thinking? 

Thaddi: First and foremost: It’s great to hear that what we did or tried to achieve over the years left such a positive impression with people. Musically, there was no master plan. We had a clear idea though which got the label started: We wanted to try to marry the 7" format with electronic pop music.

If you think back to the late 1990s, electronica was very popular, “PowerBook” music as I call it, I’m aware this may be oversimplifying, but you get the idea. At the same time, there was a renaissance of the 7" format. Many new labels and imprints were curating this exact type of electronica I was describing.

The 7" fascinated both Shlom Sviri, my label partner, and myself. We’d grown up with that format when we were kids. You’d hear a song on the radio, go to the shop and pick up the 7". It was both cheap and a cheap thrill, so to speak. Two tracks, hardly ever taking more than ten minutes of your time. A moment of excitement, a little something, a treat, a way to escape from whatever it was you were doing. This was exactly what we wanted to resurrect - the excitement.

We both felt this was somehow missing in the electronica and 7" scene at the time. We thought that maybe we could contribute something to the mix. It was not supposed to be a serious operation, let alone a business. We just wanted to put out 7"s and not lose money.

I hardly ever go back to the CCO catalogue these days, but I do hope that at least some of the releases stand the test of time and don’t sound dated. If that’s the case, I guess we’ve achieved something - something which might have been triggered by our original approach: pop music on the 7" format.

From what I know, CCO was conceived between a few friends in Berlin who simply wanted to release music. In your own words, how did the label come about?

Thaddi: This is gonna be a long story, but I'll share it anyways, because it has a recurring theme to it which has always been very important to us since we started the label: friendship.

A very good friend of mine, who I’d known since the 80s here in Berlin (and who I was also in a band with), went to Manchester in the mid-90s to study for a year.  There, he met another German guy, Oliver, who was also at University. As far as I remember, Oliver knew Shlom Sviri (CCO co-founder) somehow, probably through a room mate. A couple of years later, my mate was back in Berlin and had a garden party – a yearly tradition. Shlom and Oliver came over, and this is how I met them. Shlom had just finished Uni and was about to open Pelicanneck (a record shop in Manchester). He had the insane idea of booking my band to play the opening party of the shop. Of course we went, and stayed with him for a couple of days. We were talking about music all the time and the idea of the label came up. It was one of those "what if"-moments, one which is usually followed by something like: fuck it, let’s give it a try. So we did.

Oliver was the third guy, taking care of the design. Being a student of architecture, he had a brilliant approach, making the 7"s look and feel very precise, technical and bleak, yet personal at the same time. We couldn’t have done that individually. It was a team approach, again, it was all about friendship. Every 7" was assembled by hand, which was quite common in those days, yet I believe we went the extra mile; sourcing the black sleeves from one company, the large stickers from another, the small stickers from yet another. Even my mom chipped in, putting stickers on black sleeves in front of the TV.

Did you have a goal for the label when setting out?

Thaddi: It was clear from day one that it could be anything. We just needed to like the tracks. What sounded like a big promise in the early days, really transpired later on, I guess, when we were working with bands like the Florida-based hip hop group Cyne (a story for another interview), or Italy’s best indie band Giardini Di Miro. We moved on soon enough, while other labels were still stuck with that electronica sound. I don’t mean this in a disrespectful way, we just felt the urge to move on. Or maybe we were just always interested in other things musically as well.

How did the label name originate?

Thaddi: It took us some time to come up with the name City Centre Offices, and I don’t remember who’s idea it was in the end, but it fitted quite well. It was an international label from day one, run from two countries, UK and Germany, from two cities, Manchester and Berlin. We had this crazy idea that if the label lived on for more than one release, each artist would open up a new city centre office in his or her home town, creating a network of like-minded people. Years later, we did a website based on this idea and also had t-shirts made with an abstract map of the world, our CCO world.

Until the very end, we never had offices, btw.

As it turned out, the label did live on for more than one release. Not just that, people really seemed to like it. We started to receive demos and quite early on, we decided to give up our 7"-only policy and look into other, more established formats. 12"s and albums. This was when things started to get more serious.

Suddenly, we needed of think of designs on a whole different level, about promotion, royalty statements and serious distribution. Basically, we needed to put much more money into a release, deciding how to spend it in the most efficient way. We hardly knew anything about how these things were done, let alone how to do them properly. We didn’t care, we just wanted to release the great music which was piling up on our desks. And, yet again because of friendship – we were able to cope with the initially overwhelming tasks. Until the very end, we never had offices, btw.

Did you have to balance CCO duties with other jobs? 

Thaddi: I’m a journalist by trade. During University, I was already working for the radio and later on, I joined De:Bug, a monthly print magazine for electronic music and culture, as an editor. This was my main job. CCO took up more and more time, but I never wanted to do it full-time. It just didn't feel right, and I still think that was the best decision.

What was Berlin like back then for starting a label? Was it hard?

Thaddi: It was surprisingly easy, mainly because I was lucky enough to have a lot of contacts and friends who were happy to help. If you decide to start a label, you need basically three things sorted: mastering, pressing and distribution. Distro was the easiest, since Shlom had his record shop and took care of the UK side of things. But what about other countries? What about Berlin? I was friendly with the guys at Hardwax over here and as well as being a regular customer, I had interviewed some of them about their own music whilst working for a music well respected music magazine based in Berlin at the time, and somehow this opened a door.

Reviewing early Arovane records on DIN, a label operated by two guys working at Hardwax, helped, too. They were up to distribute our 7"s, which really helped. Their reputation pushed the label from day one. If you ask me about who to trust in this industry, they are among the very few people who I’d mention. A couple of years ago, I started working with them again for the label I run on my own these days, and they're still the best. So trustworthy, so on point. Without the support of Hardwax in the early days and Thomas Morr of Morr Music coming in a little bit later, CCO probably would not have survived that long.

In order to get heard, you need to be everywhere, first and foremost: online. If vinyl is right for you, look into your options. Make it special somehow. And try to offer it as cheap as possible. Make it accessible.

Thaddi: But how to press up a record? And fucking where? I remember calling a pressing plant in Germany, asking for a quote. The agent on the phone literally hang up on me. We emailed a pressing plant in the Czech Republic, infamous for everything. Their vinyl was poor quality and it was a somewhat dodgy business in general. They'd press up anything if you paid in advance. And they didn’t care about collecting societies, mechanicals to be paid etc. Bootlegs? Check. Nazi scum shit? Why not. Electronica 7"s? Of course! Stefan Betke aka Pole was kind enough to master the first three 7"s before we sent off the masters to the Czech Republic. We hoped for the best and were disappointed rather quickly. Things needed to change...

I had a friend who had just started a label and in the process stumbled across a woman who’d just started a manufacturing broker service called "Handle With Care". A company which is blossoming today, taking care of big productions for both major and indie labels. Back in the day, she was just starting up on a very small scale. I was her third or fourth customer. She took care of our records from then on, putting them through proper pressing plants, giving us more options and quality control. The pressing plant in the Czech Republic is still there. Universal Music is one of their biggest clients. I wonder if they know their history, but mainly I wonder how they survived.  

Running a label myself, I’m interested in how the vinyl process happened back then and how you come to work with Loop-O?

Thaddi: As I mentioned before, the first three releases had been manufactured in the Czech Republic – a quick and dirty job, but at least we had records. With the fourth release, we were facing a problem. It was a 7" by .snd. Shlom was very friendly with them, great guys who somehow felt a similar vibe between the early 12"s on their own label and CCO. They had this idea for a 7" consisting of a regular track on one side and some loops on the other. Loops need to be perfect. Endless. So, obviously the plant in the Czech Republic was no option.

The problem was that back in the day, they could only handle DMM – Direct Metal Mastering. They could not process regular master discs, cut on dubplates. Therefore, they took care of the cuts themselves and I couldn't trust them with the loops, let alone anything else. I was aware of D&M, the cutting room established by Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald – both of Basic Channel fame – here in Berlin and the engineers working there: Mark & Moritz themselves, Monolake, Pole and Rashad. It was legendary, because up to this point, people had been raving about cutting rooms and engineers far, far away, in the UK or the USA. However, Germany was not on this list.

Ernestus and von Oswald, based on their Basic Channel fame, created a safe haven for electronic music, located conveniently on the same floor as the Hardwax record shop. At the music magazine I was working at the time, there was a guy in charge of marketing who'd just moved in with a guy called Andreas Lubich who’d just started working at D&M. He introduced me to him. “Can you cut loops? I really need some loops to be cut“, I asked him. “Of course I can“, he said. This is how I met Loop-O, someone who shaped the CCO sound tremendously from that moment in time onwards.

Every single release since that infamous .snd 7" has been cut and mastered by him. I consider this to be very important. To have a go-to guy, someone you can trust, someone you know understands the musical output of a label, its history, its vision. I attended every session. It’s very time-consuming, but it’s time well-spent. It’s that moment when you get to know the music you’re about to release in a completely new way, you’re living with it. You witness how it changes, how it is being processed and then cut to vinyl. Also – bonus! – Loop-O has the best handwriting ever, which has always been crucial for CCO releases. Ever since the first-ever 7", we always included messages in the run-out grooves and those need to look good.

Talking about looking good – we also switched to a pressing plant over here in Germany at the same time. It’s the best. I love the way their vinyl feels. Those edges are special. Comfy. And the metal works and actual pressings are special, too. They are real experts. They’ve been around for ever. I still have stuff pressed up there to this very day. Over the course of years, Loop-O has become a dear friend of mine. I trust his work and judgement way more than anything else. He left D&M years ago, yet I still put every release I work on through him and his new home, Calyx. I still attend those mastering sessions too!

So CCO really was a family operation? I feel like it’s this human, manual, delicate process that makes pressing vinyl so rewarding. What piece of advice would you give to anyone looking to follow in the footsteps of CCO as a label?

Thaddi: First of all, to just give it a go on a small scale. You can burn a couple of hundred $ and might end up with 300 records in your bedroom, but that’s not the end of the world. I guess the most important question today would be, if vinyl is actually the right and best format for whatever you want to release. Pressing vinyl just for the sake of it, is definitely the wrong approach. In order to get heard, you need to be everywhere, first and foremost: online. If vinyl is right for you, look into your options. Make it special somehow. And try to offer it as cheap as possible. Make it accessible. That’s a tough thing to do, I know, because you want quality mastering, the best cut and great vinyl. 

The moment Coca-Cola calls you to license a track for a TV commercial, you realize that you’ve accomplished … well, something.

What would change if you started CCO today?

Thaddi: Actually, nothing at all. Some years ago, I might have said starting a label is the worst idea ever, but today, I would probably do everything as we’ve done it almost 20 years ago.

What’s the story behind the infamous CCO stickers?

Thaddi: Yeah, the stickers. Being based out of two cities, we wanted to represent that somehow and the stickers were an obvious solution. With each 7", there is a set of two, one from Manchester, one from Berlin, based on whatever theme we could come up with: kebab shops, mini cab services (that’s before Uber, kids!), record shops, general sights, obscurities, hidden gems. Come to think of it, it was quite a European idea, long before Brexit, the refugee "crisis", or even Trump. Raising interest in weirdness or simply weird company names, trying to get people to dig a little deeper. It’s something which has never been more important than today.

Was it important for you to add this new dimension to releases?

Thaddi: We didn’t do it consciously. Adding small things to the actual vinyl, like sticker or inserts was a very common thing, stressing the DIY style of both the releases and the way labels were run in these days. That was all. One could argue that both Berlin, with its techno culture and love for anonymity, and Manchester with labels like Skam had an air of mystery around them and we were to break this bullshit with little stickers displaying names of local supermarkets, but that would just add more BS to the mix.

How was the first release with Arovane formed?

Thaddi: I’d first met Uwe before his first releases on DIN. For a couple of years, I was co-hosting a drum and bass radio show on KISS FM Berlin. He was really into that sound and also producing tracks, so he sent over a tape for us to play on the show. We did, and at some point I went to his house to meet him. He’d just moved to Berlin and did not really know many people yet. He played me all these amazing tracks in all sorts of styles and I picked some to give them to Sascha and Torsten who were running DIN. They called him straight away, as far as I remember. Uwe and I really got to know each other very well, so when CCO was about to become something real, I asked him if he’d want to do the first release.

 Xela (back) and Ulrich Schnauss Birmingham 2005, and Ulrich in Manchester 2005. 

Xela (back) and Ulrich Schnauss Birmingham 2005, and Ulrich in Manchester 2005. 

How many were pressed and was it a big risk for you at the time?

Thaddi: We started with 500 copies. I honestly do not remember how much the production was, it somehow must have been ok. The tricky thing back then was that with the pressing plant being located in the Czech Republic, had all kind of import duties, because the country had not yet joined the EU. Whoever calculated these, was high and drunk all the time. But we did ok. We soon repressed the 7” as well, something I’m sure we would not have done if we’d been in the red already.

For some time, the 7”s did really well for both the label and the artists. I guess we were just there with the right product at the right moment in time. Deciding on how many copies to press up for a release is always risky business. You either hit the sweet spot, or you under/over-press. Back in the early 2000’s it was much easier though to repress quickly. Pressing plants had a lot of free time on their hands. Making this decision in 2017 is a completely different story. If you have to wait for 3 months to get another 200 copies, you do not actually know if you’ll be able to sell those, because people might look for something completely different 90 days ahead.

Did you ever expect Arovane’s final release on CCO to be as defining and classic as it’s become?

Thaddi: Of course I did! Kidding. Putting out music, you always hope for the best. It’s as easy as that. We were pretty sure that it would do well, that people would like it, especially because it once again showed “the other side” of his work, not too technical but more free-flowing. Nobody can compare any track off Lilies with Autechre, for example. I think what makes his two albums for CCO so special is the fact that those were real special projects for him as well. Both albums were done in a really short period of time, there was an urge in him to get it finished, you could really feel that by just talking to him. Working with the Japanese singer Kazumi on the vocals was something very close to his heart. She was his biggest fan, and probably still is. Listening back to Lilies today, I feel that it is one of the records in the CCO catalogue still sounding fresh and valid today. If people consider it to be a classic: I’m all for it, but could not possibly comment.

It’s pop music in the best sense of the word. And CCO always was about pop music. So … there it was, the perfect album.

Tell us about Ulrich Schnauss and how his classic albums came about on CCO. At what point did you realize these albums would be as popular as they are today?

Thaddi: Ulrich is another one of our artists who I’d met through the radio show on KISS FM. He would also send in tracks for us to play. At the time, he was already an established producer, very versatile. At some point he played some tracks which would end up on his first album for CCO, “Far away trains passing by”. I was blown away instantly, so was Shlom. It took some time to put the album together though. Ulrich might very well disagree with me on this, but as far as I remember, he needed some convincing that it was a good idea to actually release these tracks. The album did do very well, something we all had hoped for, but still came as a surprise. People started talking about Ulrich Schnauss. Who is this guy? What’s with this music?

I consider his first album to be the absolute peak of electronica. Not just because it’s produced so beautifully, but mainly because the album opened so many doors. It is a defining album, bridging a lot of gaps, bringing things together. It appealed to all sorts of people, humble and bold at the same time, accessible yet complex. It’s pop music in the best sense of the word. And CCO always was about pop music. So … there it was, the perfect album.

You mentioned that you never really had any expectations of the label, but what do you think was the defining point of the label? The point at which you realized it was making an impact?

Thaddi: I think the label received a lot more attention as soon as we started to do albums. Back then it was still the format people were actually paying attention to. Releasing albums also changes your infrastructure by design. You need to hire PR to promote the releases, you need to manufacture promo CDs for press and radio, you need to sort bigger-scale distribution. All kinds of things change. Do we need barcodes? How do we get barcodes? What’s this little 5-digit number on the back of albums. What does it do? How do we get one? You realize that things just got a lot more serious. Suddenly many things become very bureaucratic. Applying for a US tax-ID, so that Apple could pay your royalties in full. Our accountant learned a lot, so did we.

After the first couple of albums, people got in touch. Other labels wanting tracks from our artists, or to sign them straight away. At some point, there were so many 7” labels out there, just swapping artists back and forth. It nearly killed the scene. You need to talk to your artists, advising them that maybe it is not a good idea to do a release with label x. Not because you want to keep them exclusively, but because it is doing an artist harm if they release ten tracks on eight labels within two months.

After having released Ulrich’s first album, followed by Static’s debut, things really changed. We realized that we were probably in it for the long-run. You start to think about certain things in a new way. Artists come back to you with their follow-ups. You realize that you might actually work with some of them for longer, which was great fun. Put simply: The moment Coca-Cola calls you to license a track for a TV commercial, you realize that you’ve accomplished … well, something.

I remember mix CD’s by Sasha and Nick Warren (to name a few) that included CCO tracks and undoubtedly helped spread word on the label. Which was your favorite mix inclusion?

Thaddi: I couldn’t really name my favorite one, simply because there were a lot. We always let the artists decide whether they were ok with it. If they weren’t, we would need to turn the offer down. I remember Nick Warren being a big deal at the time and I’m sure it had a positive effect in the end, but frankly, we did not care too much. Because Sasha and Nick Warren weren’t “our people”. Whenever someone we liked and respected – like Andrew Weatherall – wanted to include a CCO track for a project, we were really proud, though. It’s funny you ask about these compilations, because I still get licensing requests for Ulrich’s “Knuddelmaus” on a regular basis.

How did your relationship with Christian Kleine come about? And why did it end?!

Thaddi: Christian was another one of the people I met through the radio show on KISS FM. Only difference was that he did not send a tape, he just knocked on the studio door. Thank God we heard him. He lived down the road from the radio station, so quite often, I would hang out before the show at his place. I was looking for musical direction with my own music at the time. I had done some releases, but I wanted a fresh start. I couldn’t really get it off the ground. So we developed this habit of meeting on Sundays in Christian’s studio to just jam. It was difficult in the beginning, because he was working in a different setup, but maybe this was key. We found our roles quite easily.

The first e.p. was done in just a couple of weeks, people liked it. When Thomas Morr approached us to release a record on his label, I was really happy. Not just because I really liked him and his label - he was helping with distribution for CCO as well, but mainly because I was not comfortable with the idea of releasing my own music on my label. I did not want to waste resources we could have used for other artists.

I really enjoyed working with Christian, he had in parts a very different musical background. He knew all about hip hop, I did not. He had an MPC, I had not. He was into US indie stuff, I liked UK indie stuff. But things got complicated, purely because of me. I had personal issues at the time, which I tried to channel through the music. It worked quite well, but everything else didn't. It was difficult for me to be around other people. Having released the e.p. On Morr Music and the album afterwards seems like a miracle to me now. We – I – drifted apart.  We got to see the world though, played many great shows.

One of my favorite tracks of yours is with Christian, “Leaving You Behind”. Why didn't this make its own release? And how did the Japanese train station samples come about?

Thaddi: This might very well be our last ever track released. I still like it a lot. When we were touring Japan, I was fascinated by the fact that everything just talks to you all the time. So much noise! I had found the recordings earlier though – we’d used some of them in our live shows. I remember opening our gig in Osaka with one of the samples from Osaka main station – people loved it. It would have been great to have this track on a 12”, giving it a bit more dynamics and loudness. Ah well, there is another project.

Most people thought CCO had gone into permanent hibernation. Was your plan to always release one more? And why is the Boy Robot record the last one?

Thaddi: I never intended to release another CCO record. CCO is no more. I still handle digital for some of our former artists, but whenever one of them wants to exploit his back catalogue himself, I hand over all rights in a heartbeat. The new Boy Robot just happened.

Michael Zorn and myself started to work on some tracks years ago. The original plan had been to do an album, but that never really happened. I was never a member of Boy Robot either, I still do not know who put my name up on Discogs! Michael and Hans Möller met originally at work. Some years later, Hans went back to Sweden, so I was supposed to replace him in a way. It seemed like a nice idea, because Michael and me had done music together before for another label. Anyways, we had the tracks ready and we decided to do it. CCO seemed appropriate, so we went with it.

This e.p. is definitely the last ever record on the label. The music industry is such a different place these days and I don’t want any part of it. I have been running a small label for a couple of years now with 13 releases as of today, but I kind of went full-circle, back to the beginning of CCO. Vinyl only, small editions, putting them through Hardwax. That I can handle. Everything else? No, thanks.

So what’s next for Thaddi?

Thaddi: You never know, right? These days, I still mainly work as a journalist. For my own online magazine (dasfilter.com) which I co-founded with some dear friends of mine in 2014. We do a lot of work for external clients as well, some are music-related, some not. I like that my relationship to music has gotten more and more abstract over the last couple of years, since I’m not running the label anymore and also left the music magazine. I don’t have to listen to everything anymore. I do miss the radio though. For the last 7 years, I was lucky enough to have a bi-weekly show on a great radio station here in Berlin. That job just ended. And I miss it already. What’s next? Maybe even less music and more books? I don’t know.  

~

Final Transmission, by Boy Robot will be available on 12", March 24th, on City Centre Offices.

Thank you to Thaddi for taking the time  to entertain us, both here, and over the many years behind the wheel of CCO. 

 

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.

 

ASIP - Traumbient

 
 

There was a time when I was hunting down every single release on this label. ‘T’ for techno. ‘Minimal’. ‘German Techno’. ‘Kompakt & similar’. ‘Electronic’… Find the box, find Traum. Find the LP’s. Find the EP’s. Find them all.

Beginning with some of the first outputs from Phillipe Cam, Miss Dinky and Process, Traum Schallplatten went on to introduce me to Fairmont, Jesse Somfay, Nathan Fake, Minilogue and Dominik Eulberg. Responsible for the introduction of many of these artists to a wider audience, Traum still stays true to it’s original ethos today and continues to deliver hypnotic, melodic and defining techno.

Looking through Traum’s extensive ten year catalogue, you’ll find big hitters such as Minilogue’s ‘Certain Things’Nathan Fake’s ‘Dinamo’,and Dominik Eulberg’s ‘Der Buchdrucker’, to name just a few of my favourites. Dig a little further and you’ll also stumble across a more gentle side of melodic techno tucked away in the Traum vaults.

For this mix, i’ve put the dance-floor orientated tracks to one side and focused on some of the more ambient outputs in a hope to reflect a treasured yet sometimes overlooked side of Cologne’s finest export. I’ve included releases that reflect the deep, atmospheric, gentle but unexpected sounds I’ve come to associate with this great label; from 1999’s Fantasias Animadas, to Max Coopers ‘Sea of Sound’, set to be released this month.

Here’s my own little dedication to a defining techno label.

 
 

Download.

01. Iquinn – Fall [TRAUMCD08]
02. Broker-Dealer – Stormy [TRAUMCD07]
03. Miss Dinky – Nora [TRAUMV11]
04. Fantasias Animadas – Mike’s Road [TRAUMCD01]
05. Waki – Baikamo [TRAUMCD06]
06. Kubikov & Milutenko – Structure [TRAUM13]
07. Process – Room [TRAUMCD13]
08. Kubikov & Milutenko – Special Communication [TRAUM13]
09. Gustavo Lamas – Dulces [TRAUMCD02]
10. Leandro Fresco – Recordable [TRAUMCD01]
11. Yuxtapose – Sciex Elan [TRAUMCD01]
12. Oxtongue – Elba Life [TRAUMCD07]
13. Darmush – Rarpa [TRAUMCD11]
14. Max Cooper – Sea Of Sound (Ambient rework) [TRAUMV131]