Passing by: Frank Sebastian, Ourson, Luke Howard, Mr Frankie, Warmth

 
 

Frank Sebastian – Towards Distance

Subspiele have begun their first venture into vinyl, and it’s label curator Frank Sebastian who steps up first, with this beautiful journey through ambient and dub-techno. “…a product of my own journey towards distance. My time-out at the other side of the Atlantic Ocean – 6 months in New York“; Franks debut vinyl release is patient, full of warmth and as the detailed description over on Bandcamp implies, a truly personal and introspective piece of work. Subspiele have also made some nice-looking CD cases for the release. Available on Bandcamp.

 

Ourson – Wanderdrift

We’re long-time fans of Ourson’s work, and his latest, described as ‘spacey and cerebral’ is another dive into some deep and engrossing ambient realms. Available on Bandcamp

 

Luke Howard – Two & One

Spanning modern-classical, ambient and electronic music, Luke Howard returns with another ridiculously talented album. As with 2013’s Sun, Cloud, this is another collection of emotional and poignant soundtracks. Available on Bandcamp

 

Mr Frankie – Campfire Stories 7 (Secrets of The Sea)

Silent Season’s Campfire Stories is one of the best mix series out there at the moment. Playing host to mixes from the likes of Jamie McCue and ASC so far, it’s Mr Frankie’s take this time around, who presents to us the delights of AWVFTS, Biosphere, Rafael Anton Irisarri and Deepchord, alongside tracks from Silent Season artists including Purl, Yuka and Adam Michilak. Download.

 
 

Warmth – Dopamine

More dub-techno of the superb atmospheric type by Warmth. I’ve seen this picked up by many ASIP regulars already (released in September) – always a sign of a good quality release when you guys get to it before me! Available on Bandcamp.

isolatedmix 49 - Manual

 
 

This will be the third time Jonas Munk has graced the isolatedmix series. The first, depicting the many great influences to hail from his native Denmark (isolatedmix 21 – Dreamy Sounds from Odense). The second, alongside Jason Kolb as Billow Observatory (isolatedmix 39 – Summer Memories) and now, as Manual – the very first pseudonym that led me to discover this talented and multi-faceted producer.

October just gone, Jonas released Memory and Matter, a selection of rarities and unreleased tracks that spanned his fifteen-plus-year catalogue as Manual.  It was a culmination of his perfected sound and a compilation of the many shoegaze/post-rock-esque and ambient tracks he has graced us with over the years. If you need to understand how Jonas and Manual came to be, how he pushed his sound, and how far it has come over the years, then this is it.

For many of us however, we can’t settle on the back catalogue alone to truly understand the influences behind some of our favourite Manual tracks like, Summer of Freedom, Tourmaline, Miraparque, and Blue Skied an’ clear. So we invited Jonas back one more time to illustrate the inspirations behind Manual. Jonas has kindly provided an introduction and detailed track-notes to this very special isolatedmix.

 
 

Download

Tracklist:

1. Two Lone Swordsmen: ”Hope We Never Surface”
2. Autechre: ”Pir”
3. Pluramon: ”Noise Academy”
4. Morgan Caney & Kamal Joory: ”Blanket”
5. Freeshca: ”Abominable Love”
6. Ulrich Schnauss: ”Einfeld”
7. Franco Falsini: ”Cold Nose pt. 3”
8. Tortoise: ”The Suspension Bridge at Iguazu Falls”
9. Dub Tractor: ”Hum (Part 4)”
10. Sensations Fix: ”Music is Painting in the Air”
11. Durutti Column: ”Bordeaux Sequence”
12. Dif Juz: ”No Motion”
13. July Skies: ”Swallows and Swifts”
14. The Dead Texan: ”Girth Rides a (Horse)
15. Mark Isham: ”Sympathy and Acknowledgement”
16. Simple Minds: ”A Brass Band in African Chimes”
17. Roedelius: ”Veilchenwurzeln”
18. Auburn Lull: ”Shallow in Youth”
19. Ashra: ”Ocean of Tenderness”
20. Brian Eno with Daniel Lanois and Roger Eno: ”Always Returning”

Introduction and track notes by Jonas Munk (Manual)

A couple of these tracks are recent discoveries but the vast majority of them are from records that have had a very distinct and durable influence on the Manual albums. These are some of the essential tracks.

People who have followed my work extensively will surely be able to recognize obvious traits of these sounds in my work. Which is cool. I’ve never felt it was important to maintain any sense of mystery about where ideas come from, or nurture any romantic conception of genius, for that matter – as if inspiration could appear out of nowhere. Besides, the music I’ve produced as Manual for the last 15 years has never sought to constantly reinvent itself, nor has it been my ambition to produce something strikingly original or progressive. Rather, my hope has always been that if I kept my vision long and intensely enough – if I continously starred at the same idea, only changing the angle from time to time, something personal and long-lasting would crystalize. The degree of success, at least in any conventional way, has always been secondary, maintaining the vision primary. In my view originality, at least in the traditional sense, is overrated. The focus on originality as the prime criterion for artistic quality and relevance is a cultural symptom of limited attention span, and a lack of depth. I have always had a quite limited scope for the Manual sound, always returning to a small but well defined set of ideas and sources of inspiration. And everything on this mix is something I’ve kept returning to since discovering the tracks during the last 15 years.

1. Two Lone Swordsmen: Hope We Never Surface
I got deeply into electronic music in early 1999, the result of a musical chain reaction after seeing Tortoise live at Roskilde Festival the previous summer. Looking back it wasn’t the worst time to discover Warp Records who had recently put out BOC’s Music Has the Right the Children, Autechre’s LP5 and Two Lone Swordsmen’s Stay Down, where this track is from.

2. Autechre: Pir
This track nicely captures everything they did so well back then. I was deeply into Autechre for several years and still find their 1995-2000 output hard to beat.

3. Pluramon feat. Julee Cruise: Noise Academy
It doesn’t seem that long ago that it felt like there existed vast possibilities fusing shoegaze with electronic beats and all kinds of digital processing, but for me this album represents some kind of zenith of that fusion. And yes, it’s Julee Cruise of Twin Peaks fame. Lovely track.

4. Morgan Caney & Kamal Joory: Blanket
Thomas Morr from Morr Music gave me this 7” single on one of my first trips to Berlin. Back then discovering music was such a different activity. This track made a huge impression on me and perfectly captured the sound I was aiming for back then, but didn’t fully have the expertise to execute as well yet. Just beautiful.

5. Freescha: Abominable Love
Freescha is another band I discovered early on and have kept coming back to. They create lo-fi synth-scapes that will appeal to any Boards of Canada fan but they have their own distinctively Californian vibe going. This track is from the Slower Than Church Music mini LP – a good place to start for the unacquainted.

6. Ulrich Schnauss: Einfeld
I first heard of Ulrich Schnauss visiting CCO/Baked Goods (now Boomkat) in Manchester in July 2001. We were hanging out in the office on the fourth floor, all windows open due to the intense heat (and due to everybody smoking Marlboro Lights), and Shlom (CCO co-owner) threw on a test pressing of forthcoming LP with the word Schnauss scribbled on it. Halfway through the A-side I knew this was something truly special. I’ve often wondered why the compositional and harmonic elements in electronic music – even the rather good stuff – so often verges on the banal. Ulrich is a rare exception: at the heart of his music lies an insistence on creating interesting chord progressions and compositional structures. His music, as well as his dedication, continues to be an inspiration.

7. Franco Falsini: Cold Nose pt. 3
This is quite a recent discovery. Franco Falsini made a handful of experimental space-rock albums in the seventies, under his own name as well as with Sensations Fix, that would probably have been called ”krautrock” had he originated from Germany instead of Italy. In a weird way this short piece connects perfectly with a lot of the other stuff included in this mix.

8. Tortoise: The Suspension Bridge at Iguazu Falls
TNT must be one of the records I’ve listened to the most times ever. You can hear Tortoise in everything I’ve ever done, but the melodic aspect is probably what’s been cannibalised into the Manual albums. I also love the way they blend very different things in the mix – in this case marimbas, percussion, analog synths, dub effects and a surf-guitar inspired Fender Jazzmaster melody line. The part when the second guitar comes in halfway through the song has to be one of my all-time favourite moments. It kills me every time.

9. Dub Tractor: Hum (Part 4)
Beautiful, moody piece from one of Denmark’s finest.

10. Sensations Fix: Music is Painting in the Air
Another Falsini piece, this one from the first Sensations Fix album Fragments of Light, released in 1974. Music like this will never get old.

11. Durutti Column: Bordeaux Sequence
I simply had to include Durutti Column in this mix. I’ve always imagined the Manual albums to exist as part of an imaginary tradition, or as part of a family tree of sound – a kind of alternative historic line drawn back through the last four decades of music, bypassing most of the stuff that is normally deemed important, whatever that means. If there’s one artist I feel the Manual albums are genealogically connected to it’s Vini Reilly.

12. Dif Juz: No Motion
Much the same can be said about Dif Juz – a band that has remained in obscurity even though they have out some of the finest releases on 4AD in the label’s history and being far ahead of their time (this is from the mid-1980s!). Exceptional guitar-playing.

13. July Skies: Swallows and Swifts
July Skies, a.k.a. Anthony Harding, has built an entire style on records such as Slowdive’s Pygmalion and Durutti Column’s Vini Reilly. The beautiful calm, inwardness and melancholy on albums such as Dreaming if Spires and Where the Days Go is something very unique.

14. The Dead Texan: Girth Rides a (Horse)
As a whole this album probably isn’t among Adam Wiltzie’s (Stars of the Lid and others) finest, but this track does weird things to me each time.

15. Mark Isham: Sympathy and Acknowledgement
Mark Isham is probably best know as a trumpeter and film composer. I got into him via his work on classic David Sylvian records. He has made a couple of very nice electronic works as well, and this track comes from his 1983 album Vapor Drawings, released on Windham Hill, which is an extremely undervalued piece of electronic minimalism from that era.

16. Simple Minds: A Brass Band in African Chimes
When I was a kid Simple Minds and U2 were my favourite bands in the world. And around the time I started working on Azure Vista I got heavily into that big 1980s sound again. During my rediscovery of Simple Minds I also realized they created some amazing instrumentals along the way, where they would really dig into sound-scaping in an interesting way. This is a reworking of Shake Off the Ghosts, released as the B-side to Don’t You (Forget About Me) in 1985.

17. Roedelius: Veilchenwurzeln
Of all the great electronic music that came out of Germany throughout the 1970s the stuff that Roedelius was involved in (along with Manuel Göttsching’s projects) speaks to me the most. There’s an organic quality to his sound and a certain warmth and melancholy that still feels very timeless today.

18. Auburn Lull: Shallow in Youth
Cast From the Platform is one of my all-time favourite albums. It almost feels weird choosing just one track from it as it deserves to be listened to in its entirety. It came out in the early summer of 2004 and since I brought a mini disc (!) with this album with me around the world that summer, it still evokes images of Spain, Tokyo, California and Greece when I listen to it now. After a surf session that summer I was hanging out in Oceanside with James from Darla and Jesus from Acuarela Records, who was on holiday in California at the time. -We were talking about what a wonderful album it was and Jesus suggested we did a Manual/Auburn Lull split EP. The EP never happened but it did bring me in touch with the band and I’ve been working with Jason Kolb for the past eight years.

19. Ashra: Ocean of Tenderness
I’ve always loved Manuel Göttsching’s guitar playing, his sense of melody and the way he used those incredibly lush 1970s ”ensemble” synthesizers – a kind of instrument I cherish deeply and have used extensively myself . He’s definitely another important part of my imagined family tree.

20. Brian Eno with Daniel Lanois and Roger Eno: Always Returning
It’s hard to think of anything more essential than Brian Eno’s, Apollo when considering music that have inspired the Manual sound.

Manual on Facebook Bandcamp | Soundcloud

Kompakt - Pop Ambient 2015

 
 

Arriving earlier than normal, today we’re treated to our annual pilgrimage to the land of Pop Ambient. Alongside some regulars and as usual, a couple of new entrants to the series, Pop Ambient 2015 is yet another aural treat that never fails to disappoint, blending just the right amount of stand-out tracks and background beauty to ensure a memorable, yet distinct edition.

Beginning with Thore Pfeiffer, a new, young talented producer from Germany, the Pop Ambient sound we’ve come to love is in full-force, with gentle bells, swathes of pads and that hypnotising looping that is such a big part of this series and the many producers that have adorned it.

Like a train-spotting jigsaw, Kompakt presents us with yet another guise in Dirk Leyers – for any fan of Kompakt in general, you may know him from his Closer Musik project (alongside Matias Aguayo). Here, Dirk lays down a contemplative, bleeping, yet soothing track that changes up the compilations style, ready for the more intense and classic ambient sound of Gregor Schwellenbach; slow, burning and calming.

Our friend, Leandro Fresco follows, with one of my personal favourites from the compilation. Darker than his Places Series release, Leandro’s poignantly plucked melody overlays an enveloping mist of rolling clouds. Translating to ‘Nothing is forever’, Nada Es Para Siempre is the kind of track you wish lasted a lifetime.

Max Wuerden “generates sounds from silence if necessary” and it shows with his microscopic and complex electronics amongst Container Love – a stark contrast to Ulf Lohmann’s following, with epic reverse strings and distorted vocals on Refresh.

Pop Ambient is also a time for ‘firsts’. And don’t quote me, but what follows may just be one of Brock Van Wey’s shortest tracks to date. Clocking in at 6.19, In White Pagodas, I’ll Wait For You, is no less epic than his usual umpteen minute masterpieces though. Classic Bvdub with swirling, echoin vocals and powerful washes, it’s like the angels have ascended before only darkness remains.

Jens Uwe-Beyer, known to many of us under the pseudonym of Popnoname, hits dark and hard with pounding walls of static and euphoric progression that wouldn’t be out of place on Raster-Noton alongside Alva Noto and Ryoji Ikeda’s mind-bending visuals.

Ending the compilation, and marking a return from the very first Pop Ambient edition in 2001, Gustavo Lamas closes out 2015 with the a light and accessible definition of Pop Ambient. It’s the perfect reminder of Kompakt’s ability to take you into the deep, dark and endearing tones of the genre, and bring you back out smiling. And unlike many of the series’ releases, 2015’s feels like a much more defined journey than the rest. With age comes confidence, and with confidence comes a willingness to break-out from the norm – a norm which Kompakt set in 2001 and continue to evolve to this day.

Tracklist:

01. Thore Pfeiffer – Wie Es Euch GefäLlt
02. Thore Pfeiffer – Nero
03. Dirk Leyers – Daydreamer
04. Gregor Schwellenbach – Assperg
05. Leandro Fresco – Nada Es Para Siempre
06. Max Wuerden – Container Love
07. Ulf Lohmann – Refresh
08. Bvdub – In White Pagodas I’ll Wait Foryou
09. Jens-Uwe Beyer – Moewen
10. Gustavo Lamas – Jovenes Ambient (Remake)

Available on Kompakt in all formats from November 3rd, including a limited edition LP with signed fine-art print. Pre-order available now.

isolatedmix 48 - Gidge

 
 

Atomnation, the Berlin-based label helmed by Applescal and Guido Hollaers, has slowly but surely introduced us to an undercurrent of young burgeoning producers over the past couple of years. Recent releases from David Douglas and Gidge, have truly separated the label from the extensive world of electronica being released right now and Gidge’s debut release is a true testament to that fact.

In what was probably the longest lead-in time to receive a promo, Applescal sent me the debut album by Gidge in March this year. Passing on his excitement over the Nordic duo, it has been on repeat for me ever since. Over seven months later and Autumn Bells has finally been released to an amazing, well deserved reception.

The album flaunts with pulsating techno and a unique style of electronica, through some romantic story-lines, misty landscapes and an overall gleaming, happy vibe. Individual piano performances in I Fell In Love and beautiful trumpet solos in Norrland and Dusk create an air of mystery and an intense narrative to the entire album.

You, borrowing urban vocal influences, muddled with the pulsating beats of Huldra and straight up punches in Dusk and Fauna Pt II, bring energy and a modern taste to the album – unexpected twists and new adventures in every track. It’s the type of album that defies genres.

For their isolatedmix, Gidge do an incredible job of grounding these influences. From the urban pioneers such as Burial and James Blake, to innovators like The Field, and storytellers in Nils Frahm and Julia Kent, the mix spans many styles yet meanders an enigmatic story, much like ‘Autumn Bells‘.

Autumn Bells is available on Atomnation via Bandcamp.

 
 

Download

Tracklist:
01. Matti Bye – Across The Sun
02. Gidge – Norrland (Tony Karlsborn Bootleg)
03. Downliners Sekt – Eiger Dreams
04. Airhead – Shekure
05. Burial – Come Down To Us
06. Nils Frahm – Kind
07. James Blake – Pan
08. Loefah – The Goat Stare
09. Shxcxchcxsh – Entering The S-Cloud
10. Cristian Vogel – Seed Dogs
11. Christian Löffler – Young Alaska
12. Herbst9 – Mletkin
13. Eomac – I Love You, I Miss You
14. The Field – No. No…
15. Troy Gunner – Swoon
16. Bell.Gall. – Spight
17. Julia Kent – Tithonos
18. David Douglas – Moon Observations

Tracknotes by Gidge:

Matti Bye – Across The Sun
This song is pure mysticism. Matti is a genius who is able to create songs that seem drenched in mist and memories. The annoying thing about him is that he seems to be able to do this over and over and over again.

Gidge – Norrland (Tony Karlsborn Bootleg)
A bootleg remix of Norrland, sent to us by Tony Karlsborn who is also from Umeå. Makes us proud.

Downliner Sekt – Eiger Dreams
We caught these guys playing live at Sonar in Stockholm. They have a great sense of rhythm and their beats can be out of this world. Top stuff.

Airhead – Shekure
Proper banger, there’s not much more to say really.

Burial – Come Down To Us
It’s no secret that Burial has had a major influence on our music. Ludvig listened to this song almost every day going home from work last winter. You can almost hear the cold in this song. There’s these really subtle bell sounds way in the back that just sound like tiny snowflakes. Winter in northern Sweden is constantly dark, and this tune fits quite perfectly. A lifesaver.

Nils Frahm – Kind
This is how silence would sound if it could be turned into music.

James Blake – Pan
Really cool instrumental tune by Blake. He is a man of many talents, and this song is proof of that. So simple yet never boring.

Loefah – Goat Stare
Dubstep from the early days. Such quality. There’s stuff from 2014 that already sounds older than this.

Shxcxchcxsh – Entering The S-Cloud
A mystic piece by a mystic duo. Majestic in its simplicity.

Cristian Vogel – Seed Dogs
Ambitious track with one kick deeper than the other. A lot of stuff going on in a good way.

Christian Löffler – Young Alaska
A real beauty, one of many by Christian Löffler. It was a tough choice between this and “Notes”, another of his tracks that builds around a simple yet fantastic melody

Herbst9 – Mletkin
Harsh yet still very soothing soundscape

Eomac – I Love You, I Miss You
Last on “Hither, Pappy EP”, this track is far from the typical Eomac darkness, a nice contrast with its romantic two-line lyrics and playful beat.

The Field – No. No…
Repetitive in the best possible way, The Field lets his carefully produced sample-based loop go until you don’t want to not hear it over and over again. And he does this with almost all of his tracks

Troy Gunner – Swoon
A cool beat makes a cool track

Bell.Gall. – Spight
Umeå talent with an ear for for finding melodies and chord progressions you didn’t know that you wanted to hear. Featured in this mix with about one fifth of a massive noisy epos.

Julia Kent – Tithonos
A simple and beautiful cello piece.

David Douglas – Moon Observations
We close our mix with “Moon Observations” by fellow Atomnationee David Douglas. This is one you wish you’d created yourself.

Gidge on Soundcloud | Twitter | Facebook | Bandcamp

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.