Instinct Records (Instinct Ambient)

New York-based label Instinct's serious forays into ambient sound started a few years after of its 1990 launch during which it had early success with rock-dance artist Moby, who himself also dabbled in ambient techno. What started in the chillout spaces of raves and clubs was coalescing into fresh ambient sounds on record, particularly those coming from Europe and the UK. Thus inspired, Instinct started nurturing local acts.

label: 
Instinct Records (Instinct Ambient)

country of origin: 
USA

style(s): 
Ambient techno/trance, chillout, breakbeat, experimental, environmental, space music

decades active:
90's

essential compilations: 

  • Chill Out! The Techno Evolution Continues (1993, Instinct)
  • Chillout Phase Two (1994, Instinct)
  • Plug In & Turn On vol. 2 (1994, Instinct)
  • Ambient Systems (1995, Instinct Ambient)
  • Ambient Systems 3 (1997, Instinct Ambient)

Reviewed by Mike G

All ambient, chillout and downtempo music that exists under the umbrella of electronic dance music today had its first full flowering on independent labels like Instinct Records. A magnificent burst of creativity happened around the world pretty much simultaneously through the releases of Instinct and a handful of other pioneering labels in the early to mid 90's including Silent RecordsFax RecordsRising HighEmit Records, G-Stone Recordings and the eclectic lounge music found on Jose Padilla's Cafe Del Mar series.

Techno, trance, hip hop and dub were the dance genres that most strongly informed the music. These fresh sounds and the technology that created them meshed happily with sounds of the old school; the ambient trance and experimental art rock of pioneers like Tangerine Dream, Brian Eno, Jean-Michel Jarre and numerous others.

A complex story

During the 90's Instinct was broadly an electronic dance label - and it continues today with a very different repertoire - but its ambient output has a rather complex release history. For one thing, the label was also a distributor to the American market for overseas labels, re-releasing selected albums from across the Atlantic by the likes of Fax Records and Emit. Some tracks from those releases then made their way onto the classic Instinct compilation albums listed above.

There were also many sublabels including Instinct Ambient on which Instinct released some - but not all - of its ambient techno/trance and experimental ambience, before suddenly abandoning the sublabel in 1997.

Early releases

Instinct's serious forays into ambient sound started a few years after of its 1990 launch during which it had early success with rock-dance artist Moby, who himself also dabbled in ambient techno. What started in the chillout spaces of raves and clubs was coalescing into fresh ambient sounds on record, particularly those coming from Europe and the UK. Thus inspired, Instinct started nurturing local acts at home such as Taylor Deupree (aka Human Mesh Dance and SETI), Drum Club, Terre Thaemlitz and many more.

Several ground-breaking compilation albums soon followed. The first of these was Chill Out! The Techno Evolution Continues (1993), a bona fide classic collection of ambient sounds from the dance world of the time. There's beauty and wonder everywhere: rich, pulsating chords, spacey melodies and bleepy grooves, shimmering landscapes, euphoric ambient trance and just occasionally something more twisted and dark. The music is often exotic, too, a signpost to ethno-ambient trance and exotic dub that would appear in great quantities over the following decades. The ambient breakbeat epic "Sunrise" by Young American Primitive is a stunner, its arpeggios and gorgeous strings anchored by a deep tribal drum groove, while the complex techno patterns of Omicron's "Whaler" clatter beneath a sweet, eerie melody from Moroccan hornpipe.

The follow-up Chill Out Phase Two (1994) is another double-length release every bit as outstanding as its predecessor. Epochal moments include Aphex Twin's "Blue Calx, a minimalist ambient masterpiece with a sad, gorgeous melody wafting like clouds over a subtle machine pulse. Orbital's "Belfast", the classic morning-after comedown anthem, is a fully developed rhythmic piece that lies somewhere between club techno and rich, blissed-out Balearic chill music.

Plug In & Turn On series

Around this time Instinct also released another twin-volume series. The first Plug In & Turn On (1994) is undistinguished and remains a non-essential release. Disc 1 is mostly dated club tracks; Disc 2 is ambient but gets lost with too many messy and dissonant sequences.

Fortunately the second volume Plug In + Turn On vol. 2 (1994) is superb. On some tracks the club music DNA had disappeared entirely; there seems to be more of an anything-goes ethos, more confidence on the part of both compilers and artists. Woob's brilliant cinema of the mind which gets two airings on "Odonna" and "Pluto", and Adham Shaikh sounds like he's channeling old-school ambient master David Parsons with the cavernous Eastern drones of "Vapor". Equally impressive are some of the beaty and club-influenced tracks such as Cabaret Voltaire's "Exterminating Angel", a masterful blend of crisp techno drum patterns and pretty harmonies tinged with melancholy.

The Ambient Systems series

Once the Instinct Ambient sublabel was officially launched yet another compilation series appeared. Ambient Systems (1995) and Ambient Systems 3 (1995) are perfect reminders of everything that was best about the Instinct Ambient sound. The club music legacy is still there - Roland 909 drum machines, clubby arpeggios and buzzing acid lines still occasionally figure - but there's plenty of room given over to droning landscapes and old-school ambient sounds as well. Listening to the album now it's freshness is still pretty astonishing. It's the best kind of forward-thinking music: full of fresh ideas while (mostly) still respectful of tonality if not melody. Even the environmental ambience - a well-worn sub-genre based around field recordings - sounds engaging and new in the hands of New York composer Terre Thaemlitz, whose sound paintings here are extraordinarily lucid and involving.

However, Ambient Systems 2 (1996) and Ambient Systems 4 (2000) can he happily avoided. Despite some shining moments, both albums are dominated by beat-based tracks that are cold, self-indulgent and averse to almost of any kind of melodic thread.

Death throes

And that's where Instinct Records' ambient adventues end.

The label largely abandoned electronic ambient sounds after the late 90's in favour of nu jazz, reggae and more mainstream fare. In fact most of the key labels from this era shone for only a few bright years before either abandoning ambient (as Instinct did) or closing down altogether (as did Silent and Emit Records), partly due to the fickle tastes of the dance market as audiences moved on in search of new thrills.

Influence and legacy

For whatever reason, "pure" ambient techno went deeper underground in the 2000's and became often cold and fussy. Digital glitch music by laptop artists now dominates a narrowly redefined genre with its harsh textures, squeaks, clicks and deconstructions. Fine if that’s your bag, though it's not an aesthetic you'll often find praised here at AMG. Thankfully, accessible ambient dance sounds with psychedelic qualities quickly re-emerged following the demise of the 1990's "first wave" labels, in the form of newcomers like ambient trance champions Ultimae Records, the more eclectic Interchill Records and also some artists from the psytrance scene, particularly those composing the more exotic strains of dub.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: the best chillout or ambience dance music from electronic dance music's early days in the 90's stills stand up exceptionally well today. And its legacy is around us everywhere. Nearly every sub-genre - techno, house, trance, psytrance, hip-hop and drum 'n' bass - has an instrumental ambient cousin, while some downtempo styles like psychedelic/exotic dub, nu jazz and nu lounge have morphed into entire genres in themselves.

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