UK duo Ishq have achieved something of a rare feat in ambient music: making new age sound credible. As a fusion of new age signatures with classic ambience and the technology of dance music, their music is truly distinctive and special.

artist:
Ishq

country of origin:
UK

style(s):
Ambient, new age, environmental, drone, ethno-ambient, ambient techno

decades active:
00's - 10's

essential releases:

  • Orchid (2001, Interchill/Daikin Records)
  • Sama (2010, Electronic Soundscapes)
  • Lotus (2010, Virtual)
  • And Awake (2011, Interchill)
  • Bloom (2012, Virtual)
  • Sunflower (2014, Virtual)
  • Blue Infinity (2014, Virtual)

Reviewed by Mike G

Created amid idyllic English countryside near St Ives in Cornwall, the music of Ishq (Matt Hillier and vocalist Jacqueline Kersley), among its many good qualities, achieves something of a rare feat in ambient music: making new age sound credible. As a fusion of new age signatures with classic ambience and the technology of dance music, it is truly distinctive and special.

Hillier's art comes from a deep spiritual perspective which extends through his music, the striking cover designs and the independent philosophy of his record label Virtual. You may find some of the album notes, for example, a little pretentious. Yet the music speaks for itself. Ishq's best albums fulfill the transcendent and calming potential that new age and relaxation music claims for its own but often fails to deliver. Instead, new age motifs such as nature samples, celestial synths and airy wordless female vocals are among Ishq's greatest strengths.

Beyond these overtones Ishq's music is also quite eclectic. There's elements of classic loop, drone and environmental ambience ala Brian Eno, as well as the early spacemusic of the Berlin-school bands and occasional ambient dance beats and exotic percussion. "Hippie techno" is one rather silly label that's nonetheless stuck, corralling Ishq into the same pastoral psychedelia as early works by The Orb, Steve Hillage and classic Silent Records. Matt Hillier is an unusually gifted producer - from a sound design perspective alone his albums are fascinating creations. His subtle, painstaking craft gives the music a distinctive clarity, a purity, a sense of place that's almost hyper-real at times. In an interview in 2008 with ezine Fluid Motion he spoke about this visual quality:

"Visual art is a big part of what I do...I see ambient music as a landscape painting and everything I do has a visual world. I write visual music which paints an image of what Terence Mckenna called "the invisible landscape", the inner worlds and planes. So I guess I always wanted to be a landscape painter, painting in the invisible world."

The classic debut

Orchid (2001) is a remarkable debut. After an almost conventional start with the loping chillout breakbeats of "Skyblue", the album settles into a contemplative space with the beguiling "Yu", a kind of conversation between harp, sighing keys and the rich sound of Kersley's processed vocal samples. The use of pauses and silence is striking; the effect is like sitting in a huge, lush, garden and watching the life around you. The pulsing drone pieces "Opal" and "Daisy" also evoke an outdoor space but this time it's more like an alien jungle. Beneath the sparkling colours and strange beauty of the scenery is a mood that's a little ominous and tantalisingly unresolved.

But the very best music on Orchid is saved for last. "Bhakti" and "Arc" are essentially one track consisting of two movements and a coda. Below is a strong, shadowy chord progression and fretless bass snaking around a sleepy tribal beat; hovering above is a rich spectral drone and fleeting vocal phrases. As it spirals ever deeper into ethereal sound the music eventually dissolves into pure atmosphere, before re-emerging into a wordless vocal passage of staggering, weeping beauty. If this 17-minute masterpiece doesn't move you, its unlikely anything else in the genre will. (Note: the Daiken Records version of Orchid contains a bonus 2nd disc).

Beyond Orchid

Matt Hillier took a break from Ishq for nearly a decade after Orchid. Feeling the pressure of producing a follow-up, he simply turned his attention to other musical projects, usually some some strain of ambient but not under the Ishq banner.

In 2010 the drought broke, and since that time Ishq album releases have been much more frequent. At least six of them are must-haves for psyambient fans.

Sama (2010) was a long time coming - nine years - and it doesn't disappoint. To their credit the duo have chosen the harder road of not mimicking the music of Orchid. Instead, Sama presents a more consistently landscaped style of ambience. Except for the the crisp, hypnotic groove of the 15-minute "Ursavatai" the individual sounds are fuzzier in the mix and the melodic lines arc across even bigger spaces. The 10-minute title track is Ishq's most openly loving piece to date. It unfolds like the new dawn set to music despite no obvious sound effects or a signpost in the track title. Upon the exquisitely calming surface the surging chords rise and fall like the deepest breaths, the theremin melody embracing your consciousness like a feather brushing on skin. The album is tonal and undeniably pretty, with echoes of Global Communication and Tetsu Inoue in the mix.

And Awake (2011) is also essential. It doesn't really echo either of its predecessors yet remains quite unmistakably Ishq. There's depth aplenty in Hillier's remarkable sound design, as well as some new forays into subtle glitch and click music. Segueing masterfully between beatless and gentle rhythmic, And Awake presents more surreal, shimmering, nature-inspired ambience of the highest order. "Leaf" is perhaps the most hypnotically melodic piece of music they've done, bobbing and spinning with exquisite gentleness.

The exquisite Sunflower (2014) is a varied collection of older, mostly-unreleased tracks and a testament to the amazing depths of Hillier's archive. You may already know "Nepalese Sun", a perfectly realised piece of layered, pastoral loveliness that many years ago was licenses to other labels compilations and never made it onto an Ishq album. The rest of the tracks will be new to Ishq fans, including an outstanding beatless remix of "And Awake". Its original glitchy pulse has been removed - always at odds with the Ishq sound anyway - and its odd beauty is laid bare with Kersley's wispy wordless phrasing circling around a haunting, angular chord progression.

Blue Infinity (2014) is a conceptual album about flight, inspired by the UK painter and pilot Peter Lanyon who painted landscapes of his Cornwall home from the aerial perspective of a glider. And glide the music does; it's one of the best albums for inner flights you'll ever encounter. The arcing, beatless, complex drones suggest endless horizons and infinite blue, beautiful landscapes, rendered slightly surreal by Hillier's gentle psychedelic touch. The album reaches a kind of epiphany on the melodic 16-minute "Lanyon", its layered chords seeming to expand forever outwards. Hillier's sound design is, once again, impressive; he remains a composer able to technically realise his ideas with absolute clarity.

Also essential are two more Ishq compilations. Lotus (2010) collects exclusive tracks licensed to different various-artist compilation albums over the previous decade. Bloom (2012) covers a similar timespan and, like the Sunflower album, features tracks that for whatever reason are previously unreleased.

Other releases

Matt Hillier has many other albums in his discography including some collaborations with partners other than Jacqueline Kersley. A number of these are released as Ishq, while others appear under pseudonyms such as Elve, Ishvara and Ishqamatics. If you're happy to go without discernible melodies and you like abstract soundscaping, you might also enjoy some of Ishq's "pure" minimal soundscape music such as Skyspaces (2011) released as limited edition albums on Hillier's Virtual label.

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