Michael Atherton

Atherton recorded some striking albums during the 1990's that hold much appeal to ambient and downtempo fans. Classically trained but adept on a wide range of folk and ethnic instruments, his textural invention and sense of colour are in abundance on these releases.

artist:
Michael Atherton

country of origin:
Australia

style(s):
World music, contemporary classical, ethno ambient

decades active:
70's - 00's

essential releases:

  • Windshift (1990, ABC Records)
  • Bloodwood [with Alan Dargin] (1991, Natural Symphonies)
  • Shoalhaven Rise [with Riley Lee & Michael Askill] (1995, Black Sun)
  • Cross & Hatch [with Alan Dargin] (1997, Black Sun)
  • Ankh: The Sound Of Ancient Egypt (1998, Celestial Harmonies)

Reviewed by Mike G

During its peak years from the 1970's to the 1990's, American label Celestial Harmonies and its founder Erkhart Rahn roamed far and wide in search of fresh, exotic and contemplative sounds. Rahn's travels included Australia, where he discovered and nurtured some outstanding talents who otherwise probably would have remained unknown outside their home country. One of those talents was Michael Atherton.

In between his time spent in academic roles and playing concerts with various Australian ensembles since the 1970's, the highly versatile Atherton recorded some striking albums during the 1990's that hold much appeal to ambient and downtempo fans. Classically trained but adept on a wide range of folk and ethnic instruments, his textural invention and sense of colour are in abundance on these releases.

Bloodwood (1991) features acclaimed didgeridoo exponent Alan Dargin inspiring his collaborator in all kinds of stimulating ways; didge and Ry Cooder-ish slide guitar on "Storm Warning"; didge and looped Asian percussion on "Going To Town". Cross & Hatch (1997) was also recorded with Dargin and features mostly new material but this time the blending is more refined, the rhythms more exotic. Some of the drone-based pieces compare favourably to the striking synthesis of electronics and aboriginal Australian music achieved by U.S. electronic composer Steve Roach on his dark ambient classic Dreamtime Return (1988).

But much of Atherton's music is not so obviously Australian. Shoalhaven Rise (1995), recorded with Zen flautist Riley Lee and percussionist Michael Askill, was one of the finest ethno-ambient albums of the 1990's and yet it isn't at all electronic: quite unusual for that genre. It's highly eclectic, full of nuances and subtle textures, and featured on a couple of exceptional tracks ("Golden Mean" the most notable) is the most feather-soft electric bass guitar you could ever imagine courtesy of Askill's brother Daniel. Windshift (1990) is a spirited album of ethno-ambient folk music, with the gorgeous sound of pan pipes and pan flute featured prominently. Far removed from new age clichés, Atherton explores the full range of those instruments with impressive results.

But for sheer evocative power, Ankh: The Sound Of Ancient Egypt (1998) is the pick of the bunch. The album's carefully crafted organic sound design reflects Atherton's attempts to recreate the music of a early Egypt, a culture whose music was never actually written down. Using only descriptions of instruments, paintings and historical anecdotes as background, Atherton and his supporting musicians succeed brilliantly in capturing an atmosphere, playing a variety of handmade flutes, trumpets, harps and percussion gathered from North Africa and the Middle East and taking a necessarily intuitive approach to the compositions.

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