Essential albums: Silent Records (label)

There is no denying that the first wave of experimental chillout music to emerge from the afterglow of early rave, techno and acid house in the early to mid 90's did have that special warmth and sense of wide-eyed wonder. San Francisco-based Silent Records was there and captured this spirit beautifully.

Silent Records

country of origin:

Ambient techno/trance, drone, chillout, spacemusic, dub, new age, environmental

decades active:
80's - 90's, then 2010's

essential compilations:

  • 50 Years Of Sunshine (1993, Silent)
  • From Here To Tranquility vol. 1 (1993, Silent)
  • From Here To Tranquility vol. 2 (1993, Silent)
  • Unidentified Floating Ambience (1994, Silent)
  • From Here To Tranquility vol. 3 (1994, Silent)
  • From Here To Tranquility vol. 5 (1996, Silent)
  • Oscillations (1998, Halcyon Recordings)
  • From Here To Tranquility vol. 6: The Renaissance (2016, Silent)
  • From Here To Tranquility vol. 7: The Renaissance Continues (2016, Silent)

Reviewed by Mike G

Did ambient techno have a golden age, and was it the early-to-mid 90's?

Tricky questions both. If you understand ambient techno in a broad sense, the are still fantastic melodic strains of ambient dance music around today including psychedelic dub, ambient pop and spacey trance.  If you regard the term more narrowly, however, then the heady 90's may seem idyllic, particularly if you feel alienated by the cold digital-glitch aesthetic of the music that now gets tagged ambient techno.

The birth of ambient dance music

Golden age or not, there is no denying that the first wave of experimental chillout music to emerge from the afterglow of early rave, techno and acid house in the early to mid 90's did have that special warmth and sense of wide-eyed wonder. San Francisco-based Silent Records was there and captured this spirit beautifully. Listening now to the most accessible examples from its 90's catalogue is to witness that thrill of creative discovery.

Silent's artists from this period - many from the Bay area - were inspired by many things: advances in digital and studio technology, a shrinking global village, the optimism of rave and (ahem) consumption of assorted mind-expanding substances. Some of it sounds a little naive or technologically dated today - indeed like any label with a large catalogue, it's not all great - but the best examples rank among the finest ambient dance music ever made.

The label rode the same post-rave creative wave which across the Atlantic was fuelling the likes of the classic Artificial Intelligence series from Britain's Warp Records, ambient label Fax Records, the wonderful Chill Out Or Die series from UK dance label Rising High, and the output of Instinct Records on the U.S. East coast. Silent's best releases in the ambient dance vein often reflect the label's West Coast origins and San Francisco's history of alternative culture, with themes ranging across psychedelia, space travel, consciousness expansion, spiritual ecology and renderings of imaginary and alien worlds.

Early years

Although Silent was always a wide-ranging label that also put out many examples of difficult, dissonant ambient noise music, the rave and dance-related ambient releases of it's first 90's incarnation - before its long hibernation and eventual 2016 reboot - are the ones most fondly remembered.

Founded in 1986 by experimental musician Kim Cascone (who became best known via his Heavenly Music Corporation pseudonym), Silent began life as an old-school ambient label releasing darkish, abstract and industrial sounds including several of Cascone's own projects and collaborations such as his Poison Gas Research pseudonym.

By the turn of the decade, however, underground electronica in America and Europe was changing dramatically. This was reflected in the demos Cascone was receiving of the strange and beautiful new sounds some were calling techno. Cascone was turned on to the idea of ambience as something transcendent and he soon broadened the label's scope. Silent's peak years then followed, fed in part by the chill rooms of San Francisco's rave scene and the creative communities that gravitated towards it, both locals and like-minded musicians from similar scenes around the world. By the time of Silent's demise in 1998, the main label had issued around 70 releases (plus nearly 100 more on various sub-labels covering club music, dark industrial and other experimental electronica).

From Here To Tranquility compilations

Silent's main compilation album series during the 90's was From Here To Tranquility, curated by Cascone and totalling four outstanding volumes and only one non-essential release (Volume 4 from 1995). Also part of this family is Oscillations (1998), a sixth volume released by a fan named Michael Halcyon on his own label after Silent had closed down. Although unofficial, it really belongs with the Tranquility series in both spirit and substance and features many Silent artists of that era.

The Tranquility albums are varied, adventurous and layered ambient excursions that are sometimes busy and percussive, sometimes beatless; sometimes quite minimal, at others drenched in ethereal atmospheres and rich synthetic harmonies. The drum machine technology used create of some of these tracks (most obviously the sound of Roland 909 drum machines) may sound sound a tad primitive now. But as has always been the case since the development of the synthesiser, talent, ideas and passion tend to transcend any technological limitations.

From Here To Tranquility volume 1 sets the standard and is notable for lots of creative improvising based around single drones. Tracks by Spacetime Continuum and Heavenly Music Corporation, for example, use long tonal arcs that rise and fall beneath layers of arpeggios, slowly morphing, building and spiralling ever deeper into the surrounding space. Spice Barons "Spice Of God" samples dialogue from David Lynch's film Dune and creates an extraordinary mystical effect with simple major-minor chord changes. A few abstract moments like doom-laden percussive tracks or a twisted piece of dub provide an effective contrast with the surrounding prettiness, a light-and-shade approach that is repeated on all subsequent volumes in the series.

By the time of Volume 2, artists from outside the USA are making significant contributions; Pelican Daughters and Transcendental Anarchists (both from Australia) and the always quirky Legion Of Green Men (Canada). Volume 5 is Cascone's personal favourite and contains Makyo's towering Vedic epic "Devabandha", an example of the exotic ambient dub style which to this day remains passionately championed by labels like U.S. label Waveform Records. Oscillations is a beautifully judged mix of new music from Silent artists such as Transcendental Anarchists and Heavenly Music Corp with old-school ambient names like Richard Bone and Vidna Obmana.

Other Silent compilations

Several other Silent collections also rate essential listening. Unidentified Floating Ambience (1994) contains minimal percussion and emphasises rich, ethereal drones and smooth cascading sounds like The Orb at its spaciest, with occasional bubbling Roland 303 acid lines rising to the surface. Consisting entirely of music co-composed by Cascone and his prolific associate Don Falcone under various pseudonyms, this album is perhaps the most beautiful and euphoric Silent compilation of all.

Completely different is 50 Years Of Sunshine (1993), the label's strangest various-artists collection and one the more original concepts to come from an independent label in any era. This double CD celebrates the 50th anniversary of the discovery of LSD, kicking off with a specially recorded four-minute introduction by ye olde acid guru Timothy Leary. It's a remarkable and often outrageously surreal collection of techno in the Silent mould alongside spacey prog rock with swirling guitars (Closedown), mystical folksy pop (Kykean), edgy industrial synthpop (XKP) and indescribably bizarre moments like "Beetle Crawls Across My Back" which is more sound collage than music. Usually weird and downright menacing at times, 50 Years Of Sunshine is a completely involving mix of songs and instrumentals, but I wouldn't recommend approaching it in anything other than a completely sober state of mind.

End of an era

The original incarnation of Silent Records folded in 1998.

The end was precipitated in 1996 with a crippling blow dealt by a new distributor which changed ownership and then promptly forgot about a deal to distribute Silent releases to the big music retailers. Silent suddenly found itself with a huge quantity of returned stock that had been manufactured for this planned expansion. Kim Cascone considered dissolving the label so that he could further pursue his interests in the left-field industrial noise and avant-garde electronica. As it turned out, he sold the business to a willing colleague who took the label in a more dub, drum 'n' bass and club music direction over the following two years but ultimately to no avail.

Cascone sensed that a segment of Silent's market was moving on anyway. As he told e-zine Ambient Trance in a 1998 interview: "The biggest problem for ambient music was that it had been reborn as a sub-genre of techno and hence experienced a short life cycle due to it riding the back of dance music culture...[and] because this music wasn't tailored for the dancefloor the economic base wasn't there to support it". These same conditions contributed to the demise of America's other significant ambient techno/trance label of the era Instinct Ambient, which abruptly shifted to nu-jazz and dub shortly before being terminated altogether by it's parent label.

The reboot

Quite suddenly, Silent Records was resurrected by Kim Cascone in 2016.

In in an interview with he explained how it started with a visit to San Francisco's net radio station Soma-FM.

"I’d been a fan of the web radio station Soma FM for many years and out-of-the-blue I had the idea of creating a station for Soma FM that played the back catalog of Silent Records. I sent them an email and within an hour I received a response saying they were totally on board with this idea and set up a time to meet with me.

"During the meeting the founder, Rusty Hodges, floated the idea of my restarting the label. I found the prospect of running a label again overwhelming and dismissed the idea out of hand. Later on while chatting with a friend, who also runs a label, I mentioned my meeting with Soma FM and he said that I definitely 'had to reboot Silent', 'that I owed it to the fans and the artists' and informed me that an almost cult-like fan base had developed in the 18 year dormancy.

"This was news to me because I had been out of touch with the ambient scene since selling the label in 1996. After discussing matters further with friends I found the idea to be less daunting that I had originally thought because I could do almost everything digitally now."

The reboot began with both new albums and classic reissues (e.g. all four Heavenly Music Corporation titles). The first two new instalments in Silent's legendary Tranquility series are both quite superb. Volume 6: The Renaissance (2016) is a reunion of artists from the original label contributing mostly fresh material, while Volume 7: The Renaissance Continues (2016) features artists who are new to Silent. Both albums bunch their tracks in two halves that clearly delineate the label’s dual heritage: tonal ambient techno and trance sounds (both beats and beatless, often with a sci-fi or pastoral tinge) contrasting with a droning, industrial, sometimes far more dissonant dark side. The darker material works best on Volume 7, where repeated listens often reveal more than just atonal noise, something that weighs down Volume 6 on occasion. But this is splitting straws, really. After 20 years these comps show a rejuvenated Silent Records with much to say and - along with the continuing reissues - that’s made some of us very happy indeed.

Post-2016, Kim Cascone has taken the label in a more drone-based direction, with beats rarely appearing on Silent releases. After all, it's not 1994 anymore, and drone more closely aligns with his earlier roots in experimental music anyway. The ongoing Tranquillity releases have been decent, but the real standouts have been some of the albums of Lingua Lustra (Dutch artist Albert Borkent). His lush and spacey Charia (2017) and Ice Age (2017) are two superb examples of atmospheric, landscaped drone music.

Share this: