Essential albums: Sounds From The Ground

UK duo Sounds From The Ground makes some of the most stunningly rich, dynamic, bass-heavy downtempo instrumentals on the planet. They are pioneers of ambient dub, an exotic style first championed by defunct UK label Beyond Records in the 90's and then picked up and continued to this day by North American label Waveform.

Sounds From The Ground

country of origin:

Ambient dub, ambient trance, exotica, lounge, world beat

decades active:
90's - 10's

essential releases:

  • Kin (1995, Waveform Records)
  • Terra Firma (2000, Waveform Records)
  • Luminal (2004, Waveform Records)
  • The Maze (2010, Waveform Records)
  • Widerworld (2012, Waveform Records)
  • Tribes (2013, Upstream Records)

Reviewed by Mike G

UK duo Sounds From The Ground (Elliot Morgan Jones and Nick Woolfson) make some of the most stunningly rich, dynamic, bass-heavy downtempo instrumentals on the planet. They are pioneers of ambient dub, an exotic style first championed by defunct UK label Beyond Records in the 90's and then picked up and continued to this day by North American label Waveform.

The reinvention of dub

Although dub in its original form is the tripped-out instrumental flipside of reggae, there is quite often no overtly Jamaican flavour to Jones and Woolfson's work. The dub element is more in the recording techniques (looping, echo, reverb, etc) and the lovingly rendered basslines that rumble, slide and snake their away around the room with enormous presence.

Neither is the duo's take on dub the minimalist approach of modern purists. They concoct soulful, exotic and tuneful widescreen panoramas, wound together with muscular rhythms and big, crisp drum loops that sometimes have a tribal or ethnic edge. Rhythmic downtempo from the psychedelic trance scene owes quite lot to these guys: listen and learn.

SFTG classics

Over a 20-plus year career Sound From The Ground have never really made a dud record; that said, six albums stand out in the duo's discography to date.

The debut Kin (1995) immediately marks the pair as artists with extraordinary melodic gifts. Listen to "Triangle" as just one example of their ability to build and layer multiple lines with the kind of finesse summoned by Berlin's old-school ambient trance pioneers. Explorations of tones and melody seem to be at the centre of everything that Sounds From The Ground creates. This is not listening electronica that alienates - it seduces, humanises, liberates. What's more, despite rarely being over the 100 bpm tempo mark, it makes you want to dance.

Terra Firma (2000) shows the duo expanding their horizons - not that they were ever narrow to start with - and succeeding in everything they try their hand at. "Marshmello" is a piece of 21st century jetset lounge that wouldn't sound out of place in a James Bond film, while the electric piano groove and brass flourishes of "The Cut" suggest a nod to nu jazz. The creeping grooves of "Bodega Bay", "Drugstore" and "Rye" explore a kind of brooding emotional twilight that's neither happy nor sad and yet utterly compelling.

On Luminal (2004) the dark side of the band's sound looms larger than on any other SFTG album, but depressing it is not. "Tumbledown" ropes in pedal steel player BJ Cole whose liquid guitar lines lift the crunching, snails-pace groove into a strange and beautiful realm. "Move On" proves that lyrics on ambient dub tracks are just fine, playing a filtered female vocal against shimmering keys and a slow techy groove and suggesting that 90's trip hop is alive and well. As before, nearly every track on Luminal is a mini-epic and that's particularly true of the album's closer. The slowly unfolding "London Fields" is the best sunrise anthem Orbital never made, with ghostly looped chords that morph ever so gradually into a 120 bpm broken-beat blissfest.

Latter-day essentials

Preceded by a couple of patchy albums, The Maze (2010) kicks off a sequence of exceptionally good releases. Exotic ambient dub remains their forte, with cinematic backdrops, sweet basslines and layers of ricocheting tones. The bell-like piano line on the loping "Subdub'in" is very simple and very memorable. "Temple Steps" mines a basic groove with such tuneful brilliance you could loop it for an hour and not get bored.

Two years separate The Maze and the superb Widerworld (2012), an album that's big on groove, dreamy harmonies and well-realised ideas; it cements the band's latter-day renaissance. They serve up a stunningly pretty harmonic progression on "Fields Of Green & Yellow" which deftly meshes acoustic guitars with their primarily electronic sound. The dark side rears its head on occasion, the best example being the deliciously evil closing track "Darswana". It starts out spiky, bleepy and abrasive and gets darker from there. Bass-heavy, organ-like chords slowly rise in the mix like some apocalyptic mecha crawling from the earth and threatening to swallow the entire space, with extra doom courtesy of ghostly vocal chants.

Tribes (2013) hits the mark yet again. This one is darker again, and feels a little more urban and menacing. The openers "Infrared" and "Carousel" sneak up on you with their uncluttered melange of snaking bass, drums, synthetic tones and subtle strings. "Feels Real" breathes new life into atmospheric drum 'n' bass with an inspired SFTG overhaul - grungy bass, gorgeous synth overlays, and an elastic fast-slow tempo that pulls you in two directions at once. "Nova Stone" is a fresh and funky dub-tech groove as tight as tensile steel wire, and the stop-start pattern of "Dimewater" sounds like perfect mood music for a stalk and chase scene. The album rings enough changes on SFTG's widescreen sound to keep longtime fans excited and should prove a striking listen for anyone else who lends an ear.

A timeless sound

That these six albums span a period of 20 years is largely irrelevant, because Sounds From The Ground really doesn't belong to any decade or period, save an electronic one. Each album still sounds as vital as the day it was recorded. Any sounds the duo took in from clubland or other circles over the years seems to have been readily absorbed into their arsenal, to be used as needed rather than because this or that sound was trendy at a particular time.

Put these on, crank up the volume and prepare to be moved.

Share this: