Essential albums: Ultimae Records

Some of the label's music is quite danceable, certainly, but nearly always with the enveloping ambience of psychedelic spacemusic in all its intriguing shades and colours. Liquid sounds and epic panoramas are what Ultimae does best, beginning on the trance and techno axis and spiralling out from there into other genres and into spaces we don't yet have names for yet.

Ultimae Records

country of origin:

Ambient trance, ambient techno, psychedelic, environmental, spacemusic

decades active:
00's - 10's

essential compilations:

  • Fahrenheit Project part 1 (2001, Ultimae)
  • Fahrenheit Project part 2 (2002, Ultimae)
  • Fahrenheit Project part 3 (2003, Ultimae)
  • Fahrenheit Project part 4 (2004, Ultimae)
  • Albedo (2005, Ultimae)
  • Fahrenheit Project part 6 (2006, Ultimae)
  • Oxycanta (2006, Ultimae)
  • Oxycanta III (2013, Ultimae)
  • Enfold 01 (2014, Ultimae)
  • Digiseeds (2015, Ultimae)

Reviewed by Mike G

Through the 1990's, most new-school ambient trance music came from labels whose main focus was the dancefloor - psytrance labels like Spiritzone and Twisted Records, the more mainstream UK labels Lost Language and Hooj Choons, the wonderful Chilled Euphoria series and so on. The genre was crying out for an underground label brave enough to make a bigger commitment to the sub-genre. Enter Vincent Villius and Sandrine Gryson (aka Sunbeam aka Mahiane) with the new French-based Ultimae Records. They founded the Ultimae in 2000 and it was one of the first labels to champion the genre full time with its "panoramic music for panoramic people".

Some of the label's music is quite danceable, certainly, but nearly always with the enveloping ambience of psychedelic spacemusic in all its intriguing shades and colours. Liquid sounds and epic panoramas are what Ultimae does best, beginning on the trance and techno axis and spiralling out from there into other genres and into spaces we don't yet have names for yet. And Ultimae is not just a label, its a fully realised vision - the music, the packaging, the parties. This collective of composers, DJ's, sound designers, visual artists and dreamers have tapped into something special. If you're not yet a fellow traveller, it's time to get on board.

The Fahrenheit Project series

The Fahrenheit Project series defines Ultimae. It's where you'll hear some of the richest and most intelligent techno/trance-based ambient anywhere on the planet, past or present. No other compilation series in the new century has better captured the sound of the cosmos; an unmistakable spectral ambience that only electronically-based music can achieve, a world of beautiful-strange environments, quiet drama and awed reverence.

Fahrenheit Project part 1 (2001) is an impressive beginning and makes clear from the outset that Ultimae's definition of trance is open-minded and progressive. Aes Dana (a duo comprising of the label's co-founders) gives us something new and strange with the extraordinary "Skyclad". Its opening oriental flute and eerie background drone could be textbook ethno-ambient until an odd percussive drum loop kicks in and casts its hypnotic spell. Also of note is Craig Padilla's beatless "Beyond Beta", jaw-droppingly beautiful and almost Berlin old-school with its warm, enveloping shroud of shimmering melody and sad synth chords.

Fahrenheit Project part 2 (2002) is book-ended with two lovely drone tracks from American deep ambient composer Robert Rich - more proof that the various sub-genres associated with club music are not the only ones catching Ultimae's ears. Other highlights include Chai AD's spellbinding "When The Effect Came" with its heady mix of acid house buzz, thick trip hop groove, Islamic wailing and soaring alien-like synth chords. Swedish duo Vibrasphere's "San Pedro" is profoundly uplifting and great example of their talent for blending pretty acoustic guitar with seriously big, bass-driven techy dub.

Fahrenheit Project part 3 (2003) has a few less euphoric highs than its predecessor but remains an essential release nonetheless. Aes Dana's mid-tempo 4/4 tech-trance workout "Undertow" could well be Oliver Lieb's dark trance in slow motion, while rising label star Solar Fields contributes a perfect example of his episodic, cinematic style. Carbon Based Lifeforms brilliant dark-edged "MOS 6581" summons the exquisitely-layered melodica of Tangerine Dream, but confounds expectations with its brittle, crunchy trip-hop drum break.

Fahrenheit Project part 4 (2004) is another blinding collection. Puff Dragon's "Chinese Radio" is extraordinarily hypnotic with its slow, thunderous 4/4 rock drums not unlike Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir". Over its simple arpeggio and snippets of Chinese folk melody is a spoken mantra you can't get out of your head: "...perception... reality... perception... reality". Other highlights include Cell's "Audio Deepest Night" which is widescreen ambient trance at its most muted and achingly sad, while respected Polish outfit Aural Planet show their dense, pretty, uniquely intense sound to maximum effect on "Hydropoetry Cathedral".

Fahrenheit Project part 5 (2005) and the final instalment Part 7 (2007) both suffer from a dearth of strong tracks; albums worth hearing but non-essential entries in the series. Fahrenheit Project part 6 (2006), however, finds the artists once again applying their craft with breathtaking finesse. There's nine tracks, some by newcomers like Scan-Tec, others by Ultimae icons Cell, Solar Fields and Aes Dana. "Erasing Pluto" by Cell typifies the tracks in a 4/4 time signature which dominates this particular album; throbbing and sighing and glistening, revelling in gentle tension-and-release dynamics. The acid buzz and squawk of the classic Roland 303 synth makes an appearance more than once, cross-stitched with the newer sounds and all very tastefully done. The album closes on a quiet, folksy note with Hol Baumman's "Radio Bombay" which sketches spare synthetic figures around an Indian vocal with acoustic guitar accompaniment. Yet even here, a bass drone suggesting spaces as vast as the Milky Way lurks in the background.

Other early compilations

Albedo (2005) is Ultimae's first compilation outside the Fahrenheit Project series and quite different from its predecessors despite featuring many of the same artists. The UK composer/DJ Nova has compiled and mixed eleven new tracks as an audio diary of sun's daily arc across the sky. It's a kind of environmental music, unified by location recordings and Ultimae's trademark atmospheric washes but with most tracks having enough structure and rhythmic variety to sound distinctive. Powerful contributions by Solar Fields and Sync 24 echo the throbbing Berlin-school ambient trance or yore, a classic sound that seems infinitely open to reinvention in gifted hands. Other tracks sound purely 21st century, like Hol Baumann's "Human" with its intensely percussive tech groove and weird machine cries and noises. An album that starts and ends with barely a whisper, Albedo is another rich, intelligent example of chill from Ultimae.

Oxycanta (2006) - the first in a series - remains the label's quietest, most deeply "ambient" compilation and less of an ambient trance release than any of its predecessors. Imagine walking at dusk or dawn next to a very wide, very deep and very still lake upon which the surface occasionally ripples. You can sense the depths below via the occasional slow beat, deep rhythmic throb or gentle arpeggio. There's a certain power that comes from restraint, from not revealing all, and that's what makes this release so engaging. Regulars like Aes Dana and Solar Fields are present and accounted for, alongside talent from Japan and Sweden that's new to the label.

Recent compilations

For a number of years following the first Oxycanta comp, many the label's various artist compilations proved less impressive than the earlier ones. Many are spotty quality-wise and collectively lacking what was previously a firm sense of direction for the label. Until 2013, the Ultimae albums that shone were mostly the single artist ones, including stunning releases by Carbon Based Lifeforms, Sync24, Asura and Connect.Ohm.

Oxycanta III (2013), however,  signals a welcome return to form for Ultimae compilations.

Oxycanta III is compiled by DJ and label co-founder Maheine and like the first in the series it's often very quiet, built on a foundation of light beat patterns, mysterious melodies and an almost infinite variety of floating, cosmic sounds and textures. The album peaks with a deeply haunting three-track sequence featuring music by I Awake (aka Thomas Huttenlocher) and 36 (aka Dennis Huddleston). Icy piano figures with strings and drones bookend a track called "Seance" on which a creepy, descending melody rides a muted drum pulse, its rhythm suggestive of an old pendulum clock.

Enfold 01 (2014) is built upon spaced-out downtempo beats and deep bass, rendered on a soundstage as wide as the Milky Way. Featured regulars include Scann-Tec, Asura, I Awake and Aes Dana. Harmonic, intelligent, curious and superbly produced, Enfold 01 is an eloquent statement of Ultimae's vision for ambient trance and techno with staying power.

Digiseeds (2015) is compiled an outsider, Czech artist Lubos Cvrk aka Ambientium, who sourced 12 pieces of new music - including one of his own - from around globe. He winningly describes it as a mix of “minimal acoustic patterns melting into intense pads, ethereal dub lines blending with glitch, gentle electronica and a certain neo-classical aesthetic”. Beats this time are largely relegated to the background or dispensed with altogether. Some of the hybrids are intriguing electro-acoustic ones, most notably the bewitching opener “The Circadian Clock” which picks out its melody using a ringing “prepared piano” above a bed of glistening synthetic textures.

Since 2016, the label's output of new releases has slowed somewhat, as Ultimae has morphed into more of a CD and vinyl distribution hub for hand-picked releases from other labels around the world. But whatever its future, its place in the ambient dance music pantheon is already well and truly earned.

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