Essential albums: Waveform Records

The brilliant and eclectic Waveform Records was founded in 1994 by U.S. West Coast ambient icon DJ Forest, host of the long-running American public radio show Musical Starstreams. Waveform is the surviving offspring of now defunct UK label Beyond Records, which in the early-to-mid 90's pioneered an exotic strain of ambient dance music called ambient dub.

Waveform Records

country of origin:

Ambient/exotic dub, ethno-ambient, trip hop, lounge, psychedelia, electronica

decades active:
90's - 10's

essential compilations:

  • One A.D. - Ambient Dub vol 1 (1994, Waveform)
  • Two A.D. - Ambient Dub vol 2 (1995, Waveform)
  • Three A.D. - Ambient Dub vol 3 (1996, Waveform)
  • Frosty (1996, Waveform)
  • Slumberland (1997, Waveform)
  • Voodoo Roux (2001, Waveform)
  • Voodoo Roux Deux (2002, Waveform)
  • Smooth Chill: The Radio Singles (2005, Waveform)
  • Waveform Transmissions vol 1 (2008, Waveform)
  • Waveform Transmissions vol 2 (2009, Waveform)
  • Waveform Transmissions vol 3 (2010, Waveform)
  • Maui Chill vol 1 (2019, Waveform)

the original Beyond Records releases:

  • Ambient Dub volume 1: The Big Chill (1992, Beyond)
  • Ambient Dub volume 2: Earthjuice (1993, Beyond)
  • Ambient Dub volume 3: Aqua (1994, Beyond)
  • Ambient Dub volume 4: Jellyfish (1995, Beyond)

Reviewed by Mike G

The brilliant and eclectic Waveform Records was founded in 1994 by U.S. West Coast ambient icon DJ Forest, host of the long-running American public radio show Musical Starstreams. Waveform is the surviving offspring of now defunct UK label Beyond Records which in the early-to-mid 90's pioneered an exotic strain of ambient dance music called ambient dub.

The rise of ambient dub

Although the product of the same music technology that figured in the rise of house, trance and techno, ambient dub's modern dance music DNA is only part of the picture. Much of Waveform's output is also anchored in an earlier sound: slow, seductive, bassy grooves influenced by the studio techniques of 70s' Jamaican dub producers like King Tubby and Lee Perry. Relaxed and spacious with deep basslines and gently hypnotic loops, dub reinvents the idea of trance music by stretching out the basic components of a track using echo, reverb and delay effects.

That said, Waveform's brand of downtempo exotica has taken dub a long way from where it started. The label's output is richly coloured and often deeply psychedelic, drawing on dub, trance, techno, lounge, trip hop, world fusion, science fiction literature and film soundtracks. The generally glowing, positive vibe harks back to Beyond founder Mike Barnett's original aim to offer an alternative to what he winningly described as "the dark miserablism of an industrial, isolationist agenda". And despite the roots, Beyond and Waveform are certainly not dub reggae labels. "Ambient dub is merely a descriptive phrase to let listeners know that it isn't minimal wallpaper or heavy industrial techno", said Forest in a 1997 interview with Ambience Magazine. "We try to be in the middle of those extremes for our albums, so they necessarily fall into a groove, often dubby." The influence of Jamaica, then, is more one of tempo and studio technique rather than reggae tunes, though crucially the music remains cloaked in a colourful haze of bong smoke.

Waveform in the 90's

The One A.D. (1994) , Two A.D (1995) and Three A.D. (1996) compilations from the A.D. series remain superb summaries of the Waveform ethos, featuring both artists who've released full-length albums on the label and those who've contributed occasional tracks. Most are UK or European, with Higher Intelligence Agency, Banco De Gaia and Coldcut the most well known. Among the many high points on the first volume there is one track that still stands out above all others: the breathtaking "Black Mountain mix" of Banco De Gaia's "Shanti". A simple progression of two minor chords with a wailing Mid-Eastern vocal, deep bass and richly detailed atmospherics, it's one of the most gorgeous, haunting, rapturous pieces of rhythmic ambient ever made. Note: the A.D. albums only roughly mirror the tracklists on Beyond's original Ambient Dub series; despite some crossover, the albums from both series are worth getting, though the latter ones are long out of print.

The Frosty (1996) compilation comes with extra flavourings courtesy of trip-hop and acid jazz: lots of vibraphone, wispy vocal bits and hypnotic breakbeats. Those clockwork snare/bass hip-hop drum loops come to the fore on Howie B's splendid "Birth", a track embellished with jittery strings that give it a weird cinematic feel. There are plenty of "live" instruments on Frosty but it's still unquestionably electronic music, with the artists using hip-hop style sampling and other studio techniques to shape their dreamy, expansive soundtracks.

Different again is the muted sounds of Slumberland (1997). It's often exquisitely beautiful, designed to evoke a state that is equal parts dreaming, sleeping and being awake. It may well achieve that, being far less rhythmically instant than the other compilations listed above. "Generic Actress" by Lucia Hwong has a distinctive oriental sense of stillness, it's pristine synthetic surface gently rippling with plucked notes from a Japanese kantong and a bouncing marble being dropped on the string of a hammer dulcimer. "We Rest" by Witchcraft is a song of sorts, sung through a vocoder while synthetic waves and winds swirl around its slowly throbbing pulse.

21st century exotica

In the 2000's and beyond Waveform's output has remained generally progressive, melodic and stimulating. It's to Forest's enormous credit that Waveform quickly escaped Beyond Records' shadow and thrived; many compilations released post-2000 are among the label's very best.

Voodoo Roux (2001) and Voodoo Roux Deux (2002) are outstanding. Both are less rooted in dub than the A.D. series, reaching into the soundworlds of techy lounge and slow-motion electro. German duo Deep Dive Corp are a stunning find, their tracks featured on both albums. "Imagination" sounds like chase music for a movie set in some exotic, futuristic cityscape but without any reliance on obvious hi-tech sounds or effects. Also from Deep Dive Corp is "Relaxer", a minimal, floating lounge groove with a subtle psychedelic edge, spiced with voice samples that dip into your consciousness with beguiling lines like "...wave upon wave carried me over, beyond the peripheries of hope and fear". Equally stunning are the contributions by X.I.S. and Bjorn Fogelberg on Voodoo Roux Deux, two tracks with their own distinct downtempo takes on the sounds of trance and electro, meshed with lush keys and gliding euphoric strings.

Also excellent is the more recent series Waveform Transmissions volumes 1-3 (2008-2010). These albums seem to pick up where the best of the A.D. series left off, breathing new life into the label's bedrock sound with some current flavours from the psytrance and experimental dub scenes.  Finally, there is Smooth Chill: The Radio Singles (2005). Reading the insert notes makes you realise what a huge and wonderful entity public radio is in the United States. This 2005 release contains 11 tracks "that have got the biggest audience response" from airplay on nearly 200 FM public radio stations across the country. There's some real gems including the early classics "Autumn Leaves" by Coldcut and "The Cut" by Sounds From The Ground alongside more recent fare. It's not a bad introduction to the label at all.

In recent years label has been quieter; the has only been one other compilation since Waveform Transmissions but it's an excellent one: Maui Chill volume 1 (2019). Forest is now based in Hawaii and this serves as home to both the label and his ongoing iterations of the Musical Starstreams radio show.

All up, Waveform's catalogue has some 60 releases to date and includes some brilliant individual artist albums. If you enjoy the sounds on any of the above compilations then also check out solo releases by Sounds From The Ground, Loop Guru, Pitch Black, Higher Intelligence Agency and Phuture Primitive.

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