Reviewed by Mike G, 1 December 2019
*Scroll past the Index to read every review, or click your choice*
A WINGED VICTORY FOR THE SULLEN – The Undivided Five (Ninja Tune)
AERIUM – Visions of Vega (Bandcamp)
ALUBEN NOIRO – Levitate State (Atlantic Jaxx)
ANDREA CASTIGLIONI – Soundtrack for the City of Tokyo (I Low You Records)
ANDREW HEATH & ANNE CHRIS BAKKER – A Gift for the Ephemerist (Rusted Tone)
ASHAN – Transfigurations (Inner Islands)
AUTUMN OF COMMUNION – Folk Etymology (Neotantra)
BABY GRAND – Riviera e.p. (Club Grand)
BALSAM – Soul Offerings (Neotantra)
BANCO DE GAIA – Magical Sounds 20th Anniversary Edition (Disco Gecko)
BERSARIN QUARTETT – Methoden und Maschinen (Denovali)
BIOSPHERE – The Hilvarenbeek Recordings (Biophon Records)
BIOSPHERE – The Senja Recordings (Biophon Records)
BLUETECH – Liquid Geometries in Dub (Liquid Sound Design)
BRIAN ENO – Apollo: Extended Edition (1983, reissue on UMC/Virgin)
BRUNO SANFILIPPO – Pianette (ad21 Music)
DAIGO HANADA – Ouka e.p. (Moderna)
DAN ARMSTRONG – A Long Time Coming (Bandcamp)
DARREN MCCLURE – On Opposites (Neotantra)
DATA REBEL – Upward Falling (Bandcamp)
ED CARLSEN – Morning Hour (Moderna)
ETHEREAL EPHEMERA – In The Mysterious Distance (Bandcamp)
GAVIN MILLER – Shimmer (Sound In Silence)
HATAR – In Sight (Lemongrass)
HIBERNATION – Ambient Re-Works 01 (Bandcamp)
HOLLIE KENNIFF – The Gathering Dawn (n5MD)
ISHQ – Autumn Leaves (ishq.org)
ISHQ – In Diamond Light (ishq.org)
JAMES BERNARD – Fragments (Past Inside The Present)
JOEY G II – Hood Canal e.p. (Ambient Zone)
JOHAN AGEBJORN – Mossebo (2006, reissue on Spotted Peccary)
JORDAN CHRISTOFF – Enveloped (Constellation Tatsu)
J. ROWE – Channels of the Lake (Sounds of the Dawn)
KAYA PROJECT – Ambient Mixes 2 (Bandcamp)
K. MARKOV – Interactivity (Exosphere)
LINGUA LUSTRA – Red Shift (Silent Records)
MATT LAJOIE – The Center and the Fringe (Flower Room)
MOSS GARDEN – Understanding Holy Ghosts (2013, reissue on Fantasy Enhancing)
MOTIONFIELD – A Clear Horizon (Txt Recordings)
MOTIONFIELD – Signals (Neotantra)
OFF LAND – Field Tangents (Txt Recordings)
OHIO – Upward, Broken, Always (12k Records)
PITCH BLACK – Third Light (Dubmission Records)
RILDRIM – Muffled Dreams e.p. (Lemongrass Music)
ROBODOP SNEI – Wide Zones (Slice Records)
SODA LITE – Vale & Stone (Inner Islands)
SOUNDS FROM THE GROUND – Binary (Upstream Records)
SONIC SOLUTIONS INC – Resurrectionem Ex Mortuis (Obey Records)
SVEN KOSSLER & SI MATTHEWS – A Constant State Of Flow (Fantasy Enhancing)
SVEN LAUX & DANIELA ORVIN – The Writings (Dronarivm)
THE 7TH PLAIN – Chronicles (triple boxed set, A-Ton)
TOM ADAMS – Particles (Moderna)
TOM EATON – How It Happened (Spotted Peccary)
TWILIGHT ARCHIVE – Drift Factor e.p. (twilightarchive.com)
URBAN MEDITATION – Currents of Space (Fantasy Enhancing)
VARIOUS – Cafe Del Mar Dreams X (CDM Music)
VARIOUS – Cosmic Duality (Synchronos Recordings)
VARIOUS – Maui Chill Volume One (Waveform)
VARIOUS – Tonic Immobility: From Here to Tranquility vol. 11 (Silent Records)
WANDERWELLE & BANDHAGENS MUSIKFÖRENING – Victory Over The Sun (Semantica)
ZAKE – To Those Who Dwelt in a Land of Deep Darkness (Past Inside The Present)
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A WINGED VICTORY FOR THE SULLEN
The Undivided Five (Ninja Tune)
This is Winged Victory’s second ‘proper’ album – if you discount two intervening soundtracks, that is – and what I found most striking on first listen was that, on the surface, it sounded closer to traditional classical music than most other modern classical hybrids in 2019. Dustin O’Halloran’s piano parts have unmistakable echoes of Debussy and Satie. The quietly ravishing orchestral elements – though recomposed by the duo from samples recorded in a Budapest studio – might evoke fond memories of Ravel, Vaughan Williams or even Thomas Newman. But up close, The Undivided Five is wholly contemporary, sitting in the creative spaces between classical and ambient, and made possible by 21st century production tools and synthesisers with their infinite malleability in shaping sound. The integration of acoustic and electronic is so deep that I find myself not even thinking about it, instead just getting completely immersed in its sombre colours, glacial pacing and deft use of near-silence. It’s grand yet not bombastic, and like all great albums deserves to be heard in its entirety in one sitting. At 45 minutes long, that’s surely not too hard, even in this Great Age of Distraction.
Visions of Vega (Bandcamp)
Rotterdam-based Leander Rispens aka Aerium is known for his melodic club tracks, but recently he has also shown a gift for more subtle fare. On Visions of Vega he creates sparkling, other-worldly sounds using just a few simple elements and lots of crystal-clear space in between, a bit like Swedish duo Vibrasphere’s downtempo material minus the dubby grooves. Imagine sound as architecture: huge, futuristic structures with clean edges and spacious surrounds, full of light and colour and warmth. The sense of float is deep with this one, and the titles reveal much: “This Beach is Unknown”, “Civilisations At The End Of Time”, “Docking Maneuvers”. And just check out that trippy cover art. His other ambient release Infinite Number of Worlds (2018) is also well worth a listen.
Levitate State (Atlantic Jaxx)
I had no idea until recently that Atlantic Jaxx, the electronica label owned by UK house duo Basement Jaxx, occasionally puts out downtempo and ambient releases. Levitate State is a fresh and astonishingly accomplished cinematic spacemusic album by Aluben Noiro, the alias of young Jaxx in-house engineer and producer Duncan F. Brown. He calls this debut album a labour of love, and it shows. The music glows from within, with lovely harmonic drones and progressions forged with assorted synths, organ, piano and hovering choral textures. It has a subtle cosmic power that’s hard to articulate yet naggingly familiar, with echoes of the Serge synth masterpieces of classic West Coast ambient by Michael Stearns and Kevin Braheny. Although it’s not derivative – even today, relatively few UK artists are familiar with the West Coast school – it does somehow tap into the same expansive vein of beatless, droning, quasi-symphonic electronica. Levitate State is being promoted by the label as relaxation music but I really think that undersells it. It’s a must-hear for fans of classic spacemusic, as well as lovers of beatless psyambient and authentic new age. By the way, “Aluben Noiro” is “Orion Nebula”…spelt backwards.
Soundtrack for the City of Tokyo (I Low You Records)
A thoughtful and striking travelogue of the mind by Italian multi-instrumentalist Andrea Castiglioni, who writes that “I’ve never been to Tokyo, but since dreaming is free, I picture it like this.” The clear, pulsing repetitions of cuts like “Shibuya Crossing” and “Synthetic Bokeh” are a deft blend of machine techno and Glass-style melodic minimalism, full of movement yet smooth and somehow soothing. A few well-placed drone pieces buffet the faster ones perfectly. Whether the Tokyo of your imagination is the semi-realism of Lost In Translation or the dystopian sci-fi landscape of high concept anime like Akira, Castiglioni’s imaginary soundtrack seems to adapt accordingly. Another quirky original from Tokyo’s I Low You Records, whose recent Ambient Symphonies in the Cyberpunk Era is another worthy release.
ANDREW HEATH & ANNE CHRIS BAKKER
A Gift for the Ephemerist (Rusted Tone)
As evidenced on solo albums like The Silent Cartographer (2014), Brit composer Andrew Heath is a master at environmental ambient, at recreating a world – real or imaginary – in three-dimensional space for you to get totally enveloped in. A Gift For The Ephemerist is a very fine collaboration with Dutch artist Anne Chris Bakker and it stands somewhat apart from the crystal-clear sound paintings of his solo releases. By comparison this one sometimes sounds a bit fuzzy, a bit foggy, and no less seductive. The exquisite extended tones of “This Frosted Air” resemble the shimmering, subtly-layered ambient of Brian Eno’s best music for art installations, but unlike those pieces it’s not static. There’s a certain tension as the two-chord progression gradually rises in intensity. The album’s centrepiece is the 18-minute mini-epic “Waddenzee”, named after the wetlands reserve on the coast of the northern Netherlands where the album was recorded. It’s a masterfully realised sequence of shifting moods, ranging from warm new age-style organs and synths to dark drones of cellos and distorted guitar evoking a frozen landscape.
Transfigurations (Inner Islands)
A masterclass in pastoral new age from another alias of California’s Sean Conrad, owner of the Oakland-based Inner Islands label and whose work under his Channelers alias has also featured previously in AMG’s best-of-year round-ups. The melodic fragments that comprise the six pieces on Transfigurations rise and fall like deep breathing – the chorus of flutes on “Wading In”, the piano figure on “Snow Stone Still Air” – and they sit against various backdrops comprised of shifting drones and noise. There are many examples around of meditative music in this style, but relatively few are realised with such skill and poise. Comparable to the best of Ishq.
AUTUMN OF COMMUNION
Folk Etymology (Neotantra)
Soul Offerings (Neotantra)
On Opposites (Neotantra)
The Neotantra label is another creation of respected Brit electronic producer/composer Lee Norris who has been making and championing electronica of many different hues since the 90’s. Neotantra is the gentler, mostly beatless cousin of his recently resurrected IDM techno label Neo Ouija. The high quality and frequent album releases makes choosing this year’s favourites a little difficult, but here I go.
Folk Etymology is fantastical, spectral drone-based ambient by Lee’s own Autumn of Communion, his ongoing collaboration with ambient maestro Mick Chillage. The pair are every bit as good working in this style as they are in downtempo tech and dub (check the epic tribal space tech of 2016’s Polydeuces album) and this new album’s three long tracks contain some of AOC’s trippiest moments, particularly the layers of quasi-classical drones on “Ayurveda”. The spirit of Pete Namlook (1960-2012) remains ever-present in their music, yet I think he would smile to see these two adepts never being trapped by his influence, carving out their own space on ambient electronica’s leading edge.
Anthony Asher-Yates aka Balsam is American but lives in Columbia, and looking at his back catalogue its clear he’s inspired by nature – South America in particular – in a big way. His super new album Soul Offerings is a collection of dreamy environmental tone poems that are blurry and lucid all at once. It’s not really background music, yet it doesn’t demand your attention either. Plenty of musicians blend field recordings and music; far fewer are able to dissolve the lines between the two like Balsam does here. It’s the aural equivalent of a subtle but complex aroma, one that you can’t quite pin down, yet it’s all around you.
Experimental music by its very nature is sometimes unlistenable, but many artists making it release mountains of unedited work regardless. Whatever, but I prefer those who bin the failures and work to distil the best ideas into something that sounds genuinely musical no matter how weird it gets. Behold, Darren McClure’s brilliant album On Opposites. Wherever it’s sitting on the scale between tonality and noise during its 67 minutes, it works. The weightless, bubbling melody of “Strange Slip In Time” is hypnotically beautiful; “Reflection” with its alien drone and filtered choral sounds is compelling and deeply strange. At different times you’ll hear echoes of Biosphere’s austere landscapes, Eno’s warmer synth pieces or the ambient freestyle of Emit Records’ more experimental fare. This is a marvellous release, and the way it opens up new layers on repeated listens is a wonder to behold.
Also outstanding this year from Neotantra is Signals by Motionfield (reviewed separately).
Riviera e.p. (Club Grand)
The cover to Baby Grand’s new five-track e.p. is an unambiguous invitation: take a leisurely drive back in time in a 60’s Sunbeam Tiger convertible along sunny shores and sparkling seas of the Italian and French Riviera, an unhurried cruise to retro lounge nirvana. Baby Grand’s follow-up to the debut album And Dream Of (2018) is another clever slice of easy-listening exotica, bossa nova and Euro bachelor pad vibes from production wiz and multi-instrumentalist Barry Thompson, with a little help from his friends. These are richly-layered downtempo tunes laden with hooks carried by brass, strings and piano. The piano tinkles like ice in your cocktail and the brass choruses are full-blooded. And the strings? Oh, what gorgeous strings they are, sumptuous enough to make Mantovani blush yet somehow without the old maestro’s wince-inducing cheesiness. Whether you take Baby Grand’s exotic lounge as kitsch, sly pastiche or something else altogether, Riviera serves you an endless summer in a tall, cool glass.
BANCO DE GAIA
Magical Sounds: 20th Anniversary Edition (1999, reissue on Disco Gecko)
Magical Sounds is the last of Toby Marks aka Banco de Gaia’s classic 90’s albums, ending a series of four groundbreaking and influential ethno-techno-trance-dub releases by which started with Maya (1994). This 20th anniversary release includes a handful of alt versions and new remixes but it’s the originals that keep me coming back. While Magical Sounds may not be the obvious choice for Banco De Gaia newcomers, I reckon it’s still the most fun. Chants and vocal samples are spread throughout, looped and chopped to sometimes comic effect on the energetic openers “I Remember Baby Cheesy” and “Harvey and the Old Ones”. Toby’s ear for an epic ambient dance tune has never been more in evidence than on “Touching The Void”, its rock-inflected breakbeats dressed in utterly gorgeous layers of soaring flutes and wordless Indian and Arabic vocals. To me, Banco’s distinctive appeal has always in the way he blends proggy rock flavours – particularly drum breaks – with the electronic textures and the sampling techniques of dance music and the studio techniques of dub. While the album’s production is showing some signs of age (the 90’s!), his quirky, eclectic ideas and command of harmony shine on brightly.
Methoden und Maschinen (Denovali)
It’s been four years since Germany’s Thomas Bücker released an album as Bersarin Quartett, during which he’s been performing live shows around Europe with an ensemble and further developing his beguiling sound. The new opus Methoden und Maschinen (“Methods and Machines”) doesn’t disappoint. It’s another epic melange of modern classical, post-rock and ambient synth music, a quietly dramatic score for a mind movie of your own devising, merging the experimental and the familiar with unusual finesse. “Vie von selbst” plays off lovely soft piano and tinkling cymbals against a grand passage of organ and distorted guitars. “Wenn wir nur wollen” feels like a eulogy with its simple arpeggiated synth melody swelling and receding back and forth beneath sad, vocal-like phrases. The album has a wide dynamic range, so either put on your headphones or crank up the volume and put out a do-not-disturb sign because – as the release blurb says – minimalism and bombast go together. This is foreground music, not background sound, and in case you forget there are a few nicely random aural shocks along the way to remind you.
The Hilvarenbeek Recordings (Biophon Records)
The Senja Recordings (Biophon Records)
Like the sun and the moon, these two albums from Norway’s greatest gift to ambient are inseparably locked in orbit around one another, but each casts a different light. Following his welcome return to form with the atypical but evocative ghostly nostalgia of Departed Glories (2016), composer Geir Jenssen aka Biosphere has recently embraced deep environmental ambient again, the subgenre in which he’s created most of his greatest music.
The Hilvarenbeek Recordings (which is actually from last year) blends field recordings – collected while wandering around a Dutch farm – with warm beatless tone poems, including some odd choral samples which give it an uplifting churchy ambience. The Senja Recordings is darker and starker – at times extremely so – recorded and produced during his stay among the chilly landscapes of the Norwegian island of the same name. Now in his 28th year as Biosphere, Jenssen’s brilliance and boldness has always been his world building, the way his highly minimalist approach draws you into these worlds in a deep and contemplative way. His use of vivid field recordings on these two particular albums is also unusual in that sometimes the sound effects form the entire content of a track, usually alternating with tracks that contain drones, squiggles or bleeps more recognisable as music. You need to trust this music, surrender to it on its own terms. And like all of Biosphere’s best work, give it the quiet listening space it deserves: a closed room or isolating head/earphones. Rewards will follow.
Liquid Geometries in Dub (Liquid Sound Design)
Although he’s best known for his punchy, quirky, dubby ambient pop instrumentals, Bluetech’s original Liquid Geometries album from 2018 was conjured in a beatless universe – all psychedelic drones, ethereal progressions and cosmic arpeggios, generally melodic and occasionally dissonant. These beatless foundations makes it an unusual candidate for remixing by dub and beat-driven electronica producers. And an exciting one, too, because sometimes writing to beat patterns defines the internal dynamics of a piece of music in a way that limits its remix potential by others.
So Liquid Geometries In Dub, coming to us from Youth’s label Liquid Sound Design, is a rare opportunity for the artists: an almost boundless playground. And it doesn’t disappoint. There’s more variety, more nooks and crannies and intriguing left turns, than most remix albums of its ilk. Outstanding cuts belong to Gaudi, Living Light, Youth, Desert Dwellers, Saafi Brothers, David Last and Bluetech himself. The album’s quality is obvious, it’s breadth a little harder to grasp, so make sure to give it time. “Dub” is an exotic and many-splendoured thing these days – instrumental reggae it ain’t – but all the production signatures are there in one form or another (delay, reverb, looping echoes) and most of these tracks still embrace perhaps dub’s holiest commandment: make sweet love to the bass.
BRIAN ENO with DANIEL LANOIS & ROGER ENO
Apollo: Extended Edition (1983, reissue on UMC/Virgin)
Awe. That’s what the deeper tracks from ambient pioneer Brian Eno’s spacemusic classic Apollo still evoke, most of them from the album’s first half, and profoundly so. Pieces like “Under Stars”, “Drift” and “The Secret Place”. Glistening, shifting tones, mysterious dissonant noises and quietly epic drones, the soundtrack to a 1983 documentary about the NASA’s Apollo space missions. Now to mark 50 years since the first moon landing we get this extended reissue of an album on which Eno and his collaborators were attempting, in Eno’s words, to make sounds that captured a mix of emotions never before experienced by humans. The jaw-droppingly beautiful synth/choral progression of “Ascent” remains the album’s pinnacle, even though its unfathomable cosmic power has since been misused multiple times by Western film directors who shoehorned it into films and scenes where it didn’t belong.
The more structured and obviously melodic tunes that comprise most of the original album’s second half evoke more of a sense of gentle wonder than awe, and they have also aged beautifully. I always wondered how the country and western strains of Daniel Lanois’ pedal steel guitar made it onto an album like this and the answer came in an excellent new short documentary by Vice magazine. Some of the Apollo astronauts were Southerners and took cassettes of country music songs with them into space, and Eno liked this allusion of frontier music played in a new context.
And speaking of new, For All Mankind is a companion album of new pieces created by Lanois and brothers Eno for this extended edition. Let’s get one thing out of the way: it doesn’t sound like Apollo. There are no deep drone pieces like “Under Stars” here; overall it’s less floaty music with less blurry sounds. The better way to approach these 11 tracks is as a standalone collection of synth-based instrumentals by the trio, with occasional echoes of the spacious, elegant melodies and pedal steel guitar colours of the original. On that count it’s just fine, and occasionally quite sublime. “At The Foot Of A Ladder” is a perfectly hypnotic space waltz, while “Under The Moon” with Roger Eno’s piano sounds like one of the better Budd/Eno pieces.
Pianette (ad21 Music)
Spanish electro-acoustic musician Bruno Sanfilippo’s new album Pianette is played on a piano that’s not quite a piano, and it’s utterly compelling. The slightly harpsichord-toybox-mechanical sound comes from his newly acquired Una Corda piano, built by German designer David Clavins and featuring a unique one-string-per-note design instead of the usual one to three strings. It’s obvious that Bruno immediately connected with the instrument’s haunted and delicate resonance, captured in this collection of highly evocative solo keyboard pieces inspired by the fantasy world of mechanical toys, dolls, circuses and puppets. They each unfold with elegant, rolling melodies and minimalist repetition, revelling in mystery and sadness and simple joy. This is outstanding modern classical, and another high point in this artist’s now formidable catalogue.
A Long Time Coming (Bandcamp)
Dan Armstrong is a mate of Si Matthews, the gifted UK artist whose solo albums of cosmic instrumental electronica have featured regularly Ambient Music Guide’s Best of Year lists. Dan’s debut solo album of panoramic ambitronic beats is a stunner, orbiting the same sun as his friend but tracking its own distinctive path. A Long Time Coming is a case of less being more, with his ideas and warm melodic lines not cast with thick layers of sound but sketched subtly, like spacious geometric shapes, sprinkled with little details that psychonauts like myself can’t get enough of. The grooves, when they appear, are elegant and crisp, always with purpose and never outstaying their welcome. Repeated listens reveal an album that’s slowly edging towards a climax, with the closing “Eta Wave” expanding the opening teaser “Alpha Wave” into a swelling, thunderous sweep across the cosmos. All in all, we’re talking Global Communication levels of excellence here. Do. Not. Miss.
Upward Falling (Bandcamp)
Intelligent dance music may be horribly named but this percussive form of 90’s ambient techno is still with us and inspiring new generations of e-musicians. UK artist Dan Howe aka Data Rebel is one of them. He mixes the crisp, complex percussive clicks and thuds of early IDM with melancholic synth melodies and subtle backdrops of ethereal, arcing tones. How well an artist handles this kind of juxtaposition of rough and smooth is one of the marks of great IDM. On Upward Falling he handles it exceptionally well, keeping those elements in perfect tension as he weaves haunting, weeping lovely harmonic progressions through the middle of pieces like “Aquaplane”, “Summertime Blues” and “Gegenschein”. One of his lead synth sounds resembles the glowing notes of a Rhodes piano, another is those signature bouncing IDM tones with delay and echo. These are great tunes, immaculately crafted in a very distinctive downtempo style.
In The Mysterious Distance (Bandcamp)
The talented and insanely prolific Mancunian Brin Coleman wears many masks – I count at least nine – and his Ethereal Ephemera alias seems reserved for his most, well, what it says on the tin. In The Mysterious Distance is a 43-minute piece of harmonic ambient blessed with a purity of tone and a sense of utter stillness that has me returning to it regularly, particularly at night before bed when I’m trying quieten my brain’s ceaseless chatter. It also has a remarkable emotional undertow, a kind of longing, an unknowable feeling of awe. This is ‘generative’ music of sorts, where elements are set in motion by a human and then left alone, with the musical development coming from random combinations of those elements. He explains: “This piece is improvised and recorded live using three virtual tape loops of different lengths. I improvise a slow section with a few notes into these three loops which then repeat at slightly different times to create new music from the original source. Everything is played on electric guitar with an ebow.” Brin also records under the better-known alias Bing Satellites, whose masterful Blue Skies & Cherry Blossom (2018) is another addictive example of his gift for deep, drifting harmony.
Shimmer (Sound In Silence)
I suppose it’s okay to call this fine release post-rock, insomuch as it features loopy processed guitars and drones and some organ and semi-Gothic piano, and progressions that vaguely resemble the quieter passages done by more adventurous rock bands like Pink Floyd or Sigur Ros. Whatever you call it, UK composer Gavin Miller’s haunting mini-album Shimmer is a thing of wonder. It runs just 23 minutes, its six distinct movements shifting naturally from one to the next and when it’s over you want to hit repeat again…and again. This is right up there with the layered guitar-based loops of Belgian sound sculptor Stratosphere (check out his 2016 album Rise to hear what I mean). Technically it’s either an e.p. or mini-album, but whatever you call it, Shimmer’s clarity and purpose makes a beautiful case for the album’s preservation as a storytelling form.
In Sight (Lemongrass)
Muffled Dreams e.p. (Lemongrass)
Lounge and cafe music ala Cafe Del Mar is probably the most enduringly popular subgenre of ambient sounds, and consequently the most crowded. That means plenty of music that’s either unexciting or pure dross, but every year I’m happy to keep sorting the wheat from the chaff because I know I’ll find gems like these. Lemongrass Music owners Daniel and Roland Voss always makes room for a few releases like this on his label each year, making peeps like me very happy even if confounding the expectations of those used to the label’s more familiar chillout fare.
Croatian artist Hatar’s debut album In Sight shows an artist whose love for the genre’s motifs is obvious, yet there is a progressive edge that raises it well above just being pleasant. The Moog-like siren melody on “Toque De Amor” is pure delight. “Dejalo En Paz” is a brilliantly hypnotic piece of stripped-back lounge with marimba and trumpet notes bouncing off each other over a humming bassline. There’s lots of smokey trip hop and a dash of stoned house. The album is full of smart and soulful touches that breathe fresh life into the genre once again.
Similarly fresh but a little darker is the cinematic Muffled Dreams e.p. by Spaniard Carlos Butler aka Rildrim, who’s been active in electronica since 2009. It’s lounge, but on first listen I was immediately struck by how unpredictable the details were. And so it turns out that he’s actually in a mission to avoid the lazy over-repetition that so easily comes with loops, striving for a more natural and irregular quality within the boundaries of his moody, shimmering Balearic lounge sound. He succeeds completely; Muffled Dreams has the warmth and melody of classic Balearic chillout, yet up close it’s curiously experimental.
The Gathering Dawn (n5MD)
There are loads of electronic musicians making ethereal minimalist drone music, but how many of them can sing? Canadian-American artist Hollie Kenniff can, and beautifully. Her debut solo album The Gathering Dawn marries her reverberating wordless vocals with expansive, airy beds of synths, samples and rippling guitars, played mostly in warm major keys. Without her voice I’d call some pieces impressionism (“The Timing of Glaciers”), others more personal (“Soft Pulse”). But curiously, her vocals give all these tracks a liturgical or devotional quality, as if by happy accident. I wonder if this unexpected dimension comes from the fact that this music is entirely her own creation, whereas most ambient in this style samples the voice of someone other than the artist. As a consequence there’s no distance here, it’s completely organic, and the result is a kind of sacred music that’s unpretentious and real.
Autumn Leaves (ishq.org)
In Diamond Light (ishq.org)
Seasoned psyambient traveller Matt Hillier recently took a break from his Ishq project, but it didn’t last very long. This year we’ve recently seen a large swathe of Ishq releases in a wide array of sub-styles, from spectral tribal atmospherics and squiggly sci-fi futuretronics to lush psychedelic drones and pretty pastoral tone poems.
The beatless Autumn Leaves is vintage Ishq, featuring some of Matt’s more melodious psyambient excursions including Jacqui Kersley’s wispy voice samples. Field recordings mesh with twinkly, droney electronic textures and occasional samples from cellos, flutes and acoustic guitar. This is nature ambient that finds magic in everyday things, a gentle, trippy love letter to the Cornish landscape that started it all. By way of contrast, In Diamond Light leaves nature behind and opts for ecstatic, oscillating tone colours over extended beds of richly textured drones. The three long-form pieces are all related to a point, with some recurring motifs and patterns, yet not so much that they sound like variations of the same track. While Matt writes that the album is intended for relaxation, it’s nothing like relaxation muzak. This is some of Ishq’s most celestial and harmonic psychedelia, and that’s saying something among such a deep and vast catalogue.
Also notable from Ishq this year: Light and Space, Nightflower and, among his more experimental and far-out electronic fare, Tetrahedral Light Object is the standout so far from his 10-volume Exoplanets series.
Fragments (Past Inside The Present)
To Those Who Dwelt in a Land of Deep Darkness (Past Inside The Present)
New American label Past Inside The Present has put out a large quantity of ambient in many hues during its first year, from mod classical to experimental sound collage. There’s much worth exploring, and these two releases are particularly good.
Fans of the more obscure strains of 90’s ambient dance music might remember James Bernard’s much-revered album Atmospherics (1994) on UK label Rising High Records, a distinctive mix of light, trippy techno and haunting environmental atmospheres. After that he didn’t release much more – just a few albums in the 2000’s – and since 2008 there has been nothing until this year. I’m glad he’s back. Fragments ditches all traces of beats and focuses purely on sculptured, quasi-symphonic soundscapes and ethereal drones. It’s deeply felt and impeccably crafted, reaching its high point on “A Feeling of Warmth in the Cold” which is every bit as visceral and enveloping as it sounds.
To Those Who Dwelt in a Land of Deep Darkness by PITP label co-founder Zake aka Zach Frizell is centred around a 40-minute piece that loops a gentle, layered melodic phrase ad infinitum, with only subtle alterations along the way. That’s been done a million times by others, but this one really has something. It was created as a kind of healing balm for people who have experienced deep loss, and I think therein lies its emotional power. To me it feels like the sun gently breaking through clouds as you start to move on and learn to live with grief. Then at the end comes a short, more active second track that kind of distils the essence of the first. A quietly powerful album with a beautiful stillness at its centre.
JOEY G ii
Hood Canal e.p. (Ambient Zone)
Despite the absence of vocals you might describe this brilliant little gem as leftfield pop. Multi-instrumentalist Joey G ii shows a gift for writing surreal songs without words, driven by strong melodies and some kooky, clever chord progressions. It’s also laced with field recordings from the Hood Canal wilderness area in Washington. The Gothic piano arpeggio of “2012” and the bell and xylophone tones on “Project Jellybean” both ride on chord sequences that are not discordant so much as weirdly lovely. The acoustic guitar on “Stillness” has a serene pastoral folksiness, offset by the eerie angular tones from organ and synth that are woven around it. Just five tracks grace Hood Canal, yet there’s so much here. If you like this then also check out his experimental strains of clubby, jazzy techno and house on his own label Orphan Records.
JOHAN AGEBJORN feat. LISA BARRA
Mossebo (2008, reissue on Spotted Peccary)
Mossebo is a unique and haunting meeting of icy Scandinavian electronica and gorgeous new age-style wordless vocals, my favourite reissue this year. A new discovery, in fact, as I missed this when it came out in 2008. Johan Ageborn’s touch is delicate, his skittering beat patterns barely disturbing the surface of his ethereal synth pads, with a few exceptions such as the space pop of “Ambient Computer Dance”. Many of his chord progressions are somehow both uplifting and dark-edged; I’m always drawn to musicians who can do both at once. Then there’s guest vocalist Lisa Barra’s vocals, whose voice elevates this album several notches above just good. She features on the majority of tracks and nails them every time, whether its multi-tracked ethereal chants, freestyle vocalising or sacred choral singing where she sounds uncannily like a choirboy. There is an Indian sweetness to her voice, too, which adds yet another dimension to this beguiling work of art.
Enveloped (Constellation Tatsu)
Not so much a series of drones as a series of blurs, Canadian Jordan Christoff’s marvellous debut album Enveloped is aptly named. As one fan at Bandcamp observed: “His music is like air, but at the same time like the connecting viscera of everything.” Christoff’s pieces are luminous like the softest light, and his sounds gently swell and recede like cycles of deep breathing. On “Alice” he uses filters and droning synths to soften a sparkling bed of notes from a hammer dulcimer or zither and the result is extraordinarily beautiful. The 19-minute “Waves” is just that, the rolling ebb and flow of the ocean translated into layers of blurry tones. Interestingly, his creation process uses no computer screens, which I assume means minimal editing and a more “live” creation than a lot of ambient fare. Not that I think one approach is superior to the other, but it’s a path that’s taken this particular musician to a rare and magical place. Also good this year: his Liminal album on the Past Inside The Present label.
Channels of the Lake (Sounds of the Dawn)
The Detroit-based Sounds of the Dawn started life in 2012 as a blog sharing rips of mostly out-of-print new age and relaxation cassettes from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Then it became a label releasing new music, part of the revival of authentic new age sounds with a progressive bent. At least two of its releases to date – by Hybrid Palms (Russia) and Alex Crispin (UK) – are outstanding examples of 21st century new age. Now joining them is this fantastic solo debut of Detroit percussionist and synthesist J. Rowe. The two long pieces on Channels of the Lake have a feel that’s not far from the more meditative passages of the often raucous proggy jazz-rock of his duo Westerbur & Rowe. “South Channel” builds superbly, starting with a quiet passage of shimmering gongs and Tibetan bells, then joined by droning harmonium, mellotron and a slow tribal pulse that slowly morphs into a sweet, jazzy groove with vibes and flute. “North Channel” is dominated by bells, gongs and tribal percussion, see-sawing between serene and uptempo, a spiritual cousin to the great kosmische jams of early-70’s Popol Vuh and Santana.
The Ambient Mixes 2 (Bandcamp)
Ambient Re-Works 01 (Bandcamp)
Active since the mid 1990’s, UK composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist Seb Taylor is still setting standards in downtempo electronica for others to aim for. If you don’t know the name you might recognise his more notable aliases: the melodic world beat of Kaya Project and the more experimental electronica mashups of Hibernation. These two remix albums are from those projects and both of them are exceptionally good.
Kaya Project’s The Ambient Mixes 2 picks up where the first volume from 2015 left off, distilling rather than watering down 12 melodic beat-driven original tracks from the Kaya catalogue. As before, most of the drum tracks are gone but it’s not just about stripping out the beats; all kinds of atmospheric nuances emerge in their place along the silky synths, non-English vocals, guitars, zithers, violins, percussion and sundry other instruments. Many of these pieces are not remixes as such, they are reinventions. This is the deep end of world music, woven and rewoven with impressive skill.
Ambient Re-Works 01 is the first time Seb has applied the same kind of remix treatment to groove-laden tracks from his Hibernation catalogue and it’s a revelation. Hibernation was always the weirder, quirkier cousin of Kaya Project, allowing his more psychedelic and experimental sides to come to the fore. Removing a lot of the glitches and harsher beats from the original tunes and remixing the rest has given us a collection of intricate, trippy little tapestries that defy easy description. And despite this complexity, the tunes shine through. Colours that were once almost hidden are suddenly in the foreground, especially the languid jazzy retro lounge elements and 70’s Morricone-style wordless vocals. Ambient Re-Works 01 is quite brilliant, and it doesn’t require any familiarity with the original versions to draw you in.
Ah, the sequencer, the defining throb of the Berlin school and so much of the psychedelic electronic music that followed in its wake. Tangerine Dream were its Almighty Creators, the first band to ever use the Moog modular system as a standalone bass looper, pushing their primitive machines to their programming limits to achieve the endless pulse over which they were gloriously set free to improvise. I say all this because on the five tracks that comprise Interactivity, the Croatian artist K. Markov shows he understands this school generally and 70’s Tangerine Dream specifically with exceptional clarity. If you love TD’s classics from that period then this is going to blow your mind, because it is so tone-perfect and so finely tuned to those same cosmic spaces that TD were exploring in such a revolutionary fashion. Where he really excels is in the way he builds some of the intros to the inevitable pulsing central sections, going beyond the usual introductory doodling and instead carefully plotting out a dramatic path to the dizzy peaks. Interactivity is more Berlin than the U-Bahn, and it takes you to just as many places.
The Center and the Fringe (Flower Room)
It’s amazing what a gifted guitarist can do with a few six-strings and a looper pedal. On The Center and The Fringe, American player Matt Lajoie takes the road less travelled by avoiding the huge washes of spaced-out reverb so beloved by many guitarists making ambient and post-rock. He instead blends largely untreated bowed, fingerstyle, plucked and strummed notes on acoustic and electric guitar and uses live-looping to create bright tapestries. His sparkling, melodic and hypnotising instrumentals sometimes echo the more meditative moments of Krautrock masters like Ashra, Popol Vuh and Neu’s Michael Rother. An outstanding release from the quasi new age label Flower Room.
A Clear Horizon (Txt Recordings)
Swedish composer Petter Friberg’s contributions to ambient as Motionfield include the towering Luftrum (2015), a slow-motion masterpiece of lush, oceanic, IDM-inflected chillout. After that album he made a few more that commendably took a somewhat different direction, seemingly ignoring any pressure for more of the same. Now comes two more albums in 2019, both outstanding in their own way.
The superbly atmospheric Clear Horizon reasserts many of Luftrum’s fine qualities without sounding like a copy. The mood is a little more sombre and this time the clicks, basslines and rhythmic pulses – when they appear at all – are subdued even further below the hovering multi-layered textures and ghostly melodic figures that reverberate in the ether. What remains is awe-inspiring psychedelic tone poems like “Golden”, “Home” and the title track, constructed around one or two-chord drones and intoxicating almost beyond words. The chilly monochrome cover photo is intriguing: an ominous robot-like crane sitting in a lonely fog-enveloped shipyard or rail siding. What does it mean? Like the music itself, it’s left to you to join the dots. The other album Signals seems to have thicker beds of low-fi textures and plays a little more with static, semi-abstract drones. But it’s still a Motionfield album though and through, and a great one, with those shimmering widescreen melodies stretching to the horizon, full of longing and tantalising hints of mystery.
Field Tangents (Txt Recordings)
Prolific Boston-based musician Tim Dwyer aka Off Land has made one of his best albums in Field Tangents. This is a rich, serene and slightly eerie work of beatless, pastoral ambient electronica, highly tonal but never saccharine. The album’s sense of flow is unusually powerful, helped by the mixed CD version but still very apparent on the separated tracks of the download version as well (which gives you the full mixed version as a bonus long track). The narrative sense of shifting landscapes and scenes has a real magic to it, helped discreetly by an array of field recordings taken from mostly natural environments. Thematically, this reminds me Ishq’s psyambient explorations of imaginary landscapes, music for psychonauts and deep inner travels. Put it on repeat.
Upward, Broken, Always (12k Records)
Upward, Broken, Always is a hazy, warm and evocative journey back to the childhood homes of Americans Taylor Deupree and Corey Fuller, who formed a new duo to create this fresh and free-flowing mix of neo-folk, post-rock and lo-fi ambient adventuring. The album is like a patchwork quilt of textures and colours, sometimes coalescing into the form of songs or song-like progressions, a few with soft vocals, but most without. “Aperos” feels like a tentative ambient rock jam that segues ever so subtly into an expanding wall of environmental noise. “Frere” is feather-soft acoustic guitar arpeggios with brief vocals and some choral-like tones. There’s also a cover of neo-folkster Damien Jurado’s song “Ohio”. It’s highly tonal stuff with some lovely chord progressions, and in that respect it’s something of a departure for 12k label founder Deupree, a step away from the more obviously experimental and minimalist fare he’s usually associated with. The innovation is more in the duo’s brilliant and original textural combinations, which add a thin veil of dreamy strangeness to the whole affair.
Third Light (Dubmission Records)
Active since the late 90’s, eclectic dub-based duo Pitch Black (New Zealanders Michael Hodgson and Paddy Free) don’t release many albums, but downtempo that’s as delicious and groove-laden as Third Light is worth waiting for. This stuff is built to go the distance: smooth grooves with gnarly trimmings, lots of big beautiful bass notes, and uncluttered production that lets the pieces breathe and burrow slowly under your skin. The sexy, growling title track is a stunner, one of their best straight up dub pieces. The bleepy robot tones and clattering drums of “Artificially Intolerance” make for a brilliant mashup of techno and jungle meshed with their trademark stoned basslines. And “Silver World” and “Lake Within” are both sublimely dreamy reminders that they actually write really great melodies and progressions, just not as screamingly obvious as a lot of tunes in dubby psychedelic downtempo these days. If you like this one then you’ll dig the previous three albums as well: Ape To Angel (2003), Rude Mechanicals (2007) and Filtered Senses (2016).
Wide Zones (Slice Records)
German born and Melbourne-based, Daniel Eschbach aka Robodop Snei returns with another quirky and mind-expanding downtempo distillation of synthpop, electro, dubby trance and psychedelia. Much in the same vein as his wondrous Strange Ongoings (2013), Wide Zones is loaded with powerful, deep, punchy tunes infused with that unique analog synthpop/synthwave signature that makes his sound so distinctive. Daniel knows his synthesisers and his love is deep; he can build a seriously hypnotic groove and he plays in the analog space like a great painter plays with colours. The title track has a gorgeous vocoder-filtered refrain bubbling up from its lush oceanic depths, anchored by a growling electro bass motif. “Crystal Clear Mind” takes the most cosmic synth textures of 80’s new age (think Emerald Web) and transplants them into 21st century psytrance at a leisurely 90 beats per minute. For lovers of lush and trippy downtempo, Wide Zones is in the zone, totally.
Vale & Stone (Inner Islands)
Absolutely top notch electro-acoustic ambient from a young Australian musician who’s work reflects his deep interest in ecology. Vale & Stone has brains and beauty, with its twinkling melodies and pretty cadences on synths, bells, gongs, marimbas and slit drums given weight by thoughtful improvising and warm, vivid sound design. The experience is visceral; it feels like exploring a lush, mountainous island on a day where the sun never sets. Listening to this I feel like I’m back in the dreamy tropical atmosphere of Wanderwelle’s brilliant Gathering of the Ancient Spirits album from last year, though this one is grounded in classic new age sounds rather than techno. Whatever, if you’re into nature ambient then you’ll love this, bigly.
SONIC SOLUTIONS INC
Resurrectionem Ex Mortuis (2019, Obey Records)
“My brother and I are around 50 and have no illusion of fame.” Right, then. No baggage, just phenomenal music. Hailing From San Diego USA and chalking up album number four, the duo of John and Will Goff aka Sonic Solutions Inc have fashioned a hypnotic, slow-burning, melodic masterpiece that marries Berlin-school layers with rolling, proggy breakbeats as tight as high tensile wire. Although this mini-album is indexed as 7 individual parts it’s really one 28-minute long piece with barely discernible segues between movements. It’s minimalism in a way, with repetitive structures that unfold over long distances not unlike Manuel Göttsching’s classic E2-E4. But whereas that one sounds positively Balearic, Resurrectionem Ex Mortuis is slower and darker-edged. This is inspired and beautiful bleep, made with a fantastic command of the Berlin school’s cosmic groove and layered arpeggios.
SOUNDS FROM THE GROUND
Binary (Upstream Music)
Albums from ambient dub maestros Sounds From The Ground very reliably range from good to great. This year’s Binary is a great one, big in palette yet lean in sound, still anchored to ancient dub roots while travelling light years beyond it. Now in their 25th year together, Nick Woolfson and Elliot Morgan Jones gleefully mix and match instrumental colours and still anchor their downtempo exotica in the snaking, tuneful basslines they’re known for. It all works, from buzzing, squelchy robot grooves (“Blaze Mountain”) to sonorous Rhodes piano-laced lounge (“Life’s Casino”, “Felt”). My highlight is “Planet X”, a floaty minimal dub gem with a sense of humour, done as I think only SFTG could do. Accompanying its stoned, rattling loop is a movie sample face-off between what sounds like femme fatale Marlene Dietrich and a scientist trying into communicate with aliens, and it makes me chuckle every time. Very droll, and just one of dozens of brilliant little moments on an album that remind us why the duo’s widescreen electronica is so distinctive and satisfying.
SVEN LAUX AND DANIELA ORVIN
The Writings (Dronarivm)
From the Moscow-based Dronarivm label comes this first-time collaboration between two Berlin-based artists, an exceptional quality hybrid of modern classical and droney electronica. The Writings is very cinematic at times with piano figures set against hovering strings in a way that echoes Thomas Newman. At other times it deftly mixes tonality, abstraction and noise, like the hisses, crackles and droning cellos and organ of “Fading Lights.” The gorgeous “Same Situation Different Perspectives” is openly loving, an evolving drone of orchestral strings and synths that steadily expands and embraces you like the sunrise. “Changing Skyline” achieves the same sense of growing euphoria with its ascending chords and chugging sequenced arpeggios. Dronarivm delivers again, and its albums this year from Snufmumriko, Halftribe and Hatami, Martin & Attanasio are also well worth a listen.
THE 7TH PLAIN
Chronicles (A-Ton, triple album set)
The 7th Plain is an early and much-revered alias of techno auteur Luke Slater, his contribution to the earliest, ambient-ish form of British techno known variously as IDM or just listening techno, a style popularised in the mid 90’s by Warp Records’ Artificial Intelligence series.
That Chronicles even exists at all – a rich and diverse three-volume retrospective release 2016-18 and collected here in a single set – is something of a miracle, because all 7th Plain material was originally released on UK techno label GPR. This was a musically significant but decidedly dodgy enterprise that collapsed in late 1996, entombing many of its young artists’ recordings (and some of the artists too – see my story on Beaumont Hannant) due to diabolical rights clauses in artist contracts. Yet here we are, with Slater now obviously in control of his material and German label A-Ton doing the re-release honours. For many IDM fans, this is a momentous event.
Chronicles features a fairly accurate sampling of tracks from the two original 7th Plain albums and string of e.p’s released 1993-95, plus some unreleased cuts from Slater’s personal archive. Nearly everything has been mastered direct from the original quarter-inch and DAT tapes, so purists will be pleased, and the vinyl version comes with an excellent essay by music journalist Joe Muggs. Beautiful, panoramic downtempo gems (“Boundaries”, “Excalibur’s Radar”) sit alongside among dreamy midtempo cruisers (“Surface Bound”) and percussive, squelchy Detroit-style numbers (“Time Melts”, “JDC”). 25 years later there’s still a strikingly futuristic, otherworldly tinge to 7th Plain material and an unerring sense of groove in the rhythms. Dance in your mind or on your feet, it doesn’t matter; this is deep and imaginative electronica from an era of wide-eyed exploration in ambient dance music.
Fans will note there is nothing here from The 7th Plain’s unreleased third album Playing With Fools (1996) – a casualty of GPR’s demise – and in a recent interview he was unequivocal that it’s dead and buried. If you want to check out the original releases, try the second album The 4 Cornered Room (1994), a firm fan favorite that includes some outstanding music not featured here.
Morning Hour (Moderna)
Ouka e.p. (Moderna)
In terms of quality, Canadian modern classical label Moderna Records is hitting the right notes again and again. It continues to quietly nurture and inspire a small roster of local and international artists and is releasing some astounding work that deserves attention, even if most of the music media and blogosphere remains fixated on the somewhat over-praised genre recordings of a certain German gentleman with the initials NL.
First up is Ouka, a transcendent solo piano release from Japanese composer Daigo Hanada with keyboard progressions that are melodious, sad and profound. The clear tunes with blurry edges give it that foundational Moderna piano ‘sound’ which makes this as good an entry point as any if you are new to the label. Then there is Cambridge-born Tom Adams’ eclectic Particles which deftly blends yearning piano progressions and occasional beats and loops with backdrops of ambient noise and ethereal drones. It’s instrumental, except for the dreamy ambient rock of “Navigators”, and there’s a subtle cosmic quality throughout that keeps hinting at even further layers beneath. Finally, Italian composer Ed Carlsen’s third Moderna release Morning Hour is fabulously dynamic and full of twists and turns. On “Home” a chamber music sequence segues into pulsing electric groves and back again. “Words” and “Whisper” slowly build their arpeggios to big sweeping peaks, with fast piano notes and synthetic bleeps spiralling in unison, up and up. This is a powerful, ambitious exploration of the atmospheric spaces between electronica, classical and post-rock.
Other notable releases from Moderna this year include Constellations by Tambour and Glass Island by Richard Luke.
How It Happened (Spotted Peccary)
Sound engineers turned composers make some of the most immaculate-sounding music in ambient. Typically, by the time they start releasing their own material we get the best of both sides: fresh creativity coupled with exceptional studio craft. Keyboard player Tom Eaton does everything and has been doing so for a long time, most notably as resident engineer and co-producer at Windham Hill founder William Ackerman’s studio in Vermont, USA. But his venture into releasing his own non-commissioned music is recent and How It Happened – solo album number four – perfectly marries the two sides of his art. The reverberating pianoscapes of Harold Budd and Tim Story are one reference point; the sonorous spacemusic of classic Braheny and Michael Stearns is another. It’s lush, shadowed, emotional music that’s rich in harmonies and oceanic layers and it’s all so deliciously slow. This is the strongest release of new music from Spotted Peccary this year, and by way of contrast makes a fine pairing with the label’s reissue of Johan Agebjorn’s Scandinavian electronica gem Mossebo (2008).
Drift Factor e.p. (twilightarchive.com)
Chris Mancinelli and Tom Vedvik’s “post-jazztronic urban ambient” project Twilight Archive is not prolific – only three albums and two e.p’s since 2003 – so a new release always get my attention. The new e.p. Drift Factor is well up to standard and moody as hell, another head-nodding downtempo fusion of jazz, funk and trip hop cloaked in eerie cinematic atmospheres. Lots of sneaky trumpets, rippling electric piano, pinging guitars and this time some Arabic melodies played on various flutes. From snaking through the alleyways of old Marrakesh to a cat-and-mouse chase through a dark Western metropolis, it’s great cinema of the mind, spare and punchy in sound but dense with ideas.
Currents of Space (Fantasy Enhancing)
SVEN KÖSSLER & SI MATTHEWS
A Constant State Of Flow (Fantasy Enhancing)
Understanding Holy Ghosts (2013, reissue on Fantasy Enhancing)
Fantasy Enhancing is one several fabulous new labels recently birthed by the respected – and apparently inexhaustible – Brit electronic producer/composer Lee Norris, his other current ventures including Neotantra (deep ambient) and Intellitronic Bubble (IDM and electro). This one is releasing sounds by others and occasionally himself that are often – though not always – oriented towards constellation Namlook, building on and branching out from that influential German’s multiverse of electronic sounds rooted in the golden age of 90’s ambient dance music.
Urban Meditation’s double-length Currents of Space could not be more epic. It’s a monster of a cosmic tech album where the chugging, arpeggiated riffs are gutsy and visceral, the melodies diving and weaving around in glorious trancedelic space. Composer Charles Urban shows he has both the tunes and the production smarts across 16 tracks ranging from dark-edged beatless docking manoeuvres to euphoric midtempo chuggers. This is sparkling psychedelic machine music. Peak moment: about two thirds into “Jetstream” when the gradual, relentless build-up suddenly plateaus and locks in with a new 2nd melody line, the two of them meshed to perfection like the best of Schmoelling-era Tangerine Dream.
A Constant State of Flow by Si Matthews (UK) and newcomer Sven Kössler (Germany) mines fairly similar downtempo territory to Urban Meditation’s album and it’s every bit as great. The duo revels in intricate layers of exotic textures and dreamy machine melodies including those squiggly and buzzy 90’s synths, and the sound design is clear and deep. Some of the grooves here are absolutely thumping, especially the chunky tribal stomp of “Gezeitenwechsel” which may lead to extreme head nodding. The more restrained “Entering Atlantis” has an awesome sense of latent power, it’s dark harmonic progression rising towards some unknown point and never quite reaching it. Both these artists also released good solo albums in 2019 but this one is really special, beyond the sum of its parts, featuring some for most sophisticated ambient tech you’ll hear anywhere right now.
Also from Fantasy Enhancing is a reissue of the obscure Understanding Holy Ghosts (2013) by the duo Moss Garden and it’s completely different from the Namlook-inspired ambient dance flavours of the other two. This is one of Lee Norris’ aliases, this time with Macedonian musician Dimitar Dodovski. On one level it’s an often gorgeous collection of hazy, pastoral ambient melodies. That would be enough, but a closer listen reveals weird and wonderful detail. “Overlooking Oceans” samples what sounds like the 1-2 click-clack sound of a train track as a kind of counterpoint its cloud of swirling synths. There’s also a surprising dub element, almost unrecognisable. “Ritual Solitaire” is the most striking example, with any trace of drums and bassline removed and only ghosts of a rhythmic pulse remaining in dusty fragments of tones and noise.
Cafe Del Mar Dreams X/10 (Cafe Del Mar Music)
What happened to Cafe Del Mar, I hear you ask? The Balearic compilation series that pretty much invented chillout music for sunsets – one of the original pillars of 90’s ambient dance music – is strangely faceless these days. Original DJ’s Jose Padilla and Bruno Lepetre departed long ago. While the albums and online radio channels remain popular, tracklists from the annual comps are patchy at best, flat-out bland at worst, or just recycle good but overly familiar tunes. Very few reviewers and zines even bother mentioning a new CDM release anymore. So it makes me very happy to have stumbled upon this substantial but little-noticed return to form, coming not from the main series but one of the sub-series called Cafe Del Mar Dreams, started back in 2000 by cafe co-founder Ramon Guiral.
Cafe Del Mar Dreams X/10 combines all the ingredients that made the early CDM comps great. It pulls together fresh and/or obscure tunes in a genuine variety of downtempo styles – trip hop, lounge, Flamenco, bossa nova, ambient pop – while recognising a common trait: a warm, elevating Balearic glow. It leans towards instrumentals, resisting the pull of a mainstream that blindly insists on music having vocals with lyrics because reasons. And the vocal songs that are included here are very good. These include a new one from ambient popsters Flunk, a sweet and faithful cover of Marcos Valle’s bossa nova classic “Samba De Verao”, and a proto-Balearic gem from 1982 by French-Belgian band Aetena called “Camino Del Sol”. The latter is a striking synthpop/bossa nova hybrid, locating the origins of the Cafe Del Mar sound at yet another surprising point in the distant pre-90’s past.
Cafe Del Mar Dreams X/10 is bafflingly credited to no one, an approach that’s become increasingly common with CDM product over last two decades. But regardless, this one is special. So to whoever put it together – whether DJ, committee, or chill bot – it’s big sun-kissed kudos from me.
Cosmic Duality (Synchronos Recordings)
From San Francisco’s Synchronos label comes this fine sampling of the kind of downtempo instrumentals you’ll hear on the better chill stages at psytrance and electronica festivals. New tunes, and good ones, doused in multi-coloured tones, layered and trippy arpeggios and lots of head-nodding grooves. Dub is the cornerstone of most of the music here – notable in the warm basslines, chunky beats and a few reggae-flavoured cuts – though this is the eclectic and exotic dub of the 21st century ala Shpongle, not minimalist fare for purists. Among established scene names like Labs Cloud, Easily Embarrassed, Globular and label founder Chlorophil is some impressive work from newcomers including Sacred Seeds’ “Flash of Green”, an almost beatless progression with a circular bell-like melody that’s ravishingly beautiful. Cosmic Duality is a high quality comp that captures the spirit of the best the scene has given us over the years via labels like Spiritzone, Liquid Sound Design and Beyond/Waveform.
Maui Chill Volume One (Waveform)
Ambient dub and eclectic electronica label Waveform Records is still with us – founded in 1994 from the ashes of UK label Beyond Records – and so is its founder Forest and his long-running Music Starstreams radio show. Now based in Hawaii, he’s recently released the first Waveform compilation since 2010 and it’s superb. The sheer diversity of the ten new tracks on Maui Chill Volume One takes a little getting used to, but Forest’s excellent taste keeps the album up there quality-wise with previous series such as A.D. and Waveform Transmissions. Shimmering drones, floating pianos and glittering dub grooves; 90’s style ambient psychedelia, sweeping cinematic chillout and thumping ambient trance; it’s all here and quite a trip. New music sits up against some older but obscure gems and every cut shines. A big welcome back to Waveform, and I also recommend you check out the digital-only version of his Starstreams radio show streaming on Mixcloud.
Tonic Immobility: From Here to Tranquility vol. 11 (Silent Records)
Red Shift (Silent Records)
Rebooted in 2016 by founder Kim Cascone after a 20 year break, San Francisco’s Silent Records these days is very much about the psychoactive drone music and experimental noisescapes that its academically-trained founder has been immersed in since the 70’s, with the ambient dance music elements of old 90’s Silent having largely fallen away.
Kim thinks the latest Tranquility compilation is one of the best in the series and I agree, featuring exclusive tracks from what appears to be mostly local West Coast artists. Guitarist Mike Rooke really should get a solo album out; his “The Day Before and After” is a brilliantly simple idea with electric guitar figures played both in real time and in reverse, slowly dissolving into an airy drone. Midcentury Modular’s “Plucky Landscape” is a lo-fi psychedelic delight with bleeps and muted crackles swirling in a pastoral haze, sounding not unlike something 80’s noise band Zoviet:France might have done. Tonic Immobility: From Here to Tranquility vol. 11 is very much a headphone album, where dissonant but gentle weirdness shares the space with tonal beauty in fairly equal amounts, sometimes simultaneously.
Also outstanding from Silent this year is one of the latest efforts from the prolific Lingua Lustra (Dutchman Albert Borkent). He’s been producing the lushest examples of label’s output since the reboot, including the epic landscaped ambience of Ice Age (2017) and the meditative psychedelia of Chiara (2017). His latest album Red Shift plays with a semi-dark flavour of beatless electronica, slowly throbbing, bleeping, whooshing and droning its way through four cosmic tracks. It’s highly atmospheric stuff, and distinctive thanks to his ongoing passion for coaching original sounds from his arsenal of analog and digital gear.
WANDERWELLE & BANDHAGENS MUSIKFÖRENING
Victory Over The Sun (Semantica)
An eerie historical account of weird shit happening in the skies above Basel, Switzerland in 1566 is the inspiration for this dark and powerfully evocative blend of cinematic ambient and atmospheric techno. Dutch duo Wanderwelle were responsible for last year’s Polynesian ambient techno delight Gathering Of The Ancient Spirits, but Victory Over The Sun is a very different beast. This time they collaborate with Scandinavian duo Bandhagens Musikförening and the mood is darkly beautiful with lots of eerie synth pads, light kick drums and percussion and arcing guitar feedback. Reference points? The futurist gleam of Detroit Escalator Co, filmmaker John Carpenter’s 80’s Moog-laden synth scores, and the dystopian sci-fi electronica that underscores adult anime series like Ergo Proxy and Texhnolyze. The album brilliantly imagines the fear, awe and beauty experienced by people in the middle ages who would have witnessed atmospheric phenomena they did not understand, even if this particular story is wildly embellished and at least partly fictional. But isn’t it fun to wonder?
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