Ambient Music Guide’s Best Albums Of 2020 Reviews

Reviewed by Mike G, Dec 2020-Jan 2021


Reviews Index


AES DANA – Inks (Ultimae)
ALEX CRISPIN & NICHOLAS WHITTAKER – Irian Jaya (Cobblers Records)
ANDREW HEATH – The Alchemist’s Muse (Disco Gecko)
AUSKLANG – Chronos (Past Inside The Present)
BACKSTAGE GURUS – Mediterranean Odyssey (Liquid Sound Design)
BLOMMA – Blomma (Moderna)
CELL – Live In Corfu (Ultimae)
CHANNELERS – Isles Beyond (Inner Islands)
COLOURMUSIC – Mathewson OK (colourmusic.net)
DANIEL SZLAJNDA – Komorebi (U Know Me Records)
DEEPER THAN SPACE – Earthset (Silent Records)
DIGITONAL – Set The Weather Fair (Just Music)
DREADLOCK TALES & MIKKO HEIKINPOIKA – Sonic Artifact (Dubmission)
EMERALD WEB – Valley of the Birds (1982, reissue by katepple.com)
ENDLESS MELANCHOLY – A Perception of Everything (Sound In Silence)
ENNIO MORRICONE – Morricone Segreto (Cam Sugar/Decca)
ENRICO CONIGLIO & GIULIO ALDINUCCI – Stalking The Elusive (Dronarivm)
ERIK WØLLO & MICHAEL STEARNS – Convergence (Projekt)
EVADEZ – Revive ep (Sine)
EVAN FRASER & VIR MCCOY – Guardians (Interchill)
FOREST ROBOTS – After Geography (Wormhole Records)
FOURCOLOR – Water Mirror (2004, reissued on 12k)
GIGI MASIN – Calypso (Apollo)
GOLDEN BROWN – Flora and Fauna of the Uncanny Valley (Bandcamp)
GREGORY PAUL MINEEFF – After Today (Cosmicleaf)
HALFTRIBE – Cloud Dreaming And Shadows (Shimmering Moods Records)
HIBERNATION – Organic Technology (Bandcamp)
HOWARD GIVENS & CRAIG PADILLA – The Bodhi Mantra (Spotted Peccary)
JOHN HAYES & MAXY DUTCHER – Borealis (Moderna)
JONAS MUNK – Minimum Resistance (Azure Vista)
KAYA PROJECT – Body Mind Soul Remixed part 1 (Bandcamp)
KEVIN BRAHENY – Liminal Space (Bandcamp)
KEVIN KELLER – The Front Porch of Heaven (kevinkeller.com)
KILIMANJARO DARKJAZZ ENSEMBLE – I Foresee The Dark Ahead, If I Stay (2011, reissued on Denovali)
KRUDER & DORFMEISTER ‎- 1995 (G-Stone Recordings)
LADDER – Always Choose Love (Lemongrass Music)
LINGUA LUSTRA – Eye Of Silence (Silent Records)
LUKE SCHNEIDER – Altar of Harmony (Third Man Records)
MANCHURIA – Shades EP (Marsiglia Records)
MARTIN NONSTATIC – Apana EP (Ultimae)
MATHIEU KARSENTI – Downstream Blue (Slowcraft)
MERRIN KARRAS – Northwest Passage (Strangely Isolated Place)
MERRIN KARRAS – Silent Planet (Strangely Isolated Place)
MICHAEL GRIGONI & STEPHEN VITIELLO – Slow Machines (12k)
MICK CHILLAGE – Mirrors (Neotantra)
NIGHT SEA – Still (Silent Season)
NORTH AMERICANS – Roped In (Third Man Records)
N-SO – Out of the Valley (Moderna)
REMOTE VISION – The Outer Plateau (Exosphere)
REMOTE VISION – Hypnos EP (Exosphere)
ROBERT RICH – Offering to the Morning Fog (Soundscape Productions)
ROBIN SCHLOCHTERMEIER – Spectral (Denovali)
ROGER ENO & BRIAN ENO – Mixing Colours (Deutsche Grammophon)
RONE – Room With A View (Infine)
SAFFRONKEIRA & PAOLO FRESU – In Origine (Denovali)
SAM ROSENTHAL & PROJECT ARTISTS – Tim, Where Are You Now? (Projekt)
SANKT OTTEN – Lieder Fuer Geometrische Stunden (Denovali)
SAPHILEAUM – Samosi (Constellation Tatsu)
SAPHILEAUM – Imaginary Treasure Mountain (Nyame)
SLOW DANCING SOCIETY – The Disappearing Collective Vol. I (Past Inside The Present)
SPIRITUALS – For Those You Love part II (Doumen)
STARTERRA – Celestial (Exosphere)
STEVE GOOD – Nothing Is Ever Created Or Destroyed (Bandcamp)
STEVE ROACH – Tomorrow (Behind The Sky/Projekt)
SUBHEIM – ΠΟΛΙΣ aka Polis (Denovali)
ROBIN SCHLOCHTERMEIER – Spectral (Denovali)
TAPES & TOPOGRAPHIES – Inoculations (Dronarivm)
TOM MOORE & ARCHIE MOSS – Spectres (tommoorearchiemoss.com)
TRANSLIPPERS – Transparency (Cosmicleaf)
VARIOUS ARTISTS – Ambient Layers (7K)
VARIOUS ARTISTS – Maui Chill volume 2 (Waveform)
VARIOUS ARTISTS – Pop Ambient 2021 (Kompakt)
VARIOUS ARTISTS – Portals (Behind The Sky)
VARIOUS ARTISTS – String Layers (2020, 7K)
VARIOUS ARTISTS – Sustain Series vol. 1 (Ambientologist)
VARIOUS ARTISTS – Vector Fields Vol. 1 (Music Company)
VARIOUS ARTISTS – Velvet Desert Music vol. 2 (Kompakt)
VIRGO – Landform Code (1998, reissued on Fantasy Enhancing)
WOOB – Hypersleep (Bigamoebasounds)
WOOB – Suite 59201/Lost Metropolis (Bigamoebasounds)
WORRIEDABOUTSATAN – Time Lapse (n5MD)


Sounds


Listen to AMG’s Best Of 2020 mix series


All Reviews


AES DANA
Inks (Ultimae)
CELL
Live In Corfu (Ultimae)
MARTIN NONSTATIC
Apana EP (Ultimae)

For two decades the French-based label Ultimae Records has been one of the leading purveyors of 21st century strains of ambient techno, trance and miscellaneous electronica on the atmospheric tip. Although the label is releasing less material now than in the days of its lauded Fahrenheit Project compilations (2001-2011), these three fine releases are Ultimae’s strongest in some time.

Inks by Aes Dana (label co-owner Vincent Villuis) is a dark and stark journey through downtempo beats, 4/4 bangers and skittering, stuttering breaks. He mixes it up nicely: the metallic clangs and icy textures echo his teenager industrial roots, while the eerie widescreen drones and lucid sound design remain eternal Ultimae trademarks. By way of contrast, fans of the label’s ‘classic’ melodic sound will welcome Live In Corfu from the gifted but seldom heard Cell (Alex Scheffer), a recent live set mixing Cell classics with his first new material in 8 years. It captures everything that’s great about Alex’s downtempo: deep, tuneful, sophisticated electronica. Panoramic music for panoramic people, indeed. Last but not least, the Apana EP from Dutchman Martin Nonstatic shows the artist’s undiminished talent for incorporating digital crackles and glitch into his otherworldly slowbeats without the overkill. A little noise goes a long way, and Apana shows again why he’s Ultimae’s greatest latter-day discovery.


ALEX CRISPIN & NICHOLAS WHITTAKER
Irian Jaya (Cobblers Records)

I’m still enthralled with the hand-tooled 21st century new age of Alex Crispin’s album Idle Worship (2017), a shimmering, glowing, wondrous thing. So it’s a joy to find the British multi-instrumentalist scaling similar heights on Irian Jaya. This time he hooks up with longtime friend Nicholas Whittaker who features on saxophone and various exotic percussion. It’s got that tropical South-East Asian feel to it as per the album’s title, but it’s a special kind of exotica, deftly merging Asian folk and free jazz elements with panoramic drones and ethereal new age synths.


ANDREW HEATH
The Alchemist’s Muse (Disco Gecko)

I’m a big fan of Andrew Heath’s gift for creating a scene without dictating exactly what it should look like in your mind’s eye. The Alchemist’s Muse is every bit as satisfying – perhaps even more so – than the trio of environmental ambient albums released 2014-16 that established his signature style. This one has many of those other albums’ ingredients like the droning, arcing, glistening synths, tinkling piano figures, location recordings and sprinklings of random sound effects. Fabulous titles, too, like “Observers and Airmen”, “Of Mill Leats and Water Meadows” and “There’s a Ghost in my House”, all rendered with crystal-clear sound design. All that would be enough, but what elevates the album even higher for me is a certain cocooning warmth that the earlier albums don’t really have, signaling a further evolution of his art.


AUSKLANG
Chronos (Past Inside The Present)

A fresh and assured debut album from a new Berlin-based post-rock trio. Ausklang’s instrumentals swirl around a core of drums, bass and electric guitar, but also with significant contributions from synths, tape loops and classical instruments. There are some big, uplifting Sigur Ros-style numbers with seriously good melodies, as well as early Floyd-like jams and a couple of more drone-based and meditative pieces. The beautiful brass on “Aufbruch” is one of many little classical touches throughout, but at heart Chronos is an atmospheric rock album and a very good one. More please.


BACKSTAGE GURUS
Mediterranean Odyssey (Liquid Sound Design)

Beatmaster Gabriel Le Mar has been releasing diverse electronica for over 20 years now. His new and excellent 4-way collaboration as Backstage Gurus is the latest emanation from the downtempo end of his repertoire. Mediterranean Odyssey is grounded in luscious exotic dub with strong Near and Mid-Eastern instrumentation – gimbri, oud, bouzouki – alongside the trippy bleeps of psychedelic chillout. Tuneful, groovy and intricate, it’s superbly produced with that trademark punch that he’s honed over two decades of studio craftsmanship. Gabriel’s recent solo album Shared Fictions (2020) is also worth investigation: a less exotic, more techy and percussive excursion in down-to-midtempo rhythms.


BLOMMA
Blomma (Moderna)
JOHN HAYES & MAXY DUTCHER
Borealis (Moderna)
N-SO
Out of the Valley (Moderna)

The modern classical-electronica hybrids of Canada’s Moderna Records were as diverse as ever in 2020. These three magnificent albums are from newcomers to the label, and all of them deftly bridge a multitude of atmospheric sounds and eclectic subgenres that sit under the mod classical banner these days.

The self-titled debut from the duo Blomma is so very tuneful, whether it’s soaring arpeggiated machine grooves or lush, neo-romantic piano cushioned with gorgeous layers of synths. Borealis by John Hayes & Maxy Dutcher is a meeting of two artists steeped in different traditions – classical piano music and electronic dance music – and it juxtaposes the two brilliantly. Buzzing midtempo house and electro grooves share the stage with elegiac keyboard melodies and fuzzy, richly textured chords and backdrops. The more restrained Out of the Valley is a new project of American composer Nick Angeloni aka n-So and is the most eclectic of the batch. Contemplative piano, percussive noise, chamber music, impressionist synth music, jazz and blues figures; all these disparate threads are woven together with subtlety and finesse. It’s the kind of release that certain over-hyped European and Brit artists in the genre might make, if they better understood the art of the album and could sustain the quality for 40-plus minutes.


CHANNELERS
Isles Beyond (Inner Islands)

While new age music’s cred took a beating in the 80’s and beyond as big labels and relaxation muzak took over, underground new age is alive and well in the 21st century thanks to talents like Sean Conrad and his California-based Inner Islands label. Under his Channelers alias he’s made another beautiful collection of meditative music. This one is based around improvised piano and hammer dulcimer melodies with a little support from flute and subtle backdrops of droning keyboards. I’ve made comparisons before with Popol Vuh/Florian Fricke’s quietest acoustic music and I’ll make it again; the pauses and spontaneity and rough edges, the folksy glow, the cosmic sense of wonder. Isles Beyond is music from another place that sounds as human as any music from this mortal plane.


COLOURMUSIC
Mathewson OK (colourmusic.net)

Oklahoma-based band Colourmusic takes a detour from its noisy leftfield rock with this foray into Eno-eque environmental ambient territory and it’s a quiet triumph. The four tracks on Mathewson OK are all impressions of “locations” complete with grid references using Cartesian coordinates if you care to find them on a map. The album’s centerpiece is the extraordinary 34-minute “Location Two” and I’ll flatly state that it’s as good as any of Brian Eno’s longer pieces, ever. Built from a short keyboard phrase, a drone, hints of counter-melody and loads of space, it differs from Eno’s said pieces in one major respect in that it actually develops rather than remains static. Although morphing and expanding very gradually, by the 25 minute mark it has changed significantly, dissolving into a shimmering wall of tones.


DANIEL SZLAJNDA
Komorebi (U Know Me Records)

From Poland-based dance and electronica label U Know Me Records comes this striking piece of beautiful bleep by local talent Daniel Szlajnda. Previously known under his Daniel Drumz alias for his quirky takes on club music – house, hop hop and nu jazz – his new album Komorebi is much more atmospheric and, despite its intensity and energy at times, completely drumless. Like a kid with a new box of toys, he takes a self-built analog modular synthesiser and plays around, conjuring euphoric, hypnotic tunes that are strong in melody and a little raw at the edges. Looping marimba melodies also play a big part on three tracks, while the spectral violins on another take it into modern classical territory. Both fun and moving.


DEEPER THAN SPACE
Earthset (Silent Records)
LINGUA LUSTRA
Eye of Silence (Silent Records)

Four years on from its 2016 reboot, Kim Cascone’s ambient label Silent Records finds itself with a recent catalogue almost as diverse as the one it built in the 80’s and heady 90’s, though with a much less hectic annual release schedule. Take your pick from its menu of electronic ambient – from the lushest drones and ambient dance strains through to the darkest atonal and experimental noise. My own tastes tend towards the former, reflected in these two fine releases.

Californian Adam Douglas aka Deeper Than Space is one of the original Silent artists and his Earthset shows a love for vintage analog synth sounds, especially 80’s electronic soundtracks and 90’s acid trance. Featuring three tracks of warm, soaring, pulsing bleepiness buffeted by two long and dark drone pieces, it’s a shining piece of retro electronica with a subtle 21st century sheen. Or in Kim Cascone’s words: “Think the musical output from a hashish-fueled studio session with John Carpenter and Cluster.”

Meanwhile, Dutch musician Albert Borkent aka Lingua Lustra continues his impressive tenure on Silent with four pieces of deep and lush psychedelic drone music on the magnificent Eye Of Silence. If drone is too often like a flat, featureless landscape, this one is populated by apparitions and colours, breathing harmonies and subtle multiple melody lines. It plays in shadow but is never engulfed by darkness. Eye of Silence has a rare transcendent power that’s hard to describe; think David Parsons classics like Himalaya (1989) or the most tonal examples of Robert Rich’s beatless psyscapes.


DIGITONAL
Set The Weather Fair (Just Music)

British multi-instrumentalist, synthesist and early music scholar Andrew Dobson makes a welcome return with this 4th album from his downtempo project Digitonal, this time collaborating with dance producer Dom Graveson. Spanning 50 minutes and 9 instrumentals, Set The Weather Fair is melodic, contemplative and lyrical and once again finds Digitonal deftly straddling the worlds of atmospheric modern classical, ambient dance music and jazzy improv. Light machine beats and textures weave through and around beds of violins, muted piano and the sweet tones of Andrew’s trademark clarinet lines. Along the way you’ll also hear sly nods to a diverse range of masters like 80’s Tangerine Dream, early Warp Records bleep and Philip Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi score. Truly eclectic and entirely cohesive.


DREADLOCK TALES & MIKKO HEIKINPOIKA
Sonic Artifact (Dubmission)

Finland’s Kimmo Tyni aka Dreadlock Tales takes one minor chord, a few melodic ideas and a full arsenal of deep dub production techniques, and casts them in 5 different ways across a seamless 35 minute journey. The result is Sonic Artifact, an exotic dub masterpiece from London-based Dubmission Records, drenched in Eastern drones and rich with spaced-out textures that are drawn as much from psychedelic rock as ambient dance music. Reaching a midtempo peak at about the 10 minute mark, the music drops back into dub beats before finally shifting into panoramic beatless bliss. The extended growling guitar phases that swim around the mix during the final section echo Harold Budd’s art rock classic “Dark Star”, except here the overall effect is uplifting rather than doomy. Sonic Artifact is about as cosmic as dubwise electronica can get, and that’s saying something.


EMERALD WEB
Valley of the Birds (1981, reissue by katepple.com)

Previously only issued on cassette on their own Stargate label in the 1980’s, Emerald Web’s reissued and remastered Valley Of The Birds is a small masterpiece of vintage synth-based ambient, a worthy artefact of California’s burgeoning DIY musical movement in the early 80’s which, for better or worse, came to be known as new age.

Featuring vintage synths such as the Minimoog, Oberheim sequencer and ARP 2600, the album is a monument to the hypnotic quality of simple arpeggios, stretched out over long distances, accompanied by either a looping chord sequence or sometimes no chord changes at all. Some cuts have an extraordinary sense of mystery, deepened with whistling Minimoog melodies soaring above. “Rain Forest” and especially the title track both layer gently rolling synth loops in between flute solos and lush underlays, stellar examples of how jaw-droppingly pretty Emerald Web’s music could be without tipping over into new age schlock. The album also explores more than just the pastoral themes suggested by the title, most memorably pointing towards deep space on the 10-minute “Photonos”. It’s built on dark, throbbing bass and a single chord with improvised melodies atop, simple yet epic, resembling a noir-ish science fiction score.

As an owner of the original cassette, I can happily report that co-founder Kat Epple’s newly remastered audio for download and streaming – taken from the original analog master tapes – provides a significant upgrade in sound quality, 4-track imperfections and all. There’s also a vinyl version, if that’s your thing.


ENDLESS MELANCHOLY
A Perception of Everything (Sound In Silence)

This collection of grand, hazy, lo-fi tone poems from Ukrainian composer Endless Melancholy feels like a summation of his quest in the past decade to translate beautiful sadness into wordless sound. His personal style is already well-established – bittersweet melodies from samples and synths dipped in a warm sonic bath, with some elements degraded by dropouts, hiss, static or detuning while other layers are left untouched. It’s a subgenre of sorts, binding a loose school of 21st century ambient artists like Bvdub, Halftribe and dozens of others. What elevates A Perception of Everything above his previous efforts is the tunes, for they are weepingly lovely. “Letting The Old Dreams Die”, “Immersion”, “Across The Barren Land”, “As The World Quietly Ends”…some of these harmonic progressions will surely break you, but gently so.


ENNIO MORRICONE
Morricone Segreto (Cam Sugar/Decca)

As a teenager I was almost turned off film music maestro Ennio Morricone for life when certain family friends chose to play his pretty orchestral/choral score for the Hollywood film The Mission non-stop in their household for eternity. A good score, but nearly ruined for me by over-exposure. Fortunately, I hadn’t quite turned my back when I discovered, around the same time, the films of Dario Argento, Mario Bava and other cult European directors from the 60’s and 70’s, for who Morricone wrote music of a completely different kind. Exotic, eclectic, atmospheric stuff that bridged avant-garde, world music, classical, psychedelic rock, bachelor pad music, pop, jazz and blues. Ennio Segreto (“secret” in Italian) captures 27 examples – including seven never released before – from 100’s of now-obscure soundtracks he did in these freewheeling and otherworldly styles, and it’s more interesting than much of the later orchestral music he wrote for American films. Ennio Segreto spans his most creative period, even if it doesn’t capture all the highlights, which no single album could anyway. I’m chuffed that this was the first album released after Morricone’s recent death at age 91, beating the inevitable cash-in compilations of more familiar fare like his Sergio Leone scores and, of course, the freaking Mission. If you enjoy this, make sure you also hear An Ennio Morricone Dario Argento Trilogy (1995), an album of highlights from his scores for the Italian director’s early cult thrillers.


ENRICO CONIGLIO & GIULIO ALDINUCCI
Stalking The Elusive (Dronarivm)
TAPES & TOPOGRAPHIES
Inoculations (Dronarivm)

Stalking The Elusive is a work of pretty astonishing elemental power, a first-time collaboration between Italians Enrico Coniglio and Giulio Aldinucci. It lifts environmental samples from mundane environments – households, airports and so on – and seems to reimagine them as the sounds of sacred spaces. At the centre of the music is ghostly vocal chants and choral loops, enlarged with reverb to cathedral-size proportions, with support from swelling organs, droning strings and strange hisses and distortions. “Until The End Of Remembrances” is a rich, dark elegy thick with Gothic atmosphere. “At The Airport Cathedral” is a piece of environmental sampling genius worthy of Japanese composer Tetsu Inoue, deconstructing a myriad of sounds from a busy airport into an expansive ambient drone and swirling melody from a boy choir.

Also outstanding from Moscow’s Dronarivm label is the latest effort from Texas-based Todd Gauthreaux aka Tapes & Topographies. For newcomers to his music this makes an ideal introduction to his “contemplative melodies of sorrow and light”. The signature sound on Inoculations is sighing, glowing chords that sound like a cello ensemble, treated with gentle, fine-grained distortion and sometimes accompanied by spare piano figures. Even at its most solemn, this is gorgeous and immersive stuff. When the melodies get eerie, the lo-fi treatment and subtle wavering pitches sound rather like Boards of Canada minus the fractured beats.


ERIK WØLLO & MICHAEL STEARNS
Convergence (Projekt)

Sharing the bill at a small European music festival in 2018 sparked an unexpected collaboration between these two artists – one American, the other Norwegian – who had never met, despite both having long and distinguished careers in ambient and space music. The resulting album Convergence is a successful marriage of Erik Wøllo’s melodic gifts and guitar innovations (though they are both guitarists) with Michael Stearns skills as a synthesist, multi-instrumentalist and panoramic sound designer. I think the reason it works so well – as one Bandcamp fan pointed out – is that neither artist is trying too hard. Fans will be able to spot the sonic signatures of one or both artists at different times, and the music never strays too far from what they do so exceptionally well – liquid, lush spacemusic with touches of tribal, rock and classical. In particular, it’s great to see Michael Stearns releasing albums again, a West Coast ambient pioneer with a substantial 80’s and 90’s catalogue but who in the last two decades has largely focused on commercial production work including soundtrack commissions.


EVADEZ
Revive EP (Sine Music)

Young British composer Evedez delivers this perfect little five-track EP of Balearic-style downtempo for Germany’s Sine Music, fitting in well enough with the label’s smooth and lush ethos but also standing well out in the subgenre with inspired writing for piano and strings and sophisticated layering of melodies and complex textures. One track, “1141”, also uses syncopated rhythms that hint at trap and dubstep, a fresh take on the usual drum breaks. Revive is up there with label star Thomas Lemmer’s past classics Ambitronic (2017) and the Meeresleuchten EP (2018), revealing depths upon depths with repeated listens.


EVAN FRASER & VIR MCCOY
Guardians (Interchill)

A powerful collection of downtempo grooves in a globetrotting style which long ago might have been called ‘world music’ but I’ll just call ‘exotica’. On their second album the Californians Evan Fraser and Vir McCoy play acoustic instruments from Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Britain and the Americas, weaving in subtle synthetic sounds and samples and binding them all together with warm, spacious production. Although cultural authenticity is hardly the point of world fusion like this, you can almost see the coatings of dust and sand on the North African and Moroccan-tinged pieces. There’s also a handful of song lyrics with guest singers scattered among the instrumentals. None sound jarring alongside the other tracks, and some like “Fertile Ground” are packed with pop-like hooks and brilliant syncopations. 25 years on, the Canadian-based Interchill Records may not be releasing much, but Guardians finds the quality control as high as ever.


FOREST ROBOTS
After Geography (Wormhole Records)

American composer Francisco Dominguez aka Forest Robots makes nature-inspired ambient music, but there aren’t many experimental nature-inspired albums like After Geography. It’s a hushed landscape of plinks and plonks and occasional melody lines, some played on marimba or xylophone, cast upon a bed gentle washes and atmospheres. What makes it special is the weird tunings. I asked him about this, wondering if he was using just intonation or similar kinds of tunings found in non-Western music. Not so, he says. It’s more about the unpredictability of filters and effects. “Much of the process is thought out beforehand, but I still end up about half the time with a trial and error dynamic as the harmonics sometimes don’t quite hold up like I originally thought they would.” Most great art comes from a mixture of hard work and happy accidents, and that’s the case here. The overall effect on After Geography is an unpredictability, a landscape in constant motion, unusual for music so quiet. Also: the artwork by Brayden Wood gets my vote for album cover of the year.


FOURCOLOR
Water Mirror (2004, reissued on 12k)
MICHAEL GRIGONI & STEPHEN VITIELLO
Slow Machines (12k)

Water Mirror is a welcome reissue by Taylor Deupree’s New York-based 12k Records of an obscure 2000’s gem by Japanese composer Keiichi Sugimoto aka Fourcolor. I never heard this when it came out; what I hear now is a microsound masterpiece from the early years of laptop electronica that’s not dominated by the fussy coldness of digital glitch, as Sugimoto seems to understand that a little glitch goes a long way. His elegant tone painting style takes a more sonorous path with dreamy pieces crafted from looping fragments of tone. The best comes last: the long closing track “Steam” brings it all together with lovely bells, muted guitar figures and layers of organ-like textures.

Of the new material released in 2020 by 12k, my firm favorite is the ever-shifting electronics and electric guitar tapestries of Slow Machines by Americans Michael Grigoni & Stephen Vitiello. If you love impressionist art, here it is in sonic form, a remarkable collection of meandering landscapes where lovely pedal and lap steel guitars mesh with subtle synths, filters, field recordings and noise. It’s blurry yet vivid, soothing yet always in motion, its textures rippling and repeating through three-dimensions. A complete success as a piece of experimental ambient and especially recommended for guitar fans.


GIGI MASIN
Calypso (Apollo)

Italian multi-instrumentalist Gigi Masin is back with his first major statement since his trio Gaussian Curve’s last effort from 2017. As far as I can tell, he plays everything on Calypso and it’s more of a layered studio creation than his GC work. Inspired by his visits to the myth-laden Greek island of Gavdos, it’s one of his best and most cohesive records in a long career that began in with the proto-Balearic chillout classic Wind (1986). Some of the shimmering, melodious pieces swirl around a core sound of jazzy piano, light synth arpeggios and warm orchestral drones. Others weave in oddly treated sounds and loops, like the eerie shuffling scratches of “Enter Venus” and distant tribal drums on “The Water Sybil”. He plays a zither or dulcimer on the achingly lovely “Amaranta” alongside a smooching brass-like synth line. Most crucially, Calypso finds the artist’s much-lauded ‘Venetian grace’ intact throughout: his sense of restraint, his love of mystery, and his romantic feel for landscape.


LUKE SCHNEIDER
Altar of Harmony (Third Man Records)
GOLDEN BROWN
Flora and Fauna of the Uncanny Valley (Bandcamp)
NORTH AMERICANS
Roped In (Third Man Records)

Whether or not ‘cosmic Americana’ is actually a thing, I’ll borrow the tag anyway because it perfectly captures the spirit of these gently psychedelic and distinctly American-flavoured instrumental releases.

Altar of Harmony is kind of a Southern take on early Californian new age, created entirely with a pedal steel guitar by seasoned Nashville session musician Luke Schneider. We all know what pedal steel sounds like, yet there’s also loads of vintage new age and proggy keyboard-like sounds here as well. How he created them all is a mystery, suffice to say it shows a remarkable gift for sound manipulation and synthesis. Liquid, shimmering guitar lines in various guises mesh with choral drones and extended morphing chords that sometimes resemble a barrel organ or the eerie strings of a Mellotron keyboard, all “booming music of the spheres” as the release notes so winningly put it.

The albums from Golden Brown (Colorado’s Stefan Beck) and North Americans (Californian Patrick McDermott and friends) are much more acoustic-based, centering around steel-string acoustic and pedal/lap steel guitars with some synth support and a few other instruments. They’re full of transcendent melodies and rich colours, drawing partly – each in their own way – on the eclectic folk guitar sounds of ‘American primitive’ and its eccentric originator John Fahey (1939-2001). Or to put in more familiar terms, imagine capturing in a bottle what psy-leaning bands like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin (yes, British bands) found in their quietest, acoustic instrumental moments like “Pillow of Winds” and “Bron-Yr-Aur” – those brief passages of luminous, pastoral wonder where all seemed right with the world.


GREGORY PAUL MINEEFF
After Today (Cosmicleaf)

Australian Gregory Paul Mineeff’s fine new album sees the Greece-based Cosmicleaf label taking another successful departure from the psychedelic downtempo beats it’s best known for. The often beatless After Today is awash in electric piano lines, meshed with minimalist synth pads and textures and some weird phrasing using tape machines and reverse effects. The nine tracks shift easily between sonorous and semi-abstract, often cloaked in a slightly low-fidelity haze. This is a beautiful curio and – alongside this year’s excellent Translippers album of lush downtempo – another outstanding example of Cosmicleaf’s enduring versatility.


HALFTRIBE
Cloud Dreaming and Shadows (Shimmering Moods Records)

British composer Halftribe’s 2018 opus For The Summer Or Forever was an exquisite, ethereal tribute to the warmest season, mixing fragments of keyboards, guitar and sundry other instruments with static, hums and decayed sounds. Those hazy, cycling melodies are back on Cloud Dreaming and Shadows and just as quietly powerful. This one is a dreamy pastoral wonder inspired by his countryside escapes, all shimmering fragments and beguiling loops. Many of the pieces have that very distinct Halftribe signature, where different layers of sharp and fuzzy loops intersect at seemingly random intervals, a bit like watching random edits between high and low-resolution video footage. Yet the effect is not at all jarring; it’s soothing, gently surreal and totally involving.


KAYA PROJECT
Remixed: Body​ Mind​ ​Soul Part 1 (Bandcamp)
HIBERNATION
Organic Technology (Bandcamp)

It’s a rare year when British multi-instrumentalist and electronic producer Seb Taylor doesn’t release something good under one or more of the various aliases he’s been using since the mid 90’s.

The polished, tuneful pan-global downtempo of his Kaya Project alias continued in 2020 with a new album Mind Body Soul. I found it a bit underwhelming, actually, but it clearly has good bones because the subsequent remix album Remixed: Body​ Mind​ ​Soul Part 1 is a pearler. His collaborators give good love here and everything works. Bristol-based Globular boosts the sweet Indian-style vocals of “Souls Entwined” with a dubby thunder worthy of genre luminaries like Ott. The Nasha Experience collective shows there’s still life in trippy drum ‘n’ bass. Best of all, French producer Suduaya pulls off a real stunner with his fusion of slow big-beat, tribal syncopations and euphoric synths on his rework of “Beware The Drunken Master”.

Meanwhile, Seb’s leftfield electronica project Hibernation makes a welcome return on the excellent Organic Technology, the first album in eight years. Few artists navigate the leftfield space with such a solid musical foundation; in the Hibernation universe experimental downtempo is accessible, groovy and gently psychedelic; something to be actually enjoyed than respectfully endured. The new album’s atmospheric grooves sit somewhere on the lounge, trip hop or progressive house tips, but fused with 100’s of unpredictable fragments of jazz, techno, electro, rock, Arabic and Indian music.


HOWARD GIVENS & CRAIG PADILLA
The Bodhi Mantra (Spotted Peccary)

Spotted Peccary label founder Howard Givens and longtime American synthesist Craig Padilla pair up for this profoundly deep release. The Bodhi Mantra, named after the Sanskrit word for enlightenment or awakening, is an epic work of psychedelic drone-based ambient with powerful extended harmonies that spread out to the horizon in slow, ecstatic waves. It has that indefinable spiritual undertow of the best new age music, particularly the album’s 19-minute centrepiece “Leaving Behind The Now”. Texturally, there are also strong echoes of New Zealander David Parsons’ dark-edged esoteric masterpieces of the 90’s and 2000’s; for Parsons fans this album will more than ably fill a gap left by that artist’s recent inactivity.


JONAS MUNK
Minimum Resistance (Azure Vista Records)

Danish guitarist Jonas Munk does striking and beautiful things with the electric guitar using pedals, reverb and delay, mining a vein of post-rock ambient comparable to artists like Belgium’s Stratosphere and America’s Jeff Pearce. Minimum Resistance is probably his most weightless effort to date, in that it contains no pulses and rhythms as some of his previous albums have. Its ten impressionist pieces like “Water from The Rain” and “Yesterday’s Sky” are all shimmering cloud-like forms and slow ripples across a cosmic sea, ghostly melodies and sighing chord changes. Highly recommended for fans of the above-mentioned artists as well as those who dig the most tonal examples of Steve Roach’s beatless landscapes.


KEVIN BRAHENY
Liminal Space (Bandcamp)

West Coast ambient pioneer Kevin Braheny has returned with this magnificent album following a long absence from releasing and a decades-long struggle with illness. Now suddenly more prolific with new releases than he ever was, the beatless Liminal Space is the best of the batch, a pitch-perfect example of lush, sophisticated electronic ambient in the Hearts of Space style with impeccable sound design. He doesn’t so much repeat past glories as keeps on telling the story; slow and lyrical melodies, complex beds of noise and tones, and a gloriously spaced-out sound anchored by his gift for complex harmony and exotic microtonal shifts. Tibetan gongs and droplets of Vangelis-like electric piano add further texture. The dark-edged title track is surely one of his greatest-ever pieces: a tentative progression of descending piano chords draped in gorgeous synths, with cries overhead from his trademark Steiner EWI electronic woodwind instrument.


KEVIN KELLER
The Front Porch of Heaven (kevinkeller.com)

It takes a gift to be able to take all of the signatures and textures of mainstream film music – from droning underscores to Hans Zimmer-style orchestral swells to non-Western exotica – and turn them into compelling foreground music, devoid of the need for images, stripped of the functional limitations that movie and TV scores usually have by design. American composer Kevin Keller has done it with The Front Porch of Heaven. His ‘ambient chamber music’ feels deeply cinematic but it’s right there in front of you, not an accompaniment to anything but the space you are in right now. Using all he’s learnt from scoring films, TV and theatre productions in the last two decades, he fashions six powerful piano-led pieces that draw on modern classical minimalism, German synth music, soft rock, grand symphonies and more. The album peaks with the closing track “Solana”, a cycling piano melody that swirls and builds to an ecstatic rush you won’t forget anytime soon.


SANKT OTTEN
Lieder Fuer Geometrische Stunden (Denovali)
SUBHEIM
ΠΟΛΙΣ aka Polis (Denovali)
SAFFRONKEIRA & PAOLO FRESU
In Origine (Denovali)
ROBIN SCHLOCHTERMEIER
Spectral (Denovali)
KILIMANJARO DARKJAZZ ENSEMBLE
I Foresee The Dark Ahead If I Stay (2011, reissue on Denovali)

To my ears, the strength of German-based indie label Denovali Records is that there is no single strength; that’s the point. Anything from minimalist ambient drone to classical chamber music to techno and raucous electronic noise has been the menu since its founding in 2005. While the diversity means successive albums can sound jarring at times, the discovery is fun and these 2020 releases are all gems in their own brilliant way.

The duo Sankt Otten is among the smartest 21st century heirs to Cologne-inflected Krautrock, playing a more lyrical and less raucous take on those timeless sounds than, say, Kreidler, another band comparable in talent if not approach. Lieder Fuer Geometrische Stunden (“Songs for Geometric Lessons”) is another tuneful collection of grooves fashioned with guitar, drums and an arsenal of mostly analog synths. A few beatless tracks sit just right among the others and are worthy of Michael Rother’s or Cluster’s more contemplative moments.

For fans of moody, futuristic, noir-ish electronica I highly recommend new albums by Subheim (Greece) and Saffronkeira (Sardinia). Both are vivid, cinematic trips fusing fractured and syncopated beats, lovely orchestral-like sweeps, random noises and location recordings. Shadowy but melodic, they’re not unlike the kind of territory favoured these days by British artist Woob. The Saffronkeira album features extensive contributions from Sardinian trumpet player Paolo Fresu in freewheeling Miles Davis mode, a striking foil against the synthetic textures and clubby beats.

Finally, two more notable albums on the modern classical and jazz tips respectively. The perfectly-titled Spectral is a haunting, beatless opus from Anglo-German film and soundtrack composer Robin Schlochtermeier blending piano, quasi-orchestral synths and location recordings. Just as cinematic but in a very different way is the Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble album, a reissue from the now-disbanded Dutch seven-piece that collects live performances spanning 2006-2011. It’s a moody, mostly instrumental fusion of rock and jazz that’s complete unlike cool and fussy 70’s jazz fusion. It’s gothic and noir-ish, beautiful in its looseness and grittiness, and quite unlike anything else I’ve heard in this space. The band also has three studio albums that are well worth checking out.


KRUDER & DORFMEISTER
1995 (G-Stone Recordings)

1995 is the full-length Kruder and Dorfmeister debut album that never was, rescued from a box of old DAT tapes 25 years after its creation in a front room in Vienna using a few samplers, keyboards and effects units. I’m happy to report that it sounds, well, exactly like a very good Kruder and Dorfmeister album made in 1995. It’s of its time, to be sure, but it’s aged well. Like all the best ambient dance music of that heady era, technology has not wearied it.

In many ways, it expands naturally on the 4-track G-Stoned EP from two years previous: lots of funk and jazz-laden flavours built on a foundation of hip hop breaks and trippy dub production techniques, spiced with echoes of spacerock, 60’s lounge records and retro soundtrack music ala Lalo Schifrin and Ennio Morricone. “Morning” and “Swallowed The Moon” are both utterly gorgeous with their lush strings and wandering electric piano. Emotionally the music leans towards the light, but not always. “Johnson” might be the most haunting piece in their entire oeuvre, sampling Delta bluesman Robert Johnson against a dark, seductive break and a fantastic Theremin line that whistles like a ghost towards the end. The most unusual thing here is the 13-minute epic “One Break”. Brooding, sparse and patient, the long opening section builds with pan pipes, bird sounds and African drums, eventually settling into a jazzy midtempo break before a final segue into (hello mid 90’s!) ambient drum ‘n’ bass.


LADDER
Always Choose Love (Lemongrass Music)

California-based Matt Gaspari aka Ladder can lay claim to German label Lemongrass Music’s best album of 2020 with Always Choose Love. Just like Moscow-based Catpilot did on the same label’s 2018 stunner Homecoming (which almost nobody heard, goddammit) Ladder shows a fantastic gift for extracting 25-plus years of dance music DNA and shaping an album of intelligent, melodic chillout grounded in a wide variety of breaks and beats. Cuts like “Today” and “You Are” juxtapose oddly syncopated drum breaks with sweet humming basslines and ethereal, uplifting chord progressions. The gorgeous rolling melody of “I Love The Rain” is pure pastoral romance, and the soaring midtempo “Home” with it’s surprising disco bassline is a first rate piece of Balearic bliss. Also, some of the string arrangements here are worthy of chillout masters Tom Middleton and Bonobo. Always Choose Love proves the lounge tip of ambient dance music is alive and more than well in 2020; you just have to dig a bit.


MANCHURIA
Shades EP (Marsiglia Records)

The fabulous debut release from young Italian trio Manchuria blends grainy electronica with Krautrock-style keyboard jamming and noisy shoegaze rock crescendos. The roughly layered keyboards of “Where Im Going” build slowly over a slow groove to a distorted crescendo. “Etangs Noirs”  and “No Mercy” are both dark, chunky trip hop grooves coated with swelling organs, murky guitars, analog synths and radio chatter. This is atmospheric stuff, imperfect and elemental, the sound of a talented band finding its wobbly way to greatness.


MATHIEU KARSENTI
Downstream Blue (Slowcraft)

British experimental musician James Murray’s excellently-named Slowcraft label was initially created for his own work, but has branched out in recent years to include others. 2020 saw seven new albums in a new series called Lifelines that offers “vital and consoling works” in the spaces between modern classical, post rock and environmental noise. Downstream Blue by film composer Mathieu Karsenti is my favourite of the bunch, a mini-album just 21 minutes long. All four tracks make effective use of white noise and lo-fi location recordings as an ever-present background, evoking the mysterious air of blurry memories. “Further” gently glows with its lovely, sad strings against a subtle backdrop of rumbles and hiss. The high point is the haunting “Loosen” with guitar and swirling strings grounded by a recurring cello motif that sounds like a voice humming a sad lament.


MERRIN KARRAS
Northwest Passage (A Strangely Isolated Place)
Silent Planet (A Strangely Isolated Place)

While club-orientated music on the techno and house tips is probably what Irishman Brendan Gregoriy is better known for, his recently birthed ambient alias Merrin Karras doesn’t sound like a side project. These uniformly excellent albums on US label A Strangely Isolated Place – his 2nd and 3rd respectively – chart a drumless universe full of colour and light, seductive shadows and creeping drama. He composes with the assurance of ambient synth masters of yore like Klaus Schulze, Pete Namlook and Tangerine Dream, coupled with the dance music production smarts he’s honed over the last two decades. Northwest Passage contains 8 pieces of moody, landscaped electronica spanning eerie, expansive drones (“He Became Something Else”) to awe-inspiring sequenced grooves (“Crevasse”). Silent Planet has just one 40-minute track but many moods, a brilliantly developed thematic piece with several utterly ravishing sequences of chiming beauty and bleepy wonder.


MICK CHILLAGE
Mirrors (Neotantra)

The Dublin-based Mick Chillage – who is also one half of electronica duo Autumn of Communion – swings back to beatless on his solo album Mirrors, a collection of mostly harmonic electronic pieces that are finely sculptured and deeply felt, painted on a fairly minimalist canvas. The haunting “Digitalis Solaris” is like an interlude from the score to one of the more introspective Japanese sci-fi anime. His love of early ambient techno and IDM pads is evident on “Early Rise”, which echoes the quietest of Aphex Twin’s early works with its slow motion harmonies and a striking Zen-like stillness. Two other, longer pieces “Torn” and “Promise of Stars” begin in a similar style but take on more epic proportions, building and layering long arcs of organ-like synths and lush choral textures. As an introduction to the deeper side of Mick’s work, Mirrors will do very nicely, especially if paired with his landscaped masterpiece Saudade (2014).


NIGHT SEA
Still (Silent Season)

Canada’s Silent Season label puts out some of the most forward-thinking dub-ambient-techno concoctions around. Still is another fine example, the debut long-player from Americans David Grunzweig & Johan Ismael aka Night Sea. It’s lush and haunting dub techno with steady, muted drum patterns and ghostly drones swimming in a cloudy sonic soup. Like all the best dub techno it’s a sophisticated mix of stasis and change; every piece glides along a predetermined track of just one major or minor chord, but offset with continuing subtle shifts in texture and reverberating fragments of melody. This is completely immersive stuff despite the beats – or perhaps because of them. When the club comes to dub, strange and trippy things happen


REMOTE VISION
The Outer Plateau (Exosphere)
Hypnos EP (Bandcamp)
STARTERRA
Celestial (Exosphere)

While American ambient tech-trance duo Ascendant has been taking a break in the past few years, members Don Taylor and Chris Bryant both released notable ambient electronica in 2020.

Don Tyler has been busy with his Remote Vision alias and the “dark cinematic space” of his new label Exosphere. The Outer Plateau album and Hypnos EP are his strongest solo works to date and ideal gateways to the Exosphere sound. While not actually that dark, compared to Ascendant’s music they have one foot in the more subdued realms environmental and drone music. One look at the fantastical cover art for The Outer Plateau tells you we’re in a landscape not of this Earth, and the music is suggestive of this alien space in ways too intricate and understated to convey in simple words. Not on Exosphere but just as strong is the self-released Hypnos EP which similarly revels in original, melodious textures and truly other-worldly atmospheres.

Meanwhile, under his new Starterra alias, Ascendant’s other member Chris Bryant goes full space tech on Celestial, a masterful exercise in beautiful bleep and epic synth panoramas. Think vintage Berlin-school psychedelic synth music and 90’s ambient techno ala Pete Namlook’s Fax Records. Familiar sounds to be sure, but this is a huge creation full of complex textures and great harmonic layering, and given a glittering 21st century makeover with bang up-to-date production.


ROBERT RICH
Offering to the Morning Fog (Soundscape Productions)

Ambient master Robert Rich, one of the pioneers of the original West Coast ambient scene in the 80’s and 90’s, is now in his fifth decade of recording and releasing music. One of his sonic signatures is an extraordinary liquid quality, and that’s found in abundance on Offering to the Morning Fog, an album I’d place in the ‘beatless tonal’ section of his diverse catalogue. It’s a seamless six-part suite full of cloudy, suspended electronic chords and warm PVC flute melodies that snake around the ether, a sonic bath with a powerful mystical undertow. All up, a worthy companion to early classics like Fissures (1997) and Seven Veils (1998) which offer similarly sensual and gently trippy pleasures.


ROGER ENO & BRIAN ENO
Mixing Colours (Deutsche Grammophon)

With a catalogue going back 40 years, pianist and synthesist Roger Eno has proven to be almost as eclectic as his extraordinary and more famous brother. But his own compositions have always had a more consistent devotion to melody, probably due to his classical training and background. That’s what makes Mixing Colours much more than just easily-sellable collaboration between siblings from the original British art rock scene. As Roger said in a recent interview: “I sent Brian sketches and he ‘coloured them in’ as this is one of his great strengths: that of post-production.” So we get Roger’s hushed and sombre piano and electric piano compositions completed or treated to a greater or lesser extent by Brian. The tracks were passed back and forth between them over many years until they finally coalesced into this beguiling, meditative album where the silences are as powerful as the notes. Expect lots of Harold Budd-like melodies and surreal detours, alongside some uplifting, churchy progressions like “Iris” which reflect Roger’s ongoing love of chamber music.


RONE
Room With A View (Infine)

French electronica artist Rone’s new album is a joyous one, all over place yet entirely coherent. Room With A View is a deft splicing of beats-based electronics and dance music DNA with some strong classical leanings, from Baroque to Philip Glass. His mingling of the two worlds is extraordinarily good: atmospheric and powerful, full of light and shade and abundant with strong instrumental tunes. The title track has grand Baroque chords and arpeggios ala Vivaldi, led by organ but shaped with impressive production that makes it thoroughly 21st century. His arrangement for the harpsichord-led “La Crapaud Dore” displays the same uncanny studio skill. The quieter, beatless moments like “Lucid Dream” and “Solastalgia” have a filmic quality and their own inner drama; I love the way the latter’s ravishing orchestral harmonies weave among disquieting samples of a child’s faltering voice. Some cuts veer away from the classical element altogether while still sounding like they belong here, such “La Marbrerie”, a sad and beautiful elegy that would make Boards of Canada proud. The beats that underpin all this wonder vary in tempo, syncopations and intensity; sometimes they’re filtered, slightly fractured and bit stuttery, like Jon Hopkins might sound without the glitchy overload. The music comes from a commission for a French theatre-dance production, which explains the snatches of conversations, speeches and debates you’ll hear sprinkled across the soundscape. Take from those you will, but I’m here for the music, and it’s glorious.


SAM ROSENTHAL & PROJEKT ARTISTS
Tim, Where Are You Now? (Projekt)

This year marked the centenary of the birth of LSD and DMT guru Timothy Leary (1920-1996). This tribute album celebrates his chemically-fueled flights into expanded consciousness and it’s a multi-coloured wonder, focused on spacey electronic music-of-the-spheres with Eastern drone influences and retro sounds like the Moog and Mellotron. Sam Rosenthal’s long-running alt music label Projekt Records certainly has all the connections to make a tribute like this work; old-school ambient artists like Steve Roach, Erik Wollo, Mark Seelig and Forrest Fang all make contributions alongside Sam himself. There are also guests like film director Alex Cox and Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo who can be heard reading short Leary-penned accounts of memorable trips. This is my kind of Leary tribute; not raucous noise bands or crashing Krautrock but a proper ambient trip, contemplative and deep.


SAPHILEAUM
Samosi (Constellation Tatsu)
Imaginary Treasure Mountain (Nyame)

Samosi a magnificent work of tuneful, luminous, beatless ambient by Georgian composer Andro Gogibedashvili aka Saphileaum. Among seven excellent tracks, the weirdly-titled “Glorified Wiseman In Pantherskin” stands out: a devastatingly sad and beautiful harmonic progression wrapped in misty synthetic bliss. At its considerable best, comparisons between this album and the best of Micheal Stearns’ super-deep and emotional spacemusic are in order. The equally excellent Imaginary Treasure Mountain is kind of the tribal flipside of Samosi. The album has the same kinds of trippy synth pads but this time buoyed by a series of slow and steady polyrhythms.


SLOW DANCING SOCIETY
The Disappearing Collective Vol. 1 (Past Inside The Present)

On The Disappearing Collective Vol. 1 the American composer Drew Sullivan aka Slow Dancing Society moves away from his signature post-rock miniatures in favour of haunting, suspended drones with occasional fragments of piano. The results are frequently sublime. Fans will understand it’s a natural detour for SDS anyway, as the weightless element has always been there in the past, even when guitars and/or drum loops were dominant. The complex textures carried by a sustained minor chord on “A Past Time Intimate Friend” sound like mid 70’s Pink Floyd fed through lo-fi filters. “Blume” is a gorgeous passage of expansive cinematic strings. And the emotional undertow and melancholy so integral to his music is still intact: “What We Knew As Children” is just how the title sounds, achingly sad and loving. The Disappearing Collective is one of many releases from SDS in 2020, probably his most productive year since his recorded debut 15 years ago.


SPIRITUALS
For Those You Love part II (Doumen Records)

While music is just one outlet for American graphic artist, sound designer and composer Tyler Tadlock aka Spirituals, this exceptional EP/mini-album is no casual affair. Using cycling synth phrases, pensive piano figures, rich droning strings and found sounds, his instrumental music is fashioned with a remarkably deft touch. Not a single note or sound is wasted. Tonal and sombre, the album occupies a very personal space somewhere between ambient electronics and modern classical. The full title is For Those You Love Who Are Tormented Or In Pain – part 2 of a series – and it draws on his experiences with a friend’s cancer treatment specifically and the inequalities of American healthcare generally. Emotionally powerful but free of lazy sentiment, this is beautiful darkness with rays of hope.


STEVE GOOD
Nothing Is Ever Created Or Destroyed (Bandcamp)

Fans of ambient dance music might remember an early Steve Good album under his downtempo beats alias Puff Dragon, a singular exotic gem known as Sazanami (2005) which was released on the Tokyo-based Dakini Records. After a long break from releasing, Steve has recently reappeared and started releasing more subtle and beatless fare under his own name. His new album Nothing Is Ever Created Or Destroyed is in the style of his previous two – Between (2018) and Everything’s Inside Everything Else (2019) – and it’s just as mystical and beautiful. Some morphing drones, some progressions, some gentle oscillating throbs and pretty arpeggios, all languid and shimmering. This is trippy nature-inspired ambient, with some 21st century new age trimmings that give it just the right touch of mellow psychedelia. Fans of Ishq, take note.


STEVE ROACH
Tomorrow (Behind The Sky/Projekt)

Fans of e-music pioneer Steve Roach’s more energetic electronica like the excellent Skeleton Keys (2015) and Spiral Revelation (2017) will find plenty to love on Tomorrow. The difference is that, with just a few clever tweaks, he’s subtly re-angled the propulsive sequenced sounds of his analog modular synths from spacey cosmic mandalas to shiny futurist ones. There’s an optimistic lilt to the melodies, creating a less ambivalent mood than the shadow zone he normally plays in. And the lineage from Steve’s sequencer driven work back to classical minimalist composers like Philip Glass seems clearer than ever on the title track and “Optimal Being”, two glittering 20 minute-plus pieces. That is, the idea that repetition is king, so that over time subtle changes have dramatic impact, pulling you deeper into the hypnotic swirl.


TOM MOORE & ARCHIE MOSS
Spectres (tommoorearchiemoss.com)

Englishmen Tom Moore (viola, electronics) and Archie Moss (accordion, electronics) turn folk music on its head and back again on Spectres, one of the most thrillingly original instrumental albums I’ve heard in quite a while. The pair are both steeped in traditional English folk music, but there is something startlingly modern about these 11 short melodic pieces. Some explore classical minimalist ideas, some are structured like epic instrumental club tracks, and a few are shimmering, droning, dark-edged glides through natural or man-made environments. I really can’t say it better than this grab from the release notes: “The distinct pulse and intuition of trad-music haunts their playing as they continue to quietly reconsider English instrumental music, listening and responding to the world around them as much as their musical ancestors.” Perfect.


TRANSLIPPERS
Transparency (Cosmicleaf)

Balearic chillout fans take note: this is music of the sun done right – by a guy from Saint Petersburg, Russia. Multi-instrumentalist Arthur Mustafin aka Translippers has appeared on these pages before, with his album Cycling To The Sun named one of AMG’s Best Albums of 2018. Transparency captures again all the strengths that made that album special: his natural musicianship (especially the electric guitar), a deep harmonic sense and outstanding panoramic production skills. Most of these tracks sing with his love of big, sweet, dubby basslines, whether it’s the languid breaks of “Mermaid Tango” or the warm 4/4 dub techno of “Brilliance”. Flashes of the Caribbean and Africa add further spice, and there’s even an impressive synthetic drone piece “Highland Tune” accompanied by haunting shakuhachi flute.


VARIOUS ARTISTS
Ambient Layers (7K)
String Layers (7K)
Vector Fields Vol. 1 (Music Company)
Sustain Series vol. 1 (Ambientologist)
Pop Ambient 2021 (Kompakt)
Velvet Desert Music vol. 2 (Kompakt)
Maui Chill vol. 2 (Waveform)
Portals (Behind The Sky Music)

Berlin’s long-running dance/lounge/electronica label K7 recently launched its 7K imprint for modern classical sounds, and 2020 saw the second and third installments of its excellent Layers series with a focus on new artists. String Layers is refreshingly raw, featuring little or none of the electronics and post-production treatments so commonly heard in modern classical. It’s still contemporary composition, but the pre-20th century sources shine through more clearly, such as the strange and complex harmonies that echo the quieter examples of post-Classical string quartet and concerto music; think Rachmaninoff, Shotakovich and Elgar. Ambient Layers on the other hand is more eclectic and overtly modern, a rich collection of electro-acoustic ambient with a cinematic feel and some strong classical leanings. You’ll see a few familiar names – Adam Wilzie from Winged Victory For The Sullen, for example – alongside a host of unfamiliar ones.

For deep ambient sounds less grounded in any particular genre, consider these three gems. Vector Fields Vol. 1 comes from Melbourne, Australia and collects new music from all-local artists. It covers a lot of territory – pretty wordless vocal drones, dreamy lo-fi loops, moody post-rock and fractured ambient techno – something which I’ve found Oz compilations are especially good at. Sustain Series Vol. 1 from Dutch label Ambientologist is the fruits of a novel little idea around recycling where the label asked artists to dig up tracks they couldn’t finish and give them to someone else to complete. The results are diverse and fresh, from graceful pastoral melodies to darkish, landscaped drones. Thirdly,  Pop Ambient 2021 from German label Kompakt is one of the best I’ve heard in Wolfgang Voigt’s series of annual new music comps. It’s been running for 21 years now. How’s that for staying power? The music has nearly always been beatless and tonal but, beyond those qualities, it’s trajectory year on year has been harder to pin down. Compared to early volumes, I do hear a bit less cycling machine music and a bit more lush classical and post-rock sounds. Whatever, this one is very fine indeed, with 13 new tracks from newcomers and Kompakt regulars. Quick sample: Morgen Wurde’s ravishing, wind-blown strings; Fresco & Pfeiffer’s intoxicating slow-motion techno shuffle; and Seventh World’s glistening, glittering hymn to the sunrise.

For atmospheric beats and grooves, my compilation picks for 2020 are both from long-established labels.

Kompakt delivers again on Velvet Desert Music Vol. 2 as German musician/producer/selector Jörg Burger serves up warm, groovy, atmospheric electronica of startling freshness. The exclusive and mostly instrumental tracks by artists from France, England, Mexico and Germany – including Jörg himself – were commissioned with a very particular vision in mind, articulated in the album notes as “what happens when you extract the essence from genres as diverse as spaghetti Western soundtracks, moody lamp-lit pop, downtempo, Krautrock, minimalism, classic ‘60s psychedelia, and more, and let their scents intermingle”. It’s one of the most perfectly realised comps of chilled electronica on the lounge tip I’ve heard anywhere in the past two decades. Maui Chill vol. 2 is electronica too, but more on the exotic dub and world fusion tips, coming as it does from ambient dub champion Waveform Records which has been with us since 1994. Releases from the label have been fewer in recent years, but owner Forest’s taste is as discriminating as ever and the album is awash in lush Eastern sounds, techy grooves and dreamy, bleepy brilliance. This is the sound of ambient dance music as some of us like to remember it: uplifting, psychedelic and vital.

Finally, if retro Berlin-school synth music is your thing, then you might think you’ve died and gone to Saturn when you hear Portals, a 70’s cosmic synth extravaganza conceived by American electronica artist Bluetech for his label Behind The Sky Music. Moog, Mellotron, ARP, Prophet, Serge and an arsenal of other analog, modular and early polyphonic synths feature, ably wielded by a cast that includes e-music masters like Steve Roach and Ian Boddy alongside a bunch of more recently established artists who also worship The Great Kosmische Musik. This is melodic and full-blooded psychedelic synth music, 70’s sci-fi retro to the core, but also with a few nods to electronic dance music’s rise a decade later, like the acid purr of the Roland 303 on James Bernard’s “Embrace”.


VIRGO
Landform Code (1998, reissued on Fantasy Enhancing)

Trust Lee Norris to unearth and reissue on his label a lost ambient techno gem like this one. He was there back in the 90’s, after all, making his own music as Metamatics. The magnificent Landform Code by Japanese artist Virgo fits right in with the early British techno sound: the atmospheric, cerebral, Detroit-inspired bleepy IDM (intelligent dance music) of labels like Warp Records and artists like The 7th Plain, Speedy J, Beaumont Hannant and Black Dog. It’s kinetic, spacious and highly melodic. The otherworldly feel and sci-fi themes show a strong Detroit lineage, and the music moves the mind as much as the body despite some galloping tempos. Although the album came out in 1998, several years after mainstream interest had already caused the IDM bubble to burst, I’ll restate what the few souls who knew about Landform Code have been saying for years: it really is up there with the classics.


WOOB
Suite 59201/Lost Metropolis (Bigamoebasounds)
Hypersleep 10 (Bigamoebasounds)

Cyberpunk and dystopian science fiction loom large in much of the recent work of British composer Paul Frankland aka Woob. At the quiet end of the spectrum stands the fictional Lost Metropolis Hotel, the thematic core of his album Suite 59201, which I should note has since been deleted, partly reworked and then released again as Lost Metropolis. Either one is fine. The album draws deep from the cyberpunk corner of sci-fi; think Blade Runner, Neuromancer, the Ghost In The Shell animes. Ever the frustrated film student turned musician, Woob imagines a decaying above-below ground building in some noir-ish dystopia where the guests have to fend for themselves. Ridley Scott’s 1982 film in particular – Vangelis’ synth sounds, the spectral sound design, the delicious attention to visual detail – is ingrained in the architecture here. The music is brooding, dark and lush. It does what Woob does best: world building that’s detailed and visceral, yet with plenty left to your imagination. “The Great Hall” is a case in point with its massive spacey chords, icy strings and a throbbing bass underlay. Insert own scene here.

Quite different to his sci-fi noir material is Hypersleep 10, a new compilation of signature Woob moments released late in 2019 to celebrate a decade since the Woob reboot. Unusually, however, the tracks are mostly in remixed, limited or alternative forms, plus there’s a surreal, pitch-wobbling rework of his ambient dub classic “Estarlay” from 1994 (originally made under his Journeyman alias). The album hangs together surprisingly well given its disparate sources, and it’s actually an excellent entry point into latter-day ambient Woob if you’re not familiar with his work since the reboot.


WORRIEDABOUTSATAN
Time Lapse (n5MD)

Once a duo and now the solo project of British musician Gavin Miller, Worriedaboutsatan albums have always seemed to be about fusing moody rock sounds with the synthetic DNA of electronic dance music. On that count alone, the atmospheric and sometimes melancholic Time Lapse is a triumph. His simple, exploratory electric guitar figures shimmer with just the right amount of echo and reverb, not unlike David Gilmour’s moody cosmic noodling on stage during pre-Dark Side era Pink Floyd. On the epic, single-chord tracks like “Twin” and “A Lost History” this sound coalesces brilliantly with the bleeps, buzzes and slow, rumbling drum loops, sounding like the most natural combination in the world. I also highly recommend Gavin’s 2018 solo album Shimmer, a short 6-part suite of post-rock ambient with somewhat more upfront guitar parts.


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