Reviewed by Mike G, 21 November 2018
Reviews Index: Best New Albums
ALAN BROWN – Composure (Bandcamp)
ALECSI – 033186 (Bandcamp/Hotham Sound)
AXEL RIGAUD – Transformation (n5MD)
AMBIDEXTROUS – Echoes Of Science (Fantasy Enhancing)
ASTRAL HARMONIES – Peach Blossom Spring (Moonswing)
ATMOSPHERE FACTORY – Sketches/Yurikamone/Liquid Crystals (Dakini)
BABY GRAND – And Dream Of (Bandcamp)
BRIAN ENO – Music For Installations (Opal)
BRUNO SANFILIPPO – Unity (Dronarivm)
CATPILOT – Homecoming (Lemongrass)
CORRADO SAIJA – Txalaparta (Lemongrass)
DR. DEEP HOUSE – Peace Forever (Sine Music)
ENDURANCE – Shade Terrarium (Constellation Tatsu)
EUGENEKHA – Three Months (Pantheon)
FIONA JOY – Story of Ghosts (Blue Coast Records)
GOLD LOUNGE – Floating (Sine Music)
GREEN KINGDOM – Seen and Unseen (Sound in Silence)
HALFTRIBE – For The Summer Or Forever (Dronarivm)
I-ONE – Singularity (Liquid Sound Design)
JEFF GREINKE – Before Sunrise (Spotted Peccary)
KALPATARU TREE – Rhythmic Fractals of Earth’s Imagination (Bandcamp)
KAYA PROJECT – Up from the Dust (Bandcamp)
KAYA PROJECT – The Dust Remixes (Bandcamp)
KENJI KIHARA – Scenes of Scapes (Inner Islands)
KUBA – Animalia (Liquid Sound Design)
LEMMER & PABST – Meeresleuchten ep (Sine Music)
LESS BELLS – Solifuge (Kranky)
LINGUA LUSTRA – Portal (Carpe Sonum)
LINGUA LUSTRA – Winged Heart (Silent Records)
MACIEK DOBROWOLSKI – Ephemera (Bandcamp)
MYSTICAL SUN – Overview Effect (mysticalsun.com)
ONE ARC DEGREE – The Glow Beneath (Synphaera)
PEPPERMOTH – Glimmer Tide (Six Degrees)
PRIMAL CODE – La Via della Seta (Hypnus)
RICHARD LEWIS – Frontenac and York (Louba Rêve Records)
RRUFF – Origen ep (Ossmo Records)
SANKT OTTEN – Zwischen Demut Und Disco (Denovali)
SHUNKAN IDOU – Perspective (Cosmicleaf)
SI MATTHEWS – Across the Ether (Carpe Sonum)
STEPHANIE SANTE – Clear Light (Sante Music)
TANGENT – Approaching Complexity (n5MD)
TAYLOR DEUPREE – Fallen (12k)
THE HEART IS AWAKE – Echosphere (Six Degrees)
TOM MIDDLETON – Sleep Better (Universal)
TRANSLIPPERS – Cycling To The Sun (Cosmicleaf)
20 HOURS AFTER DAWN – Sun Will Crackle (I Low You Records)
VARIOUS – Illuminations II (Dronarivm)
VARIOUS – Intervals (Moderna Records)
VARIOUS – Strange-Eyed Constellations 2 (Disco Gecko)
VARIOUS – Zero Gravity (Interchill)
WANDERWELLE – Gathering of the Ancient Spirits (Silent Season)
Reviews Index: Best Reissues & Archive Releases
CARL WEINGARTEN – Living in the Distant Present (Azure Vista)
CONNECT.OHM – 9980 (Ultimae)
DAVID PARSONS – Atmanaut (Celestial Harmonies)
HIROSHI WATANABE – Tiny Balance 2 soundtrack (Music In The Deep Cosmos)
MICHEL BANABILA – VoizNoiz (Steamin’ Soundworks)
PORYA HATAMI & AROVANE – Kaziwa (n5MD)
STEVE ROACH – Dreamtime Return 30th Anniversary Edition (Projekt)
STEVE ROACH – Return To The Dreamtime (Timeroom Editions)
TANGERINE DREAM – The Pink Years 1970-73 (Cherry Red)
Best New Albums
New Zealander Alan Brown’s second album of meditative piano music from recording sessions at Auckland Town Hall is every bit as exceptional as his first one, Silent Observer from 2015. A few pieces are just the piano alone, but most are treated and arranged with very subtle acoustic sounds and voicings, wispy electronic drones and judicious use of reverb. In a subgenre where it’s hard to sound distinctive, Composure shines brightly, at home in the ambient zone but often sounding quite unlike any of the ambient piano masters such as Budd, Story or Roedelius. Brown has a long musical history and has performed music in almost every style, particularly jazz. It’s as if he has gathered everything he’s learnt on the journey and focused it here, such is the poise of his playing and the deftness with which he adds sounds to the naked piano.
033186 (Bandcamp/Hotham Sound)
The thrill of unearthing and sharing obscure gems like this is one of the reasons I’m still writing about music. Alesci is from Vancouver and his debut album 033186 – named after his birthday – is nature-inspired ambient that’s strikingly original. Instead of simply backgrounding pastoral tones with environmental location sounds, he’s kind of re-imagined how the natural world might sound on a hypersensitive and microscopic level. The resulting electronica is often brilliant, a complete integration of fidgety sounds and tonal synths that’s less abrasive and more soothing than you might expect. When experimental music breaks through like this, when it becomes accessible and musical without losing its originality, it’s kind of humbling to witness. The closest comparison I can think of is the music of Ishq but, honestly, I’ve run out of words.
When jazz meets electronica it’s risky; the precision of e-music and the improvisational basis and elastic tempos of jazz don’t always get on well. Transformation by Frenchman Axel Rigaud is very much an exception. You know it’s special because he makes it all seem so easy. This is no free-form mashup of jazz and machines; he’s clearly thought this out. The beat patterns and time signatures stay pretty much within the metronomic world of electronica, while the sonorous layers of live sax and flute are free to explore and wander among the rhythms. “New Land” and “Dare” are superb examples of groovy jazz-inflected twilight music with moody shifts and quiet interludes. He also makes the eclectic grooves – breaks, drum n bass, techno, dub – sound right at home next to several spaced-out beatless tracks like “Solitude”, a piece not too distant from the quietest moments of Miles Davies’ ambient jazz classic In A Silent Way (1969). This is inspired stuff, realised with impeccable craft.
Echoes of Science (Fantasy Enhancing)
Russian artist Nick Zavriev’s latest album under his Ambidextrous moniker is full of soaring, melodic ambient pop-like instrumentals. Echoes Of Science is a fantastically successful marriage of multiple strands: the bleeps and crisp percussive textures if 90’s IDM (that’s intelligent dance music to you), the more wistful and soulful examples of Detroit techno, and the glowing tonalities of 70’s German kosmische musiche. The polished sophistication of his beats makes me wonder if IDM was a bit too ahead of its time in its 90’s heyday, with drum programming tech that sometimes wasn’t up to the level of the creative ideas that shaped it. Now, 20 years later, the production tools are virtually limitless and it’s a quiet thrill to hear them wielded in Zavriev’s gifted hands.
Peach Blossom Spring (Moonswing)
Astral Harmonies is a kind of side project of UK musician Ben Rath who also records experimental ambient under his own name. Peach Blossom Spring marries his electronic experiments with the celestial textures and melodies of early new age, producing a striking 21st century hybrid. He mixes his drones with rapidly moving melodies to great effect, and in particular the tracks that blend organ and harmonium among the synths are profoundly beautiful. The 12-minute “Impermanence” is an epic harmonic progression that slowly builds in intensity and ends somewhere beyond the Milky Way. This album is an authentic slice of new age futurism, so good you’ll forget that genre’s poor cousin relaxation muzak even exists.
Sketches ep (Dakini)
Yurikamome ep (Dakini)
Liquid Crystals ep (Dakini)
You may know Gio Fazio as Mayko and the deep, dubby Eastern-drenched electronica he’s been releasing under that name since the early 90’s. His Atmosphere Factory moniker is more recent and rather different. On these three bright and beautiful e.p’s, which total a full album’s worth of instrumentals, he explores the simple pleasures of classic analogue-style sequencer music. There’s a strong lineage back to classic Berlin-school arpeggiated ambient and Kraftwerk-ish synthpop; check the fantastically punchy remake of Tangerine Dream’s “Love On A Real Train”. What’s different is that his take on the Berlin sound largely eschews the droning layers and focuses heavily on the bleepy interlocking patterns, or “studies in sequential synchronicity” as he puts it. These deliciously hypnotic pieces have a lean, clear, tight sound, and he also shows a sharp pop-like instinct for melody. Beautiful bleep that’s perfect for driving and commuting.
And Dream Of (Club Grand/Bandcamp)
And Dream Of is lush retro lounge and bachelor pad music done with an incredibly deft touch by UK composer Barry Thompson aka Baby Grand and friends. Think bossa nova beats, lazy island grooves, Havana breezes, Euro soundtracks and the ghosts of Les Baxter and Mantovini. Yet, like more recent chillout classics by UK acts like Bent and Kinobe, it’s done with a nod and a wink, and a subtle but unmistakable touch of modern electronica that distinguishes it from its retro inspirations. Texturally it’s perfect; the strings are so insanely sumptuous it blows my mind that Thompson is not conducting a full live orchestra. The airy, wordless female vocals on several tracks are pure sex, especially on the title track, an Ennio Morricone pastiche that could have come straight from one of Italian director Dario Argento’s super stylish 70’s thrillers.
Music For Installations (Opal)
Okay, I recant: not all the ambient that Brian Eno has created for art installations in the last 30 years is limited, functional wallpaper. I just never got to hear the sounds on Music for Installations. It contains over five hours of music, dating mostly from the mid 90’s onward, either never released or only featured on absurdly limited edition CD’s. This is his best ambient album since his Fripp collaboration The Equatorial Stars (2003), the only other Eno ambient release since the 90’s that I rate highly. It’s all classically Eno, and quite cool and clinical in places, yet overall there is more textural and tonal variety, more human warmth and more simple musicality than I’ve heard in Eno’s ambient world for a long time. The best pieces – including “Kazakhstan” “I Dormienti” and all of 4th disc called “Making Space” – are both calming and thoughtful, sprinkled with guitar, piano, voice bytes and other tonal spices not of pure electronic origin. This vague electro-acoustic space is where his most powerful instrumental music has usually come from. What a joy it is to visit it anew.
Active since the 90’s, Bruno Sanfilippo has developed into one of the most gifted and sensitive artists working on the ambient/mod-classical axis. With his new album Unity words like refined, emotional and regal all come to mind. Conceptually it’s all pretty familiar for the subgenre – mostly melodic piano-led pieces, elegantly crafted, sometimes with violin, cello or choral layers. Emotionally, though, the album is as rich and beguiling as anything in the style. Top and tailing the album are two exceptions to his piano-led sound, and very good ones. “Spiral” is a haunting, understated prologue for organ, synths and female choir. The exquisitely beautiful closing piece is a stately, circular progression of synths, cellos, choir, trumpet, piano and harp, ending with a long, looping coda before finally dissolving in a bed of soft bleepy loveliness.
Homecoming (Lemongrass Music)
I love this album to bits. Young multi-instrumentalist Dmitry Yudovaka aka Catpilot is Russian but lived in London for a time where he studied art and sound design before he made this, his debut album. He obviously soaked up the county’s musical history like a sponge and Homecoming is seriously impressive – a tuneful, ecstatic, near-perfect pastiche of different UK ambient dance and electronica styles from the last 25 years, honed with razor sharp production and some fine musicianship. The sunny trip-hop of “However” is dripping with lovely Fender Rhodes piano and electric guitar. “4saken” is another stunner, a melodic blast of densely layered instrumental electropop. This is a pretty left-of-field release for Lemongrass Music, so big kudos to label founders Daniel and Roland Voss for taking a chance and backing something a little different.
Txalaparta (Lemongrass Music)
Never think you have a label’s style pinned and can safely predict what they’ll release in any given year. German label Lemongrass Music has made its name over the last decade with lots of easy-listening chillout of varying appeal, but this year it also released two fine albums in a more progressive vein that deserve recognition. One is by Russia’s Catpilot (see review above), the other is this beauty by Italian musician and producer Corrado Saija. His sonic travels on Txalaparta are extremely wide-ranging – from brooding, beatless tropical environments to cinematic breakbeats, thumping midtempo house and even vocal synthpop – and somehow he binds all this light and shade together with a kind of tribal-island theme. Sometimes that’s obvious, with sounds like Caribbean steels drums and Indonesian marimba, at others times it’s much more subtle. Txalaparta is brave and beautiful thing, a downtempo album that plays by its own rules.
DR. DEEP HOUSE
Peace Forever (Sine Music)
Young German producer/DJ/composer Dr. Deep House has been around for a while now, including a stint studying with the Berlin Mitte Institute for Better Electronic Music. This fine debut album of his instrumentals is surprisingly mature and it’s more eclectic than his moniker might suggest. The filter sweeps, warm tones and simple 4/4 patterns of deep house are certainly there, but so are delicious flavours of trippy progressive house, smooth jazz and multiple strains of Balearic chillout. The midtempo “Approaching IBZ” and especially the languid “Life Finds A Way” are hypnotic, euphoric delights, and there are sonic depths in his production that only become apparent with repeated spins. Peace Forever is an unabashedly summer album with a welcome freshness that elevates it well above the chillout pack.
Shade Terrarium (Constellation Tatsu)
The prolific Joshua Stefane aka Endurance has created one of this years best drone ambient albums in Shade Terrarium, brought to us by California’s quirky and unpredictable Constellation Tatsu label. It’s a mystical, subtle blend of harmonious synth drones and droplets of electric piano, its gossamer tones lightly decorated with field recordings and muffled dialogue samples. The artist calls it “music to heal imaginary persons” and the odd track titles like “Mercurian Umbra” and “Fluminam Ductur” all seem to be derived from Latin. This is outstanding deep listening fare, beatless reveries for armchair travel.
Three Months (Pantheon Records)
This enthralling, trippy excursion in environmental ambient by Russian artist EugeneKha is his personal soundtrack to three months of the Northern summer. The opener “June (Mantra)” is a surreal, dense sequence of buzzing didgeridoo, forest sounds and distant tribal drums. But the undoubted highlight is the 26-minute “August (Three Dreams)” with its haunting drones, vivid location recordings, and an extended hypnotic sequence of tribal drums from under which an organ chord gradually rises to the surface. Unexpectedly, but somehow perfectly, this long piece ends with a breathtakingly lovely acapella vocal, some kind of folk song in a language I don’t recognise [update: it’s in a Slavonic tongue]. Three Months comes from the intriguing Saint Petersburg-based label Pantheon, run by Tim (aka PiedPaper) from the Microphones in the Trees reviews blog.
Story of Ghosts (Blue Coast Records)
If you remember the moody acoustic delights of the best music from pioneering Windham Hill Records and crave piano music of a similar calibre, Fiona Joy’s latest album is for you. Story of Ghosts is a collection of fine dark edged-melodies, and while she’s a technically dexterous player the music is never showy. It’s moody contemporary piano with light and shade and lots of elastic tempos. It’s also pure piano – there’s no added reverb, treatments or reverberations of any kind – and the sound of her 1875 Steinway is fantastically clear. In fact it must be one of the best piano productions I’ve ever heard, recorded with a high-end Direct Stream Digital (DSD) unit by Blue Coast Records’ founder Cookie Marenco. Cookie’s label was founded on an obsession with capturing acoustic sound in the digital age; check out the catalogue if you’re curious for more.
Floating (Sine Music)
I was initially unaware Gold Lounge was actually a person (Italian artist Michele Effe) rather than the name of another generic chill compilation I could live without. Floating is actually a deft, wide-ranging trek across vocal and instrumental downtempo electronica. “Like a Feather” is the best vocal trip hop track I’ve heard in ages: rich and dark and swirling with slightly wobbling synth pads and a big, crunching bottom end. The languid instrumental “Blue Bay” is some kind of Balearic genius, soaring and huge and very beautiful. Then there’s the euphoric “All That We Are”, a midtempo progressive house stormer that condenses what would be a killer 10 minute club track into an even-more concentrated 5 minutes of layering, tension and release. Different again are the semi-vocal numbers “You’re Too Late ” and “Flying High” which both mine the same vein of melodic soul-flavoured lounge that labels like Stereo Deluxe (RIP) used to excel at. These are the best moments on Floating, all peak examples of their respective sub-genres. I heartily recommend.
THE GREEN KINGDOM
Seen and Unseen (Sound In Silence)
Over more than a decade of successive releases, American artist Michael Cottone aka Green Kingdom has honed his love letters to the natural world and the ethereal realms beyond. His new album Seen and Unseen marks him as one of the outstanding talents in the broad subgenre of environmental music, and he’s as distinctive in his own way as fellow travellers like Ishq, Sinepearl, Biosphere or Andrew Heath. Cottone really understands melody; you could fairly call these pieces tunes, albeit expansive and slowly unfolding ones. Sit back and get lost in his multi-coloured reverie of tinkling textures, folksy steel guitar figures, shimmering electric guitars and droning loopy chord sequences. Pastoral perfection, nothing less.
For The Summer Or Forever (Dronarivm)
Say the words ‘summer album’ and I usually think of either sunny pop or downtempo Balearic beats. UK artist Halfribe’s tribute to the season of the sun could not be more different. For The Summer Or Forever is completely beatless and a masterful exercise in cinema of the mind. The album seems to be part deep nostalgia, part environmental music. He cuts up fragments of keyboards, guitar and sundry other instruments with static, hums and decayed sounds to create shimmering, looping melodies. “Balm” is but one outstanding example of his skill in blending music and noise in a way that’s ethereal and warm, rather than cool or harsh. The music is full of crevices and depths that keep me coming back. Another gem from Moscow-based label Dronarivm.
Before Sunrise (Spotted Peccary)
Active since the 80’s, American composer Jeff Greinke remains the musical equivalent of a very gifted impressionist painter. But where once it was often pure electronic soundscapes, recently there’s been a change. The gorgeous and atmospheric Before Sunrise finds him crafting a kind of 21st century chamber music enhanced with subtle electronica. Sometimes it’s obviously composed, like the layered, spinning melodies of “Under Falling Stars”. At other times the players are improvising, and their sounds – piano, cello, viola, winds, brass, and vibraphone – are deconstructed into varying degrees of blur and drone. “Slow Train on an Open Plain” is but one standout example. Before Sunrise is a good deal more spaced-out than the mod classical of its predecessor Scenes From A Train (2013). Rather, it feels like the full flowering of an intriguing new direction.
Rhythmic Fractals of Earth’s Imagination (Bandcamp)
Kalpataru Tree is the one-man band of Oregon-based Curtis Humphrey, and his new album Rhythmic Fractals of Earth’s Imagination shows his mastery of the gentle, elevating groove. Eight intricate yet subtle instrumentals murmur along on lazy breaks and rolling percussive patterns, anchored by melodic dubby basslines and blessed with beautiful rippling electric guitars and quiet arpeggiated synths. Occasional freakout noises and a few wordless female vocal chants echo the mighty Shpongle, but generally the psychedelic dosage here is lighter than a lot of psychill. This is first class ambient beats, an electronic-acoustic hybrid that’s loaded with soul, intelligence and life-affirming vibes.
Up From The Dust (Bandcamp)
The Dust Remixes (Bandcamp)
Under his long-running Kaya Project moniker, UK artist Seb Taylor has shown a special talent for capturing joy in a bottle and sharing it with the world.
His new album Up From The Dust finds Kaya’s brand of downtempo global exotica undiminished, even in a crowded subgenre such as this. Wrapped around his liquid poly-rhythmic grooves you’ll hear Arabic and Celtic-sounding strings and flutes, Indian tablas, jangling ouds, glittering acoustic guitars and more. That sound is a familiar combo, yet there is something magic here. As I’ve said before, I think it comes from his enormous dual talents as both a physical musician and electronic craftsman. With such talent also comes a magnetism that attracts first-rate collaborators, especially his guest vocalists who sing in a variety of exotic tongues and chants, all soul and texture because who cares about actual words (not me).
Collaboration is of course the entire basis of The Dust Remixes, a companion album which turns out to be exactly as wonderful as it sounds. Such rich source material is a gift to remixers and they make the most of it on a tasty menu that includes euphoric breaks (Birds Of Paradise), lush and gnarly strains of dub (Globular, Kalya Scintilla) and thundering midtempo doof (AstroPilot).
Scenes of Scapes (Inner Islands)
As the title suggests, Scenes of Scapes is environmental ambient, mostly impressions of natural places and vistas translated into loopy textures and harmonies. Japanese composer Kenji Kihara’s new album stands out perhaps because, while it’s a visceral experience, it seems so unassuming. This music is not trying to impress, it’s just laid out before us. “Inner Light” with its cloud of expansive synth harmonies is like a slow, warm embrace, utterly and effortlessly beautiful. “Sunny Spot” is one of several pieces which embed samples of wind chimes, gongs or similar resonant objects with exquisitely dreamy drones. The Inner Islands label is making some of the most substantial nature-inspired ambient around, so if you like this then be sure to take a dive into its growing catalogue.
Animalia (Liquid Sound Design)
Singularity (Liquid Sound Design)
Liquid Sound Design (yeah, LSD) is owned by esteemed dub and electronica producer Youth and was resurrected in 2015 after a long hiatus. Interestingly, these two fine albums largely avoid dubby styles, demonstrating both the label’s depth and breadth.
The polished downtempo grooves of Animalia from UK artist Kuba come at you in an unassuming way, but they really reward repeated listens. “Before They Slip Away” is a sparkling slice of exotic midtempo house, with a simple groove providing the backdrop for stuttering guitar licks and bubbling xylophones. Both “Submission” and “Room With A View” are cut from the same cloth as chillout master Abakus at his best, with that same distinctive combo of pop smarts, crisp gleaming surfaces and a subtle lysergic glow.
By contrast, Singularity by I-One (Czech multi-instrumentalist Ivan Jasek) is a one-hour psychedelic tapestry that’s quite unlike any electronica coming out of the psychill universe right now. Nominally it contains 9 tracks, but it’s a soundscape and really needs to be a heard in a single sitting. If you remember The Orb’s surreal epic “A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain” you’ll have some idea of what to expect. It’s beatless but episodic, meshing euphoric glides, cosmic arpeggios and meditative interludes, laced with voice and nature samples. It’s a trip and a half, somehow fresh in 2018 and perfect music for psychonauts.
LEMMER & PABST
Meeresleuchten e.p. (Sine Music)
Last year Thomas Lemmer gave us the sublime Balearic downtempo of his album Ambitronic, a reminder that the dominance of bland cafe muzak hasn’t killed off decent sunset chillout. His 5-track e.p. Meeresleuchten is another gem, one of two collaborations he did this year with fellow German Christoph Sebastian Pabst. On centre stage is the jangling colours of Pabast’s stringed instrument melodies including Chinese ruan guitar, Chinese violin and una chorda (a kind of modified piano), riding on layers of Lemmer’s haunting synths, strings and slow breakbeats. The production is pristine and the emotions euphoric, but within is also mystery and a slightly dark edge. A similar tension is what made Ambitronic so special, and Meeresleuchten delivers again.
The experimental modern classical of Solifuge is the debut album of American multi-instrumentalist Julie Carpenter aka Less Bells and comes to us from the wonderfully unpredictable Kranky label. These eight powerful and trippy droned-based pieces were inspired by her desert home in Joshua Tree, California but it would be misleading to simply call it environmental ambient. Some of it sounds almost liturgical, with multi-layered voicings swimming around the droning synths, cellos and violins. It’s experimental music but still accessible; even the dark and winding bio-horror of “Milwaukee Protocol” plays with dissonance and abstraction without ever spilling over into pure noise. I can’t wait to hear more from this talented artist.
Winged Heart (Silent Records)
Portal (Carpe Sonum)
After his epic double album Essence (2016) raised his profile among fans of spacey progressive ambient, the gifted and versatile Dutchman Albert Borkent aka Lingua Lustra grew more prolific than ever and has released albums on many different labels. Silent Records and Carpe Sonum are where you will his best recent work.
Winged Heart is drone music of sorts, and the best kind, because it doesn’t just sit in eternal stasis but has layering, movement and structure. “Sundaze” draws you into a reverie with a lush haze of rising and falling synths and a slow looping bass motif, mystical and expansive. “Winged Heart” is an unpredictable Berlin-school chugger that gradually dissolves into long spaced-out vocal textures and infinite drones. The two-part “Steamloc to Oblivion” closes the album, a strange piece of panoramic space tech built on a humming, robotic bass loop and wisps of Blade Runner-style melody.
Portal is seven pieces of deep and tonal spacemusic, again mystical and expansive and full of the miniature drama that elevates great drone music above the rest. Those with sharper ears will also realise Borkent has done the hard work of creating is own sounds rather than leaning on MIDI presets “He mines the depths of his soundbanks down to its very circuit joins”, writes Dave from the Carpe Sonum label. “This isn’t music that is content with simply being ethereal – he wishes to conjure wholly new windswept worlds and unmapped terrain.” Amen to that, brother.
Sometimes it’s not originality that matters. Polish composer Maciek Dobrowolski’s new album is easily recognisable as modern classical chamber music, with its focus on compositions for a string quartet, and added fragments of electronic beats and dark noirish synth sounds and effects. But in terms of writing and execution, Ephemera is outstanding. The ten pieces are based on a short, sad poem by W.B. Yeats about a couple’s waning love. The quietly heart-wrenching opener “A Thousand Sorrows Came As One”, with its ebb and flow of swelling strings, is the equal of anything by Max Richter or Winged Victory For The Sullen. The lush “Breathe” has a slowly rising melody that’s devastatingly lovely, while the loopy repetitions of “Continual Farewell” echo Philip Glass in the best possible way.
Overview Effect (mysticalsun.com)
San Francisco’s Richard Plom aka Mystical Sun sounds like a one-man synth army on Overview Effect, an album that marks nearly 25 years of his distinctive psychedelic ambient. This one gives us eight new pieces of sophisticated, dense, cosmic downtempo electronica with some thudding grooves and proggy rock smarts. There’s an earthy and slightly grungy edge to the sound that vintage analogue synth fans will revel in. Some of the syncopations are also madly unpredictable. The swelling epic “Overview Effect Two” has a reverberating one-two clap that initially sounds way out of sync, while he slowly fills in the missing pieces of the pattern until, suddenly, it all makes sense. As a self-published artist these days he’s clearly enjoying himself, free of any record label resistance or politics, and I’m more than happy to jump on for the ride.
ONE ARC DEGREE
The Glow Beneath (Synphaera)
Third album, third masterwork. As they’ve done so impressively with each successive album, Greek electronica duo One Arc Degree take a different stylistic focus on their latest long player. This time the grounding is very much in the 4/4 pulses of dub techno. Astonishingly, they’ve brought a whole new level of musicality to this subgenre without crowding out the oceanic ‘dubmarine’ reverberations so fundamental to the style. The Glow Beneath is an absolute must for lovers of dance music-savvy chillout, in fact anyone who loves ambient beats with heart and brains. Now, please excuse me while I go and take another dive in this magnificent dubalicious ocean of tech.
Glimmer Tide (Eccodek/Six Degrees)
Fans of mod classical, ambient jazz, and the art rock sensibilities of Jon Hassell and Harold Budd will all find much to love on this brilliant second album by Peppermoth, a loose assemblage of players revolving around Canadian multi-instrumentalist Andrew McPherson. Instruments like piano, trumpet and upright bass are meshed with analog synths and weird tape manipulations on 11 diverse pieces, from chamber music to post-rock reveries to stark soundscapes. I suppose it’s experimental music but it’s also melodic, proving the two are not mutually exclusive. What’s really striking about Glimmer Tide is how spare the sound is. Instead of soaking the spaces in between with reverb to create size and scale, the space remains largely empty, allowing every instrument and sound its own distinct place, creating a beautiful intimacy.
La Via della Seta (Hypnus)
Sweden’s Hypnus Records has piqued my interest over the last few years with some quality ambient electronica and deep 4/4 techno by names like Luigi Tozzi and BLNDR. Yet I also wondered if the best from the label was still to come. Well behold, for the extraordinary debut album of Italian duo Primal Code has landed. The title translates as “Silk Road” and some of the harmonies are clearly Eastern, but this is not exotic dub or psychill, the two strains of electronica that most commonly draw on Eastern flavors. For one thing, there are almost no arpeggios; this is techno, crafted with a leaner and more machine-like sound. In many ways the duo’s combo of lush, dreamy synthetic tones and cool, finely honed beats belongs to a rare vein of techno-mystical brilliance defined by Speedy J’s classics Ginger (1993) and Gspot (1995). Yes, La Via della Seta is that good, and my favourite tech release of 2018.
Frontenac and York (Louba Rêve Records)
Frontenac and York is an album that kept me warm during a particularly cool Southern winter this year. These intelligent, heartfelt and soulful instrumentals by Englishmen Richard Lewis sit on the mod classical and jazz axis, evoking an evocative period from his childhood in the late 1970’s. The nine pieces were developed from piano improvisations, sometimes built upon with orchestral sweeps, sweet flutes, staccato violins and location recordings. The music spans melancholic impressionism to bright, song-like structures, rich in images of postcard seasides, natural landscapes and the fuzzy warm glow of distant memories. This is a first-class example of eclectic chamber music, nostalgic and intimate yet too enlightened to be sentimental.
Origen e.p. (Ossmo Records)
A brilliant, original meeting of ambient techno and environmental ambient from Mexico. I can tell you that RRUFF is an audio-visual artist based in the city of Guadalajara, but beyond that that I don’t know much about him. His five-track Origen e.p. fuses fragmented loops, broken beats and groaning machines with urban and natural environmental samples and some really gorgeous drones. On “Velocidad” he adds some murmuring electric guitar. “Origen” and “Wi Fi” manage to juxtapose jittery beats with dreamy extended synth beds in a completely compelling way, when so many similar mashups just sound cold. As far as I can tell this his debut release, I hope there’ll be more.
Zwischen Demut Und Disco (Denovali)
This is glorious 21st century Krautrock from a duo with one eye on the past and the other on sounds to come. Sankt Otten has been around for nearly two decades now and Zwischen Demut Und Disco sounds very much of the Cologne school, making it distinct from the cosmic psychedelia of the Berlin school pioneers. The jokey title translates as “Between Humility and Disco” which in a way captures the album’s sonic range, from gliding synthetic ambience to simple 4/4 Germanic grooves, from lush pastoral romance to stark, cool structures. Vintage Krautrock fans will easily recognise some of the sonic signatures here – the dreamy-happy analogue synths of Harmonia, the metronomic drums of Neu and the clean spiralling tones of Kraftwerk. But there’s much freshness, too, like their brilliant meshing of bleepy tones and guitar-ish prog rock on “De Kaffee Spricht Zu Mir”. A gem from Germany’s always-interesting Denovali Records.
This is a phenomenal debut album from new Greek-based duo Shunkan Idou. The electronica of Perspective sits comfortably enough under the Cosmicleaf label’s broad banner of eclectic downtempo and melodic psychill, but it’s also something distinctive and new. Much of the album sits in a unique space somewhere between IDM techno, space ambient and the sadder, more sombre corners of beatless film music. It hovers on the edges of darkness without dousing you in dissonance, its shadowy moods finely balanced by the harmonic beauty of its bleeps and washes. I love the restraint of the album’s first 30 minutes, the tendency towards spare arrangements, the emotional power that comes from what’s left unsaid. Kudos to Nick at Cosmicleaf for the discovery; every year he broadens the label’s repertoire with a few surprises and this one is a keeper.
Across the Ether (Carpe Sonum)
Back out into the cosmos we go with Si Matthews’ glorious third album of exquisitely spaced-out electronica, on which he visits nearly every point on the ambient techno star map. Emotionally the music can be dark, serene, dramatic or quietly awe-inspiring. Melody is the constant here, sometimes embedded deep in drones, other times flying high of over clattering IDM-style percussion, but it’s always there. Although he’s still inspired by the great, late Pete Namlook at his 90’s peak, Matthews’ ambient dance music both celebrates and escapes its influences; he’s developed signature sounds that would stand out among any random selection of tracks in the subgenre. Essential if you’re already deep space tech fan, and also an ideal gateway if you’ve been testing the waters but would probably find Jeff Mills’ uncompromising cosmic wigouts a bit too much.
Clear Light (Sante Music)
Clear Light suggests California’s Stephanie Sante has absorbed the best of both progressive 70’s electronica and authentic new age music to create a 21st century reinvention with her own very personal imprint. It’s pure keyboard and synth music full of colour, light and shade. Her varied pieces are fully composed, yet the music has a free-floating quality that still reverberates with the psychedelia of its lineage. The slow Berlin-school chug of “Deep Impression” shows her masterful handling of the form, while the beatless “The Color Of Coral” literally glows with a warm otherworldly ambience. I also detect subtle touches of ambient dance music and downtempo, styles in which she has apparently worked extensively in recent years. Clear Light is her return to new age, and it’s new age done right – smart, tuneful and mysterious music to engage the soul, not numb the senses.
Approaching Complexity (n5MD)
This is my first encounter with Dutch duo Tangent (Ralph van Reijendam and Robbert Kok) and I’m super impressed. Approaching Complexity is a masterful album of tinkling, spiralling, murmuring piano cradled by lean electronic sculpting and some skittering ambient tech beats. Essentially it’s nine variations on a single melodic theme and one of the most cohesive album statements I’ve heard in a quite a while. The deep sense of quiet is hard to describe. The clicks and percussive elements rarely lock down into a full-blooded groove, but rather skim across surfaces and tickle the synapses. Original, beautiful and mysterious.
My first taste of New Yorker Taylor Deupree’s music was the haunting, melodic ambient techno he made in the 90’s for Instinct Records under the monikers SETI and Human Mesh Dance. The experimental output of his own 12k label since that time could not be more different, yet I find Fallen to be as compelling as anything I’ve heard from this artist. The delicate, decomposed piano pieces sit against a background of gentle noise, all with blurry edges, like gazing through slightly opaque glass. Nostalgia, loss, awe and gentle sadness all come to mind. This is contemplative music in the best possible sense.
THE HEART IS AWAKE
Ecosphere (Six Degrees)
Ecosphere is gorgeous old-school drone-based exotica, steeped in the scared music and modes of the Indian subcontinent, played by multi-instrumentalist and harmonic throat singer Shingetsu Billy White aka The Heart Is Awake. His sounds include bowls, droning tanpura, harmonium, flutes, acoustic guitar, synths and light percussion, often accompanied by the otherworldly buzz of his Tibetan-style overtone singing. The incense-soaked sound is a familiar one in the ambient zone – perhaps too familiar for some – but the standard of execution and White’s exceptional poise make Ecosphere special. A must for fans of deep Eastern voyagers like David Parsons, David Hykes and early Deuter.
Sleep Better (Universal)
Although he’s usually associated with club music, versatile DJ/composer/producer Tom Middleton has also created some bonafide classics of ambient and downtempo electronica over the last 25 years. Notably, three albums with Global Communication and his stellar solo outing Lifetracks (2007). He recently become a sleep science coach and his new double-length deep ambient opus Sleep Better is – conceptually at least – a surprising and fascinating departure into therapy music. Now, ‘relaxation music’ as a genre is usually utterly barren creatively, yet I find this album an exception that works on both musical and functional levels. The beatless, glacially morphing cycles of sound are certainly conducive to relaxation and heavy eyelids, while texturally and harmonically it’s often seductively spacey and lush. The piano-led progression of “Lake” and “Awakening” is hands down one of the prettiest things he’s ever done. Whether it’s bed time or just chill time, Sleep Better is the business.
Cycling To The Sun (Cosmicleaf)
Reggae’s instrumental cousin dub is surely the most elastic and flexible kind of downtempo, a launching pad for all kinds of wonder. Russian artist Arthur Mustafin aka Translippers offers another fresh take on the style with Cycling To The Sun. He wrote and played in rock and jazz bands for three decades before his recent shift into dubby Balearic slowbeats, which I think is partly why this is such a standout. He has a quite incredible ear, building upon dub’s warm basslines and lazy beats in a very personal way. It’s all good, but “Wind and Sand” is the track where his minimal approach to placement of sounds shines brightest. The high pings of a piano, a brief guitar phrase, a short Arabic vocal sample; they all seem to belong, yet the effect is surprise and freshness. His tunes glitter like the sun on the sea, sharp and pristine and full of space.
20 HOURS AFTER DAWN
Sun Will Crackle (I Low You Records)
More dreamlike, deliciously imperfect ambience from my favourite Japanese label I Low You Records. Once again the artist is a cypher. Who is 20 Hours After Dawn? The mystery is strong with this one. Sun Will Crackle is a rare thing: experimental music with soul. The slow final track – and the only one with a beat – eerily echoes Boards Of Canada. The rest of the album is harder to pin down, a shimmering kaleidoscope of lo-fi beauty that’s rather like the music of Grant/Oliver/Dave Summer, a family of artists from the same label whose albums I’ve been raving about, and who only recently I discovered is actually a single person: label owner Emiliano Ruggiero. Cheeky!
Illuminations II (Dronarivm)
This exclusive, often sublime 30-track collection of new ambient is one of most accessible releases I’ve heard from Moscow-based label Dronarivm. Style-wise it’s a kaleidoscope of drone, modern classical, post-rock, spacemusic and Eno-eque ambience. It’s also a charity album and insanely good value for money. Highly recommended, and you can hear some tracks from this in my 40th anniversary Brian Eno tribute mix New Music For Airports.
Intervals (Moderna Records)
Quebec’s mod classical label Moderna Records struck just the right tone this year for International Piano Day with these eight exclusive tracks from its own artists as well as several guests. All the pieces on Intervals are contemplative and have that slightly experimental bent that distinguishes Moderna’s releases, such as the scratchy sounds of prepared piano. It’s sometimes melancholy but always warm, bathed in filtered sunlight and shimmering reflections. Ed Carlsen’s “Bliss” is a standout here, a series of spine-tingling keyboard harmonies with lovely cello accompaniment.
Strange-Eyed Constellations 2 (Disco Gecko Recordings)
Toby Marks aka Banco De Gaia has created and nurtured some seriously good ambient adventures for Strange-Eyed Constellations 2, the latest compilation from his label and for my money the finest one yet. The contributions are by himself, some label-mates like Andrew Heath and Simon Power, and newbies who were invited to the project. Although the 12 tracks are all ambient of one kind or another, the album’s depth and open-ended diversity – psychedelic drone, spacemusic, mod classical, surreal environmental, avant-garde musique concrete – reminds me of the most accessible comps released by the iconic Emit Records (1994-2006). That’s not a comparison I make lightly, but when an album can include eight minutes of largely non-musical aural montage and keep me listening, there’s something special happening.
Zero Gravity (Interchill)
Founded in 1994, Canadian-based Interchill Records is one of the original ambient dance labels, born of the chillout rooms and stages that were part of the early rave and dance party scenes. While It hasn’t released much in the last 3 years, the label’s open-ended philosophy remains its guiding principle on Zero Gravity. The sprawling double-length album visits most points on the downtempo map and it’s studded with gems. There’s exquisite beatless psyambient from Ishq and Sinepearl, luscious world fusion from Kaya Project and Adham Shaikh, booming dub from Az-Ra and Krusseldorf. Even old-school ambient legend Laraaji makes an appearance playing his glittering zither. If you like this comp then you’ll also want to spend some time exploring Interchill’s deep catalogue.
Gathering of the Ancient Spirits (Silent Season)
Dutch duo Wanderwelle has fashioned a vivid Polynesian travelogue in the guise of gentle tropical techno, inspired by the 19th century travels of artist Paul Gauguin through French Polynesia and the cultures and tribal rituals he encountered. Gathering of the Ancient Spirits revels in the hypnotic spell of minimalist-style repetition, especially using the murmuring, bubbling tones of marimbas and bamboo slit drums. Sampled whistles and flutes also feature among the electronic architecture. I suppose you could call it tribal ambient, yet it’s very different to the darkish desert noir of Steve Roach or Byron Metcalf. Wandwelle’s album is full of light, a trippy but soothing psychotropic delight that you’ll find yourself pulled back into again and again.
Best Reissues & Archival Releases
Living In The Distant Present (1985, reissue by Azure Vista Records)
A remarkable lost gem from the early days of new age music by an American guitarist/synthesist who is still recording today. Like the forward-thinking new age releases of Texan composer JD Emmanuel from the same period, Carl Weingarten’s early albums were almost entirely forgotten until their recent rediscovery by a new generation of fans. Living In The Distant Present brilliantly straddles two distinct worlds: art rock’s experimental ambient guitar and new age’s sonorous tone colour music. His beatless creations benefit from the spare arrangements, and his processed electric guitar sound – sometimes sounding like a violin or Minimoog – undeniably bears a resemblance to Robert Fripp’s early tape loop experiments with Brian Eno. The crucial difference is the new age element. With Weingarten’s approach to using synths you’ll hear none of Fripp’s academic coolness. This is a must for vintage new age fans and a striking listen for the curious.
9980 (remastered, Ultimae Records)
Not that it really needs remastering, but Ultimae Records’ CD reissue of this downtempo classic from 2012 is an artfully packaged affair with striking new black and white photography. And, of course there’s the music, resurfacing on the cosmic sea five years later, hopefully to be discovered by a new wave of travellers. 9980 remains Connect.Ohm’s only album to date, an inspired collaboration between France’s melodic space-tech master Alex Scheffer (aka Cell) and Japanese composer Hidetoshi Koizumi. “Snow Park” is still a stunner, gliding with all the mass of a deep space cruiser, nudged along with gentle synth arpeggios and simple piano phases, while Koizumi’s subtle textural quirks – buzzes, bytes, tiny glitches – are sprinkled over its surface with great restraint. Most of the remaining tracks explore texture and beats in a similar style, followed by a few beatless pieces to close the album. Scheffer is probably the dominant voice here and the album remains some of the best ambient he’s ever put his name to. It’s also textbook Ultimae: panoramic, mysterious and skillfully engineered.
Atmanaut (2007, archival release by Celestial Harmonies)
An uncommonly gifted Westerner mining deep Eastern sounds since the 1980’s, New Zealander David Parsons’ latest album arrives with absolutely zero promotion. Why? Two possible reasons. One, pioneering label Celestial Harmonies turned its back on ambient some years ago. Two, Parsons himself – old-school to the end, bless him – maintains no internet presence whatsoever. Yet despite all this curious indifference the double-length Atmanuat is a fine thing. While it’s not actually stated anywhere, this is an archival release dating from the late 2000’s which was never issued for reasons unclear. The music favours slow rhythms and percussive grooves, with layers of beautiful arpeggios rising and falling around a single chord. In that respect it sometimes resembles his 90’s classic Yatra (1994) with its electro-acoustic takes on Indian, Tibetan and Arabic folk melodies. He still leaves some room for the rich, awe-inspiring, dark-edged synth and vocal drones he’s best known for; it’s just that on this occasion those drones usually hover in the middle or background, rather than taking centre stage in the style of his classic long, beatless epics.
Tiny Balance 2 ep (2005, archival release by Music In The Deep Cosmos)
My first taste of Hiroshi Watanabe was the tuneful and soulful techno of his storming album Multiverse (2016) on Derrick May’s Transmat Records, simultaneously solid dancefloor fuel and perfect chillout for headphones. This early and obscure gem from 2005 is straight-up ambient, though it shows a similar respect for melody and uplifting harmonies. It contains previously unreleased music for a DVD project about childhood seen through family photos, and the qualities of wonder, simplicity and a sense of time standing still all lie deep in these four beautiful electro-acoustic pieces. My favourite is the meditative “Yozorawa (Night Sky)” which builds to a gentle peak of three interlocking melodies without ever losing it’s profound sense of stillness and space.
MICHEL BANABILA – VoizNoiz
(1999, reissue on Steamin’ Soundworks)
It seems DJ Shadow and Art of Noise had a love child in the 90’s and nobody told me. My strangest discovery of 2018 was this reissue of an album from 20 years ago by the prolific and talented Dutch alchemist Michel Banabila. On VoizNoiz he shows all the cut-and-paste sampling genius of Shadow as well as Art Of Noise’s quirky brilliance with processed cut-up vocals, and then some. In particular he has a talent for voice samples. He shreds and re-contextualises assorted vocal bytes with grooves of slow funk, stoned hip hop and a bit of drum’n’bass, and his technique is jaw-dropping. Any discernible words no longer matter; the voices have become pure instruments. And it’s far from just being a display of virtuosity, because once you get past the technique the natural musicality of Banabila’s creations shines brightly. A leftfield downtempo masterpiece.
PORYA HATAMI & AROVANE
Kaziwa (2016, reissue on n5MD)
In the crowded ambient-piano-with-electronica space, Kaziwa stands well above the pack. This is a low key collaboration dating from a few years back between Iranian composer Porya Hatami and Germany’s Arovane, now reissued by the n5MD label to catch a new wave of listeners. Simple but sophisticated piano figures are cradled with spare synths and varied sound design. Each track is its own little universe and very much stands alone compared to, say, the drifting continuity of a classic Budd & Eno album. Sometimes pretty, sometimes dark-edged and strange, always compelling.
Dreamtime Return 30th Anniversary Edition (1988, reissue on Projekt)
Return To The Dreamtime (live in 2018, Timeroom Editions)
The 30th Anniversary edition of Steve Roach’s opus Dreamtime Return is the welcome return of an old friend. If you’ve never heard his environmental ambient masterpiece, you’re about to fill a sizeable gap in your education.
This signature album from America’s 80’s and 90’s West Coast ambient scene remains vital, primal and poetic. It’s often claimed to be one of the first and most influential tribal ambient albums – which it is – yet it’s more melodic and varied than many albums in that subgenre, and also has many long beatless passages. Random thoughts: I’d forgotten the lovely “Truth In Passing” had piano; guest Kevin Braheny’s cello-like phrases on “The Other Side” are heartbreaking; and though there is some Aboriginal instrumentation and vocals, even without them the music evokes Australia’s natural spaces with fantastic clarity.
This year’s Return To The Dreamtime album is a real treat for fans: a live performance of the entire suite recorded in February 2018 in Tucson, Arizona. It’s well worth hearing thanks to some reworkings and several new pieces, though the original’s central themes and distinctive textures remain largely intact. It also benefits from three decades of advances in recording and production, including a superb mastering job by Howard Givens from Spotted Peccary Records.
The Pink Years 1970-73 (4CD box, Cherry Red)
What a strange and wonderful trip it is to return to the formative albums of Tangerine Dream, one of e-music’s greatest and most influential acts formed by the late Edgar Froese in 1967. The four remastered albums in this fine box set from UK label Cherry Red cover the first of three distinct creative periods for the band that spanned 1970 to the late 80’s (after which the less said about their albums the better, quite frankly).
The misleadingly named debut album Electronic Meditation (1970) is startling, if not exactly great. It’s pretty much the same raucous, experimental avant-garde rock and psychedelic freakout noises that other bands in late 60’s Berlin like Cluster were making at time. But just like the best of those other acts, Tangerine Dream’s creations very quickly coalesced into something much more special and original.
Alpha Centauri (1971) sees the crucial addition Chris Franke to the line-up, whose rhythmic sensibilities would soon move from occasional stints on live drums to a pioneering use of electronic sequencers on Phaedra (1974). The cover notes to the album coin a term that’s been associated with the band ever since: cosmic music. And cosmic it is, a primitive but highly evocative brand of electronic psychedelia combining organ, processed guitar and weird phrasing effects. Aside from one passage of wild drumming on “Fly And Collision Of Comas Sola” most of the music is beatless, establishing a strain of ambient spacemusic that would inspire many artists in Europe, the UK and USA in the decades to follow.
Recognisable rhythms are entirely absent from the double-length Zeit (1972). The line-up of Froese, Franke and newcomer Peter Baumann had now stabilised and by this stage the band had acquired a Moog modular synthesiser. The music exudes an even stronger other-worldly quality than its predecessor and it remains the band’s quietest and strangest album. One track “Birth Of Liquid Pleiades” features an unusual combination of synths (including the Moog played by Popol Vuh’s Florian Fricke), Farfisa organ and a quartet of droning cellos. The band pushes its ideas to the abstract limits over four long, beatless ambient tracks, evoking deep space and alien landscapes with sounds sometimes completely removed from everyday notions of music. Zeit was truly revolutionary for its time and today remains a fascinating experiment in space and texture.
The final album in the box is Atem (1973) which refines some of the ideas on Zeit into something slightly more accessible. On the lengthy title-track Franke whips up a storm on the tom-toms until the piece climaxes mid-way and dissolves into a series of eerie improvisations on mellotron, VCS-3 synth and Froese’s “gliss” electric guitar. The low key mood continues through the remainder of the album until the closing “Wahn”, a startling experiment with voices, echo machines and percussion.