Reviewed by Mike G, December 29th, 2011
In no particular order, here are ten ambient and downtempo albums from 2011 that I think rate a special mention...
Bruno Sanfilipo - Subliminal Pulse (Spotted Peccary Music)
I hope Bruno Sanfilipo's stunning first album for the respected Spotted Peccary label win this Argentine composer the wider recognition he deserves - god knows, he's been putting out good music for long enough. There's synths, violin, wordless choirs, ghostly strings and glacial chords. It's melodic without being obvious; droning yet with plenty of structure; minimal without being tuneless. The album reaches a climax of sorts with "Pulsem Sacrem", a ravishing choral chant. Track-by-track there's surprising variety, but as an album Subliminal Pulse is entirely cohesive. A masterpiece.
X1 Project - The Essential Collection 2003-2009 (Bandcamp)
What I love about Australian composer X1 Project aka Wayne Huf's smooth, full-blooded, melodic electronica is that it still sounds like it was made with machines and physical keyboards; not everything has been bleached with Pro Tools, plugins and digital sampling to the point of indistinctness. The Essential Collection is 2-CD set that lovingly remasters tracks from a decade of past releases. The shiny, colourful, synthetic space pop and downtempo instrumentals have a cosmic undertow that will instantly appeal to fans of Krautrock icons like Ashra, Robert Schroeder and of course Tangerine Dream. There's savvy touches of contemporary club trance and techno, too, especially on the throbbing "Transit Of Venus".
Easily Embarrassed - Tales of the Coin Spinner (EE Records)
An outstanding example of trance-related chillout which proves not everything Dutch is made of cheese. This third album from the trio Easily Embarrassed is highly accessible and approachable with an almost pop-like sensibility, but it also has the quirks and sense of adventure that elevates it well above psychedelic slowbeats by-the-numbers. As on their previous releases, brothers Jeffrey and Nick van der Schilden and bandmate Peter Spaargaren craft warm, dubby, delicious grooves that show a great love of melody. With that great love, it might be argued, also comes great responsibility. Tales Of The Coin Spinner shows they know how to direct their melodic gifts without giving in to bombast or bland prettiness. It's progressive chill, for want of a better word. In fact one reader pointed out to me a certain progressive rock vibe the music shares with prog icons of yore like Pink Floyd and King Crimson. This is texturally seductive, harmonically rich, rhythmically intriguing and not afraid of the occasional grungy riff or dirty bassline. Thanks to AMG fan Steve Mahanay for alerting me to this one.
Bob Holroyd - Afterglow (Bob Holroyd Music)
On Afterglow the UK composer Bob Holroyd takes a left turn from his usual world beat, lounge and ethnic-ambient fusions with this collection of beatless neo-classical ambience. It's an album of quiet, spacious meditations and cloud-like forms, constructed from soothing synthetic loops, sad cellos, rippling acoustic guitar, ambient piano figures and reverberating spaces. There's also a certain stillness and respect for silence, revealing an emotional depth quite unprecedented in his work. Whether you experience this late at night or early on a sunlit morning, Afterglow is subtle, heartfelt and highly recommended.
Ishq - And Awake (Interchill Records)
UK duo Ishq have suddenly got very busy of late. Last year's sublime Soma was their first "proper" album in nearly a decade and we only had to wait until this year for their next official release. I've only listened to And Awake twice but I'm already hooked; there's depth aplenty in composer/producer Matt Hillier's remarkable sound design and I sense there's so much more to explore. Subtlety is the key to Ishq's music, so play this in a quiet space and give it your attention. Segueing masterfully between beatless and gentle rhythmic, Hillier and musical partner Jacqueline Kersley have fashioned surreal, shimmering, nature-inspired ambience of the very highest order. "Leaf" is the most hypnotically melodic piece of music I've heard this year. PS. If by chance you haven't yet heard their 2001 debut Orchid, investigate now.
Woob - Return To The City soundtrack (Bigamoebasounds)
Woob's brilliant cinema of the mind is back. Last year the experimental Brit composer Paul Frankland resurrected his 1990's project Woob - first made famous in the electronica underground on Emit Records - with the superb part-new, part-remix album Repurpose. This year he released Return To The City, the soundtrack album for a short film based on timelapse footage of Tokyo shot by collaborator Samuel Cockedey. Given the picturesque qualities of Woob's music, doing a film soundtrack seems a natural choice. Most importantly, it works well divorced from the images. Over three long, sci-fi tinged tracks he builds huge walls of orchestral sound, hovering somewhere between electronic and acoustic, adding bells, lovely drones, grungy electronic beats, wailing voices and a 1000 other details. Moody as hell, beautiful and a little frightening, totally involving. Listen to it at volume.
Steve Roach & Erik Wollo - The Road Eternal (Projekt)
American e-music pioneer Steve Roach meets Norwegian guitarist/synthesist Erik Wollo and The Road Eternal is the delightful result. The album is full of gentle movement and colour and is something of a showcase for the subtle rhythmic complexity possible in sequencer-based music, its percussion patterns being more intricate and intriguing then typical old-school Berlin ambient trance, despite the clear lineage. The widescreen harmonies are deep, warm and rich; Wollo's synthesised guitar phrasing on tracks like "The Next Place" and "Travel By Moonlight" is especially tender and haunting. Needless to say, it's a good album for long trips in the car.
A Produce & Loren Nerell - Intangible (Hypnos)
Two Californian artists with long histories in various ambient subgenres came together for the first time on Intangible - and for the last time, too, because Barry Craig aka A Produce died this year. This bewitching, varied, dark-edged album traverses environmental soundscapes, melodic slowtrance, slow tribal beats, experimental sound effects and deep Eastern drones suggestive of the Void. With it's eerie, bubbling melody, the mysterious title track suggests what 80's TV soundtrackers Emerald Web might have sounded like had they spent more time exploring the shadows. The tribal "Area 51.1" has a similarly mysterious twilight quality, while "Planet Atmos" is fine piece of deeply textured ambient drone music. Thanks to John Shanahan at Hypnagogue.net for this discovery.
Sounds From The Ground - The Maze (Waveform)
Okay, this is actually a 2010 release but who cares? The Brit duo Sounds From The Ground's most recent album is their strongest since 2004's Luminal and one of the best of their 20 year career. Exotic ambient dub remains their forte with cinematic backdrops, sweet basslines and layers of ricocheting tones. Elliot Morgan Jones and Nick Woolfson make warm, atmospheric music with psychedelic undertones and they never lose sight of melody. The bell-like piano line on the loping "Subdub'in" is very simple and very memorable. "Temple Steps" mines a basic groove with such tuneful brilliance you could loop it for an hour and not get bored. While still slow in the tempo department, the album isn't as consistently bottom heavy as SFTG fans might expect. The crisply thumping slow-motion beats of yore distinguish only some of the tracks here, while others like "The Lenox" ride on more subtle, understated rhythms. But minimal dub it ain't; The Maze is far richer and more exciting.
Waveform Records - Waveform Transmissions vol. 3 (Waveform)
Another brilliant 2010 release that I only caught up with recently. The trippy slowbeats we call ambient dub started with short-lived UK label Beyond Records over 20 years ago. When Beyond died, American enthusiast and broadcaster Forest took up the mantle. His new label Waveform Records re-released some Beyond material in the mid-90's and went on to build an impressive catalogue of its own - numbering nearly 50 album releases to date. Forest has a particular talent for putting together compilations and Waveform Transmissions vol. 3 is tremendously strong. Early comps like One A.D. were a big influence on the downtempo side of the psychedelic trance and dub scenes, so its only fitting that scene icons like Doof are now part of the track selection, represented here by the self-explanatory "High". Like all Waveform comps, only a few tracks on the album show a clear linage to the Jamaican experimental dub of the 70's. Modern ambient dub - as championed by Waveform - still borrows the old techniques of looping, echo and reverb but is generally much more eclectic, colourful and tuneful.