Ambient Music Guide’s Best Albums of 2012
Reviewed by Mike G, December 17, 2012
In no particular order, here's 13 new ambient and downtempo albums from 2012 that deserve special praise.
It's been a good year for independent music in general. Many artists and labels online are now reaching fans with ease thanks to sites like Bandcamp, Beatport and CD Baby. Most - though not all - of my purchases this year have been digital downloads, and I have to say that my CD shelf hasn't expanded much at all in the past couple of years.
Meanwhile, my vinyl collection languishes in a wooden chest thanks to the fact that my current house shakes from simple acts like walking around, causing the the needle to constantly jump. Here's to my next home - brick, single story and unshakable.
I hope you find something from this year's list that gently rocks your world...
Potlatch - Terra Firma (Cosmicleaf Records)
It's trip hop, but not as we know it. Japanese band Potlatch may have tickled your ears some years back with the stoned twilight beats of "Asleep At The Swamp", a distinctive contribution to the Waveform Records compilation Voodoo Roux Deux (2002). Not much has been heard from the band since then, which makes the release of Terra Firma very welcome indeed.
Potlatch has evolved a rather unique sound. The slow, crisp clockwork breakbeats draw on trip hop to be sure, but this music is quite unlike the classic stoner breaks of Nightmares On Wax, Bonobo and others of that predominantly UK school. The sound is somehow less cluttered, even minimal. There's always a ghostly synth gliding in the background, against which the band casts gentle melodic pulses and bleeps, subtly growling basslines, and the wispy vocals of band member Anne Yang. Terra Ferma is simplicity in slow motion; sexy, playful and slightly trippy. Kudos to the Cosmicleaf label for picking up this beautiful release.
Dead Can Dance - Anastasis (Pias Recordings)
What do you do when a sound - your sound - that was unique 20 years ago has since made its way into Hollywood movie soundtracks and the music of hundreds of other downtempo and ambient acts? What can you do, except keep on writing really great music? Anastasis is a case in point. This is Dead Can Dance's first album of new material since 1996, an exotic fusion of sounds as texturally seductive and harmonically rich as anything they've done.
The compositions are strong - exceptional in places - and members Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry are both in fine vocal form. Perry's song "Children Of The Sun" elevates its hippie storytelling into an epic, spine-tingling realm with a magnificent arrangement for horns and strings. Gerrard's incredible voice and private language - a language she once said "grows by itself" - is especially powerful on "Return Of The She-King", its vocal cadences layered upon a haunting Celtic melody.
Dead Can Dance do the world music-ambient-classical mashup thing with a depth that defies easy description. Perhaps it's that they understand the universal humanity of all these disparate musical elements better than most. Whatever their secret, Anastasis is a most welcome return.
Marconi Union - Different Colours (Just Music)
The UK music media is rather fond of calling Marconi Union a post-rock band. Which you could translate as "any artist you think could play rock but is more adventurous". Now I think that's pretty insulting to great rock. Among sub-genres, post-rock strikes me as an especially useless tag. But then again, if it's a doorway through which some people discover this band's wonderful music then I won't complain too loudly.
Different Colours is Marconi Union's sixth full-length album and one on which they have expanded to a trio, with new member Duncan Meadows joining founders Richard Talbot and Jamie Crossley. It's full of pastel chords and shimmering sounds, melodies that take you places and sometimes go deeper. Electric guitar, electric piano, organ and percussion are all clearly discernible in these instrumentals. Yet the synthetic wrappings, (occasional) minimalistic repetition and the overall slow-motion swell takes the music well beyond any rock template. Intelligent, lush and moving - don't miss it.
Liquid Stranger - Cryogenic Encounters (Interchill Records)
I dislike most digital glitch music. That's why I've never before warmed to Liquid Stranger's big, crunchy brand of psychedelic breaks where a glitchy, harsh aesthetic usually dominates. It's clearly intelligent music, but not to my taste.
His latest album Cryogenic Encounters on Interchill Records is different, however. The glitch element is more restrained, the many varied grooves are warmer, and the sound is an original mix of retro IDM, early ambient techno bleep and melodic, psychedelic dub. I don't know what Liquid Stranger fans make of it but I was quickly hooked.
It's positively panoramic at times, as highlighted on superb tracks like "Cryo" and "Frostbite". The gorgeous, shimmering landscape of "Ectoplasm" is almost beatless. Repeated listens to Cryogenic Encounters prove deeply rewarding, though I enjoy the album more when I roll the treble off a few notches - because glitch can hurt, kids.
Hibernation - Second Nature (Interchill Records)
UK artist Seb Taylor - composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist - has created one of his most ambitious works with Second Nature, the second album released under his Hibernation moniker. This is a denser, busier, stranger brand of downtempo beats than the smooth surfaces of Taylor's better-known Kaya Project. It's also more electronic than Kaya's largely acoustic world-beat sound.
"Knowledge and Spirit", for example, mashes up squalls, whoops and fluttering electronic textures with with jazzy trumpet and lovely flute lines. Taylor packs a lot of detail into these tracks; a dense, meaty groove like "The Fallen Sound" would end up vague, tuneless or just plain unlistenable in lesser hands. They key is a certain restraint: lots to look at, but all there for a reason. Listen closely, listen often, and Second Nature will offer deep pleasures.
Connect.Ohm - 9980 (Ultimae Records)
I was rather disappointed with the Ultimae Records debut albums from both Cell (Alex Scheffer) and Hybrid Leisureland (Hidetoshi Koizum) a few years ago. While French artist Cell has been responsible for some incredible one-off tracks over the years ("The Gate", "Audio Deepest Night") on various-artist compilations, his long-awaited Ultimae Records debut Hanging Masses (2010) crucially lacked a melodic core. Last year's Hybrid Leisureland album, meanwhile, I found too cold and fussy for my tastes.
Which makes 9980 a very pleasant surprise, being a collaboration between the two of these artists under the new moniker Connect.Ohm. It may not be a groundbreaking release, but what it does it does very, very well. Much of 9980 fits comfortably enough within the slow, panoramic ambient trance sound that Ultimae has long championed, although very much at the muted end of that spectrum. The lush cosmic sound that Cell does so brilliantly is evident in the simple bass chords of "Snow Park" which glides with all the mass of a deep space cruiser, nudged gently along with gentle synth arpeggios and a simple piano phase. To such timeless sounds Koizumi often adds an odd but subtle textural variety on the album; not quite clicks and glitches but...something. It's an intriguing and effective collaboration.
Without upsetting the album's flow, the last few tracks seem to hark back to old-school sounds. The exceptionally rich, cloud-like chords of "Gentle Perception" bear a passing resemblance to Brian Eno's spacemusic classic "Ascent", while "Time To Time By Time" echoes 70's art rock ambient with its glistening drones and sparse pinging notes.
Sounds From The Ground - Widerworld (Waveform Records)
These guys are one of the originators of exotic ambient dub - a specialty of the wonderful Waveform Records - and they have been at it now for nearly 20 years. While among the gems there's been a few patchy albums along the way, this year's Widerworld captures a talent undiminished. The album may not be as consistently easy on the ears as their sound used to be, but this is inspired music from an act still admirably treading its own path.
Sounds From The Ground - a duo of Elliot Morgan Jones and Nick Woolfson - are masters at creating a big, cinematic sound with a modest number of elements; there's enormous weight in some of those juicy basslines and slow, lumbering dub beats. They're also partial to serving up stunningly pretty harmonic progressions, a fine example being "Fields Of Green & Yellow" which deftly meshes acoustic guitars with their primarily electronic sound.
The dark side also rears its head occasionally, the best of these moments being the deliciously evil closing track "Darswana". It starts out spiky, bleepy and abrasive and gets darker from there. Bass-heavy, organ-like chords slowly rise in the mix like some apocalyptic mecha crawling from the earth and threatening to swallow the entire space, with extra doom courtesy of ghostly vocal chants. A startling conclusion to one of 2012's finest.
Bersarin Quartett - II (Denovali Records)
I love Bersarin Quartett for the same reasons I love Max Richter's albums. It's music for imaginary movies that's far better than most soundtrack albums from actual films (Thomas Newman's best scores being among the exceptions). Instead of snippets and cues and jarring stabs that make little sense off screen, we hear fully realised works that - to my ears - are perfect realisations of how a moody soundtrack album should sound; wordless storytelling that exists in its own world and works on its own terms.
This is German composer Thomas Bucker's second album as Bersarin Quartett and it's magnificent. Bucker fashions exquisite electro-acoustic blends where the boundaries between the two are usually indistinct. He uses sound effects, loops, reverb and whatever other techniques he needs - never to excess - to mould his cinematic compositions into the desired shape. I'm especially impressed with the creative way he discretely uses electronic glitch elements in some of these tracks without making me wince in pain; a rare feat, believe me.
There is no quartet as such - just several supporting musicians - but Bucker's chosen moniker does reflect the intimacy of chamber music if not its small-scale sound. String textures from violins and cellos are prominent on the album and it's in the string harmonies where much of the music's emotional power lies. The sad, utterly ravishing "Im Lichte des Anderen" is a high point, and at times the strings sound positively symphonic in depth such as as on "Perlen, Honig oder Untergang". As a movie music for the mind, II gets five raving stars from me.
Sync24 - Comfortable Void (Ultimae Records)
There are two Ultimae Records releases in this year's list and deservedly so. It's inspiring to see this progressive ambient dance label still producing the goods after more than a decade of releases.
Sync 24 is the one-man project of Daniel Segerstad from Carbon Based Lifeforms, a Swedish band to whom Ultimae fans will need no introduction. His brilliant Comfortable Void has CBL's same sense of mystery but it's a little more personal, more idiosyncratic. It's also seriously addictive.
"Nanites" is a quite indefinable blend of slow breaks, electric piano sounds and a looped choral sample; pretty yet with a slightly sinister edge. "Sequor" spreads a slow, hypnotic arpeggio from acoustic guitar over a droning bass progression and hints of field recordings. "Something Something" and "Oomph" are probably the most CBL-sounding tracks; layers of bubbling machine bleeps and 303 acid lines beneath soaring, celestial melodies and powered by muscular slowbeats. Comfortable Void is superb, up there with any of the albums Ultimae has released over its 12 year history.
Bruno Sanfilippo - Piano Textures III (AD21 Music)
With his third collection of solo and almost-solo piano pieces, I can confidently declare that Bruno Sanfilippo now dwells in realms inhabited by such gifted artists as Harold Budd and Tim Story. Piano music with ambient qualities is hardly new - Eric Satie (1866-1925) was doing it well over a century ago - and yet Piano Textures III reminds us what a potent vehicle the style remains for the gifted artist. It's interesting that the versatile Sanfilippo is not even a piano specialist; just look at his wide and often wonderful discography including last year's Subliminal Pulse (2011).
Like its two predecessors, Piano Textures III is essentially a solo piano album, with a smattering of environmental samples, some subtle synthesiser effects and - on one track - some warm and sympathetic cello. The music swims in a slightly reverberating space but the sound isn't as blurry and washed-out as, say, some of Budd's trippiest pieces.
The slowest numbers - "Part I" "Part II" and the closing track - exist in kind of emotional twilight; neither dark nor light, reflective but not sad, steeped in mystery and quiet wonder. The spaces in between are as profound as the notes. "Part III" is more openly loving, an impressionist piece suggesting a sunlit grove or peaceful riverside. The fast, looping patterns of "Part IV" suggest wind or running water and also echo some of Philip Glass' film scores. "Part VII" meshes piano, harp and organ build a lovely, droning wall of sound.
Thierry David - Stellar Connection (Real Music)
Ambient spacemusic that's far from pure, which proves to be its strength. Frenchman Thierry David was schooled in classical and jazz at an early age and his versatility shines bright on Stellar Connection. The highlight is "A Familiar Blue Stranger", a brilliant melange of classical guitar, pedal steel guitar and a light tribal pulse, lightly enveloped in spacey electronic clouds. Buy Stellar Connection at the Real Music label website.
Slow Dancing Society - Laterna Magica (Hidden Shoal Recordings)
Drew Sullivan aka Slow Dancing Society is a gifted composer of downtempo for the soul. His album The Sound Of Lights When Dim (2006) is one of the all-time great debuts in the genre and his new Laterna Magica is its close musical cousin. Sexy, pretty, moody and melancholy, from quiet urban drama to lonely windswept landscapes. The core sound is guitar or spare piano against drifting strings and synthetic backdrops, along with occasional pulsing rhythms. Buy Laterna Magica at Hidden Shoal Recordings website.
Ishq - Bloom (Virtual World)
The masters of 3D new age ambient Ishq quietly put out this album late in the year and I nearly missed it. Bloom is an archival release of tracks spanning a 12 year period that - for whatever reason - are previously unreleased. Rich in images and boasting composer/producer Matt Hillier's amazing sound design, this is just the ticket for Ishq fans who already own the band's classics. Buy Bloom at the Ishq Bandcamp page.