Ambient Music Guide’s Best Albums of 2014
Reviewed by Mike G, December 31, 2014
This year I decided to divide my annual list into two sections for the first time: Best New Releases and Best Reissues. The focus of Ambient Music Guide has always been retrospective anyway, so I think it's only fitting that the increasingly popular trend towards reissues and remasters be treated separately in these annual overviews.
Take a bow if you're one of those AMG readers who pointed me towards an album in 2014 that I probably would have missed otherwise; I made some phenomenal discoveries this way. AMG is still just me and I can't be across everything. Within these pages and in my mixes and radio shows are plenty of examples of music that good people such as yourself introduced me to.
As always, this year's Best Albums list is in no particular order.
Thanks for supporting AMG. May our discoveries continue.
You can hear tracks from most albums in the Best Of 2014 list in AMG's Best Albums Of 2014 mixes: Deep Mix and Chillout Mix.
Best New Albums
Sinepearl - Cycles Within Cycles Within (Interchill)
Swedish artist Björn Ekegren aka Sinepearl has released three albums to date; all of them are distinctive but he's reached something of an apogee on this, his third release. This one comes to us from Canada's much respected Interchill Records, a move that should bring Sinepearl's music to a wider audience and will no doubt win him new fans.
Like psyambient duo Ishq, Sinepearl's music dwells in the new age zone of ambient dance music; that is, ambience that has some roots in techno, trance, breaks and/or dub but is focused on meditative calm and reflection, far removed from the dance floor. Themes of pastoral romanticism and Eastern mysticism run deep throughout the album. Like all the best psyambient, I think part of the reason it works is because Ekegren's spirituality is not overstated or cloying; it is simply there, unassuming, more of a wordless revelation or truth to be considered, rather than a religion to be converted to.
Cycles Within Cycles Within skillfully morphs between landscaped ambient drones and subtle beat-driven chillout. It's ethereal, melodic and airy. The atmosphere is pastoral but otherworldly, the compositions built with glistening synthesised tones and rich textures. "Illusion Of Control" is a standout; a euphoric, minor-chord drone that slowly opens up like a beautiful flower, the stutters of a kickdrum only just perceptible beneath the surface. Accessible on the first listen and deeply rewarding on return visits, psyambient in 2014 doesn't come any better than this.
Jeff Pearce - With Evening Above (Jeff Pearce Music)
I saw American guitarist Jeff Pearce play at Ambicon 2013 in California and it was fascinating to see how he actually produces his sounds. With very little, it turns out. Using an electric guitar, a brush, a few boxes and pedals, he has taken the sound of the guitar further over the past 20 years than most of his contemporaries. He's quite different from the "post-rock" sounds of Hammock or The Slow Dancing Society where the sustains and reverberations of the electric guitar are usually easy to recognise. Although Pearce does write compositions on guitar and Chapman stick that clearly reveal the instrument - a style which has defined his more recent albums - his signature sound for many ambient fans is big, spaced-out chords and clouds of tone, arcing across space and stretching into infinity, the source no longer identifiable.
His new album With Evening Above offers both styles, capturing his plucked electric guitar and droney, cosmic loops in fairly equal measure. Best examples of the former are "Evening Above" and "A Closed Circle", two gorgeous harmonic progressions with echoing notes that sparkle and fade like the crystalised light of a slow-moving kaleidoscope. If you like the sounds of UK trio Marconi Union you'll know what to expect. On the drone side, the album's highlight is "No Matter How Far", 21 minutes of beatless electronic spacemusic. It's a simple two-chord loop that morphs through layered, widescreen textures that variously sound like strings, synths, choir and liturgical chanting. The album's production is impeccable and I assume that's partly thanks to the mastering by ambient maestro and studio wiz Robert Rich. With Evening Above is just the ticket for Jeff Pearce fans and a very fine place to start for newbies.
Ishq - Blue Infinity (Virtual) and Sunflower (Virtual)
It's been a very productive year for Ishq, the Cornwall-based psyambient duo of composer and synthesist Matt Hillier and vocalist Jacqueline Kersley. Their specialty is a kind of new age music for the techno generation. It was not long ago that fans endured a prolonged drought; between the brilliant debut Orchid (2001) and official second album Sama (2010) there was very little released under the Ishq moniker. Now they seem more prolific than ever, and at least two of Ishq's releases from this year are first rate.
Sunflower is probably the better of the two if you're a new to Ishq. This varied collection of older, mostly-unreleased tracks is a testament to the amazing depths of Hillier's archive: it's quality from start to finish. You may already know "Nepalese Sun", a perfectly realised piece of layered, pastoral loveliness that many years ago was given away to another label for a compilation and never made it onto an Ishq album. The rest of the tracks are new to my ears, including an outstanding beatless remix of "And Awake". Its original glitchy pulse has been removed - always at odds with the Ishq sound anyway - and its odd beauty is laid bare with Kersley's wispy wordless phrasing circling around a haunting, angular chord progression.
Blue Infinity is more conceptual. This is an album about flight, inspired by the UK painter and glider pilot Peter Lanyon who painted landscapes of his Cornwall home from a glider's perspective. And glide the music does; it's one of the best albums for inner flights I've heard in a long time. The arcing, beatless, complex drones suggest endless horizons and infinite blue, beautiful landscapes rendered slightly surreal by Hillier's gentle psychedelic touch. The album reaches a kind of epiphany on the melodic 16-minute "Lanyon", its layered chords seeming to expand forever outwards. Hillier's sound design is, once again, impressive; he remains a composer able to technically realise his ideas with absolute clarity.
Oliver Lieb - Inside Voices (Psychonavigation)
If you're into club techno and trance, the German composer/producer/DJ Oliver Lieb needs no introduction. If you're not, then hopefully you've read my past raves about his small but excellent body of downtempo and ambient work. Last year we had the belated official release of his shelved L.S.G. recording The Unreleased Album (2002); now comes Inside Voices, his first fresh excursion into the chillout zone in more than a decade.
Ten years is a long time, especially in the fast-changing word of dance music and its chilled-out offspring. What would the album sound like? The answer is stellar - literally. This is the spaciest album he's ever made. You get these colossal walls of solar wind, several light years across, swirling and slowly coalescing into brilliantly simple arpeggios and deep space chords. Soft percussive loops and deep bass pulses hold it together for a time, before it all dissipates and then coalesces again in a different form.
Inside Voices has some echoes of Pete Namlook and early Fax Records - as noted by a number of other reviewers - but the strongest voice here is Lieb's own: cosmic and cool, uncompromising yet melodic and accessible to anyone with a modest amount of patience. It avoids crude recycling of ambient techno's past but also steers clear of more recent musical dead-ends like digital glitch. Call it spacemusic for the techno generation if you like; to the artist I imagine it's just electronic music - his way.
Mick Chillage - Saudade (Carpe Sonum)
From Ireland comes the latest album by composer, DJ and radio host Mick Chillage and it's a wondrous thing. Chillage is a big fan of the late Pete Namlook and his Fax Records - in fact he released some of his own music on Fax - so it's only fitting that this comes from Carpe Sonum, a label that was originally set up to release the massive Namlook tribute album Die Welt ist Klang (2013). The label has now taken on a life of its own and is building an impressive catalogue. Saudade is my pick of Carpe Sonum's releases for 2014 , with honourable mentions also going to the albums by Bubble, Lorenzo Montanà, Moss Garden and Autumn Of Communion.
Saudade is pure synthetic music, yet deeply felt and rendered in an effortlessly organic way, as if it was carved from the very glaciers and mountains and landscapes that seem to have inspired it. It's not an album to be played as background music but one that deeply rewards full attention in a quiet room. The opener "Over Ingia" segues between moody landscaped sighs and bleepy loveliness, with some complex, jazz-like harmonies hidden beneath its airy cloak. "Northscape" is a quietly stunning piece of layered, swelling, slow pulsing landscape music, more Brian Eno than Brian Eno.
But the album is really defined by its two central epics. The foreboding "Yokone" is 15 minutes of ringing, reverberating abstraction with only hints of tonality and a strong sense of Eastern stillness at its core. The similarly long "Solitude" starts with slow-breathing washes of sound, from which eventually emerges a profound sequence of rising chords and a beautiful arpeggio, uplifting yet also with an undercurrent of melancholy and longing.
Tim Story & Hans-Joachim Roedelius - Lazy Arc (Seventh Chance Music)
A surprising and welcome return of a collaboration between two greats: Krautrock icon and Cluster co-founder Roedelius, and American pianist and electronic innovator Tim Story. These seven cuts have their origins in recording sessions for the pair's last album together Inlandish (2008) and were finally completed this year.
Lazy Arc is often more experimental-sounding and less conforming to recognisable structures than its predecessor. Sitting at the most accessible end of the spectrum are the gorgeous opening and closing tracks; both are perfect examples of the reverberating, piano-based ambient chamber compositions pioneered by both Roedelius and Story and by contemporaries such as Harold Budd.
Often, though, Lazy Arc is good deal stranger and less direct. Tim Story especially loves weirdness and ambiguity, and his textural innovations with synthesiser and processing are in abundance here. "Lazy Arc Three" starts with a patchwork of dark, abstract mini-movements that segue into a peaceful, pastoral scene with minimal electric piano and tentative strings. "Two" plays off muted bass piano notes against blurry synth phrases. The 18-minute "Six" plots a labyrinthine course through surreal scenes and dark carnival melodies. All up, Lazy Arc is an engrossing, multi-faceted and sometimes difficult album that greatly rewards repeated listens.
J D Emmanuel - Inter-Dimensional Time Traveling (JDEmmanual.com)
This rich slice of analog psychedelia finds J D Emmanuel's late career renaissance in full bloom, decades after his successes in early American new age music. That we're hearing this Texan musician at all nowadays is in no small part due to the passion of his fans; JD's talents may have been lost to the ages had it not been for the efforts of a new generation of private label new age music enthusiasts and collectors. With the encouragement of one of them in particular - music historian and collector Douglas Mcgowan - JD started re-releasing his back catalogue and then returned to recording and performing again in the late 2000's.
Inter-Dimensional Time Traveling is drone music of sorts, insomuch as it's based on improvisations around single chords. He still favours analog synths - the crucial foundation of his sound - which on this occasion are a Mono Evolver keyboard and a Prophet '08, supplemented by several digital delay units. The album's gently throbbing, oscillating creations glide on richly textured major or minor chords with trippy melodies that spiral in and out of the mix. It's tremendous float music, and a perfect example of psychedelic ambient that hypnotises and calms. From the man himself: "My music style is to first create a foundation using cyclic, poly rhythmic music, then build several layers of improvised leads and rhythms that allows you to transcend time and space." Dig that? Then dive in and enjoy one of 2014's best trips beyond.
James Hood - Ceremony (Edible Sounds)
While staying in the San Francisco Bay area after the Hearts Of Space Ambicon 2013 festival, my host Stephen Hill had the presence of mind to ask me along to a concert in a small hall in central Berkeley. This turned out to be my first encounter in a proper concert setting with the hang, a dynamic double-layered metal drum with an extraordinary clean tone and highly melodic properties. I was mesmerised.
So when Ceremony crossed my path, a new album of hang music from seasoned musician James Hood, I found myself more than receptive. If you live in the United States you can hardly have missed all the accolades that the new age music crowd is heaping on this release, for new age is what it's being called. Indeed, in 2014 it spent a long spell at #1 on various new age album charts. Now if that doesn't sound like a compliment - perhaps you've sampled the soulless earwash that has long dominated sales in the genre - know that this is a superb ambient release nonetheless.
James Hood has never done an album like this before but his natural gifts as a musician and composer shine brightly. Ceremony is almost pure hang music, multi-tracked and with just a little studio embellishment and synthesis. The reverberations are natural - Hood's playing was recorded in a temple-like acoustic dome - and the music is gentle, spacious, ethereal and highly melodic. Some of the compositions build like the minimalism of Philip Glass, based on precise repeating loops that change only subtly over long stretches. My only caveat is that, at 130 minutes in length, it's an album best listened to in halves, otherwise you may find a certain sameness creeps in.
Pjusk - Solstøv (12k Records)
Extraordinary and original, Solstøv offers ten pieces of environmental ambience forged from the sounds of the trumpet, much of it utterly unrecognisable as such. The sound palate is amazingly wide, ranging from forlorn fragments of melody played on what recognisably a trumpet through to gothic drones and huge, slowly lurching walls of ambient sound. The album is by Pjusk, a Norwegian duo that crafts what their bio calls "distant, icy ambient music in shades of pale blues and greys". You might call it dark ambient, except that such a name would do it little justice.
Owner of the 12k label, New York-based composer Taylor Deupree, was an important third contributor to the project. The band gave him trumpet samples to manipulate and transform with his Kyma system, a cutting-edge visual programming language used for sound design and currently in great favour with e-musicians. The resulting music is no gimmick; knowing the processes involved and where the sounds were sourced isn't at all necessary to appreciate what's coming through your speakers.
This is an album of quiet drama, vivid but always understated. There's also something deeply elemental about it, with its unpredictable arrangements, craggy sounds and slowly morphing impressions. "Glod" is one of the few tracks that coalesces into some semblance of conventional structure, its siren-like trumpet calls soaring over a muted melodic pulse. Solstøv is a starkly beautiful masterpiece and one of the most original creations I've heard in any genre. Don't miss it.
Pink Floyd - The Endless River (Parlophone)
Consider, for a moment, three unlikely occurrences: that a new album of ambient rock instrumentals would sell millions of copies in 2014; that Pink Floyd would release such material so very late in their career; and that it would actually be any good.
Yet here it is, The Endless River, an intriguing 53 minutes of new material based on sessions for an abandoned 2nd "ambient" disc that was supposed to accompany their 1994 album The Division Bell. I remember at the time hearing about its fate and not being surprised. I can imagine the record company hating the idea. I can imagine the Floyd themselves getting cold feet, having by that stage morphed into an aging corporate rock behemoth that, you know, isn't supposed to do that kind of thing anymore.
But let's not forget an important fact, of which many of the Floyd's mainstream fans remain oblivious: these guys are ambient rock pioneers. And it seems that, following keyboard player Richard Wright's untimely death in 2008, guitarist David Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason changed their minds. It can't have been about the money. Neither was it contractual. Looking past the usual bullshit that passes for promotional interviews, I'd say that they had both creative and emotional reasons. They needed closure. So some more overdubs were added and some of the material handed to several different producers to see how they might stitch it together, including long-time associate Andy Jackson and dance/dub producer Youth (producer of The Orb's classic early albums, among others). This went on for some years until finally they had 18 tracks - 17 instrumentals and one song - that were grouped into four long sections or chapters.
If nothing else, The Endless River's healthy sales say much about the power of the Pink Floyd brand. But for fans of vintage Floyd the album offers unexpected delights and a return to what some have always believed is the band's true essence. Although Gilmour is still very much in charge, in a creative sense the band members collaborate more here than at any time since the mid 1970's. It certainly captures Gilmour and Wright's sonic legacy; spacey, melodic passages cast in a recognisable rock framework, but with that special sense of mystery and a gentle, pastoral psychedelic quality that's so very Floyd and very British. Ignore the individual tracks - in true Floyd tradition the album should be listened to as a whole. That ex-member Roger Waters is not involved will no doubt disappoint some, at least until one accepts that it's inconceivable Waters would be interested in making such an album today. He cemented his strong personal preference for vocals and wordy narratives more than 30 years ago on his final Floyd albums and then the solo work that followed.
The Endless River focuses on a side of Pink Floyd in a way that most of us never thought we would hear again. After 1977's brilliant, dark-edged Animals, extended instrumental passages were a rarity on PF records. The Endless River delivers on that front more than anyone could have expected. Not the band's greatest album by any means, but a varied, complex and beautiful farewell to Wright. It's also the final chapter from the quintessential and most influential of the psychedelic ambient spacerock bands.
The Endless River is widely available from music retailers.
Andrew Heath - The Silent Cartographer (Disco Gecko)
Toby Marks aka Banco De Gaia, whose ethno-chillout classic Maya (1994) was among this year's notable re-releases, has recently started issuing music by other artists on his Disco Gecko label. The first of these releases was the Indian-dub hybrid sounds of Dr. Trippy - its overall style not too far from Banco's exotic rhythmic universe - but this album is completely different.
The Silent Cartographer is by Brit composer Andrew Heath, unknown to me until now and already with a few releases to his name. The album is environmental ambience of the highest order; quiet, immersive, panoramic and subtly melodic. It's the clarity of Heath's soundscapes that are really striking; the textures are are not fuzzy as if filtered through gauze like, say, Brian Eno's classic On Land (1982). These sound paintings are crystal clear, a remarkable achievement of uncluttered composition and painstaking sound design. The source sounds are a mix of acoustic and electronic; droning, arcing, glistening synthesisers, tinkling piano figures, location recordings and sprinklings of random sound effects.
For reference points, Eno, Ishq, Pete Namlook and Tetsu Inoue are useful but limited signposts to what The Silent Cartographer sounds and feels like. I've listened to it on both chilly nights and swelteringly hot days with equal effect; it's nature music that's not too literal and lets you paint your own hyperreal version of the place you'd rather be. The album also suggests that Toby Marks' vision for other artists on Disco Gecko will be an eclectic one, based on quality rather than any one style. I look forward to more.
Kaya Project - The Ambient Mixes (Tribal Shift Records)
Over its ten year existence, Kaya Project has shown us the most accessible side of multi-faceted UK musician and composer Seb Taylor; expertly crafted world beat, strongly rhythmic and melodic, sometimes instrumental and sometimes full-blown songs. This is not sample-based electronica; Taylor employs acoustic guitars, strings, piano, synths, various guest singers and players, and draws on a virtual museum of exotic and traditional instruments from around the globe.
Kaya Project: The Ambient Mixes is a collection of newly crafted versions of tracks from various Kaya albums released over the last 10 years. And it's fantastic, not to mention addictive; I've played no other new release in 2014 as many times as this one. Given the sheer musicality of the source material and the versatility of its creator, it probably won't be surprising to fans that The Ambient Mixes works so well. Most of the overt drum tracks are gone and all kinds of nuances emerge in their place. The 12 tracks are loopy, hypnotic, and super lush; often light in mood but occasionally shifting into darkness and shadow. The harmonic progressions are exceptionally strong and the siren-like wordless vocals of guests like Natasha Chamberlain exude a newly haunting power, especially next to the lush Indian strings of "Dust Devil" and "Saranghi Breaks".
For me, the biggest revelation is how Balearic it all sounds in reworked form; imagine the best Cafe Del Mar album since DJ Jose Padilla's classic early entries in the series. But it doesn't matter whether its images of Ibiza's aqua-blue water or the deserts of the Indian subcontinent that come to mind; for Kaya fans and lovers of lush exotica, The Ambient Mixes is absolutely first-rate chillout.
Slow Dancing Society - The Cogent Sea (Hidden Shoal Recordings)
Another outstanding hybrid of electronica and ambient rock from one pf the best modern exponents of a style that some also might call (ahem) shoegaze or (cough) post-rock. This is American composer Drew Sullivan's sixth release as Slow Dancing Society, once again coming to us from Australian-based indie label Hidden Shoal Recordings. I've been a fan of his beautiful melancholy since his debut album The Sound Of Lights When Dim (2006). Not content to just create a chilled-out mood - which he does very well - his best music also tugs on an emotional level with remarkable depth.
The Cogent Sea is 12 carefully structured miniatures, ranging from muted, somber washes of synthetic sound to fully arranged rock instrumentals that are very slow and very beautiful. While Sullivan's personal sound is still very much in evidence, it's great to hear the artist still nudging ahead with fresh ideas. The muted fast-spinning pulses on "Congency" and "Rising Dark; the morphing, ricocheting loops on "Come The Morning Light"; these sound like new elements in his music. Of course there's still lots of electric guitar - whether muted, shimmering chords or piercing, reverberating solos. And the wide variety of synthesised tones and strings is still used sparingly. With Slow Dancing Society less is more, space has meaning, and silence is golden.
Slow Dancing Society averages one album every two years nowadays, which makes him a good deal less prolific than some of his contemporaries in this age of digital downloads and self-releasing. So let's celebrate quality over quantity, because The Cogent Sea stands easily alongside his best work. It's not a bad introduction either, though Under The Sodium Lights (2010) or his debut album would make equally good choices.
Various - Enfold 01 (Ultimae Records)
15 years of French label Ultimae Records and its "panoramic music for panoramic people" is marked by this wonderful free release compiling ten fresh instrumentals from artists around the world. Expect spaced-out downtempo beats and deep bass, rendered on a soundstage as wide as the Milky Way. Featured regulars include Scann-Tec, Asura, I Awake and Aes Dana. Harmonic, intelligent, curious and superbly produced, Enfold 01 is an eloquent statement of Ultimae's vision for ambient trance and techno with staying power. Download Enfold 01 free at ultimae.bandcamp.com
Invisible Allies - Conversations with Bees (Aleph Zero)
The first album in two years from Israel-based chill label Aleph Zero is an ambitious and complex exploration of tribal beats, groovy electronica and jazzy soloing on flutes, violin and trumpet. Invisible Allies is two Americans, Evan Bluetech and Kilowatts, and though this is their debut album together they are no strangers to progressive sounds. Essentially one track with nine distinct chapters, the album is grounded in mid-tempo beats and the shifting syncopations and textural inventions are often brilliant. Buy Conversations with Bees at alephzerorecords.bandcamp.com.
Ishqamatics - Earthbound / Spacebound / Waterbound (Txt Recordings)
Psyambient master Matt Hillier aka Ishq shows us a generally more kinetic side to his music by teaming up with Lee Norris (aka Metamatics, Autumn Of Communion) as Ishqamatics on this often excellent trilogy. The soaring melody from Earthbound's driving "Piano Cruxia" - repeated in a different form on the beatless Spacebound - is the most euphoric thing I've heard this year; on the dubby and luscious Waterbound, the highlights are the remixes that comprise the album's second half. Buy the three Ishqamatics albums at ishqamatics.bandcamp.com
Sounds From The Ground - 20 Years Of The Best (Waveform Records)
20 years of exotic ambient dub and downtempo breaks from the UK's masters of the form; phat, tuneful, widescreen creations honed with superb studio craft. This Sounds From The Ground compilation by American label Waveform Records includes a track from most of the duo's albums, starting with 1995's Kin and most recently 2012's Widerworld. If you're already a fan you'll have most - if not all - of this music. If not, then 20 Years is highly recommended. Buy at Sounds From The Ground - 20 Years Of The Best at www.waveformhq.com.
The KLF - This is Not What Space Is About (unofficial bootleg/remix)
Not technically a remix but a reinvention of KLF member Jimmy Cauty's haunting, cosmic chillout album, the eponymous Space (1990), rebuilt and extended into a deep space cruise using the original album as source material. The man responsible is one Martin Ward, and its part of his unofficial Revised & Remastered series of KLF releases. Naughty but clever - which makes me think the mischief-making duo would approve.
Entheogenic - Enthymesis (Universal Symbiosis Records)
Oh look, a Terence McKenna sample. More wacky words from psychedelia's second-greatest mad prophet can only mean, yes, another chill album from the psytrance scene. Fortunately, this one is a cracker. Previously a duo, the melody-rich Entheogenic is now the one-man project of multi-instrumentalist Piers Oak-Rhind. The ethno techno of Enthymesis ticks all the boxes: composition, musicianship, textural depth and general trippiness. This one has some lovely folksy touches with its blending of acoustic guitar and Oak-Rhind's filtered vocals. A very satisfying 8th album. Buy Enthymesis at entheogenic-usr.bandcamp.com.
Celer - Sky Limits (Two Acorns)
Bored with drone? Try this. Sky Limits is my first tantalising taste of Celer, a project of the American electronic composer Will Long who lives and records in metropolitan Japan. Six drone-based progressions are each linked by short location recordings of everyday urban life - train arrivals, household scenes and the background ambience of the city. That unique Japanese sense of stillness and poise must resonate with the composer, because I can sense it at the very core of these exceptionally beautiful, string-laden pieces. Simple, moving and brilliant. Buy at Sky Limits celer.bandcamp.com.
Asura - Radio Universe (Ultimae Records)
French psychedelic downtempo artist Asura sounds as epic as ever on Radio Universe, his long-awaited 4th album for Ultimae Records. This one clearly nods in the direction of 70's comic synth music on occasion, such as the beatless but propulsive "Interlude Sky" with cleverly adopts the sounds of both Jarre and Tangerine Dream without sounding like a pastiche. The album's second half presents Asura's more familiar downtempo fusion of ambient, synthpop and psytrance. Radio Universe is an adventure, an album to be played at volume so as fully revel in its sonic detail and dynamic production. Buy Radio Universe at ultimae.bandcamp.com.
Alpha Wave Movement - Celestial Chronicles (Harmonic Resonance)
Melodic spacemusic done properly from one of the most talented aficionados of 1970's Berlin-school ambient. American Gregory T. Kyryluk aka Alpha Wave Movement had been steeped in vintage European spacemusic since his first release in 1996. It's a testament to his gifts as a composer and tech-savvy craftsmanship that he makes the style sound fresh in 2014. He does tribal ambience and environmental soundscapes as well, but space is his original home. Celestial Chronicles mixes warm, pulsing, percussive cruisers with beatless stellar impressionism. Buy Celestial Chronicles at hrresonance.bandcamp.com.
Best Re-issues & Archive Releases
Oliver Lieb aka L.S.G. - Into Deep (1999, re-released by Solieb Digital)
Into Deep, one of the greatest albums in ambient dance music, is back after a decade of unavailability following the demise of German label Superstition Records. Over the past few years pioneering producer/composer Oliver Lieb has been slowly re-releasing his large back catalogue in its multitude of styles and different pseudonyms. This includes his L.S.G. singles and albums, a project which spanned the mid 90's to the early 2000's and has two sides: club music, and chillout (or 'electronica' if you insist). This 1999 release is an outstanding example of the latter.
Much of the music on Into Deep is a unique kind of slow breakbeat, nothing like the chilled hip-hop-derived breaks that most of us are familiar with. The spinning arpeggios and cosmic pads are rooted in European trance, synthpop and old Berlin-school ambient, while the machine-like syncopations and cool microtextures seem to draw on the language of techno. Then there are the beatless pieces - "Jillanity" and the title track - which are both extraordinary. Their cosmic qualities are partially disguised by a veil of gentle sadness, a quality magnified by the distorted female voice bytes that echo in and around the floating synthetic harmonies. The album has no gaps - the 12 tracks are sequenced and blended to perfection. "Seamless" is an overused word, but in this instance I honestly can't think of a better one.
Even today, no one in dance music has made a chillout album quite like L.S.G's Into Deep. Classics by names like The Orb, Future Sound Of London and Global Communication continue to make best-of-all-time lists - and deservedly so - yet Into Deep is far less well-known and is consequently not even on many people's radar. It deserves better - hopefully this digital re-release will spark a new round of discovery and a long overdue reappraisal.
Jordan De La Sierra - Gymnosphere: Song Of The Rose (1976/78, re-released by The Numero Group)
Gymnosphere is a lost gem from the earliest days of American new age music and was completely unknown to me until it surfaced this year, recovered and restored by two enthusiasts and released on Chicago-based re-issue label Numero Group. Subtitled "music for the well-tuned piano", fans of minimalism will immediately recognise the La Monte Young reference. They'll also be interested to know that Jorden De La Sierra was a student of another minimalist master, American composer Terry Riley.
Recorded in 1976 but released two years later, Sierra took an overtly spiritual approach to the album's presentation - just see how far you make it through the dense gobbledegook of the original liner notes. Fortunately, he is also an inspired and gifted artist. Gymnosphere was originally a double LP and the CD features four tracks averaging 25 minutes each. Needless to say, things develop slowly. Sierra's blurry, cyclic, melodic creations on his "prepared piano" are partly improvised and unsurprisingly take some ideas from classical minimalism. Yet I find this music a good deal more approachable than most of the solo piano work released by either Young or Riley. Sierrra's album has not a trace of academic coldness. The music positively glows; you can almost feel the love coming out the speakers, expressed without any of the sugary sentimentality that damns so much in the new age genre. Certain passages have strong echoes of Florian Fricke's sublime meditations for solo piano which occasionally graced the albums of his band Popol Vuh. It's that good.
Crucial to the album's enveloping sound is the complex production by Hearts Of Space Records founder Stephen Hill; in fact it was the first album he ever produced. What we hear is in fact a deftly blended mix of two recordings of the same performance. One is the original studio tapes, the other is those same tapes playing through a PA system in Grace Cathedral, which was the premiere reverberant environment in Northern California at the time. Reverb hardware at the era just didn't cut it. The aim, as Stephen Hill puts it, "was to turn the piano into an ancient cosmic space harp: a space piano." I asked him what he thinks of it all now. "I'm proud of what Jordan and I created and delighted to see it out in the world again. I hope the album takes its rightful place in the history of early 'new age' and contemporary ambient."
If you're at all curious to hear what new age artists were creating in the days before the genre blanded out, Gymnosphere is a must. And if you're one of the obsessive fans who passed around tapes of this mysterious lost album over the decades, surely your nirvana has now arrived.
Steve Roach - Structures From Silence: 30th Anniversary Edition (1984, re-released by Projekt)
With his distinctive melange of analogue and digital synthesisers, acoustic instrumentation and imaginative soundscaping, Steve Roach is a giant in modern ambient and one of the most respected electronic musicians in the world. Active since the late 1970's, his discography of solo albums, collaborations and compilations is now enormous, his range of styles broad.
This year marked the 30th Anniversary of his sublime, melodic and deeply meditative album Structures From Silence, the occasion marked by this newly remastered edition released on Projekt Records. I'll spare you a 5000 word review, but one notable aspect of its multi-faceted greatness is that this is where Roach really nailed his "breathing chords" style of playing. His aim was to release his machines from their mechanical moorings, something he discussed at length in an interview with AMG earlier this year. He explains:
"With an an acoustic instrument you have to be 100% there to make a sound. Traditional instruments draw from the physical body's interaction. With synthesisers as the new instrument emerging in the 80's it was clear to me that you could almost stop breathing, lose the body connection as part of the instrument interaction, sit sprawled out in a chair and still manage to play the instrument. So my entire waking and sleeping focus was to deepen this connection to the essence of sound, body and breath awareness. This was directly translated into the title track - playing with breath, the place in between the breath, the sigh. Just sitting in perfect stillness and playing that through the analog warmth of the Oberheim OB8 synth."
On Structures, Roach went to great lengths to infuse the music with humanity, to the point where the technology became invisible. That, perhaps, is the key to the album's enduring appeal. Whether you were there in the 80's, or discovered it later on, Structures From Silence still resonates - across time, across cultures, across different sub-genres. Without it, there is a yawning gap in your ambient music collection that needs to be filled - immediately.
Woob - Lost 1194 (1994, re-released by Bigamoebasounds)
Back to 1994 we go, with a twist. Woob 1194, in case you're unaware, is one of the great albums in ambient techno, a product of the weird and wonderful imagination of British composer Woob aka Paul Frankland and nurtured by the peerless electronica label Emit Records, now gone but far from forgotten.
It's 20 years later and instead of a straight re-release of the original we get this surprising curio: Lost 1194. So what is it, exactly? Think of Woob 1194 conceived in alternative universe or timeline that's not so different from this one. In this case: the same musician, the same studios in Nottingham, the same year, but different live "passes" of the same compositions and collages. It's not an album of outtakes, those discarded not-good-enough pieces that are an inevitable part of the creative process. No, this is a genuine alternative version of the original; close enough to be on the same level of greatness, different enough to delight longtime Woob fans.
What hasn't changed is that this hybrid of melodic synthscapes, slow tribal grooves, avant-garde sound collage and Third World instrument sampling still defies mere categories. Woob's cinema of the mind remains as strong as ever and its not too literal; some tracks play like a surrealist movie allowing you any number of interpretations. Probably the best thing about Lost 1194 is the alternative version of the creepy "Wuub". Whereas the original track cut into proceedings quite suddenly, this time the tabla drum loop and glistening two-chord synth progression builds from beatless beginnings to an ecstatic slow-motion crescendo.
Get it, get lost, get Woobed.
Banco De Gaia - Maya: 20th Anniversary Edition (1994, re-released by Disco Gecko)
Although still recording and performing today, many fans would argue that Toby Marks aka Banco De Gaia's most inspired creative period in the studio was the 1990's, during which he released an unbroken sequence of four superb and influential albums. His third release Maya is the first of these.
Listening to Maya now, it's still easy to align his music with a family of sample-heavy, psychedelic, ethnically-flavoured ambient dub and breakbeat acts from the era including Loop Guru and Sounds From The Ground. But while Banco's success has inspired many artists in that corner of the dance world, his own music is not so easy to pigeonhole. Not only skilled with the recording studio and synth programming, Marks is also a versatile live musician. One senses a rock and roll heart beating in the middle of it all - inspired as much by progressive rockers like Pink Floyd as by the sounds of Jamaica, the Arabic world or the Indian subcontinent.
Released in 1994, Maya is studded with riches, even if the disparate elements of Banco's sound still hadn't quite fully coalesced at this stage. "Heliopolis" is still a euphoric stormer of a track with a Dead Can Dance vocal sample that sweeps across the heavens. The huge, lumbering breakbeat of "Mafich Arabi" still thunders like the Gods beneath its multi-cultural choral chants. Some of the drum programming on the album unavoidable dates it to early 90's machinery, but the ideas and clever arrangements shine through regardless.
The extended 3-CD edition of Maya includes many unheard remixes. It's well worth getting, especially because without it you won't hear the epic "Shanti" in its definitive form. This is the hallowed Black Mountain Mix, confusingly labeled here as "Live In A Field In Oxford 1993". At any rate, this is the mix you want. A simple, slow progression of two minor chords with a wailing Arabic vocal, thumping drum break and richly detailed atmospherics, it's one of the most gorgeous, haunting, powerful pieces of downtempo electronica ever made.