Ambient Music Guide’s Best Albums of 2015

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Reviewed by Mike G, January 7th 2016

As regular readers will know, Ambient Music Guide is mainly a retrospective site. It's about the history of the music as revealed through my in-depth reviews, interviews and mixes that spotlight some of the greatest albums, tracks and artists from the past 50 years. The music falls under many different and overlapping subgenres, reflecting distinctively different decades and cultural currents. This is music with a past, one that's rich, deep and wide.

So the history of the music is paramount. And a small but important part of that is very recent history, as captured in Ambient Music Guide's annual Best Albums Of the Year feature. Ambient is a broad church, and new music is still exciting and important. The best of it deserves discovery, praise and longevity.

Thanks for all your comments, emails, tweets, shares and music in 2015. Embrace the new, but never forget to also look back - often and long - and take in the view.

You can hear tracks from every album in the Best Of 2015 list in AMG's Best Albums Of 2015 mixes: Deep Mix and Chillout Mix.


Reviews Index: Best New Albums

Abakus - The Beginning/Dreamer e.p. (Modus Recordings)
Ascendant - Ætheral Code (Synphaera Records)
Alan Brown - Silent Observer (alanbrown.co.nz)
Alio Die & Lorenzo Montana - Holographic Codex (Projekt Records)
Another Fine Day - A Good Place to Be (Interchill Records)
Alpha Wave Movement - System A (Harmonic Resonance Recordings)
Ebauche - Adrift (Invisible Agent Records)
Elrox - Tralfamadore (Tape The Sound)
Erik Wollo - Blue Radiance (Projekt Records)
Floating Points - Elaenia (Luaka Bop)
Kat Epple & Nathan Dyke - Elemental Circuitry (katepple.com)
Kick Bong - A Waking Dream (Cosmicleaf)
Kurt Stenzel - Jodorowsky's Dune: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Cinewax)
Lorenzo Montana - Vari Chromo (Psychonavigation Records)
Max Richter - Sleep (8xCD); From Sleep (1xCD, Deutsche Grammophon)
Martin Nonstatic - Granite (Ultimae Records)
Motionfield - Luftrum (Carpe Sonum Records)
Nymphalida - Loghi (Tranquillo/Psychonavigation)
Omni Vu Deity - Vuunayatu (Virtual); Nuiemiu Rift (Virtual)
Olan Mill - Cavade Morlem (Dronarivm)
Robert Rich - Filaments (Soundscape)
Seb Taylor - Collected Downtempo vol. 2 and 3 (Tribal Shift Records)
St Germain - St Germain (Nonesuch/Parlophone)
Steve Roach - Skeleton Keys (Projekt Records)
Tambour - Chapitre 1 e.p. (Moderna Records)
The Dread - The Plastination of Otis T Fernbank (thedreadband.com)
Twilight Archive - Mood Chain (Electrophonogram)
Various Artists - Ambient Online volume 4 (Ambientonline.org)
Various Artists - Digiseeds compiled by Ambientium (Ultimae Records)
Various Artists - Dakini Mother Tongue (Liquid Sound Design)
Woob - Adaption (Bigamoebasounds)

Reviews Index: Best Reissues & Archive Releases

Banco de Gaia - Last Train To Lhasa 20th Anniversary (1995, reissue by Disco Gecko)
Florian Fricke & Popol Vuh - Kailash (1972-1995, Soul Jazz Records)
Gigi Masin - Wind (1986, reissue by Bear On The Moon Records/Music From Memory)
Matt Coldrick - Music For A Busy Head Volume 1 (2001, reissue by Pink Lizard Music)
Pan Electric & Ishq - Elemental Journey (2005, reissue by Pink Lizard Music)
Sage Taylor ‎– Raintime (2010, reissue by Txt Recordings/Cold Fiction Music)
Si Matthews - Tales of Ten Worlds (2006, reissue by Carpe Sonum)


Best New Albums

 

Lorenzo Montana - Vari Chromo (Psychonavigation Records)

vari-chromoI don't buy the argument that ambient music is all about sounds and textures and that nothing else really matters. Who cares about composition and improvisation and interesting harmonies? Well, I do. That’s why I find Vari Chromo such a thrill; it has both fresh sounds and a deep musicality.

Italian musician Lorenzo Montana is a talented man. He already has a dozen or so albums to his name, including five with late ambient legend Pete Namlook. Vari Chromo is a work of darkness, tunefulness and originality is one of the best things he’s done. The economical, mostly beat-driven tunes clock in at just five minutes on average, but each one is a little universe in itself. “Spoot” charts a wonderfully doomy chord progression through an alien jungle. “Hy-Brasil” is eccentric electro funk, textually full of little surprises and details. The slow groove of “Anya” is sad and profound with a lush orchestration played off against quiet passages of piano. Even when the sounds aren’t new, the album often serves up intriguing combinations of familiar ones.

This is the final installment in a series of albums on Psychonavigation Records that started with Eilatix (2013) followed by Leema Hactus (2014). All three have now been re-released as Trilogy (2015) and the other two albums are well worth hearing, making this set the better value purchase.

Buy Vari Chromo from Psychonavigation Records

 

Robert Rich - Filaments (Soundscape)

filamentsIf there was such a thing as ambient royalty, Robert Rich would surely count among its ranks. The Bay Area musician is now in his forth decade of releasing and performing and has helped pioneer multiple strands in experimental electronic music and old-school ambient including spacemusic, ethno-ambient, dark ambient and psychedelic drones.

Although a prolific live performer, the flow of new studio albums has slowed somewhat in the last decade; Filaments makes a three year gap since the extremely quiet environmental spaces of his previous album Nest (2012). This time he revisits the bubbling arpeggios of the Berlin school, a sound not explicit in his work for some time. Of course, he plays with this iconic European style in his own distinctive way. Many of his electro-acoustic signatures are still there - morphing liquid harmonies, crying siren-like vocals from his lap steel guitar, spare piano, blurry colours and lots of space. Fans will notice the apparent absence of flutes and his custom PVC pipes; a little surprising but not at all to the detriment of the music he’s created here.

Thematically, the album draws inspiration from the realms of physics and cosmology. It’s a meditation on the strands of condensed energy-matter that make our fragile existence possible, the filaments that formed out of the earliest inflationary period in our universe. A deep subject calls for deep music, and on that front Filaments delivers masterfully.

Buy Filaments from CD Baby

 

Elrox - Tralfamadore (Tape The Sound)

tralfamadoreScience fiction continues to provide a rich vein of inspiration for artists in the ambient zone, in this case Kurt Vonnegut's insanely fragmented and fantastically strange 1969 anti-war novel Slaughterhouse Five. I can hardly describe the book here, except to say that this fine new release from Norwegian electronic composer Elrox concerns the portion of the novel where WWII survivor Billy Pilgrim is abducted by aliens and taken to their planet Tralfamadore.

Elrox’s understated instrumentals are melodic and mesmerising. The spaces between say as much as the notes. The album has an extraordinary atmosphere; an eerie, alien, dark quality that’s neither cold nor grim, an emotional tone that’s difficult to strike in any genre. Many of the textures sound like they come from samples of gongs and bells that have been filtered, sustained and otherwise manipulated in a variety of ways. There are moments of awe-inspiring beauty, like the rising cloud-like chords on “Flying Saucer” and the celestial guitar notes of the title track. The album is also blessed with impressive production polish, thanks in part to his production collaborator Tore Stabell Kulø.

Elrox (real name Tom Stäle Engebretsen) says his inspirations include Vangelis and Tangerine Dream. To his credit he doesn’t really sound like either of them on Tralfamadore. In fact I can’t think of obvious comparisons to any other artist. He’s gone his own way and given us an original take on a one-of-a-kind work of literature. Ambient fans should be all over this; it deserves no less.

Buy Tralfamadore from Bandcamp

 

Seb Taylor - Collected Downtempo vol, 2 and 3 (Tribal Shift Records)

collected-downtempoDowntempo instrumentals in the electronic dance world come in a plethora of styles and sounds, as diverse as the scenes that spawned them. Like any other dance sub-genre, downtempo is also a category where you’ll find a good deal of rubbish; lazy by-the-numbers machine music and Ibiza chillout dross, lacking any real human input or inspiration

Against that backdrop, UK artist Seb Taylor’s excursions set a benchmark, offering variety, inspiration and originality in spades. I can’t keep track of this guy’s multiple personalities and monikers. Nearly a dozen different ones are featured across these two stellar volumes, including the melodic world beat of Kaya Project and the more experimental electronica mashups of Hibernation.

Taylor is a fine musician (guitar, piano, synths) and an often adventurous programmer, producer and sound designer. On the Collected Downtempo series his considerable reach rarely seems to exceed his grasp; these albums span warm dub, crunchy breaks, trip hop, ethno ambient, exotic lounge and odd techno hybrids and he excels at them all. There’s always a sense that he’s trying to make the sounds his own and not follow the crowd. The electronica collected here spans nearly 15 years but there are no obvious technological markers showing the age of individual tracks, at least not to my non e-musician ears.

Intelligent chilling, that’s what this is. Soak in it, nod you head to it, dance to it, be challenged by it. Downtempo beats don’t come any more vital.

Buy Seb Taylor Collected Downtempo volumes 2 and 3 from Bandcamp

 

Kurt Stenzel - Jodorowsky's Dune: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Cinewax/Light In The Attic Records)

jodorowskys-duneMexican surrealist filmmaker Alexandro Jodorowsky's hugely ambitious take on Frank Herbert’s cult sci-fi novel Dune is the 70’s sci-fi epic that never was. The film’s financiers got cold feet just before shooting began, leaving Jodorowsky stranded with a stellar cast, completed script, detailed storyboards and mindblowing designs by names like Moebius, H.R. Giger and others. No one was willing to risk the vast amount of money needed to bring his ever-expanding - and some say unwieldy - vision to the screen.

The script and storyboards survive, however, and it’s through these mediums that the excellent documentary Jodorowsky's Dune (2013) gives us some vivid insights into what might have been. As does Kurt Stenzel’s soundtrack - finally released after a two year wait - which naturally functions as part doco soundtrack and part imagined film score. The album is a garden of analog synthesiser delights including Moogs, Prophets and Dave Smith custom jobs. Plenty there for emusic hardware fetishesist, then, but plenty for the ambient lover, too.

The 33 tracks are best heard in a single sitting - just close your eyes and let the mind movie begin. While some moments of throbbing sequencer can’t help sounding like classic Tangerine Dream - and some doodles like 70’s Jap synthesist Tomita - for the most part Stenzel sounds deeply inspired by the source itself. He has succeeded in creating something that sounds authentic, faithful to both the era and to Jodorowsky’s psychedelic visions. One of 2015’s more unique releases and a must-have for fans of synth music of any hue.

Buy the Jodorowsky's Dune soundtrack from Light In The Attic Records

 

The Dread - The Plastination of Otis T Fernbank (thedreadband.com)

plastinationFrom the album notes: “For most of us, death is the end. For Otis T Fernbank, that is not the case. Includes exclusive mini graphic novel which reveals Otis' incredible journey.” Except I never saw the graphic novel because I didn’t buy this on vinyl. So who Otis is and what his journey is about remains largely a mystery to me, despite having listened to this remarkable album many times over.

The Dread is UK electronica artist Evil Mark II, who you might know as Cybernaut, D.E.D. or Loft 55. The mix of melodic writing and experimental sounds on The Plastination Of Otis T Fernbank reminds me a bit of classic Emit Records. The disparate elements merge brilliantly: slide guitars and fiddles a with an unmistakable Delta blues twang, rich drones with gravelly textures, some rock-inflected grooves, noise and feedback, and lots of spectral ambience.

Also sprinkled throughout the album are puzzling samples of heavily accented Southerners sounding off about whiskey, church-going daddies and the mystique of fiddle playing, as well as other random voicebytes that are harder to make out. It’s a compelling, wonderfully strange piece of work, hard to describe but quite easy to love.

Buy The Plastination of Otis T Fernbank from Bandcamp

 

Abakus - The Beginning/Dreamer e.p. (Modus Recordings)

beginning-dreamerOkay, with just two six-minute instrumentals this release barely qualifies even as an e.p. But what a stunning return this is for Abakus, one of several monikers used by multi-faceted UK artist Russ Davies. Abakus is still best known for his debut album That Much Closer To The Sun (2004), a chillout classic that spliced lush melodic breaks, Easy Rider samples and progressive house grooves.

The new e.p. is a striking distillation of numerous elements, a punchy mid-tempo melange of synthpop, underground trance, electro and progressive house. “The Beginning” rides on a staccato electro buzz intercut with rising arpeggios, the latter element returning each time more euphoric than the last. The ultra-crisp groove of “Dreamer” features a huge, tuneful bassline played off against another trance-like arpeggio of tearful, wide-eyed joy.

Equally emotional and intelligent, these tracks are the work of a master craftsman with instinctive musical gifts, rising to such heights on this occasion that it makes me giddy. Davies not only writes amazing harmonies, he knows how to arrange them for maximum impact, and how to play with tension and release, without an ounce of cheesiness or overstatement. That’s a rare thing in dance music, in electronica, and in pop music more broadly. Get this and hear what happens when the stars align.

Buy The Beginning/Dreamer from Modus Recordings

 

Twilight Archive - Mood Chain (Electrophonogram)

mood-chainWhether it’s fair or not, when I think jazzy cinematic mood music I instantly think of Angelo Badalamenti’s score for Twin Peaks in all its lush, seedy, bittersweet glory. Mood Chain is a deeply seductive new album by the Los Angeles band Twilight Archive that often has that same shimmering sound and ambivalent mood, even though it sounds more urban and paints a more diverse selection of scenes.

The blend of Fender Rhodes keys, muted trumpets and shuffling drum brushes instantly take you into a world of dark inner city alleys, dimly lit bars, empty cityscapes and mysteries in the shadows. On the surface some it sounds like a conventional drums-bass-keys-brass lineup until you notice that subtle electronica is woven throughout the entire album. This hybrid sound is crafted with tremendous skill, so that a piece like “Sense Making Stops” segues between smokey soundtrack jazz and loopy Massive Attack-style drum breaks without you even noticing. “Unfamiliar Shadows” is another outstanding example, throwing in bits of whistling Minimoog to great effect. Several cuts also reveal a thread of global exotica, like "Location Unknown" with its momentary bursts of Arabic strings and sharp stabs from a nasal-sounding wind instrument that sounds like a Turkish zurna.

Jazzy grooves can sound stiff when they meet electronica, but not here. Mood Chain is superb; twilight music that’s tuneful enough for any time of day and smart enough to appeal to listeners well beyond genre boundaries.

Buy Mood Chain from CD Baby

 

Nymphalida - Loghi (Tranquillo/Psychonavigation)

loghiI’m easily seduced by mystery, and the modest 36 minutes of music on Loghi is steeped in it. This is a curious, personal collection of musical miniatures is by a young Italian composer named Pietro Bianco aka Nymphalida. It’s about place and emotion, about how a landscape or location resonates with us long after it has been the scene of a major incident, event or revelation. Yet it’s all so deliciously cryptic - the album’s name, the barely pronounceable track titles, the music that meanders unpredictably through dissonant noise and darkly beautiful harmonies.

The compositions are built from environmental samples, drones, piano, layers of organ and processed electric guitar. The mood is introspective but it’s never depressing; instead I sense a warm-blooded humanity just below the surface, unusual for experimental ambient in this style which is often highly cerebral and a little cool. Loghi is Nymphalida’s second album and already he’s developed an original voice in a crowded field. I look forward to hearing more.

Buy Loghi from Psychonavigation Records

 

Motionfield - Luftrum (Carpe Sonum Records)

luftrumUnlike in the 90’s when it could be harmonic and lush, what now gets tagged as ambient techno seems to have narrowed to refer to digital glitch music, a style I often find to be a musical dead-end, soulless and irritating. The extraordinary Luftrum by Swiss artist Motionfield is none of those things. Yet I’ll call it ambient techno, in the hope people might realise that rich tonalities and otherworldly beauty still have a place in that corner of the dance world.

Luftrum is incredibly dreamy and expansive. With his synthetic paintbox Motionfield has conjured ten pieces of music, ten oceans of sound, that bathe you is some of the most profoundly beautiful instrumental harmonies and textures I’ve heard in years. Despite the thick sonic haze it’s not an exercise in extended ambient stasis or wandering abstraction. Each piece sounds defined and carefully arranged. The slow-motion breakbeat of “Luftrum 1” echoes Boards Of Canada. “Luftrum 3” has a quasi-pop feel, rolling breezily along on a simple three-chord progression and gentle click pulse. “Luftrum 5” is eerie twilight music with a deep bass notes that snake around long, arcing chords.

This is one of a number of outstanding releases this year from American label Carpe Sonum, a label born in the wake of the late Pete Namlook, new-school ambient pioneer and owner of the now defunct but highly respected Fax Records. The new Motionfield release sets the bar, once again, very high in the post-Fax world. So dive in and float away - Luftrum is ravishing, deep and unforgettable.

Buy Luftrum from Carpe Sonum Records

 

Woob - Adaption (Bigamoebasounds)

adaptionMaster of cinematic ambient Woob (UK composer Paul Frankland) ventures into retro horror territory with Adaption, his score to an imaginary film starring a lonely seaside village, a girl in trouble, and an abandoned 80’s game arcade that comes to life and turns the locals into zombies. The narrative thread is fairly loose, however, meaning you don’t really need to discern a plot to appreciate the album’s spectacularly atmospheric music.

Adaption is a melodic, richly textured tapestry of ghostly breakbeats, old movie samples, beatless suspended strings, 8-bit arcade game sounds and - unusually for a Woob album - two slamming pieces of dark progressive trance. The album unites two of the composer's passions - cinema and video games - and hangs together in its own unsettling dreamlike way, marking another highpoint in Woob's catalogue of exotic electronica. “Broken Console” is a standout with its 8-bit bleeps arranged into a dense, fast-spinning melody and dressed in wispy harmonies, a haunting and incredibly beautiful thing.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that you can no longer buy the album. In a perverse conceptual joke - clearly telegraphed upon its release, to be fair - the download was given a lifespan of just 90 days, after which the artist declared the album “undead”. So if you want to exhume the files (there was no CD) you’ll have to go digging at your own risk in unnamed dark corners of the interwebs. Don’t ask me for directions; you’re on your own, stranger.

Visit Woob’s online store at Bandcamp

 

Max Richter  - Sleep (8xCD, Deutsche Grammophon) and From Sleep (1xCD, Deutsche Grammophon)

sleepYou know there’s something unusual happening when an ambient release gets streamed all week on Kinderling Kids Radio, of all places. From their Facebook page: “In a world first, Kinderling Kids Radio will broadcast the full 8-hour version of Max Richter’s Sleep for seven consecutive nights to aid parents in settling their children into a consistent sleep routine”. Richter’s new album - in both its 70 minute and eight-hour versions - is getting attention all over the place from folks who normally wouldn’t give two hoots about ambient and downtempo. Why?

On a musical level, Max Richter has at least two bonafide classic albums to his name already: Memoryhouse (2002) and The Blue Notebooks (2004). Both are moody, cinematic masterpieces of modern chamber music crafted in ambient space, the former spiced with occasional big orchestral flourishes. Quality-wise, his new album is on an equal footing. His gorgeous, haunting lullabies for muted piano, strings, wordless vocals and drones are best heard initially on the shorter version of the album, From Sleep. The longer version, simply called Sleep, is mostly the same melodic themes in a myriad of different forms and lengths, and it’s purpose is more obviously functional.

But as great as the music is, I think the reason for the album’s unexpected attentions are conceptual. Richter’s “manifesto for a slower pace of existence” has touched a nerve. People are fascinated by sleep and many of us feel we don’t get enough of it. The idea of an eight hour album to play while you sleep is both conceptually bold and deeply appealing to those who long to escape, to dream, to lose themselves in the protective cocoon that sleep can provide but which often doesn’t. The concept also gives music publicists plenty to talk about; clever promotion in both traditional and social media has played a major part in attracting mainstream attention for this release.

That any human can benefit from music while actually asleep is far from proven, but I’m not going to argue the science here. I’m going to argue for music, and on that count this is magnificent, one of Max Richter’s greatest creations. For newcomers I hope it's also a gateway to his substantial back catalogue.

Buy Sleep and From Sleep from Deutsche Grammophon

 

Tambour - Chapitre 1 e.p. (Moderna Records)

chapitre1This sublime collection of four modern neoclassical chamber pieces by Tambour (Montreal-based composer Simon P. Castonguay) is my favourite 2015 release in this genre. Canadian label Moderna Records has been releasing some fascinating and varied instrumental music and this e.p. makes a perfect introduction if you’re yet to hear any of its releases.

Chapitre 1 is blessed with harmonies of weeping beauty, and its compositions are arranged with great sensitivity. The role call of instruments is piano (played by Casonguary), violin, violas and cello but simple studio treatments like reverb and delay play a significant role in places. Some “prepared piano” is also used to great effect, a John Cage innovation from the 1940’s where objects are stuck in and around the piano strings to change the timbre or soften the sounds. On the title track the opening piano notes sound like the slow plucking of a large steel-string guitar. On “Waves” you can hear the pads gently scraping the strings with every keystroke, lending the melody an air of dreamy, blurry reminiscence.

Chapitre 1 is special - it’s deeply lyrical and intimate, and subtly modern with its elements of looping minimalism and touches of sound manipulation. Classical music snobs tend to dismiss this kind of stuff (It’s not proper music! Listen to Beethoven! Drink more sherry!) which only makes me want to sing its praises louder. Because if you’re annoying educated fools, you must be doing something right.

Buy Chapitre 1 from Moderna Records

 

Another Fine Day - A Good Place to Be (Interchill Records)

a-good-place-to-beBritish DJ, producer and musician Tom Green’s choice of pseudonym says it well - Another Fine Day makes music that’s positive, relaxed and clear of mind. Even though his AFD discography is small - just three original albums - he was there in the early 90’s when ambient was morphing into chillout as it found a new lease of life via the electronic dance scene. A Good Place To Be is his first album of new AFD material in 15 years, hovering somewhere in the spaces between jazz, ambient and modern lounge. It’s an eclectic, ethereal wonder and a very welcome return.

Green loves jazz and he’s absolutely fantastic on the piano. He also loves the ringing tones of the mbira, a xylophone-type instrument that he blends effortlessly into the tapestry of several tracks including “Dream Of Seals” and “Child’s Play”. Some pieces have an easily recognisable jazz trio sound - drum brushes, piano and double bass - but it’s his sense of space and lightness of touch that takes them into ambient territory. Throughout the album there's this complex weave of melodies going on, as he drifts back and forth between improvisations and more anchored themes.

A Good Place To Be also shows he has mastered a sense of flow, the true art of the album. I was more than half way through “That Path”, for example, before I realised he’d segued into beatless Harold Budd piano territory without me even noticing. On repeated listens the subtle use of synthesised tones and electronic beats becomes more impressive, as does the intricacy that’s never pretentious. This is breezy feel-good music that offers simple pleasures with complex layers. Welcome back, Mr Green.

Buy A Good Place to be from Interchill Records

 

Alpha Wave Movement - System A (Harmonic Resonance Recordings)

system-aMaster of spacemusic and Berlin-school ambient Gregory T. Kyryluk (aka Alpha Wave Movement, as well as Thought Guild, Open Canvas, Within Reason) has been releasing diverse electronica for over 20 years now. While this gifted American has explored multiple sub-genres including tribal ambient and Windham Hill-style acoustic, it’s the psychedelic ambient trance and spacemusic pioneered by the 70’s Berlin school that has informed his oeuvre most profoundly. System A captures the full range of his signature Alpha Wave Movement sounds in glorious fashion; it’s sounding like one of the very best albums from a discography that already boasts several flat-out masterpieces of meditative spacemusic.

The album is book-ended with two beatless abstract pieces, floating on a gentle, weird dissonance that keeps changing shape but never gets oppressive or heavy in tone. There’s a couple of his beautiful and distinctive space cruisers in a languid tempo, one of them with intriguing jazzy modulations and a slightly odd-sounding chord pairing. Best of all is “Journey The Existential Plane”. This euphoric 9-minute blast of ambient trance tuneage with prog rock trimmings scales the heights of peak early-80’s Tangerine Dream; those moments when they locked in 3 or 4 simultaneous melodies with hypnotic perfection. In a novel twist, Kyryluk also conjures a layer which sounds like funk bassline played at double speed, yet he makes it sound as light as a feather.

AWM fans will need little convincing to add System A to their collections. But if you’re a newcomer, I recommend you start with this one plus two others: Edge Of Infinity (1997) and his Jim Cole collaboration Bislama (2001).

Buy System A from Harmonic Resonance Recordings

 

Steve Roach - Skeleton Keys (Projekt Records)

skeleton-keysWe live in the era of digital synthesis and plug-ins, an era of anything-goes electronica that has rather spoiled us. Almost any sound can be borrowed or created or transformed by sampling. So if nothing else, an album like Skeleton Keys is a reminder that synth hardware once had its own distinctive and sometimes imperfect in-built textures, timbres and rhythmic patterns.

Prolific and pioneering, e-musician Steve Roach’s 35-plus year career has spanned large tracts of both the analog and digital eras. On Skeleton Keys he embraces a warm retro-futurism with music composed and performed entirely on a modular analog synthesiser and sequencer system. Quite far removed from the breathing, beatless landscapes you might know him for, the music is heavily patterned, a kind of sonic mandala. It’s the analog sequencers that generate those bubbling, purring loops and riffs, a style that was everywhere in e-music in the 70’s and 80’s including Roach’s own early work. In modified forms this quintessentially European sound has never left us, appearing in electronic music everywhere from West Coast ambient to the dance styles of club trance, house and techno and their many downtempo spinoffs.

Skeleton Keys is a stimulating release and a gentle history lesson to boot. It manages to sound both retro and modern and still has that delicious psychedelic vein that’s present in much of Roach’s work. He obviously loves analog textures - and there are still sounds that cannot be reproduced perfectly by digital synthesis - but I think part of the appeal in making an album like this is dealing with the relative limitations of such hardware and how one might use creativity to overcome them.

Buy Skeleton Keys from Projekt Records

 

Kat Epple & Nathan Dyke - Elemental Circuitry (katepple.com)

elemental-circuitryIf global exotica with a mystical air and carefully crafted light and shade is your prefered destination, Elemental Circuitry will take you there. You might remember flautist Kat Epple as one half of Emerald Web, the 80’s new age and ethno-ambient duo whose existence came to a premature end in 1989 with the death of member Bob Stohl. Since then, Epple has continued her TV and film soundtrack work and recorded and performed both solo and with others, but her teaming with new collaborator Nathan Dyke is something really special.

Elemental Circuitry traverses folksy dances, North African grooves and dreamy, slow mediations played on flutes, drums, African ngoni harp, didgeridoo and sundry other exotic instruments, plus just a touch of airy synthesisers. “Spice Market” is all frantic drums and flute and catches Epple in full flight. “Charmed Circle” is a bright Celtic-style dance with a mystical tinge. “Expedition” is contemplative, seductive music born of the desert. This is strong material played by two technically outstanding musicians.

A cursory listen might see an album like this filed under folk or world music. That would be a mistake, because at the music’s centre is a mystery, a stillness, a cosmic quality that most recordings in those genres doesn’t have. It’s comparable to the best of Stephan Micus, Coyote Oldman and early Hari Deuter. That’s why you’re reading about it here, and why lending your ears might expand your concept of what ambient actually is. Happy adventures.

Buy Elementary Circuitry from CD Baby

 

Alan Brown - Silent Observer (alanbrown.co.nz)

silent-observerNew Zealand musician Alan Brown recorded the basic tracks for this, his first ambient piano album, in the Concert Chamber of Auckland Town Hall. In doing so he managed to get the reverb, the ambience, uncannily perfect of this collection of intimate, melancholy compositions. Brown’s piano sound on Silent Observer neither swims in a hazy clouds of sound nor sits still in the flat acoustics of a cosy drawing room. It exists somewhere else; small enough for the notes to rings clear and true, spacious enough to take you deep into scenes like “Headland Glow”, “Wolf Moon” and “Memories Of The Stage”. Some of the arrangements add cello and different colours of synthesiser but with great subtlely; he clearly wants to speak through his keyboard.

Together, all these elements make Silent Observer something distinctive that doesn’t echo Budd, Story or in fact any other neo-classical or ambient piano craftsman I can think of. Brown’s diverse resume stretches back decades and takes in jazz piano, funk, lounge and electronica. How all that informs this album is hard to say except, perhaps, that his experience as a jazz pianist has imbued it with a sense of space that‘s so essential for music in the ambient zone regardless of style or instrument.

It’s been a strong year for ambient piano albums. While Silent Observer is my pick of the bunch I also highly recommend Omkuld (Moderna Records) by Jacob David and Mediterraneo (Dronarivm) by Bruno Bavota.

Buy Silent Observer from Bandcamp

 

Various Artists - Digiseeds compiled by Ambientium (Ultimae Records)

digiseedsBack in 2000 the French label Ultimae Records was launched, picking up the mantle of ambient trance, psyambient and what used to be called ambient techno. Since then it has produced some of the greatest melodic electronica of the past 50 years, its “panoramic music for panoramic people” echoing the sound of the cosmos in all its mystery and moods and colours.

The label’s latest compilation is Digiseeds and it’s superb. The Czech artist Lubos Cvrk aka Ambientium sourced 12 pieces of new music - including one of his own - from around globe, a mix of “minimal acoustic patterns melting into intense pads, ethereal dub lines blending with glitch, gentle electronica and a certain neo-classical aesthetic”. Beats this time are largely relegated to the background or dispensed with altogether. Some of the hybrids are intriguing electro-acoustic ones, most notably the bewitching opener “The Circadian Clock” which picks out its melody using a ringing “prepared piano” above a bed of glistening synthetic textures.

Digiseeds blends many of the qualities that makes Ultimae special, being at once accessible, innovative, mysterious and lush. It’s DNA lies in dance music, film music and the diverse currents of old-school ambient. While early compilations such as the Fahrenheit Project series were compiled in-house, more recently outsiders such as Ambientium have also been contributing. Fresh faces can only be a good thing and Digiseeds confirms it; this a compelling release as good as any compilation the Ultimae catalogue.

Buy Digiseeds from Ultimae Records

 

Omni Vu Deity - Vuunayatu (Virtual) and Nuiemiu Rift (Virtual)

omni-vu-deityIn this physical world at least, psyambient composer Matt Hillier lives amid lush English countryside near St Ives in Cornwall, UK. But his real home is in the invisible landscape, the surreal world of the imagination espoused by the late psychedelic philosopher Terence McKenna. Hillier is an electronic painter of hyperreal natural worlds and three-dimensional spaces, best known to ambient fans as the creative force behind UK duo Ishq with partner Jacqueline Kersley. He’s been incredibly prolific of late, which is perhaps why these two fine albums came out under yet another of his monikers, Omni Vu Deity, instead of Ishq. It’s certainly all rather Ishq-ish. The two albums actually feel like distinct halves of one: Vuunayatu is the sound of daylight, Nuiemiu Rift is the sound of twilight and night.

Vuunayatu is the light half. For most of its running time it riffs in different ways on the same short, ricocheting melodic loop, dressed in sumptuous drones and vivid environmental samples. The deep, rich chords of “Colortopia” and the title track are ecstatic and moving, the latter evoking the same profound Himalayan mystique found in the music of New Zealander David Parsons.

In contrast, Nuiemiu Rift spends most of its time in shadow. Only one piece, the 16-minute “Xhosa”, has the lush harmonies of the first album, evoking tribal rituals under a starry sky, slowly morphing into the awe of a new dawn. It’s a masterclass in creating a multi-part ambient epic without any anchoring beats. The remaining tracks ooze a seductive dissonance, taking you on a slightly uneasy float through alien forests and dark, exotic terrain.

Many more albums were released by Matt Hillier’s label Virtual in 2015. The Ishq albums Autumn Light and In a Rainbow Air are as evocative and lovely as their titles suggest, while the tribal-tinged Mundus Imaginalis by Onirojenik (Hillier and Kersley again) is almost shocking in its strangeness, its vivid aural collages often drifting into musique concrete territory.

Buy Vuunayatu and Nuiemiu Rift from Virtual Music

 

Various Artists - Dakini Mother Tongue (Liquid Sound Design)

dakini-mother-tongueGot bass? Good, because this is dub, and albums like this are largely wasted without a sound system that loves big bass notes like a Rastafarian loves his pipes. Otherwise the beats can get monotonous, even when the melodies are strong. Neither should this kind of music be played as background. Crank it up and let it fill the space. Here endeth the lesson in dub.

UK-based label Liquid Sound Design has recently returned after a long absence and Dakini Mother Tongue firmly re-establishes its credentials in a strain of psychedelic chillout you might call exotic dub. The album’s compiler, producer and sometimes composer Youth - who is also label founder - has been sculpting these sounds for well over 25 years now and is arguably Britain’s foremost exponent of the form. It’s a mark of the respect accorded to him that he’s gathered such collaborators here such as bassist Jah Wobble and the long dormant Irresistible Force (Mixmaster Morris).

Dakini Mother Tongue complies eight new tracks by various artists, eight mini epics, and most of them resolutely hit the mark. The opener “Return To The River Ganges” is drenched in Vedic drones and celestial melodies, bolstered by Youth’s punchy, swirling production. Although there is nothing on the album I would call pioneering, “Amethyst Corrida” is a wonderfully fresh mashup of Spanish guitar, sparkling sitar and lush strings all bound together by an electro-dub groove. Best of all, a reworking by Youth of a mid-tempo psytrance stomper by Suns of Arqa is a great example of remixing on the premise that less is more. He removes some layers, sharpens the attack and bang: an atmospheric masterpiece that could also rock any dancefloor.

Buy Dakini Mother Tongue from Liquid Sound Design

 

Olan Mill - Cavade Morlem (Dronarivm)

cavade-morlemOlan Mill is UK musician Alex Smalley. He's been active in ambient and experimental music for more than decade, and this year made his debut on the esteemed Moscow-based label Dronarivm. On Cavade Morlem he taps into a profound, magical space between pure drone and classical orchestrations, creating a blurry tapestry of processed guitar, violin, voice samples (which sound like choirs) and organ.

Structurally it’s built on ghostly loops which rise and fall in intensity and size, breathing and pausing like a living being. Many of the pieces have a loving, euphoric quality; “Tallole”, “Mussart” and especially “Gurriva” are all jaw-droppingly beautiful. A few such as “Lighul” suggest something cooler, a mysterious landscape or sombre reflection. Sharp-eared listeners might hear some textural similarities in Smalley's music to Brian Eno, Jochem Paap or Vidna Obmana.

Consistent with spectral, semi-opaque quality of the sounds is the revelation that the album is actually an echo of other, earlier music. Most of the tracks are based on recordings of concert pieces which, according to the artist, were far less calm than the music that became Cavade Morlem. Perhaps that explains the album’s curious, quiet power. Sometimes less is more. Much more. This is a first-class transmission from the drone zone and another worthy addition to the Dronarivm catalogue. Other highlights from the Dronarivm in 2015 included the piano chamber music of Mediterraneo by Bruno Bavota and the landcaped envronmental ambience of Inscriptions by Wil Bolton.

Buy Cavade Morlem from Dronarivm Records

 

Just briefly...

Ebauche - Adrift (Invisible Agent Records)

adriftFrom Poland comes the 5th album from electronic composer Ebauche (aka Alex Leonard) which finds him forging a quiet path between experimental noise and musical tonality with unusual skill. His inspiration and samples came from three key sources: the wilderness and ancient temples of Cambodia, the wild northern coastline of Ireland and the dark, ancient beauty of Poland's Carpathian mountains. The jewel in the album's crown is also it's most melodic piece, "Gonglaing". It's a stunning slow-building swell with a glittering, cascading chord progression that rises from darkness into light, evoking some kind of ecstatic revelation. Buy Adrift from Invisble Agent Records.

Floating Points - Elaenia (Luaka Bop)

elaeniaSo much pretentious shit has been written about UK composer and DJ Floating Points' latest left-field hybrid of synthetic, electric and acoustic sounds that I'll keep this short, lest I fall into the same trap. Suffice to say that Elaenia is full of brilliant moments, even though as an album it’s fractured and seems to lack a centre. At best his experimental and unpredictable chilled-out blends - including rock and jazz instrumentation, warm analog synth sounds, techno and house motifs - are as quirky and fresh in their own way as the music on Aphex Twin’s classic debut. Definitely worth your time, just ignore the hype. Buy Elaenia from Luaka Bop Records.

Various Artists - Ambient Online volume 4 (AmbientOnline.org)

ambient-online-4The arbitrary 80 minute barrier imposed by CD's is gone and the AmbientOnline.org community has embraced its digital freedom with enormous compilations of new music contributed by member artists. Ambient Online Volume 4 is around 11 hours long, with 88 new pieces spanning almost every colour and subgenre of (mostly) beatless ambience, from industrial dissonance to rich earthy drones to airy spacemusic. Naturally it's a mix of hits and misses but there are gems aplenty and at US$9.99 it's absurdly good value. God bless you, internets. Buy Ambient Online volume 4 from Bandcamp.

Erik Wollo - Blue Radiance (Projekt Records)

blue-radianceA seductive, melodic blend of processed electric guitar, synths, percussion and occasional acoustic guitars. Blue Radiance is Norwegian composer Erik Wollo's 18th album and the work of a confident and mature artist. His sonorous and polished sound has “a darkness that balances the light, a dark undertow that serves to put his melodies in beautiful bas relief", in the words of broadcaster John Diliberto. Stunning cover art, too. Buy Blue Radiance from Projekt Records.

Kick Bong - A Waking Dream (Cosmicleaf)

a-waking-dreamThis album is actually from 2014 but I missed it, thus its appearance in my best-of list for 2015. From France, this is melodic chillout with dubby and psychedelic undertones but given a fabulous twist by Kick Bong’s surprisingly sharp pop instincts. Packed with song-like hooks, textural variety and punchy dynamics, A Waking Dream is joy from start to finish. “You Are The Stars” is the only vocal number and it’s a doozy. Buy A Waking Dream from Cosmicleaf Records.

Martin Nonstatic - Granite (Ultimae Records)

graniteIf rocks and substrata could make music, what would it sound like? Martin Nonstatic’s new album is strange, pioneering and original. I’ve rarely heard the clicks, cuts and glitches of the digital palette used so discreetly and effectively as here, never overwhelming the delicate tunes and quiet grooves. Granite is electronica from the edge that won’t make your ears bleed. Buy Granite from Ultimae Records.

Alio Die & Lorenzo Montana - Holographic Codex (Projekt Records)

holographic-codexLorenzo's Montana's busy year included this luscious and dark excursion into electro-acoustic ambient with fellow Italian composer Alio Die. Their Holographic Codex is a masterful collection of ghostly twilight music, perfumed with sleepy Arabic and Vedic aromas. The morphing, liquid-like drones are a Die trademark and they mesh beautifully with Montana's cinematic sensibilities and occasional, very subtle machine beats. Two of the tracks have a fabulously weird, slurry vocal line which sounds like they plied a monk with several bottles of mead, recorded his singing and then played it back at half speed. My favourite drone-based release of 2015. Buy Holographic Codex from Projekt Records.

St Germain - St Germain (Nonesuch/Parlophone)

st-germainFifteen long years after his nu jazz/lounge/chillout classic Tourist (2000) - which was played on infinite loop in every goddamn cafe on Earth - Frenchman Ludovic Navarre’s eponymous third album retains the same basic approach as all St Germain releases: the warm machine pulse of deep house juxtaposed with a live band grooving in jazz and blues modes. But this time there’s also a generous serving of African instrumentation and vocals, and repeated listens reveal a wonderful complexity and level of detail. This is tuneful, exotic and soulful music from an act who everyone thought had disappeared. I’m glad he’s back. Buy St Germain from stgermain-music.com.

Ascendant - Æthereal Code (Synphaera Records)

aethereal-codeExquisitely smooth ambient trance grooves by a new psyambient duo from California. The layered melodies of Æthereal Code hint at a lineage going as far back as cosmic 70’s German ambient and early American new age. “Expansion”, “Alignment” and “Beams” are outstanding; haunting elegies in minor keys with swelling harmonic progressions and shaped with flawless panoramic sound design. Buy Æthereal Code from Synphaera Records.

 

Best Reissues & Archival Releases

 

Banco de Gaia - Last Train To Lhasa 20th Anniversary Edition (1995, reissue by Disco Gecko)

last-train-to-lhasaThe globetrotting Last Train To Lhasa by Banco de Gaia marks a creative peak - and incidentally, a commercial one - in what was in the early to mid 1990’s called ambient dance music. Or simply chillout, as some clubbers came to know it. The sounds were born as emerging club styles of trance, techno and house collided with Eastern and African exotica, spacey Jamaican dub and the psychedelic sounds of Pink Floyd and the early German spacemusic bands. The best music of that time was and still is a joy to hear. Names like The Orb, Deep Forest, Delirium, Global Communication and Banco De Gaia all managed to find commercial success with distinctive albums that were also artistically solid. More obscure music of comparable quality was also widespread in the underground rave and festival scenes at the time in Europe, the UK and USA.

By 1995 Banco de Gaia - the one man project of UK musician and DJ Toby Marks - had been honing his brand of sample-rich East-West fusion for some time, built on the rhythms of 4/4 doof, dubby breakbeats and rock-style drumming. Last Train To Lhasa stands out as the first time he completely tied together the disparate elements that were still coalescing on previous releases. And 20 years on it’s still a glorious kaleidoscope of global flavours, expertly arranged and stitched together with surreal sound-effect interludes ala the Floyd. Highlights: the chugging, clubby title track with its rousing Tibetan group vocal; the lush tribal dub of “Amber” and “White Paint”; the achingly sad harmonies of hammer dulcimer and angelic synths on “Clouds Not Mountains”.

The mainstream’s brief peak of interest in ambient dance soon subsided, which was both inevitable and welcome. But this was only the beginning. The creative possibilities for ambient music - previously explored mostly within art rock, new age and the classical avant-garde - had now been the blown wide open in a way not seen since the Krautrock’s innovations of the 1970’s. So the wide-ranging legacy of Lhasa and its ilk can now be heard almost everywhere in modern electronica, not least right here in the form of eight new remixes by other artists for this 20th Anniversary 4-CD edition. It’s all about diversity. So Alucidnation goes all Cafe Del Mar-style Balearic with “White Paint”, while Astropilot strips back the famous title track and crafts a pumping, atmospheric slice of progressive house. Banco’s own reworkings and alternative versions that make up the rest of the set are also interesting and generous.

All of which makes this hugely expanded edition of Last Train To Lhasa an absolute must for fans, and a fabulous introduction for newcomers to the Banco de Gaia universe. It’s not quite ambient dance music's Year Zero but close enough to remind us that all genres have beginnings, and all are up for rebirth and reinvention.

Buy Last Train To Lhasa from Disco Gecko Recordings

 

Sage Taylor - Raintime (2010, reissue by Txt Recordings/Cold Fiction Music)

raintimeDeservedly rescued from five years of obscurity, Raintime by the Oregon-based composer Sage Taylor is an album that completely fulfills the potential of its theme. Honestly, I’ve heard so many rubbish albums in the new age and ambient spheres with the word “rain“ in the title that I’ve lost count; tantalising titles doused in sentimental mush (Narada Records, I’m looking at you). Raintime was heard by few on its release in 2010 - only 100 discs were made - but now we have a welcome dual re-release by Txt Recordings and Cold Fiction Music.

Raintime’s melodic sound is driven mainly by acoustic and Fender Rhodes pianos but it unites diverse strands including classical and Eno-esque minimalism, soft-edged melodic techno, film music and atmospheric pop. Many of the pieces are masterful examples of how minimalism works - sly repetition that changes in only small increments but slowly pulls you in like gravity to its swirling centre, leaving you asking: how did I get here?

There’s also rain and thunderstorm samples, sometimes running all through a track but more often simply acting as a bridge, never too obvious or high in the mix. Add that, I think, is the whole point. The album’s greatness lies not in its field recordings but mostly in the way it captures the emotional complexity of how rain makes us feel; the grey and the colours, the prettiness and melancholy, the darkness and the hypnotic soothing balm.

Buy Raintime from Txt Recordings (CD version) and Cold Fiction Music (download)

 

Florian Fricke & Popol Vuh - Kailash (1972-1988, 1995; archive release by Soul Jazz Records)

kailashKailash is a most unexpected archival release from German band Popol Vuh, a pioneer of ethno-ambient, spicy progressive rock and mystical world music. When its visionary founder Florian Fricke passed away in 2001 the name died with him, leaving a large and extraordinary recorded legacy but little sign until now that much of substance remained in the archives. Until now.

Kailash is a double-length album. Half of it is a previously unreleased film soundtrack to the wordless film Kailash: Pathway to the Throne of the Gods (1995) which was shot in Tibet by band member and co-producer Frank Fielder. Like much of the band’s music before it’s bizarre flirtation in the 90’s with ambient dance music, the production is deliberately low-fi and organic-sounding even though it supposedly dates from that wayward decade. Such sound design makes the deeply meditative melange of Tibetan-style folk songs, sacred chants and assorted bells, flutes and other acoustic instruments sound oddly authentic, even though Fricke is filtering his sources in his own very special way. Subtle landscaped synthesiser also features, highly effective but nonetheless surprising from a man who consciously shunned the instrument for most of Popol Vuh’s 30 year existence. The sacred drone of his classic early 70’s track “Aguirre” gets reworked here not once but twice, its majestic, mystical chords sitting very comfortably alongside the rest of the material.

The other half of the album is Fricke at the piano; a collection of slow solo pieces from the archives that have been heard previously in one form or another. All of them have that luminous, devotional, loving touch coupled with a Zen-like stillness, qualities that made and still make Fricke’s piano meanderings unique examples of the form. The three-part “Spirit Of Peace” you may already know, and the demo versions here are not much different to the final recordings. The others are more unique, being solo piano variations or fragments of themes that ended up as ensemble pieces on albums like Hosianna Mantra (1972) and Brothers Of Darkness Sons Of Light (1978).

Kailash is a beautifully curated release made with the full cooperation of Fricke’s family. Now, how about a properly remastered boxed set of highlights from the band’s career? The post-2000 album remasters released by SPV Recordings were taken from tapes that were sometimes in atrocious condition, possibly 2nd generation sources. With interest in the band still strong, surely a deeper investigation and restoration project is now warranted.

Buy Kailash from Soul Jazz Records

 

Pan Electric & Ishq - Elemental Journey (2005, reissue by Pink Lizard Music)

elemental-journeyEven those already familiar with the hyperreal psyambient of the UK duo Ishq will hear something new in this epic suite created ten years ago with fellow Brit composer Matt Coldrick aka Pan Electric. Often more kinetic than most of Ishq’s music, Elemental Journey is a dynamic, multi-coloured paean to nature and the five elements. That’s a new age theme to be sure, but in these gifted hands it’s fully realised both musically and conceptually.

The multi-talented Coldrick began with a collection of “brilliant textural abstract sound files” sent to him by Matt Hillier of Ishq, including Jacqueline Kersley's trippy vocalising. To these he added his own ideas and instrumentation to create five pieces of original, gorgeous psychedelic chill. The energy level ranges from languid breakbeat (“The Band From Atlantis”) to a frenetic tribal dance (“Fire Dance”) to deep, wide drones with no beats at all (“Air”). “The Band from Atlantis” is especially fine, building ever-so-slowly with drones, theremin warbles and electric guitar strumming, reaching a euphoric peak that spills over into a liquid-smooth lounge groove.

Coldrick says his modus operandi on this album was different to his previous work. He took a less cautious approach to composition, working faster and not dwelling too much on the process. In doing so he minimised the risk of over-thinking the pieces. This, perhaps, is the secret to Elemental Journey’s greatness: the work of two musicians following their instincts and trusting what emerged.

Buy Elemental Journey from Pink Lizard Music

 

Matt Coldrick - Music For A Busy Head Volume 1 (2001, reissue by Pink Lizard Music)

music-for-a-busy-headBritish composer Matt Coldrick’s catalogue of ambient and dance music from the 90’s and 2000’s almost completely bypassed me at the time. So Pink Lizard Music’s recent series of reissues by the artist have been a revelation.

Music For A Busy Head dates from 2001. The title implies the functional side of ambient music as popularised by Brian Eno - to be used as background to induce calm - but as always I judge ambient on its inherent qualities as music. And judged as such, the album is exquisitely melodic and quietly powerful. The seven tone poems take us through the colours of the seven chakras or energy centres of certain Indian religions, and indeed there is a meditative calm to these tracks that will resonate with new age fans. The real magic, though, is the way these beatless synthesised tone pieces fulfill the ethos of less is more - they feel like fully released music despite being completely uncluttered and using only a small number of sonic elements each time.

The album has echoes of Ishq's psyambient - an artist Coldrick has collaborated with elsewhere - but it’s also something much more. Music For A Busy Head is a rare and personal kind of new age music, and it's new age as it should be: whether or not you tune in to the metaphysics, the music speaks eloquently for itself.

Buy Music For A Busy Head from Pink Lizard Music

 

Si Matthews - Tales of Ten Worlds (2006, reissue by Carpe Sonum)

tales-of-ten-worldsFor all his gifts, ambient deity and record label owner Pete Namlook (1960-2012) was fallible after all. He politely rejected this outstanding album submitted to his Fax Records label back in 2006. Si Matthews’ warm, melodic, sci-fi-flavoured electronica apparently didn’t fit the direction Namlook wanted to take the label at the time. What that direction actually was is debatable; to my ears the Fax catalogue post-2000 sounds both too diverse and too inconsistent to discern any clear direction at all.

But I digress. American label Carpe Sonum has now given Tales From Ten Worlds a proper release and that’s a cause for celebration. Sounding at once contemporary and nostalgic, many of these pieces have that positive, melodic vibe that distinguish ambient dance music during its first wave in the 90’s. Some of the harmonies exceptionally lush, especially the breezy ambient techno of “World 1”, a lullaby for planet Earth with softened bleeps and jazzy drum brushes. The occasional dark passages work well, too. “World 7” is obviously the desolated planet from Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), its unusual harmonies riding on a techy 303 acid pulse, a malevolent but oddly compelling creation.

The album’s sound is timeless in a way, even if it’s not a sound that defines ambient techno anymore. A reaction after the 1990’s by many ambient techno producers against warmth, melody and cosmic themes meant that those qualities are nowadays heard more often in other dance music spin-offs like ambient trance, psychedelic dub and exotic lounge. Meanwhile, “pure” ambient techno seems to have narrowed to be mostly glitchy, cold and fussy. Each to his own, but I know which I prefer.

Buy Tales Of Ten Worlds from Carpe Sonum Records

 

Gigi Masin - Wind (1986, reissue by Bear On The Moon Records/Music From Memory)

windWind is a jazzy, Balearic wonder, a brilliant cult item from 1986 that was the first album from Italian composer Gigi Masin. He's still active today and last year released a fine career-spanning compilation called Talk To The Sea (2014). But his obscure, mostly-instrumental debut is the one that seems to inspire the most fervor. One of the infrequent blog posts of Neil Ollivierra (Detroit Escalator Company) alerted me to its existence, an album heard by almost nobody in 1986 but now lovingly remastered and reissued on vinyl and digital.

Wind explores the spaces between jazz, ambient, minimalism and soul and it’s a striking personal statement. I love the album’s spare and distinctive synth sound. It’s either softly pulsing like a slowly purring motor, or shaped into beautiful airy chords that hover like clouds. Languid trumpet, tenor sax and piano improvisations are woven around these structures with great sensitivity. Some of the melodies are weepingly beautiful - “Tears Of A Clown” and “Wind Song” - while several tracks are synth-only explorations in abstraction that flirt with dissonance but are never cold.

The overall vibe of the album is deeply, curiously Balearic, which for 1986 makes it rather ahead of its time. If the original Cafe Del Mar series curator Jose Padilla had known of it he surely would have featured Masin’s music prominently on the cafe’s early classic chillout compilations from the 90’s. Wind is a tremendous reissue and I look forward to exploring the rest of Masin’s extensive catalogue.

Buy the download version of Wind from Music From Memory Records. The vinyl version is available from specialist retailers.

 

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