Ambient Music Guide’s Best Albums of 2016

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Reviewed by Mike G, November 24th 2016 

In some ways 2016 was a year of comebacks in the wide world of sounds we call of ambient, downtempo and chillout.

Deep Forest, Banco De Gaia, Pitch Black, Silent Records, Tangerine Dream's Peter Baumann - they all surprised by either releasing their best albums in many years, or by suddenly appearing with strong material after long absences.

Of course it was also a year of continuing discoveries and highly diverse new music. The ever-fluid boundaries of the ambient genre allow me to draw the line pretty much where I want when it comes to choosing music to play and review. You'll see that diversity in this year's Best-Of reviews and the accompanying mixes. Alas, you might also see my blind spots, like glitch music for example. The net is big enough to accommodate it all, but Ambient Music Guide isn't. This site has always been just me and my taste in sounds - no more, no less.

2016 also marked two personal milestones: the 15th anniversary of Ambient Music Guide, and the completion of a much-needed redesign and rebuild of the site. I hope you like what you see...and hear.

Peace to you in 2017.

LISTEN NOW: Hear tracks from most of these albums in AMG's Best Albums Of 2016 mixes: Deep Mix and Beats Mix.


Index: Best New Albums

ABAKUS - Departure (Modus Recordings)
AUTUMN OF COMMUNION - Polydeuces (Txt Recordings)
ATMOSPHERE FACTORY - Atmosphere Factory (Dakini Records)
ANAAMALY - Urban Metta vol. 1 (Anaamaly.com)
ASCENDANT - Meridian (Synphaera Records)
MATTHEW BARLOW - Hatha (Inner Islands)
BIOSPHERE - Departed Glories (Smalltown Supersound)
BEN LUKAS BOYSEN - Spells (Erased Tape Records)
BANCO DE GAIA - The 9th of Nine Hearts (Disco Gecko)
PETER BAUMANN - Machines Of Desire (Bureau B)
CAPA - Remixes (Lemongrass Music)
ED CARLSEN - The Journey Tapes (Moderna Records)
DEEP FOREST - Evo Devo (deep-forest.fr)
FOURTH DIMENSION - The Core (Synphaera Records)
RENZO GLONTI - Budapest (Dronarivm)
GROUSE - Oslo (Babyfly Records)
HiKE - Deutsche Bahn e.p. (Cold Fiction Music)
ANDREW HEATH - Europa (Disco Gecko)
HYBRID PALMS - Pacific Image (Sounds of the Dawn)
ISHQ - Nutopia (Virtual), Space Simulator (Virtual), Evergreen Ocean (Virtual)
IN'R'VOICE - Aesthetica (Cosmicleaf)
LINGUA LUSTRA - Essence (Psychonavigation)
JAMES MURRAY - Eyes To The Height (Ultimae)
MARCONI UNION - Ghost Stations (Just Music)
NATURAL LIFE ESSENCE - Space Caravan e.p. (Cyan Music)
NORKEN - Soul Of The Machine (XTT Recordings)
OFF LAND - Afterglow (Carpe Sonum)
ONE ARC DEGREE - The Ocean Palace (Blue Tunes Chillout)
PITCH BLACK - Filtered Senses (Dubmission)
STEVE ROACH - Live In Tucson: Pinnacle Moments (Timeroom Editions)
STRATOSPHERE - Rise (Projekt)
GRANT SUMMER - Music Made Out Of Music (I Low You Records)
OLIVIA SUMMER - Simply (I Low You Records)
SLOW DANCING SOCIETY - The Wagers Of Love (Hidden Shoal)
SURVIVE - RR7349 (Relapse Records)
TAMBOUR - Chapitre II e.p. (Moderna Records)
PRINS THOMAS - Principe Del Norte (Smalltown Supersound)
VARIOUS ARTISTS - Starseed (Synphaera Records)
VARIOUS ARTISTS - Beyond The Borders: Ultima Thule Ambient vol. 2 (UT Ambient Media)
VARIOUS ARTISTS - From Here To Tranquillity vols. 6 and 7 (Silent Records)
HIROSHI WATANABE ‎– Multiverse (Transmat)
WOOB - Death By Coin-Op (Bigamoebasounds)

Index: Best Reissues & Archive Releases

PETER BAUMANN - Romance ‘76 (1976, reissue on Bureau B)
PETER BAUMANN - Trans Harmonic Nights (1979, reissue on Bureau B)
CIRCLES - Structures: Unreleased Material 1985-89 (Bureau B)
BURKHARD VON DALLWITZ - World’s Apart (1994, reissue on Ultima Thule Ambient Media)
HEAVENLY MUSIC CORPORATION - In A Garden Of Eden (1993, Silent Records)
HEAVENLY MUSIC CORPORATION - Consciousness III (1994 Silent Records)
HEAVENLY MUSIC CORPORATION - Lunar Phase (1995, Silent Records)
HEAVENLY MUSIC CORPORATION - Anechoic (1996, Silent Records)
PETER MILLER - The Violet Flame (1993, reissue on Ultima Thule Ambient Media)
PAN ELECTRIC - Conscious Pilot (2007, reissue on Pink Lizard Music)
VARIOUS ARTISTS - The Microcosm: Visionary Music Of Continental Europe 1970-1986 (Light In The Attic Records)
ZENITH - Zenith (1994, reissue on Psychonavigation)


Best New Albums

ABAKUS - Departure (Modus Recordings)

departureThe prodigiously gifted Russ Davies releases his first Abakus album in three years, and the qualities that made last year’s e.p. The Beginning/Dreamer so outstanding are all here. Book-ended by two Daft Punk-like songs and containing nine lush instrumentals, Departure finds him applying his incredible pop smarts and grasp of melody on a blissfully chilled-out canvas. His downtempo distillations of punchy synthpop, underground trance, progressive house and Balearic lounge literally sparkle with life and light. The arpeggio-driven “Dreamer” and “The Beginning” provide the album’s euphoric peaks, surrounded by slightly more sedate fare that ebbs and flow on steady, hypnotic breakbeats. “Still A Soul” has harmonies of weeping beauty, while “Storm” shows his knack for harvesting the very best qualities of melodic club trance without any of its cheesiness. Departure is deeply loving music, the very essence of quiet joy and gentle euphoria, captured in a bottle and cast upon an ocean where the sun shines eternal. More at Modus Recordings

 

AUTUMN OF COMMUNION - Polydeuces (Txt Recordings)

polydeucesFormed in 2012, the UK duo of Mick Chillage and Lee Norris have been prolific, creative and restless; never a band to stay in one place for long. They love the music of new-school ambient pioneer Pete Namlook and his label Fax Records, however, and his DNA is arguably the common thread throughout all their music. Polydeuces is Autumn Of Communion's distinctive take on spacemusic. Some of the album's best moments come not from an airy sparseness - a quality that's common in the spacemusic realm - but from a surprising heaviness. The stunning “Tectonics” is a case in point; massive, densely layered and powerful, its dark harmonies are skillfully built with epic descending chords and carried along by thundering polyrhythms. More AOC @ Bandcamp

 

ATMOSPHERE FACTORY - Atmosphere Factory (Dakini Records)

atmosphere-factoryA stunning piece of cosmic, richly melodic ambient techno-trance and retro psychedelia from long-time chill master Gio Fazio, and rather different to the juicy Eastern-dub sounds he makes under his Makyo banner. Atmosphere Factory sounds quite unlike anything else in psychill right now, partly because he made it “live” without any computers and using mostly old-school gear. The clean, hypnotic arpeggios and jaw-droppingly pretty textures sound like a love letter to classic Silent Records, the 90’s ambient label that launched Makyo and - in its 2016 rebooted form - featured Atmosphere Factory on one of its compilations. You'll also hear a lovely pastiche of hippie minimalist Terry Riley’s droning organ called “A Rainbow On Curved Hips”. Made by a gifted multi-instrumentalist and composer of some 35 years stranding, Atmosphere Factory is completely wonderful and gets my highest recommendation. More at Dakini Records

 

ANAAMALY - Urban Metta vol. 1 (Anaamaly.com)

urbanmettavol1Amazingly sophisticated electronic new age by a guy who’s never worked in the new age genre before. American Phil Strickland usually makes trip hop and chilled breaks, as well as running a music licensing company for film and multimedia. As Anaamaly, he created his Urban Metta album as “a collection of spiritually moving, instrumental soundscapes for deep sleep, relaxation, yoga, and meditation”. Normally I’d run a mile after reading such a description (relaxation muzak alert!) but then I’d look a fool because the album’s stated purpose never compromises the intrinsic quality of the music. It's droning, tonal and airy but not static; every track has some kind of chord progression, sometimes with a jazz-like complexity. Skillfully woven deep into the mix are subtle suggestions of Tibetan bells, whale calls, chants and sounds of the urban landscape. This is the first album in a planned series and I can’t wait to hear more. More at anaamaly.com

 

ASCENDANT - Meridian (Synphaera Records)
VARIOUS ARTISTS - Starseed (Synphaera Records)
FOURTH DIMENSION - The Core (Synphaera Records)

meridianThese three outstanding albums from new Los Angeles-based label Synphaera resonate with me particularly strongly because they embrace a timeless sound that's been with me since I was a teenager.  The Synphaera sound is deeply Berlin school-influenced but with an ambient dance sensibility; a smooth, panoramic style of cosmic psychedelic bleep music that French label Ultimae Records originally championed. The Meridian album by Ascendant (label founders Chris Bryant and Don Tyler) is quintessential ambient trance: lush and mysterious music with spinning arpeggios above gliding pads and discreet rhythmic pulses. “Arcology” is a dark-edged stunner with its haunting chorales, odd delay effects and sound design that has an uncommonly deep depth of field. The other two albums have more variety. Beyond the gorgeous arpeggios and drifting cosmic drones, the Starseed compilation also serves up subtly glitchy grooves (Martin Nonstatic and Omelic) and even some 90’s style IDM. The Core by Serbian duo Fourth Dimension is the freshest-sounding of the bunch and has similar diversity despite being the work of a single artist. “Dynamics” and “Synthetic Cognitive Process” have an intriguing industrial edge, and the album’s swings between light and dark show they’re not just skilled emusicians but expert dramatists as well. More at Synphaera Records

 

MATTHEW BARLOW - Hatha (Inner Islands)

hathaThis is a superior example of electro-acoustic new age music, showing a deep respect for space and silence. American Mathew Barlow paints with a minimum of colours on Hatha - predominantly flute, along with with harp, bells, nature sounds and discreet tones from a synth. If that roll call of instruments sounds overly-familiar, put aside your preconceptions because his exceptional sense of poise makes this compelling meditative music. There are two long tracks, “Sun” and “Moon”, the main difference between them being the the use of organ-like low frequency drones on the latter. Hatha is my kind of flute music - not solo but subtly dressed - and it’s an album that's much better experienced than simply described. In the artist’s own words: “Just being, without striving. A place of stillness.” More at Inner Islands

 

BIOSPHERE - Departed Glories (Smalltown Supersound)

departed-gloriesIt must be hard being Biosphere these days. 90’s milestones like the icy ambient techno of Microgravity (1991) and his glacial, cinematic masterpiece Substrata (1997) are now far behind him, yet they shadow everything this Norwegian artist has attempted since. I’ve tried to be objective about his albums of last 15 years; few of them have moved me and none have come close to the haunted tone poems of Departed Glories. The new album’s 17 beatless pieces were inspired by the discovery of a cache of colour photo negatives taken in Tsarist Russia over 100 years ago. They are extraordinarily clear and vivid; peasants, aristocrats, daily life and stunningly pretty rural landscapes of a forgotten age. The music here is not overt; it’s about hints and emotions and mystery. Some tracks have choral-like qualities and weird voicings, other are pure electronic tones and suspended strings. True to form, much of the music has an ominous undercurrent that fans will easily recognise. Whether or not Departed Glories is the Biosphere you expect, on its own terms it’s a striking piece of work. More at Smalltown Supersound

 

BEN LUKAS BOYSEN - Spells (Erased Tape Records)

spellsGermany’s Ben Lukas Boysen has dabbled in everything from classical to fractured electronica over the years, though classical is probably the most pronounced element on his new album Spells. It’s a quiet, uncanny masterpiece, an assured blending of modern classical, ambient and post-rock. While it’s far from derivative, it does sometimes echo the best qualities of other acts such as Philip Glass’s looping piano minimalism or the slow-mo majesty of ambient rockers Sigur Ros. The greatest thing here is the elegiac two-part suite “Nocturne” - two stately progressions of ambient rock featuring piano, bass, drums, organ and subtle choral drones. They are sad, profound pieces that suggest something 70’s Pink Floyd might have developed from improvisations and turned into one of their greatest creations. More at Erased Tape Records

 

BANCO DE GAIA - The 9th of Nine Hearts (Disco Gecko)

9thnineheartsThe new album from ethno-techno and world beat pioneer Banco de Gaia (Toby Marks) comes off the back of several well-received reissues over the past two years: the 20th Anniversary Editions of Maya (1994) and Last Train To Lhasa (1995). His shining newbie The 9th of Nine Hearts is inspired, with its powerful prog rock-inflected psychedelia providing the extra spark that’s often proved elusive on his albums since the 90’s. There's strong writing, some rockin grooves, lush gliding panoramas, lovely wordless vocals and a profoundly cosmic undercurrent throughout. The live guest players - drums, bass, sax - also add a dimension that's missing from a lot of current sample-based global exotica, a subset of chillout which Banco has inspired a great deal of over the years. All up, Nine Hearts is his strongest album of new material since 1998’s Magical Sounds. PS: eagle-eyed fans should spot the tasty pastiche of the ricocheting bass sounds from Pink Floyd’s “One Of These Days”. More at banco.co.uk

 

PETER BAUMANN - Machines Of Desire (Bureau B)

machines-of-desireOne of 2016’s biggest surprises was the return of Tangerine Dream’s Peter Baumann after a ridiculously long sabbatical of 33 years. Baumann was one of the Holy Five of TD’s often-changing line-up, alongside Edgar Froese, Chris Franke, Johannes Schmoelling and Paul Haslinger. And the news is good, because the same peculiar qualities that made his two 70’s solo albums distinctive from the rest of his bandmates can be heard in abundance on Machines Of Desire. The album delivers a dark-edged, sparse, dynamic form of electronic ambient pop-rock with classical Romantic flourishes and a keen ear for minimalist repetition. It’s wonderful to have Baumann back, even if some of what we’re hearing started life as a planned collaboration with TD founder Edgar Froese just before the latter’s sudden death in early 2015. The album is released on the Bureau B label, keeper of the current Krautrock flame (e.g. Düsseldorf band Kreidler), and also a curator of many archival delights. More at Bureau B

 

DEEP FOREST - Evo Devo (deep-forest.fr)

evo-devoPerhaps it was having to fight alone for it's creation and release that delivered us the best Deep Forest album in 20 years. Evo Devo was crowd-funded and self-releasedthe big label support and huge commercial success the band once enjoyed having long since disappeared. Band founder Eric Moquet ‎has stayed true to the band’s rich world beat heritage on the new album, while at the same time jettisoning much of the cliche and cheesiness that took over in the years following the clever pygmy technopop of Deep Forest (1992) and the East European-inspired folk sounds of Boheme (1995). Instead Moquet has twisted and adapted a plethora of current dance sounds to his own ends, recognisably Deep Forest but somehow fresh. “Talk To The Birds” shows what a brilliant arranger and programmer he is, seemingly mashing up different time signatures while managing vocal and synth harmonies of shivering beauty. An album of wide-ranging textures, energy and tempos, Evo Devo is a joyous thing. Commercial, yes, but inspired too. My only caveat is “Happy Tribe”, an absurdly cheesy nod to EDM bombast that was surely - hopefully - done with tongue firmly in cheek. More at deep-forest.fr

 

RENZO GLONTI - Budapest (Dronarivm)
HiKE - Deutsche Bahn e.p. (Cold Fiction Music)

budapestTwo evocative electronic releases that soundtrack different urban landscapes in their own personal way. Renzo Glonti’s album Budapest is actually not about the Hungarian capital but the city of Tbilisi in Georgia where the artist lives on Budapest Street. You could very loosely tag his lush music as ambient techno, but beyond the bleep you’ll also hear electric guitar, location recordings, surreal drones and beatless abstractions. The nine tracks paint an atmospheric and fascinating world, sometimes recognisable, at others times alien and a little disturbing. Rather different is HiKE’s Deutsche Bahn e.p, four tuneful tracks of smooth, soft-edged, 4/4 dub-techno with many of the sounds and tones built from samples he collected while commuting on Germany’s train system. The cities of Berlin, Düsseldorf, Hamburg and Bielefeld all feature in the track titles, and the music captures the reverberating spaces and gliding hypnotic repetitions of train travel to eerie perfection. More at Dronarivm and Cold Fiction Music

 

GROUSE - Oslo (Babyfly Records)

osloThis is trip hop and stoner breaks done proper. It’s a rare thing to hear this instrumental subset of hop hop music at all in 2016, let alone an example as outstanding as this one from Irish artist Grouse and his band. ”Cross Town” is lazy breaks with gorgeous strings, rippling guitars and dubby echoes. “Intervention” plays a clockwork break against haunting xylophones, sweet Jamaican horns and a slurry “everrrrybodyyyyyy” sample. Best of all is “Taking Nothing Seriously”, a Fender Rhodes-driven stormer with a soaring, joyful wordless vocal. With its focus on instrumentals and a gently psychedelic undertow, Oslo is a must for fans of early Jon Kennedy, Bonobo, Quantic and of course DJ Shadow. More Grouse @ Bandcamp

 

HYBRID PALMS - Pacific Image (Sounds of the Dawn)

pacific-image2The new American-based label Sounds Of The Dawn is one of a number of new small labels putting the cred back into indie new age music, inspired by the genre's DIY heyday of the 70’s and early-80’s. It’s debut release by Russian artist Hybrid Palms is a surreal and fascinating thing. The reverberating, droning chords and lovely arpeggios have the expected prettiness of new age, but the whole album is bathed in a curious, fuzzy tropical haze that makes it textually far more intriguing than expected. There’s an edge to Pacific Image that’s impossible to describe and keeps me coming back to explore its depths. This is new age as it should be: DIY, and a reverberation of psychedelic music. More at Sounds Of The Dawn

 

ISHQ
Nutopia (Virtual)
Space Simulator (Virtual)
Evergreen Ocean (Virtual)

nutopiaPsyambient master Matt Hillier aka Ishq usually releases at least one great album a year; in 2016 he put out at least three of them. Nutopia suggests a kind of fairytale emusic from the culture of a hi-tech city on a colonised planet. The short “Dream Citadel” is a flute-like meditation that’s simplicity itself, while “Parabolic Glide” rides on exquisitely dreamy ambient trance arpeggios very much in the style of classic 90’s Pete Namlook. Space Simulator is six epic 20 minute pieces of deep, psychedelic drone music and surreal impressions of natural and man-made environments. “Vnorweg Forest City” showcases Hillier’s famously vivid sense sound design; the tribal drums that rise ever-so-slowly from beneath the mist sound absolutely massive and thunderous, yet oddly muted as if they was recorded from 20 miles away. Finally, the beatless Evergreen Ocean album is a glorious example of Ishq’s very special way pastoral dreamworlds and love letters to nature. Rich, melodic, sensitive and detailed, it’s smart new age music for the psyambient crowd. More at Virtual

 

LINGUA LUSTRA - Essence (Psychonavigation)

essenceHow did I miss this guy? Danish artist Albert Borkent aka Lingua Lustra has been putting out albums since 2005 and the magnificent Essence is the first time I’ve heard him. It’s a sprawling double-length album with a kind of prog rock ambition; he dabbles in all kinds of electronica across the nine tracks that range in length from 4 minutes to a staggering 52. “Cloudsong” is a glistening, pulsing piece of new age ambient with choral colours. “Road Of Light” mines the lusher end of Detroit techno, its gliding layers of synth slowly rising from beneath a stark metronomic pulse. Best of all is the cosmic 36-minute title track. The atonal opening section is probably a little long (15 minutes) but it soon develops into a loving, expanding, ecstatic piece of beatless ambient, its shimmering melodic figure looped in ultra slow motion. Essence is a trip; adventurous ambient for expanding minds. More at Psychonavigation Records

 

MARCONI UNION - Ghost Stations (Just Music)

ghost-stationsGhost stations are disused train stations; in this case, the ones on the sprawling London Underground. But as broadcaster John Diliberto says: “You don’t need to analyse Marconi Union’s Ghost Stations. Just ride on its haunted train into the night”. This time around the UK trio's ambient melange of electronica, jazz, post-rock and soundtrack music heads in some new directions, embracing a loopy, hypnotic minimalism more than ever before. The album twists and reconfigures their signature sounds in the most brilliant ways, without losing sight of melody or aping current trends such as the dead-end doodling of glitch music. What really blows me away is how they segue from sombre, classical-sounding passages into loopy electronics is if it was the most natural thing in the world.  Dark yet melodic, and somehow soothing, Ghost Stations is as good as electronica - whatever that is - gets in 2016. More at Just Music

 

NATURAL LIFE ESSENCE - Space Caravan e.p. (Cyan Music)

space-caravanThe drifting, largely unstructured nature of the deepest spacemusic - beatless, droning rhapsodies about the cosmos - suggests that it’s a style deceptively easy to make. Perhaps it is, but then surely that also makes it harder to master. The outstanding examples of the form like this 4-track e.p. by Argentinian artist Juan Pablo Giacovino aka Natural Life Essence stand out like shining beacons in the black expanse, conjuring that wordless sense of awe I find so attractive in the subgenre. “Distances” develops a brilliantly subtle, looping riff that rises from the drift, while the title track suggests a massive craft floating through the cosmic sea, the surface occasionally broken by gorgeous cello and violin phrases.  The artist apparently dabbled in electronic music for over 20 years before putting out his first release in 2014. An inspired statement like Space Caravan promises more greatness to come. More at Cyan Music

 

ONE ARC DEGREE - The Ocean Palace (Blue Tunes Chillout)

the-ocean-palaceA blinding album from a Greek electronica duo making their long-play debut after years of singles and e.p releases. Combining memorable tunes with superb production nouse, The Ocean Palace is a free-ranging fusion of lush chillout with strains of epic breakbeat, progressive rock, and thumping progressive psytrance. The production is uncanny at times; the duo have constructed their sound on a vivid three-dimensional soundstage so that, despite all the textural richness and layers of harmonies, a striking sense of space remains. The unforgettable opener “Through This Haze” glides slowly up to the heavens on a humming bassline before locking down into a broken groove that packs an incredible gnarly punch. Also on the menu is sparkling midtempo psy, beatless reveries and slow, shimmering deep space tech. “Hydrogen Times Pi” sounds like an ambient rock rave-up with its sad, simple melody swirling over a maelstrom of distorted guitar sounds and thundering drums. More at onearcdegree.com

 

PITCH BLACK - Filtered Senses (Dubmission)

filtered-sensesA hearty welcome back to one of the greatest dub acts in the world, New Zealand’s Pitch Black. The new album Filtered Senses is gold class, their first collection of new original tunes in nearly a decade. On the dub-tech axis, the band's music still sits first and foremost towards the dub end. This makes it quite distinct from many of the current crop of dub-techno acts where the dominant voice is techno, even though both styles use dub’s signature delay and echo effects. So in Pitch Black’s case the bedrock is usually not metronomic 4/4 beats but more complex grooves and rhythms pinned down with big, tuneful basslines. The techno element is more in the textures - the sparingly-used snarls and bleeps and floating ambient clouds. Three tracks on the album also feature a female vocal, smartly woven into the music as texture rather than song so that lyrics are never a distraction. Filtered Senses finds Pitch Black at the top of their game, a deft mixture of force and understatement, sounding like no one but themselves. More Pitch Black @ Bandcamp

 

STEVE ROACH - Live In Tucson: Pinnacle Moments (Timeroom Editions)

pinnacle-momentsAn emusic pioneer of some 35-plus years standing, Steve Roach has lifted his live performance profile over the past few years, starting with his set at the Hearts Of Space Ambicon Festival in 2013. This focus has birthed several of the finest albums of his career, including this gem culled from recent concerts in his hometown of Tucson, Arizona. Starting with a breathing, sighing desert poem and climaxing with a chugging, spiralling Berlin-school sequencer epic, the five new tracks that comprise Pinnacle Moments are exactly that what the title promises. If nothing else the album is proof that old school ambient - that is, sounds that were around before 90’s techno and electronic dance  - remains vital, especially in Steve Roach’s extraordinary hands. More at steveroach.com

 

STRATOSPHERE - Rise (Projekt)

riseBelgian artist Stratosphere takes guitar-based ambient to new heights on the epic Rise, one of the the most rapturous, emotional, haunting things I’ve heard for some time. I quote the release notes thus: “The guitars emerge in big layered clouds rising into the glowing sky through intricate applications of distortion and texture...a world of shimmering drones, engaging post-rock, and quiet passionate ambient.” These are beatless songs without words, haunting yet hopeful, melancholy in the best possible way. The album is less drone-based and more defined than its excellent predecessor Aftermath (2015), but still swimming in a sea of sound. The melodies somehow rest in the sweet spot between straight guitar compositions and pure drone music. Astonishingly, the whole thing was created with just an electric guitar, a bass guitar and a range of pedals. Whatever kind of ambient you like - or think you like - don’t miss this. More at Projekt Records

 

GRANT SUMMER - Music Made Out Of Music (I Low You Records)
OLIVIA SUMMER - Simply (I Low You Records)

cover

These two albums are the kind of gems that make wading through hours of noise and avant-garde music worthwhile. The artist known as E. Summer (aka Grant Summer aka Oliver Summer) is something of a cypher. So too is the intriguing new label on which these releases appear, the Tokyo-based I Low You Records. I guess that makes it easy to just focus on the music: a beguiling, dreamy, low-fidelity brand of ambient impressionism. His tools: reversed synth chords, lovely droney organs, location recordings and various unidentified instruments. The track titles sometimes give you a nudge towards their intended subject - “The Seagull”, “Boxes Of Mirrors”, “The House on the Hill” - but nothing is overstated. For experimental music there is a curiously touching humanity about it, a combination of simplicity, mystery and nostalgia that I find very special. More at I Low You Records

 

TAMBOUR - Chapitre II e.p. (Moderna Records)

chapitre-iiLast year's Chapitre I, the debut e.p. of Canadian modern classical composer Simon P. Castonguay aka Tambour, was one of AMG’s Best of 2015. His follow-up Chapitre II is a worthy sequel in every way: it's accessible, melodic, intelligent and deep.  “L’apostrophe” and “Sleepers” are combos of piano and strings that are soft edged, melancholic and blessed with gentle sense of awe. Meshed with the piano of “Farewell Museum” is a sad and lovely melody for French horns created by guest Pietro Amato. One of the things that makes Tambour’s music distinctive is that, unlike some other artists in the modern classical/post-classical milieu, his use of electronic synthesis and musical styles such as rock is very subtle, probably undetectable to many. But mostly, it’s simply that he’s a seriously talented in all three of the areas that seem to count in this genre: composer, arranger and studio craftsman. More at Moderna Records

 

PRINS THOMAS - Principe Del Norte (Smalltown Supersound)

principe-de-norteFans like to call Prins Thomas’ warm, funky brand of mid-tempo dance music 'space disco' and that’s a pretty nifty tag; the subtle 70’s disco element is one thing that stands him apart from many of his contemporaries. He’s also clearly fond of the more cosmic forms of Krautrock and 90’s ambient techno. While the stunning Principe Del Norte is his most chilled-out album to date, the musical DNA was always there in his earlier releases. That is, his sense of panorama and space, the precise layering of sounds, and the minimalistic melodies that slowly morph into new harmonic shapes. Ten epic tracks span this double-length album and while about a third of its running time is beatless, the music is always rhythmic in some way and the grooves are incredibly, deliciously smooth. Principe Del Norte is an exceptional meeting of sensuality and production craft - machine music made flesh. More at Smalltown Supersound

 

VARIOUS ARTISTS - Beyond The Borders: Ultima Thule Ambient vol. 2 (UT Ambient Media)

beyond-the-bordersA public radio show since 1989 and a podcast since 2005, the Australian-based Ultima Thule is an institution with a devoted global following, still run by its founder George Cruickshank. It wasn’t too hard, then, to attract talent to contribute exclusive music for the show’s two-part 25th anniversary broadcast in 2014. Now comes Beyond The Borders, a fine double-album of 28 tracks chosen from those contributions and with a stellar cast including Robert Rich, Tim Story and Al Gromer Khan. It’s a very strong collection and pretty much all facets of old-school ambient are on show here: impressionist landscapes, dark urban drones, stately Vangelis-like melodies, pastoral Krautrock and more. Outstanding moments include the Gothic-Eastern fusion dronescape of Numina’s “Another Aeon”, and the odd but calming electronica of “Last Land” by Tim Story and Roedelius. More at UT Ambient Media

 

VARIOUS ARTISTS
From Here To Tranquility vol. 6: The Renaissance (Silent Records)
From Here To Tranquility vol. 7: The Renaissance Continues (Silent Records)

tranquility6San Francisco's Silent Records (1986-1997) is back. You might be old enough to remember this wide-ranging electronica, industrial and ambient label that - in its later years - rode the first wave of ambient dance music so memorably before coming to an abrupt halt in the mid-90’s. Founder Kim Cascone’s 2016 reboot includes both new albums and classic reissues; these two new installments in Silent's legendary Tranquility series are both quite superb. Volume 6: The Renaissance is a reunion of artists from the original label contributing mostly fresh material, while Volume 7: The Renaissance Continues features artists who are new to Silent. Both albums bunch their tracks in two halves that clearly delineate the label’s dual heritage: tonal ambient techno and trance sounds (both beats and beatless, often with a sci-fi or pastoral tinge) contrasting with a droning, industrial, more discordant dark side. The latter style works better on Volume 7, where repeated listens often reveal more than just atonal noise, something that weighs down Volume 6 on occasion. At any rate, after 20 years Silent Records has returned with much to say, and that’s made some of us very happy indeed. More at Silent Records

 

Hiroshi Watanabe ‎– Multiverse (Transmat)

multiverseDetroit techno has a cosmic strain going right back to the genre’s embryonic 80’s records made by Juan Atkins (aka Cybertron and Model 500). This spacey, intricate, beat-driven beauty from Japan’s Hiroshi Watanabe reinvigorates that classic sound with the blessing of no less than Derrick May’s pioneering Transmat label. The album’s lush, soaring harmonies and delicious sci-fi undertones make it as good for deep headphone listening as it is for sweaty dancefloors. In fact I wish more club techno DJ’s would play tracks as deeply tuneful as these; melody is still a dirty word it seems, perhaps due to the lingering stench of Eurotrance. But I digress. Multiverse is smart, emotional and uplifting, electronica for both body and mind made by a DJ/producer who understands the art of the album. I won’t call it pure techno, because quite honestly I don’t really know what pure techno is anymore. Note: there's also a Multiverse four-track e.p, but this album-length version is the business. More at Beatport

 

WOOB - Death By Coin-Op (Bigamoebasounds)

woobFollowing straight on from last year’s brilliant Adaption, master of sonic cinema Paul Frankland aka Woob delivers Death By Coin-Op, a sequel based on the same imaginary 80’s horror film about zombies and 8-bit arcade games. Once again, the result is not constrained by the narrative, thanks to a fluid concept that lets the music fly free on its own terms. And what a glorious mashup it is: think 80's Tangerine Dream-style synthpop, John Carpenter’s electronic film scores, lush ambient soundscapes and a dark midtempo strain of 21st century club trance. “Beautiful Sadness” is a weepingly sad synthpop lullaby with sighing wordless vocals to match. The epic “It Begins” builds Berlin-school arpeggios, swelling Moog bass and tightly-packed swarms of 8-bit bleeps into music of blinding colours and extraordinary intensity. Death By Coin-Op is inspired state-of-the-art electronica, simultaneously forward and backward-looking and rendered with Woob’s renown production finesse.

 

Just briefly...

ED CARLSEN - The Journey Tapes (Moderna Records)

journey-tapesSuperb piano-led modern classical from a 26 yo London-based artist. His debut album The Journey Tapes has some soaring - even epic - melodies but it’s all done on the intimate scale of chamber music. Electronic beats lend a groove on several pieces and the hybrid sound works seamlessly. More at Moderna Records

CAPA - Remixed (Lemongrass Music)

capa-remixesNorway's Vidar Nord aka Capa hovers around the borders of dance, synthetic pop and ambient music and his new album Remixed showcases his lush, dreamy style to great effect. Cutting up and manipulating vocals is his thing, the best example being guest Eskadet's shadowy remix of "Bit By God", a trip hop masterpiece with echoes of Massive Attack and darker Delerium. More at Lemongrass Music

ANDREW HEATH - Europa (Disco Gecko)

europaUK composer Andrew Heath once again shows his extraordinary visual sense, this time a vivid travelogue of his travels through Europe. He paints his canvas with subtle synths and treatments, quiet strings, tentative piano and lots of location recordings, all used sparingly, drawing you right into the middle of it all. More at Disco Gecko

IN'R'VOICE - Aesthetica (Cosmicleaf)

aestheticaRussian ambient dance veteran Den Kozlov fashions a distinctive brand of tech-trance on Aesthetica that's completely beatless but pulses with rhythms and trippy layers. The album's pretty first half contrasts with the darker second leg, where he builds some sinister synthpop grooves worthy of Vangelis' Blade Runner universe. More at Cosmicleaf

JAMES MURRAY - Eyes To The Height (Ultimae Records)

eyes-to-the-heightA fine piece of melancholic widescreen electronica that sits at the contemplative end of Ultimae Records' 'panoramic music for panoramic people'. Gliding synthetic chords, tinkling piano, subtle counter-melodies, slow click pulses and heartbeat rhythms; this is fragile music with an extraordinary sense of calm, underscored by a gentle sadness. More at Ultimae

NORKEN - Soul Of The Machine (XTT Recordings)

soul-of-the-machineNorken is another of UK artist Lee Norris’ pseudonyms and this impressive digital release (the CD came out last year) is an addictive compilation of his Detroit-infused beats reaching as far back as 1997. It's superior IDM that’s precise yet soulful, opting mostly for a minimal approach without ever becoming tuneless. More at XTT Recordings

OFF LAND - Afterglow (Carpe Sonum)

afterglowAfterglow is another immersive set from Boston artist Tim Dwyer aka Off Land. This one blends spacey ambient drones, complex tapestries and soft-edge grooves, all with a dusty, scratchy backdrop that sets it apart from a lot of other spacemusic. More at Carpe Sonum

SLOW DANCING SOCIETY - The Wagers Of Love (Hidden Shoal)

wagers-of-loveThis latest collection of emotional post-rock miniatures from Drew Sullivan aka Slow Dancing Society is by turns cinematic, tender and edgy. Sullivan continues to prod and explore the boundaries of his art and The Wagers Of Love finds his music as seductive as ever. More at Hidden Shoal

SURVIVE - RR7349 (Relapse Records)

rr7349The fragmented soundtrack album for Netflix's sci-fi horror hit Stranger Things is not the Survive album you're looking for; this one is. The latest effort from this Texan 4-piece synthwave outfit is a glorious and unpredictable mashup of 80’s retro synth motifs, off-kilter sounds and grungy electronic grooves. More at Relapse.

 


Best Reissues & Archival Releases

PETER BAUMANN
Romance ‘76 (1976, reissue on Bureau B/Esoteric Recordings)
Trans Harmonic Nights (1979, reissue on Bureau B/Esoteric Recordings)

romance76Peter Baumann was once at the very core of Tangerine Dream (1972-1977) but these fine early solo albums still sound - in some respects - like curious departures. Romance '76 came out a year before he left the band and remains his masterwork, a sparser and quirkier variation of the sequenced Berlin-school electronics heard on TD’s classic Stratosfear album of the same year. The melodies are seductive and shadowy and there's a certain looseness at times - bum notes and all - that's quite refreshing. Most impressive is the two-part “Meadow Of Infinity”, which climaxes with one of the most extraordinary and eerily beautiful melodies from the Mellotron keyboard that's ever been committed to record. Trans Harmonic Nights is more pop-oriented but remains an utterly charming slice of early instrumental ambient synthpop, with a sprinkling of acoustic instruments including live drums thrown into the mix. The album is a good deal more minimalist in its arrangements and its use of stark loops than Tangerine Dream's music of the late 70’s, again making it quite distinct from his former band. These two reissues are on CD and vinyl, with the vinyl release by Bureau B including all the glorious original artwork. More at Bureau B

 

CIRCLES - Structures: Unreleased Material 1985-89 (Bureau B)

structuresIt feels a bit weird to discover a band via an archival album of previously unreleased material, but here it is. Circles was an obscure Krautrock duo playing guitar, organ and assorted analogue electronics. They released three albums in the 1980's, well after Krautrock's 70's heyday which may explain their relative obscurity. I don't know how Structures compares to their original releases, but on its own terms it's a fantastic and rather intense ambient record. "Surface de Glace", "Track II" and "Nice Place" are droney, pastoral psychedelia not unlike the quietest moments of Popol Vuh or Harmonia. "Frog Factory Magic" is rich but dark and brooding, with shimmering guitar strums played off against bleepy organ doodles. A couple of other tracks cleverly flirt with abstraction while stopping short of falling completely into atonality. Kudos to label Bureau B, which has been digging up a good deal of music by otherwise forgotten talents and oddballs from the archives of Germany's great kosmische musik. More at Bureau B.

 

HEAVENLY MUSIC CORPORATION
In A Garden Of Eden (1993, Silent Records)
Consciousness III (1994 Silent Records)
Lunar Phase (1995, Silent Records)
Anechoic (1996, Silent Records)

consciousnessiiiThe surprising return of San Francisco's legendary ambient label Silent Records includes some digital reissues from its original back catalogue (1986-1997), including these four classics by label founder Kim Cascone’s project Heavenly Music Corporation. Although he’s mostly recorded dark experimental, industrial and/or abstract music over his long career, the melodic HMC albums are arguably his most enduring. These were Cascone’s gifts to early ambient dance music, both capturing and influencing the psychedelic sounds that were coalescing in the chill rooms at early raves and dance music festivals.

In A Garden Of Eden (1993) and Lunar Phase (1995) are both blissful psyambient sound pictures of gardens, oceans, forests and infinite skies. The floating harmonies slowly build and dissolve in the most intoxicating way, a blend of spiraling tones, floating chords, nature sounds and occasional feather-light percussion or gently throbbing bass patterns. The slow ebb and flow of the Lunar Phase album was based on a 24-hour ambient FM radio station in Japan that soundtracked the movement of the tides. In contrast to these two albums, Consciousness III (1994) leans more heavily on the drum programming and motoric pulses of early techno. For sheer mystical power, the title track is unrivaled in Cascone's work, a series of exquisite pulses and melodies built around a single minor chord and simple snare-kick pattern. The fourth and final HMC release Anechoic (1996) is quite abstract in places, with several tracks of intriguing alien soundscapes and atmospheres that anticipate Cascone's move back into more avant-garde territory. Other tracks are more tonal and euphoric; the endless swirls of "Octal" particularly show HMC's genius for relaxing the body while stimulating the mind.

The four Heavenly Music Corporation releases remain shining beacons in the Silent Records universe, perhaps the brightest of them all. If you’re unfamiliar with Silent and want to find out what all the fuss was about, these most unexpected and welcome reissues are the best place to start. More at Silent Records

 

PETER MILLER - The Violet Flame (1993, reissue on Ultima Thule Ambient Media)

violetflameAustralian-based sound designer and soundtrack composer Peter Miller - whose production credits include The Ring (2002) and Rango (2011) - also recorded a series of well-regarded solo albums in the 90’s. His stunning opus The Violet Flame - an album little known outside Oz - is in my estimation one of the all-time great ambient albums in any subgenre and its digital re-release brings me much joy. This haunting masterpiece of sample-based electro-acoustic ambient takes us on an a walk through the world of horror writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Ray Bradbury, with an occasional detour via the wreck of the Titanic and the twilight world of hypnotism. Every track is intelligent, inventive and cinematic, at times spiced with wry humour. “From The Diary Of Madeline Usher” combines gothic strings with the rhythmic qualities of closing doors, footsteps, a ticking clock and dialogue Poe movie samples about premature burial. The mesmerising “Sleepers” juxtaposes the looped, disintegrating voice of a hypnotist with the sounds of a moving train, while the highly evocative “Titanica” builds upon a sonar bleep and Budd-like piano phrases for a spine-chilling journey around the wreck of the Titanic. With The Violet Flame, Peter Miller has achieved a full realisation musically of what an elite few genre directors like Roger Corman (with his Poe adaptations), Mario Bava and Dario Argento achieved in the medium of film: he has made horror beautiful. More at UT Ambient Media

 

BURKHARD VON DALLWITZ - Worlds Apart (1994, reissue on Ultima Thule Ambient Media)

worlds-apartAnother outstanding Australian reissue, this one from 1994. Burkhard Von Dallwitz has been an internationally recognised composer of film music since the late 90's, starting with his contributions to Peter Weir's The Truman Show (1998). But a more complete and cohesive statement than any of his soundtracks is his debut solo album Worlds Apart, recorded and released before his film scoring career took off. For fans of Vangelis and neoclassical sounds, this is an electro-acoustic masterwork. The title-track sweeps you up with grand, awe-inspiring synth chords before giving way to some stately piano lines that dance over a bubbling synth pulse below. “Hope” is pastoral and dignified with a bright orchestral passage that shows just how convincingly electronics can synthesise classical motifs, while “Exile” boasts some live strings in the form of a fantastic Balkan violin solo. Curiously, Worlds Apart remains his only standalone release.  More at UT Ambient Media

 

PAN ELECTRIC - Conscious Pilot (2007, reissue on Pink Lizard Music)

conscious-pilotLast year the UK multi-instrumentalist and synthesist Matt Coldrick aka Pan Electric started re-releasing his underexposed catalogue of diverse chillout music. His new age music excursion Music for a Busy Head (2001) and the dynamic psyambient exotica of Elemental Journey (2005) were among AMG’s Best Reissues of 2015. Now comes Conscious Pilot, an album so diverse and eclectic as to defy easy description. Where else, for example, can you hear trippy Smile-era Beach Boys vocal swells, progressive rock jams, Balearic chillout and old Easy Listening music motifs all in the one place? Not many I’d say, and there are even fewer instances where it all comes together with the easy confidence Coldrick shows here. The guest list is intriguing, including pedal steel guitar player BJ Cole and a singer from kitsch 70’s vocal group the Swingle Singers. Despite it’s pop-friendly face, Conscious Pilot takes several listens before it starts to make much sense as an album, and that’s when the fun of discovery really begins. More at Pink Lizard Music

 

VARIOUS ARTISTS - The Microcosm: Visionary Music Of Continental Europe 1970-1986 (Light In The Attic Records)

microcosmThis superb piece of music curation comes from Douglas Mcgowan, a 30-something record collector and music historian who a few years ago gave us I Am The Center: Private Issue New Age Music In America 1950-1990. That double-length album was a convincing rehabilitation of new age music in its earliest DIY form from the 70’s and 80's. The best new age music, he wrote on the sleeve notes, “was always a reverberation of psychedelic music”. Now hold that thought, because it validates his provocative argument that a similar musical movement was happening in Europe at the same time - it’s just that no one called it new age. Take pieces by two of the most well-known artists on The Microcosm: “Creation du Monde” by Vangelis and “Brothers Of Darkness Sons Of Light” by Krautrock icons Popol Vuh. The first is a restrained, droning synth-and-choral meditation of great power, the other a journey from dark medieval chants into a slow, joyful acoustic jam. Both have a deep spiritual yearning and palpable sense of awe; psychedelic music in it’s most contemplative form. The new album, as Mcgowan says, “is a mirror refracting the American new age scene in unexpected, electrifying ways, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt the universality of the timeless quest to express ‘the Ineffable’ through music.” He’s dug deep, too; there’s a fair number of obscure and lesser-known artists here whose pieces shine alongside the legends. Artfully packaged and featuring extensive notes, The Microcosm explores the roots of ambient in a compelling new way. More at Light In The Attic Records

 

ZENITH - Zenith (1994, reissue on Psychonavigation)

zenithThis is a heavenly slice of 90’s ambient dance music which I'd never heard until this year. Zenith is a one-off collaboration between environmental ambient techno master Tetsu Inoue (missing since 2009, possibly deceased) and the genre-hopping New Yorker Carlos Vivanco. It sounds very much like an early Inoue album, however, with its panoramic drones and gorgeous soft-edged bleeps carried by simple pulses and drum loops. “Plexus Solaris” develops into one of the most weepingly pretty chord progressions I’ve heard in electronica, while the beatless “Aura” meddles with the dark side in its long opening section before very gradually turning towards the light. Zenith has all the hallmarks of classic Fax Records, the German ambient label on which it was originally released. For me it’s one of Inoue’s greatest creations, up there with his classics Ambient Otaku (1994), Organic Cloud (1995) and World Receiver (1996). More at Psychonavigation

 

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