Ambience Australis – 10 essential Oz ambient and downtempo albums reviewed

*Originally published in an Oz version of Red Bull Music Academy’s street zine The Note to coincide with the Red Bull Weekender arts and music festival, Sydney 31 August-3 September 2017.

While Oz ambient and downtempo lacks a unifying scene, gems abound. Mike G from Ambient Music Guide picks 10 albums from the past 30 years that shine bright in this borderless universe.

ROBODOP SNEI – Strange Ongoings (2013, Tempest Recordings)

German born and Australian-based, Daniel Eschbach aka Robodop Snei specialises in quirky distillations of synth pop, electro and lush psychedelic chillout. Strange Ongoings is indeed strange but very beautifully so. Quirkiness in ambient dance sometimes means a certain forced harshness – digital glitches, static and distortion – but Eschbach takes a more subtle path armed with his beloved analogue synths. “Loose Stones” riffs on a stoned arpeggio that sounds half as slow as it should be. “In The Forest It Is Green” has a doomy chord progression that’s almost comical. The thumping “Into The Sky” is lush synth heaven with an odd pixie voicebyte gently cooing along. Strange Ongoings is also seriously groovy, a perfect post-dancefloor balm if you want beats without the velocity. From Melbourne’s Tempest Recordings which, along with its sister label Cosmicleaf (Greece), has helped set the bar for psychedelic downtempo over the past 15 years.

PETER MILLER – The Violet Flame (1994, Ultima Thule Ambient Media)

Australian-based sound designer and soundtrack composer Peter Miller – whose Hollywood production credits include The Ring (2002) – also recorded a series of well-regarded solo albums in the 90’s. His masterpiece is The Violet Flame, a haunting slice of sample-based electro-acoustic ambient that takes us on an a walk through the world of horror writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Ray Bradbury, with detours 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. The mesmerising “Sleepers” juxtaposes the looped, disintegrating voice of a hypnotist with the sounds of a moving train, while the highly evocative “Titanica” is built on sonar bleeps and Budd-like piano phrases. Miller has achieved musically 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’s made horror beautiful.

ORNAMENT – Bleu (2004, Cyan Music)

Australian psychedelic trance label Psy Harmonics (1993-2010) occasionally took detours into eclectic downtempo, releasing this exceptional one-off album by Ornament (Simon Polinski and Joe Creighton) on its Cyan Music sub-label. Bleu is warm, spacious and alive, wrapped in dreamy soft-edged sound design. Although it has beats it’s not downtempo psytrance, being more organic, more rock-inflected and far less bleepy. The hypnotic “Jesse Tree” is a slow and sexy rock jam with extended guitar soloing. “To Love Is To Laugh” is also luscious ambient rock, based around a touching narrative sampled from a documentary about Eskimos. Best of all is the exhilarating choral-based “Yehuvaroom”. Its chiming arpeggios, string sounds and synthetic textures are laid out on a panoramic canvas with great skill, bathed in choral swells of weeping beauty. Ornament never made another album but you can hear more fine work by Polinski under his moniker Hesius Dome.

Bleu by Ornament is unavailable but you can hear some choice cuts from the album in my mix Ambience Australis vol. 1.

LISA GERRARD & PIETER BOURKE – Duality (1998, 4AD Records)

Masters of gothic exotica Dead Can Dance don’t qualify for this round-up because their recording career has been based mostly in the British Isles. However, band member Lisa Gerrard has done some superb solo work in Australia, none better than this album with Pieter Bourke (aka Snog, Eden and Soma). Aided greatly by Bourke’s skills as a percussionist and producer, Duality sounds like prime Dead Can Dance. Gerrard’s voice dominates and it’s an extraordinary instrument. Though powerful, her highly expressive singing has none of the insufferable bombast of opera and her multi-layered vocals sound at home in many worlds: tribal grooves, churchy Gothic drones, Arabic melodies and lush semi-classical orchestrations. Her chosen tongue is usually improvised, something she once called ‘a language that grows by itself’, though the album also includes a bewitching English language song – unusual for her, and as exotic as anything else here.

VARIOUS ARTISTS ‎– Environments: Antipodean Armchair Travel (1995-96, Thunk Recordings)

Ambient techno and trance’s first glorious wave from the early to mid-90’s left behind nuggets of the purest gold, music of wide-eyed wonder that still shivers with the thrill of creative discovery. In Australia that legacy is captured to perfection on Environments, originally two separate volumes later re-released as a double CD. Some names are the alter egos of early Oz dance music figures like Phil Smart and
Itch-E & Scratch-E, others are more obscure talents from the electronic fringe. There are 22 pieces of exotic machine music in all, ranging from beatless to beaty. Many are melodic, uncluttered and panoramic, full of gliding chords and spinning bleepy arpeggios as cosmic as the Milky Way. Environments is a joy, its forward-thinking sounds rarely betraying the technology limitations of the era. Trivia: Neil Ollivierra aka Detroit Escalator Co listened to this while hatching ideas for his classic debut Soundtrack 313.

Environments is unavailable but you can hear some choice cuts from both albums in my mix Ambience Australis vol. 2.

THE NECKS – Sex (1989, Fish Of Milk)

It’s jazz, but not as we know it. When this came out in ’89, Rolling Stone magazine winningly described The Necks debut as something like “an early, spacey, guitarless Pink Floyd after prolonged exposure to Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue.” Sex is classic Necks, based in part around the repetition ideas of classical minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass. That is, starting with simple patterns and ringing changes on them only very gradually. However, the resulting music is ultimately far looser than Glass and company thanks to the jazz element. The album contains a single 60 minute track, a strange, bold, ultimately enchanting masterpiece combining simple, loopy percussion and bass signatures with piano improvisations. While there are many fine Necks albums, this is a good place to start for ambient heads and captures the trio in all their atmospheric, spaced-out glory.

X1 PROJECT – The Asymmetrical Collection (2006, Bandcamp)

Melbourne’s Wayne Huf aka X1 Project makes intelligent, euphoric, multi-coloured instrumentals that straddle techno, classical minimalism and especially the bubbling arpeggios of old-school Berlin ambient trance. The Asymmetrical Collection is a very fine best-of collection drawing from his earlier releases. In a digitally sampled world sometimes you just want machines to sound like machines, albeit very advanced ones. This album answers the call while sounding neither clunky or nostalgic. He works in a broad range of styles ranging from the strange industrial drums, drones and bleeps of “Neutron As A Child” to the graceful waltz and ricocheting melodies of “Ripples In A Cosmic Trail”. The lengthy “Lunar Beach” is a stunner, blessed with the same exquisite layering and sense of tension that defines Tangerine Dream’s best film scores. Huf shows an understanding of when and how to draw on the past, so as to end up sounding like the future.

LEE, ASKILL & ATHERTON – Shoalhaven Rise (1995, Black Sun)

During its peak years, founder of the American-based Celestial Harmonies label Eckart Rahn roamed far and wide in search of exotic and contemplative sounds. His travels included Australia, where he discovered and nurtured some outstanding talents who otherwise probably would have remained unknown outside Oz. One of them was Michael Atherton, an ethno-musicologist and classically trained musician adept on a wide range of acoustic instruments. His textural invention and sense of space is everywhere on Shoalhaven Rise, a collaboration with percussionist Michael Askill and shakuhachi flute master Riley Lee (the project was actually Lee’s idea). It’s full of nuances and subtle textures and has a couple of tracks blessed with gorgeous feather-soft bass guitar courtesy of Askill’s brother Daniel. Shoalhaven is one of the finest ethno-ambient albums of the 90’s though it’s not electronic at all; this is a strain of folksy fourth-world chillout that predates ambient dance by several decades.

GREY AREA – And Then The Clouds (2005, Waveform)

Grey Area (aka Alex Salter and friends) were fine purveyors of gently trippy downtempo electronica in the 90’s and 2000’s, known in the Australian outdoor doof party scene for their soothing sets performed on festival chill stages. Grey Area’s early albums were generally unknown outside the psy underground, but in later years the U.S. label Waveform Records compiled and released And Then The Clouds (2005), a fine best-off collection with a couple of new pieces added. There’s some strikingly fresh and original music here, often reaching beyond the familiar template of lush, dubby, upfront melodic grooves that usually define psy-tinged downtempo. “Slowly” is a brilliantly eerie lo-fi soundtrack blending live bass guitar with electronic tones that seem to swoop and fly by at random. “Sadness Dub” and “Penumbra” boast muted, sensual melodies that tease and tickle your consciousness, while “Modular Drift” is a rather sweet piece of jazzy techno .

GONDWANALAND – Wide Skies (1991, EastWest)

Wide Skies was Gondwanaland’s final album of new material and also their best, an exhilarating summation of the trio’s unique strain of world music. The band’s rock-inflected sound came from what was then an unlikely combination of didgeridoo (Charlie McMahon), synths and keyboards (Peter Carolan) and complex percussion (Eddy Duquemin). And, boy, did it work, producing a highly atmospheric brew of tribal grooves, poppy melodies and haunting ambient landscapes and lullabies. Wide Skies benefits from talented guests such as violinist Claire Peace (from outstanding world-folk trio Coolangubra) and Aboriginal vocalist Bobby Bunungur. Many tracks also feature didgeridoo in a less upfront role than before, as the band expands into new territory with some rich electronics and Eastern atmospheres. Interestingly, this album came out just as electronic dance music’s star was on the rise, which explains the subtle hints of house and techno not present on their earlier releases.

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