I’ve seen a few articles over the past few years detailing the best ambient albums, the state of ambient or the return of ambient, and whilst they’re often very positive for the genre, the artists and every other person involved in making this type of music, I can’t help but feel a bit empty after reading them.
These articles rarely scrape the surface of a genre that has never gone away, and will probably never “make a comeback” but instead, the genre continues to evolve. Ambient music will always remain a sub-culture of many popular music styles out there, or more to the point of this article, be the hidden undercurrent that’s helped inspire many other styles of music.
Whilst I’m not opposed to the genre getting any more popular (hell, I might get more traffic to the site or sell more records), I can’t help but feel a little annoyed when it’s not represented well, especially when some people have been involved for years and so, so, so, so many styles, producers and labels are consistently overlooked.
It’s a big reason why I created this site back in 2008, and it’s why I’m writing now.
Since the inception of this blog, I’ve focused on those who don’t really get the exposure they deserve and the many hidden talents of not only ambient music, but electronica and to a lesser extent, techno. Why stop now? Whilst this article will dive into the early days and influences on the genre, it will also hopefully offer a different perspective from the more popular journalism outlets and instead, focus on the many styles of ambient music and it particular, the producers and labels that have accompanied me on my journey over the years.
Heads-up, it’s long. So take the time to explore the artists and labels featured and pay it a few visits once you’ve hopped off onto Discogs and Youtube. Every album and artist links out to further information, and there’s a full Youtube playlist at the bottom if you can’t wait. For anyone that really wants to dig into ambient music, I’m hoping here might be a good place to start.
Shit. Where the hell do I start?
Let me make an attempt to cover my own ass from the thousands of very opinionated music-heads first. I got into ambient music late. Very late. And I wouldn’t consider myself an expert, but I do spend much of my life listening to and writing about it, so I think it gives me a little bit of authorisation to talk on the subject.
Secondly, I haven’t listened to every ambient record out there. Like every piece of journalism ever written, this will be a subjective take, based on my own biased experiences. The last thing I want is for this to sound like a Wikipedia article on ambient. We’ll get the background done sharp, talk about how ambient music developed for me in the 90’s and then get into the many styles I experience today as a result of exploring the genre further and further. By the end of this, I hope I’ve done it justice, introduced newbies to an ever expanding landscape of music, and helped the veterans of ambient find some new pieces to enjoy.
BACKGROUND FOR BACKGROUND
What is ambient music? (No I’m not joking). Seeing as many of my friends don’t even know what it is, this could prove a very helpful entry point. And to rip a quote directly from ambient music pioneer, Brian Eno’s ‘Music For Airports’ (1978) liner notes:
“Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting”.
Which to most people means, it’s background music. But to go one step further, and a more interesting quote from Eno to consider:
“An ambience is defined as an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint. My (Brian Eno) intention is to produce original pieces ostensibly (but not exclusively) for particular times and situations with a view to building up a small but versatile catalogue of environmental music suited to a wide variety of moods and atmospheres”.
This is where it gets very interesting for me. I’m a big believer in music for different moods, for different times, and different feelings, and this is just one of the reasons why my site/label is ripped straight from Ulrich Schnauss’ album A Strangely Isolated Place. This type of music transports me to wherever I want to be. It enables me to escape; helps me picture myself somewhere else entirely. And this is often the strength of ambient music – its atmospheres, emotion and the clear intention of depicting different environments.
I listen to ambient music to help me relax and escape. And I’ve now reached a point where I can respect the power of it so much, that I pay attention to the many differences, techniques and subtleties of productions. And that’s why I do what I do, listening to so much, writing about what I love and helping musicians get their own passion of producing this music, out there.
I HEAR 1978?
Well that’s when Brian Eno coined the phrase ambient. I don’t want to dwell too much on the evolution of ambient music, as this is where many other people could tell a better story. It’s my experience. Plus, I wasn’t born in 1978 and wasn’t even listening to music until a good fifteen years later.
To give it some context, and in the shortest of summaries, the likes of Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, Jean Michel Jarre, Steve Roach, Harold Budd, Erik Satie, Wendy Carlos, and of course Brian Eno are just a few of the many musicians often attributed as defining the approach we know today, through synthesiser-oriented styles during the 1970’s and 1980’s. And it wasn’t until the late 80’s and early 1990’s that the more electronic styles we associate with today came into play – the style that sparked my love for the genre.
The UK can often be seen as the driving force for early electronic ambient music. The Orb will always be referenced for their pioneering work on The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld (1991) and helped spur a new type of approach to this type of music, by combining samples with their innovative production techniques and depicting lengthy journeys, often with no defined beginning, middle or end.
The KLF did it one year before in 1990 (with the help of the Orb’s Alex Paterson), and their album Chill Out is often referenced as the best of its kind. I wouldn’t argue. Hang on, so what’s ‘chill out’ music? Not to diverge too much, but the term was used for the more drug-induced clubbing culture who created ‘chill-out rooms’ and without trying to rile up the genre fanatics, we’re still within the loose term of ambient music – you’ll just notice, as with most genres, there’s plenty more ways to describe styles and send you around in circles.
Back on track (like the Brownsville Turnaround on the Tex-Mex Border), and a beginning wouldn’t be a beginning without Aphex Twin. Many people know him now as the techno overlord of late, but for the oldest of fans, Richard D James garnered much of his respect through his Selected Ambient Works – his debut album released in 1992, documenting many of his productions from ’85 to ’92. There’s no denying this is one of the most accessible and enjoyable places to start if you’re trying to understand electronic ambient music. This album was followed by Selected Ambient Works Volume II in 1994, and again continued to define much of the electronic ambient music we here today.
SHEEP LEAD TO BLEEPS
When records such as Aphex Twin’s SAW started to hit home, ambient music started to gain serious traction. The 90’s are often cited as the good years of both electronic and ambient music, and with this growth came a multitude of takes on the style. Electronic equipment became more accessible and an underground electronic music culture began to grow.
Alongside Aphex Twin, the likes of Autechre and µ-Ziq (Mike Paradinas) pushed the electronic (and in particular) “IDM” sound to new places. Whilst neither are strictly ambient artists, both played their part in creating some of the best ambient music during this period and shouldn’t be overlooked. This recent dedication to Mike Paradinas’ ambient work as µ-Ziq, is a great place to start, and Autechre’s Amber, whilst not often highly praised, will lead you down some seriously dark rabbit holes to explore. Autechre’s VLetrmx21 remains one of my favourite pieces to date if you still need persuading – it’s a dramatic, poignant and thought provoking piece. Needless to say, record labels such as Rephlex and Warp played a big part during this period.
Another innovator pushing the boundaries of ambient music and introducing more urban influences during this time, were The Future Sound of London. The Manchester pair are often overlooked unless you dive deep into their discography, but much like The Orb and The KLF, Lifeforms can be seen as one of those all-encompassing electronic ambient journeys.
Global Communication. 1994. Tom Middleton and Mark Pritchard. 76:14 still remains one of the most ‘underground’ ambient albums despite The Guardian listing it within their 1,000 Albums To Hear Before You Die list. With tracks titled according to length, 76:14, continued to expand on the entire listening experience album we grew to love – not just a set of individual tracks. To this day I probably couldn’t tell you the title of a particular track, because I nearly always listen to it from start to finish – the way it should be. Global Communication went on to release several other records, but none came close to the prowess of 76:14. For those who’ve dug around Tom Middleton and Mark Pritchard, their work as on The Keongaku EP prior to this release is as close as you’ll get to the 76:14 experience.
It would be rude to overlook Geir Jenssen (aka Biosphere) at this point. His 1997 album Substrata is perhaps the modern-day Brian Eno experience, focusing on intimate listening and the very definition of background ambient music. More genre terms come into play with Biosphere (ambient-techno for example) but Geir is a true pioneer of the genre and to this day can be found sampling in the plains of Norway, playing rare live performances and sometimes putting together an eclectic DJ mix. Geir remains an elusive character within my knowledge of ambient music, but is no doubt one of the most respected.
It was bands like Slowdive and Seefeel that started to put a spanner in the works. Whilst primarily seen as experimental or shoegaze, Slowdive released records such as the 5 EP in 1993, which focused on synthesised sounds – a first for Slowdive and a style that was very similar to that of Global Communication. In fact, Reload’s remix of Slowdive’s In Mind epitomised the ever-expanding ambient music of 1993 and its impact of styles outside of straight-up electronic. I love the comment on the 5 EP’s Discogs page – “The burgeoning ambient techno scene in 1993 was too much for them to resist…”!
Similarly, Seefeel’s 1993 release Quiqe is a perfect example of the genre expanding beyond it’s existing limitations, with steadfast ambient tracks like Signals and more experimental tracks such as Climatic Phase 3.
The late Pete Namlook and his German Label FAX were also a significant driver of ambient music during the early 1990’s. This is an area which I still need more time to explore, but if you read any top list of ambient albums you’ll be sure to find a FAX release in there somewhere. As of August 2005, Namlook and company had released 135 albums – experience some of them through this tribute mix.
Moving towards the second-half of the 90’s, ’96 witnessed the debut of one of the most instrumental characters in the ambient scene today, Wolfgang Voigt. His self-titled album as Gas, triggered a whole new world of dubby, atmospheric ambient music. Wolfgang is undoubtedly the reason why ambient music still has its place on one of the biggest techno labels of our time (as co-owner of Kompakt) and as a result, a big reason why the genre continues to evolve and make an impact on producers today. Released on the influential label Mille Plateaux label, Gas releases remain some of the rarest LP’s on Discogs.
The late 90’s were pretty much reserved for one special duo, Boards of Canada. Iconic releases in ’95, ’96, ’97 and ’98 saw ambient music meld effortlessly with electronica, offering a vintage, warm sound that felt like it had been around for years. The elusive Scottish pairing are solely responsible for the biggest cult of fans within the ambient & electronica genres (second to Aphex Twin maybe). Much like their music, their unique, mysterious ways are still going strong to this day and although many purists would argue until they are white in the face that they aren’t ambient, there’s no doubt they’ve played a massive part in inspiring and making the ambient sound more appealing to others.
Alongside BoC, the late 90’s witnessed Stars of The Lid progress the beautiful drone soundscapes which are so popular in today’s ambient music. Brian McBride and Adam Wiltzie are often included amongst the best-of ambient lists and their pedigree shows to this day with Adam Wiltzie going strong as part of A Winged Victory For The Sullen. The Stars of The Lid sound would end up becoming a big influence on the many guitar manipulations we hear in much of today’s ambient and experimental music.
TRANCE AND THE AMBIENT REMIX
This is where I risk a major drop-off in readers, but the late ’90s Trance era played a big part in my addiction to ambient and chill-out music, so I feel it’s important I cover it here. Perhaps this train of thought is new to many, or some don’t want to be associated with a genre which is now quite frankly, an embarrassment and laughing stock to anyone over 18 years of age. But the true Trance era (say pre-2002) was undoubtedly an offshoot of some of the best psychedelic ambient productions, and helped define the true meaning of chill out before it was commercialised by the likes of Ministry of Sound and Hed-Kandi and ultimately generalised into EDM.
Rabbit In The Moon, Humate, BT, William Orbit, The Art of Trance, even Tiesto (yes, just listen to his late ’90′s work as Kamaya Painters and Gouryella) and labels such as Hooj, Platipus, Lost Language, and Bonzai were responsible for some of my favourite trance music in the 1990’s and in particular, a trend which emerged to be most relevant to this article; the ambient remix. Whilst this may send shudders down many ambient fans spine, I have no shame in admitting how much I enjoyed some of the remixes to emerge from trance music in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. The ambient remix of Pete Lazonby’s Sacred Cycles (sampling Genesis no-less) and Energy 52′s Cafe Del Mar, remixed by Michael Woods (2000) come straight to the top of the pile and this compilation by Solar Stone (2001) encapsulates some the best remixes to emerge (ironically including Tangerine Dream’s Love On A Real Train).
I won’t dwell on it here, as you’ll know by now i’m a closet trance fan, but I still visit the likes of Salt Tanks Sargasso Sea, Chicane’s Far From The Maddening Crowds and Way Out West’s debut album on a regular basis. And if you still need persuading on the impact of ambient music on trance, Orion & J.Shore’s isolatedmix does a perfect job elaborating on some of the brilliant music being made in this vein today.
I’M STILL IN A TRANCE
Something that’s along the same lines but perhaps more familiar with ambient fans, is the term space ambient or psy-ambient and for me, there’s pretty much just one label responsible for this sound recently: Ultimae Records.
Established in France in 2001 and still churning out quality to this day, Ultimae has become the go-to label for this type of electronic ambient music. Space-ambient is often reserved for similarly trance-like tracks, but can more often be recognised by the expansive pads, washes, atmospheres and futuristic samples each track contains. Whilst I’d be a fool to pigeon-hole Ultimae into this sound, they’ve produced some of my favourite artists in this style, including Carbon Based Lifeforms, Aes Dana (Ultimae co-owner) and Solar Fields.
Perhaps more obvious in design, but another great artist that pioneers this sound, is Lithuania’s Stellardrone (remind me to write an article on Lithuania’s ambient/electronica scene – it’s ridiculous) and randomly, this compilation by an old record store in London called Ambient Soho manages to traverse the ambient-space sound, in particular Innersphere’s Out Of Body, and b12’s VOID/Comm.
Spanning the more trance-inducing side of ambient and hailing from one of my favourite labels growing up, Global Underground’s Electric Calm series is also a well-respected and under-celebrated bunch of mixes and exclusive material that manages to transport you into the ether. Mixed by The Forth, they’re as formulaic as mixes come, but are packed full of great, fairly unknown material.
More recently, the likes of Petar Dundov is pushing the trance-like-ambient sound forward, invoking the spirit of synthesised ambient productions from the likes of Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream. And even beat-less reissues from the likes of Hiroshi Watanabe aka Kaito (Kompakt) draw parallels, with epic strings and countless moments of euphoria.
This may also be a good place to introduce Brock Van Wey aka bvdub. Whilst I definitely wouldn’t describe his music as trance, it’s certainly an original take on trance-inducing productions. His pieces are often over ten-minutes long and are a lesson in progressive atmospheres, peppered with techno undertones and more recently, even garage-esque beats. He is a pioneer of the modern-day ambient sound and a must for anyone new to the genre, with an outstanding work ethic and an unparalleled output. I’d recommend starting at his 2011 release, Songs For A Friend I left Behind, and in particular I Would Have Waited. Or, for that truly euphoric effect, try 2012’s, Don’t Say You Know.
AMBIENT ELECTRONICA AND THE BIRTH OF THE SWEET SPOT
Back on the perhaps more expected ambient evolution, and some of my favourite labels are setting up shop in the early 2000’s. But they’re evolving the sound and pushing the very limits of what we’ve previously known. Electronica is a largely debated genre and in my eyes can represent a wide range of electronic music which isn’t necessarily meant for dancing, but more for listening. From glitchy IDM based analogue music, to downtempo and ambient drones infused with sparse beats and heavy melodies. This is where I truly fell in love with music. Ambient electronica managed to combine the escapism and relaxation of ambient music, alongside more interesting and complex electronic production techniques. And none can be more responsible for inspiring me more than City Centre Offices.
Beginning with Arovane, Herrmann & Kleine, Bitstream and Casino Versus Japan, it was 2002’s release of Far Away Trains Passing By, from Ulrich Schnauss that really blew me away. Two years later, and A Strangely Isolated Place followed suite, and finally Arovane’s Goodbye Forever on Lillies presented the power of the piano on a largely IDM focused album. Admittedly, these releases were a far stretch from the beat-less soundscapes of ambient purists such as Brian Eno, but for me, they were just as powerful in emotion and escapism.
It was the early 2000’s that unwittingly birthed one of today’s biggest stars of the genre, Jon Hopkins. Released on British Label Just Music, (also home to Echaskech and Honeyroot – two more gems that need more listens) Jon Hopkins began his career with a sublime style of ambient electronica on Opalescent. Both Cold Out There, and Private Universe are essential ambient tracks that epitomised the promising career Jon had ahead of him scoring films (Monsters); being nominated for a Mercury Music Prize; making head-rattling electronica on Immunity and my favourite; sampling the London Olympic Games opening ceremony fireworks on Abandon Window.
Fast-forward to today, and this style has evolved so much it would be impossible to capture the hundreds of brilliant artists making this type of music. Ghostly International is however a decent place to start.
The birth of Tycho’s Sunrise Projector in 2004 was the beginning of his more recent dominance within the Ghostly family; his blissful sun-drenched guitars and live percussion are the closest you’ll come to Ulrich Schnauss’ early work. And whilst the likes of Ghostly’s Lusine and Recondite can hold any dance-floor, their music remains within the realm of escapism and hits home with many of todays ambient fans who need that up-tempo edge every now-and-then.
Whilst we’re here, dive further into Ghostly’s catalogue and you’ll find the purest of ambient and experimental music sat alongside the more popular electronic functions it’s now famous for. With artists such as Loscil, The Sight Below, Heathered Pearls, Christopher Willits and KILN. For a true round-up of Ghostly’s amazing contribution to modern ambient music, head to their SMM Series.
It’s within this style of music that you also start see the massive impact Boards of Canada have on the evolution of the warm, nostalgic sound. Relatively unknown but highly recommend artists such as Horizon Fire, Northcape, Freescha, Sarin Sunday (Com Truise in his early days) and even ASIP’s Parks do a great job at capturing this beautiful matrimony of synth-laden electronics and blissful euphoria.
Diving deeper and one of my favourite labels, n5MD has been responsible for some of the most interesting ambient electronica of recent years. Loess, Crisopa, (ghost), Ocoeur and Preghost are just some of the artists producing this unique style of electronic music and making it hard to pin them down to one particular style. The label is also home to more ‘IDM’ style artists such as Arovane and Proem and the more recent ambient crossover with shoegaze & post-rock (see further below) via port-royal, Lights Out Asia and Bitcrush.
Whilst Kompakt Records grew synonymous with the emerging minimal techno scene hailing from Germany in the early 2000′s, Wolfgang Voigt (Gas) quietly coined his own style of ambient music – labelling it Pop Ambient. This yearly series is now synonymous with a very certain production style and ethos, challenging the very meaning of ambient music, but always rooted in layered drones, cyclical sculptures and often traditional instrumentation.
Since its first release in 2001, Pop Ambient has established some of the most respected artists in the genre and similarly, re-established some favourites who would have otherwise been lost amongst a myriad of other guises or musical styles on the label. Markus Guentner has been a staple since the very first release and to this day pushes his unique ambient washes and faint melodies far and wide, including releases here on ASIP and Moodgadget (owned by Heathered Pearls).
Marsen Jules, whilst originally releasing on the aforementioned City Centre Offices, also makes regular appearances on Pop Ambient with his intense poems in sound. As does Argentina’s Leandro Fresco, another master of beautifully composed, richly coloured ambient music. 2015’s edition sees Kompakt continue to push into new realms, bringing regulars such as bvdub, Ulf Lohmann, Gustavo Lamas and Leandro Fresco back into the warm fold alongside newcomers like Thore Pfeiffer.
As techno music grew and evolved in the 2000’s, ambient music was treated to some of its most defining and innovative moments. Ambient techno is an area of ambient music so rich, that I still discover new (old) titles every week. Strictly speaking, ambient outputs didn’t stray too far from its origins, as German labels such as Traum Schallplatten and Raster-Noton gathered pace in the 2000’s (see my tribute mix to Traum’s ambient output here) alongside the likes of Mule Musiq/Mule Electronic, artists such as Koss, Minilogue, (Sebastian Mullaert is releasing a new ambient album with Eitan Reiter on 18th October) and Lawrence with his forthcoming ambient LP A Day In The Life.
One of the best releases to define this style of ambient music was the Composure Ambient Techno for Japan compilation. Put together to raise funds after the Japanese Tsunami in 2011, this compilation includes some of the finest music to grace the term ambient, techno or indeed ambient techno. From here, if you dig further, your world opens up into the multitude of amazing artists included. From following Donato Dozzy, you’ll find his 2010 release ‘K’ and perhaps stray into the sublime ambient techno world of Voices From The Lake.
The Sandwell District, a couple of techno artists who (unfortunately) came together for just one album, will lead you to Feed Forward – another classic approach to ambient techno. And finally, one of my favourite producers, Donnacha Costello – I’ve done all the hard work for you here and highlighted some of his finest pieces to date.
And perhaps one of the most respected and innovative producers in this area, is Germany’s Carsten Nikolai aka Alva Noto. In 2009 Carsten released Xerrox Vol.2, and with it, Monophaser 2. This video does a great job in capturing the sparse, yet emotive composition that sets Carsten apart from the rest.
AIN’T TALKIN ‘BOUT DUB
Given techno is such a wide all-encompassing genre, you can’t blame me for digging even deeper into its ambient half and exploring one of the most recent styles to emerge. Ambient-dub, or dub-techno whilst very similar to the likes of the artists listed above, has seen a particular focus recently, with several producers creating a very unique, deep and bubbly style. It’s often bashed by many as being very boring and repetitive, but when done correctly, it can be as dreamy as the very best beat-less ambient masterpiece.
You can’t mention dub or techno without Echospace and Deepchord. More recently home to the previously mentioned bvdub but more prominently known for releases by Model 500 (Juan Atkins), cv313 and Deepchord himself, the label is a favourite for die-hard techno fans and an innovative outlet for the more atmospheric techno productions that fall into this more ambient style.
Sharpening the ambient side of dub-techno even further, Iceland’s Yagya pioneered his unique style on his widely praised album, Rigning. It came some seven years after his first release in 2002 (Rhythm of Snow), and I can pretty much guarantee that any new fans of Yagya are working their way backwards through his catalogue, especially after his most recent release on Delsin. Rigning, is a perfect example of sticking to what you know best and perfecting it; the sound of rain on your roof, the clap of thunder, emotional, rising pads and a driving dub-techno beat. Yagya doesn’t stray too far from the formula throughout the album, but manages to encapsulate you to the very last drop.
It seems as though this style is a thoroughly independent practice at the moment, with most of what I listen to released by the artists direct through the likes of Bandcamp. Finding dub-techno on vinyl is a nearly impossible affair, yet labels such as Dewtone Recordings, and Silent Season, two of my favourites, do their very best in pushing this type of independent music forward. Whilst neither are strictly focused on dub-techno, both have a rich roster of artists that span this style, alongside straight-up ambient and more experimental sounds. ASC, Edanticonf, Purl, Alveol, Segue, Martin Nonstatic and Adam Michalak come highly recommended. The below track by Textural Being epitomises the slow burning melodies and atmospheres of dub-techno I have grown to love.
Whilst dub-techno added rolling beats to ambient music, there are those stripping away the more obvious mechanics and focusing purely on mood, atmosphere and repeated layers of sound. Drone is one of the more reserved and less accessible styles of ambient music, yet is probably the closest to the genres original conception, and arguably pre-dates Brian Eno through the 1960’s minimalist movement. BUT, they didn’t have a hashtag back in the 60′s.
Drone remains a style which I’m less familiar with, certainly when it comes to the intricacies of its design and origins. This is mainly because of the appreciation needed for the instruments used in the making of this music (for experts on the subject, check out our friends Headphone Commute and Futuresequence). But attending a workshop with Rafael Anton Irisarri aka The Sight Below, (or his Substrata Festival) you begin to see the complexity involved in sound design and the meticulous detail that goes into this style of music. What can seem like one single sound, is often a series of instruments, processors, loops, delays, vocals, samples and hours of hard work. And then sometimes, it’s just a plain and simple live jam between the biggest music geeks in the world.
Approaches can vary from the very light and melodic ambient tones of Loscil, through to the legendary tape-loops of William Basinski’s 2002 Disintegration Loops. And further along the spectrum, the haunting wall of noise of Tim Hecker.
Any mention of drone or experimental music usually throws up one of the best labels in the business – Kranky. Not only home to Tim Hecker, this label has also pioneered a wide range of ambient, drone and experimental styles from the likes of Stars Of The Lid, Loscil, Grouper, Windy & Carl, and Pan American. Kranky can also hold part responsibility for the more recent emergence of the modern-classical sound, with A Winged Victory For The Sullen and Christina Vantzou.
THE TANGIBLE EXPRESSIONISTS
It’s a little unfair to include modern classical music amongst the ambient genre. After all, compositions and performances are meant to be heard, studied and to a large extent, watched – the opposite to the definition of ambient music at the start of this article. But recent years have seen such an emergence of brilliant artists I want to include them here due to the massive influence they have on me and the music I listen to today. Not only do ambient fans often love this style of music, but there’s some artists that lend themselves to both ambient and modern-classical musings too.
Composers such as Ryuichi Sakamoto played a large part in integrating modern classical into the ambient or techno genres, partnering with the previously mentioned Alva Noto for example. But more recently there’s just one label that’s heavily influenced me: Erased Tapes.
Their unbelievably talented German wizard Nils Frahm has consistently released beautiful piano compositions on the label since the very beginning, but has only recently seen his greatest acclaim with Spaces. And rightly so, this was my favourite album of last year, hands-down and his recent Boiler Room set captures his magic perfectly.
Often alongside Nils is Ólafur Arnalds, the Icelandic multi-instrumentalist. Likewise, Ólafur is a genius with the piano and together the pair have propelled the modern classical genre forward in recent years, simultaneously restoring my faith in the live performance at the same time – spellbinding, magical and utterly breath-taking every time. Expanding even further into the Nordic realm, and Otto A Totland’s Pino, is another great composer (and Pino boasts a beautifully packaged CD to boot).
I’ve also seen a resurgence of young talented composers. The likes of ASIP’s very own Levi Patel and Halo, both under 25 and creating masterpieces that wouldn’t sound out of place in-front of an expectant crowd of hundreds. Their talent never fails to baffle me.
Young emerging label Serein recently presented us with Brambles. And Luke Howard’s Sun, Cloud remains a gorgeous yet powerful dose of theatre. New Zealand’s Rhian Sheehan continues to release some of the most spellbinding work I’ve ever heard, often traversing into an ambient guise on releases such as Seven Tales Of The North Wind.
Once I’m down this route, I often find myself leaning towards some of the masters of post-rock too. Balancing the emotion of the modern classical composition; with the raw power of guitars and drums; signed off with subtle ambient undercurrents; this style of music is yet another rabbit-hole of wonders.
The American Dollar, while specialising in post-rock, have recorded several ambient versions of their releases, highlighting the close melodic ties between the two styles. Similarly, Hammock are the true masters in this approach, producing some of the most emotional and climatic pieces of ambient, drone and post-rock you’ll come across. And should you need to dive in any further, I’ve long appreciated Stray Theories and Good Weather For An Airstrike – doing their own independent thing and definitely deserving of more ears.
And lastly, where instruments add depth and character, there are those that use them in the most subtle of ways to add just that little more colour to an otherwise calm and subtle ambient drone. Keith Kenniff, (or Helios to many), is a great example of this approach, alongside 36 – an independent musician from the UK releasing some of the most powerful, tear-jerking, melancholic music possible. As are the many, many artists that seem to hail from Japan like Arc of Doves, Ex Confusion, Nobuto Suda and the Home Normal collective.
THE NEXT CHAPTER
There’s no doubt that ambient music is at one of its strongest points for a long time (as FACT Mag politely pointed out recently – and to answer the question I don’t think we’ll ever beat the 90′s!) It would be easy for me to list some releases that are coming up this year which excite me, but that’s one of the main reasons my site exists. Ambient music, drone and modern classical in its purest form, will undoubtedly remain the same, as they aren’t scenes revolving around a place, a movement or a bunch of people. But I’m always excited by the producers, labels and artists that are looking to push this type of music further.
As I’ve already mentioned with the strength of recent modern classical music, I’m hoping we see plenty more prodigies Like Nils Frahm shine. If a young pianist needs any inspiration they needn’t look any further than his Spaces album, or any of his live shows.
There’s a lot of love for what Burial started a few years back and I’m enjoying seeing this type of music evolve, (especially as I absorbed plenty of UK Garage when I was younger!) Artists such as Borealis and Sven Weisemann’s Desolate project nail the fine-line between this urban approach to electronica and the subtleties of ambient atmospheres. It’s hard to come across this type of stuff on a regular basis without it feeling too repetitive, but news of a new Desolate album is sure to keep it moving along nicely.
Similarly, the blissful sparse beats coming from the likes of Kiyoko push a new style forward, along with James Clements’ more ambient focused work as ASC and his label Auxiliary. With drum’n bass influences, productions range from industrial ambient to 170 BPM electronica (the Autonomic sound).
Recently we’ve seen a few artists start to integrate ambient textures and in particular modern classical elements into house and techno music. Max Cooper has been doing this brilliantly for the past few years, mainly through his remixes, and now Erased Tapes’ Kiasmos (Ólafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen) are set to show what it truly means to integrate a piano composition into dance-floor-oriented music.
ANYWAY, THIS IS USELESS
Why bother looking forward to the next best thing when all that matters is what RDJ has been keeping in his locker for the past twenty years?
Well that’s it. My journey through ambient music. And looking back it’s about as much as I can tell anyone who wants to listen to some of the greatest music on this planet – there’s 113 videos in the playlist below, and around 150 links out to explore more.
I started this article to help dive a little deeper into ambient music, but upon reflection I’ve still only scratched the surface. There’s no doubt some subjective inconsistencies, a whole heap of brilliant artists and labels missing, and I’ve probably riled the genre police in every paragraph.
Hopefully i’ve either introduced you to a new genre, style, artist or label and from there, you’ll never know where you end up. You may even be inspired to set up a blog, site or record label after your favourite album…
Below is a Youtube playlist featuring some of my favourite tracks mentioned in this article. It should keep you going for a very, very long time. And lastly, always remember to support the many artists featured in this article, doing their own thing and making our lives much more pleasurable.
Thank you for reading this far.