Happy birthday, ambient! Still looking as fresh as ever at 40.
So, what’s the secret?
Perhaps it’s in the genre’s quick rise and decline in the ’80s and ’90s, where we saw New Age serving as more of a cult than an established institution. Sure, ambient was still around in the ’00s, but it was bubbling in the background, quietly existing just beneath the radar (much like how Eno originally described the genre).
In 2016, collectors dusted off old cassette tapes and headed to relaxing venue spaces to revisit their timeless classics. There were countless discussions and thinkpieces on what this come-back could mean; the state of ambient in a post New-Age decade, in abundance of technology and unlimited access to sounds, samples and DAWs. Was the resurgence a response to and a development of the ever increasing pressures of a capitalist society? Is the club scene becoming too over-saturated, or even more, are the closures of countless clubs across the country forcing people to return to their homes in solitude, making lonely drone as a result? Whatever the answer, 2018 is the year that a wider electronic base acknowledged that ambient is back and no, Mom, it’s not a phase.
This year the genre fit more comfortably into the electronic music mainstream: Pariah released his first solo album in six years, a curveball all-ambient collection, an escape from the usual hard-hitting techno of his Karenn project with Blawan, while London-based club nights, such as Gary’s House, curated an ambient-only chill-out room to their parties. We are seeing a shift in people’s approach to the genre, it is becoming less and less for intellectuals to ponder in their privilege, or for hippies to practice crystal healing. More people are just chilling out and having a good time, which we all need that every now and then.
However, the fight still goes on. As Sybil noted of a recent club experience, people still feel uncomfortable with ambient and chill-out rooms existing in clubs, considering it “dangerous” for, presumably, health and safety reasons. What can promoters do to encourage more relaxing spaces in clubs? There’s a crying need for it, people are sick and tired of only being able to have a breather in the overcrowded and uncomfortable smoking areas.
As ambient develops, the colossal spectrum of music in which it sits grows too, so maybe that’s the secret to it’s stamina. Ambient is showing no sign of slowing down (pun intended) and because of its vastness, it has been able to develop year after year.
Spaciousness features ambient and New Age heavyweights past and present released by the well-established, 20 years-strong Lo Recordings. With a lineup of the who’s who of ambient music, including Iasos, Laraaji and Yamaneko to name a few, the compilation delivers in every way you’d expect. Spaciousness invites you to space out, with the drifting synths of Matthewdavid’s Mindflight’s ‘Ode to Flora’, the haunting and remorseful strings of Andras’ ‘If You Can’t Understand This Plaque, How Could an Alien’. Acting as a sort of chocolate selection box for the ambient connoisseurs, there’s a track on here for everyone, which is just how every compilation should be.
I stumbled across Hegira Moya while partaking in the evening ritual of mindless scrolling before bed. Countless articles tell us that doing this is damaging, but in my case, it introduced me to one of my now-favorite artists, so it can’t be all bad. The post in question was a live recording of the Tokyo-based artist playing the most beautiful loop through his guitar, a keyboard and some pedals. I was blown away, saved it to my collection and found Moya’s SoundCloud, but the song I had heard was not yet uploaded. I kept returning back to the saved post to listen on repeat and revisiting Moya’s SoundCloud until the song, ‘Cocoon Village’, finally appeared.
After last year’s blissful Spa Commissions, Yamaneko returned in 2018 with the smaller but powerful Afterglow EP. While notable previous releases, like Project Nautilus, draw on Yamaneko’s love of video game OSTs, Afterglow offers an insight into another passion: the darker sides of trance and techno.
Each track on this EP sounds like a different moment in a typical club-goers weekend. ‘Second Encounter’ is a stripped-back track with the intensity of a peak-time banger, just without the drums, proving that the kick drum needn’t be everything to the party. The refreshing and aptly-named ‘Oslo House Sunrise 4K’ is the sort of song you want to hear as you walk out of the club in the summer and it’s already light outside. The energy is still high on closing track ‘Hydrokinesis’, but it’s a tune that signifies something we’ve all felt on a Sunday: the sinking dread and melancholy before the return to the 9-5.
Preset Music is a collaborative experimental project from musicians Yo van Lenz and Florian T M Zeisig. Built on complex sampling and hypnotic loops, it’s an album best listened to accompany a daydream. It was released in the summer but has been my soundtrack to darker nights in a rainy England. I first listened to Preset Music traveling on a coach during the evening. It was dark and the country was covered in a fog; ‘HeavenCent’ was a perfect addition to those hazy surroundings. Each track from Preset Music is a delight, but ‘Astro Pong’ is a particular highlight — it’s a sweet melodic loop sitting in distinction to the rest of the album and the heavier sounds of ‘Falln Angel’ and ‘Harmo Rain’.
Sitting somewhere between ambient, world music and spiritual house, Alex Kassian (also known as Opal Spun and Al Kassian) delivers an astonishing EP that continues to awe me each and every time I listen. As with all great finds, I stumbled upon Hidden Tropics by accident via YouTube as I liked the look of the artwork* and haven’t stopped listening since. The Berlin-based artist says the EP was inspired by his home country Japan which is evident throughout, and in particular on ‘Olson Waters’, a warming first track that sets the tone for the rest of the EP.
The title track is more of an upbeat house number, and one that I’ve featured a lot in my recent DJ sets, Kassian offers a low tempo version ‘Hidden Tropics (Revisited)’, giving a new perspective. I find myself hitting repeat each time it has finished to get another dose as it is always over too soon proving sometimes it’s okay to judge a books by its cover.
*Tsuwaono Sagimai by Makoto Furukawa, Shimane, Japan
Invisible is the debut album by rising ambient star and New Atlantis family member JQ. Strikingly contrasted and five years in the making, it’s an album of past and present. JQ describes it as about “guilt, paranoia, depression, the relationship with self and growing up in the digital age.” The soothing, poppy melodies of ‘U’ evoke the happier, simpler feelings one can feel about their past. On the Present side of Invisible, the feelings of guilt and paranoia JQ bleed into tracks like ‘Falling’ and in the intensely ascendant ‘You Can Never Escape What You’ve Done’. Each track has the listener consider and reflect on the impact of our dependency on technology (read: social media) and offers insight into the often vulnerable territory of the artist’s mind.
“It was as if the music was not written by myself but [by] the chair,” explained Kate NV about recording для FOR at home. This lighthearted idea echoes the theme of the album, a playful and lively collection of chimes and marimbas. As an added bonus, artist Sasha Kulak developed a film to accompany the album which features warped scenes of a person going about their everyday life, much as you can imagine NV was doing in Moscow as she created the album. This film seems so fitting, given the animated nature of the для FOR; it’s a visual companion that boosts the overall experience.
(Sounds of the Dawn)
Yonder is New Age pioneers Sounds of the Dawn’s only release this year, and one of their best ever. Southeastern Wisconsin-based Inner Travels have been consistent in their high quality releases — ‘Sea of Leaves’ was one of my favorites of 2017.
This album features signature New Age sounds — ocean wave and rain samples — and delayed extended-note synths throughout. It’s an album that sounds best when meditating, particularly ‘A Gentle Return’, with its samples of politely chirping bird and soft notes floating in the background. The powerful pulses and waves on ‘Burst of Infinity’ remind me of lying down during sound therapy: closed eyes during a gong bath.
In the Dust of Idols
(First Terrace Records/SVS)
From the very get-go, In the Dust of Idols draws you into the dense, pressured place from where it operates. It’s an album of introspection and Specimens explains in the album’s liner notes that it’s about “exploring mortality, existentialism and the dread one can feel in the face of an apparently meaningless world”. It may seem cliché to attribute drone music to existential dread but it’s hard to not feel some sort of uncomfortable overwhelm you with the amount of weight, space and distortion featured here. ‘Moving Forwards Constantly Looking Back’ provides a brief escape from this, lulling you into a false sense of security before it later retracts into an intense and interminable synth, a sound that is consistent throughout the album.
I love getting uncomfortable and not really being able to make sense of the world, so The Dust of Idols really appeals to the inner philosopher in me wanting to connect to those feelings of unease and angst in order to understand it.
Cool Maritime is mixed-media visual artist Sean Hellfritsch’s musical alias, and Sharing Waves is his second release on LA’s Leaving Records. The album is charmingly named after the feeling of “fun, connection and excitement”, Hellfritsch says, amongst friends sharing a wave while out surfing. Each track serves as a euphoric ripple of energy, positivity and optimism, particularly on tracks ‘Engage’ and ‘Mossage’.
Hellfritsch’s inspiration lies within nature. Many of the tunes in this album were recorded in remote outdoor locations using a nomadic studio, with the result being deep, organic and harmonious compositions — a tribute to New Age and ambient music’s core foundation of a connection to nature and the fun to be had within it.
The self-titled, debut album release by Inner River, released on Amsterdam’s notable Atomnation label, it is a delightful and emotive mixture of relaxing beatless melodies and downtempo drums — a perfect balance.
The delicate rhythms and heart-warming melodies found on ‘Tributary’ and ‘Spillway’ fill me with both joy and nostalgia; there’s just something about the looped vocals that feels like a sonic embrace. The album is described as a “mysterious dreamworld” and tracks like ‘Arm of the Sea’ have a cinematic quality to match, although each one has a unique identity of its own.
Saudade is one of two album releases by r beny this year but the nostalgic lo-fi guitar riffs of on its title track and emotional deep chords of ‘ektar’ kick this album up a notch. There’s an evocative theme in this collection, one that takes me back in time to a younger teenage me trying to play emotional melodies on guitar. This doesn’t mean the album is by any means immature — it’s a positive, sentimental feeling that I hold close to my heart.
The album was available on extremely limited edition cassette tapes in handmade casing with artwork by Femke Strijbol and featuring a bonus dried flower: every tape collector’s dream.
Emily A. Sprague
This self-released album by synthesist, songwriter and sound designer Emily A. Sprague is split between piano and synth compositions; Sprague’s synths tracks are where the real beauty and strength of this album lie. The droney sounds of ‘Synth 2’ don’t evoke the usual sense of melancholy that often characterizes the genre — it’s deep but lifted and light. ‘Synth 3’ is full of lovely surprises, with strong building chords and a handful of gently progressive chimes intertwining with one another. This album sounds uplifting and wholesome, each instrument used is comforting and familiar, just how ambient should be.
India Jordan is a Yorkshire-born, London-based DJ and producer. She co-runs London’s premiere New Age and ambient social and record label New Atlantis.
Keep up with all of FACT’s Best of 2018 coverage here.