Ambient Music: A Personal Primer

(I will be using Spotify links for song and album examples here: Other music services are available. Wait, I don't work for the BBC, why have I made this disclaimer? Oh well, It's here now.)

 

As I age, I seem to be drawn more to beatless melodies. To soundscapes and environmental sculpture, not tightly-wound 4/4 pop pellets.

 

I found it an intimidating world to dive into, however. The level of pretension is high, as demonstrated by my waffle of environmental sculptures - which will continue in this article, by the way, so hold on to your handlebar moustaches and your IPA - so finding what you're looking for can be tough. I've done some of the hard yards in that aspect, and as it's a personal passion of mine at the moment, it seems no better time than to try to introduce more to its craft and beauty. Let's go!

 

We're starting at the beginning, obviously, with the great Brian Eno. What do you first hear when you see that name? I'm willing to bet it's An Ending: Ascent. It's more likely to be nothing at all, but I guarantee you've heard that song before. It's a heavenly float into space, composed for a NASA documentary, and since borrowed by several pieces of TV and film. It's the showpiece of Ambient, in its way.

 

Early collaborators of Eno's also stood out to be masters of the craft. After Eno had penned Ambient 1, Ambient 2 brought Harold Budd along for the ride. While Harold himself is said to feel he has been trapped with the Ambient label and he hadn't intended to be in it, his pensive, slow piano style is nonetheless a well-known part of the ambient repertoire. His strongest work, to me, is in Lovely Thunder, especially the track Flowered Knife Shadows, which cuts a peaceful set of pads with a piercing, aggressive piano tone to keep the listener slightly off-balance. Harold got his wish eventually as a heavy influencer of and collaborator with Robin Guthrie, best known as a founding member of the Cocteau Twins, both blending their sensibilities to create pensive dreamscapes in The Moon And The Melodies.

 

The next man to take on the ambient mantle was Laraaji. Creatively titled Ambient 3 and with Eno attached as producer only, Laraaji brought a new angle: acoustic instruments. Zithers and dulcimers reign supreme in a disc of 2 parts: the more conventional and hypnotic Dances, and the spacious and ruminative Meditations. Both are a delight to a carefully listening ear, with detail and tinkering transporting the listener to an Eastern dusk or dawn respectively. 

 

That's the end of the history lesson though. Let's move into other more personal favourites, some of which may be slightly more off the beaten path. The first of these is bvdub (lowercase is deliberate), a prolific San-Fran born Chinese resident who produces ambient that flirts slightly with techno. Tracks are protracted but the time is not wasted; instead, it implores you to slow down, close those eyes and just listen. Soothing cocoons of fluffy cloud chords and finely tuned vocal stings moulded into a jetstream of zen. See what I mean with I Knew The First Time, as the world builds itself in your ears. 

 

Biosphere is another well-known name around the world of ambient music, but one of his albums stands out as seminal in the genre. Substrata invokes the aqueous at all times; an apparent conflict between the ocean's serenity and rage. Tension ebbs and flows through the early stages of the record as a mild unease and insecurity hides behind droning synths and Twin Peaks ramblings. This facade is then broken by Times When I Know You'll Be Sad, with the titular refrain repeated over lilted guitar loops. From here, we plunge under the water, and a cavernous journey of a submariner appears to unfold in front of us, highlighted by Kobresia as a stern Russian "telepath" describes a frigid metal surface. By the end of it all, you lay motionless at the bottom of the deep, dark depths.

 

Huerco S started his musical life in deep, deep House, known as Outsider House. As time has passed, however, he has embraced the depth and abandoned the four-on-the-floor.  For Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have) holds an extremely strained relationship with those deep house roots. The groove is present but fiercely constrained by the deliberate avoidance of bombast. As cliched as this now is, this is Saturday Night music as seen at 7 am the next morning; hazed and mellowed until only the glimmer and tone remains. I recommend the album in its entirety here; any single track conveys the album's - and my

own - message fully.

 

The Field lives on repetition. Repetition drives The Field. But subtleties emerge, and a microcosm of microhouse emerges. While his newer work certainly has more dancefloor potential – even if that would be a dancefloor full of fussy people in sweaters – one of his earlier releases builds one final piece of ambient bliss in Night. A 3 am drive in sonic form where sharp sparks of light permeate from pitch blackness, the engine rumbles on quietly and the road unfurls in front of your tired but active eyes. The roads repeat for what seems like forever until finally, you are home, and the world sends you gently to your bed.

 

Richard D James is a name – and if you’ve walked through the Electronic section of a record store, a face – that many recognise under the moniker of Aphex Twin. Richard’s music is a land of extremes, be it supersonic blasts of breakbeats or static, anguished hollows. Naturally, we’re looking at the hollows, here, and Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Vol II. The whole album is a treat, but I will present you with its showpiece, #3, oft mistakenly marked as Rhubarb. Synthetic woodwind tones depict a cramped, grey forest you have found yourself in the middle of, able to head in any direction but instead halting, just for a few moments. Gentle winds blow the trees, nature scatters faintly, but temporal stillness reigns.

 

If you enjoyed the repetition of The Field, boy do I have a treat for you with William Basinski and his famous Disintegration Loops. The album title is surprisingly descriptive of the content therein; A reel-to-reel tape loop left to rot, with the results recorded and laid bare to all. The centrepiece dlp1.1 in its exhaustive 60-minute runtime watches a 10-second ambient loop glacially dissolve and rupture. By the end, only a small core remains, and your ear is left to connect the dots or embrace the void left behind. The devil is in the detail, and no piece of music makes that clearer as those details fade away.

 

Panda Bear - real name Noah Lennox - is not a traditional source of ambient music, all things considered. He's a founding member of the manic eclectic force known as Animal Collective, who just happen to be my favourite artists of all time. However, earlier on in his oeuvre, he crafted the impeccable Person Pitch. While there are definitely beats and rhythms located in several parts of the album, it's a sample-focused affair that creates ethereal locations at points within, especially in Search For Delicious. A web of pilfered sources constructs an otherwordly hum that lifts you from your chair and into the clouds. Noah's voice calls out at the top of its range, searching for a place to lands. It finds one, some semblance of a verse occurs, and we take off once again. Part of my personal definition of ambient that splits from its purist label is that I feel either peace and tranquillity or tension and suspense from the music. This falls so firmly in the former it practically defines it.

 

Stars Of The Lid are a set of old, trusted hands in the genre. They have a lengthy back-catalogue to explore, but as I have been for the last few artists - though I recommend you deep-dive them all! - I will focus on a singular track of a singular moment. That is Humectez La Mouture, as minimal as they come, laser-focused melancholy and grief. As a voice cries out into the night, we are left to wonder what tragedies befell it.

 

When it comes to the subject of tension, there's a track that typifies the slow-burn ratcheting of unease excellently. In Sarah Davachi's Buhrstone, what enters as a quiet, unassuming set of low piano chords grows moss. A tickling distortion slithers in little by little until it has engulfed the room and you scarcely have space left to breathe. It's not a comfortable listen; It's not meant to be.

 

There are more I could go into, and I likely will someday soon, but for now, I will leave you with one more name and one more song. That name? Ian William Craig, a triple-forenamed phenom of comfortably uncomfortable distortions. The song? Contain (Astoria Version), a 10 work in two acts. At first, we have but a constrained Craig lamenting his attempts to find the trust of another. After saying his piece, he drifts into the background, and the network of synthesisers take his place. The pieces slowly pass through each other, dissonance eventually leading to a rainbow prism of clean lead chords that demand your full attention. As such, it's the journey I've embarked on writing this. I hope I have gained your trust, and that you find a prism to call your own.

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