Top 10 Ambient Albums of 2018

open spaces made for implications

make sure we don’t see them again

 


The term ambient has begun to mean less and less to me. As my weekly searches for ambient begins to involve more drone, electroacoustic improvisation, and modern classical then pure ‘ambient’, whatever that really is, the idea of “music that de-emphasizes structure and active listening” has become too large an idea to contain. The lead genre of the year has really been ambient house, as the strongest non-structured/spatially oriented releases came from artist like DJ Healer, Leon Vynehall, Bass Clef, and Takecha. Is that really ambient though? I ask myself that a lot while composing lists of this type. Genre specificity sometimes hurts the intention of music sharing when something like Takecha’s Deep Soundscapes can’t be shared with the audience who most desperately wants it.

So I forget it entirely. These aren’t ambient albums, these are albums to lose yourself into, albums that do nothing more than meet the criteria which Brian Eno defined:

Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable [sic] as it is interesting.”

10Anenon – Tongue

On the back of the breakout success of 2016’s Petrol, Anenon (aka Brian Simon) was presented with a challenge of concept. Somewhere in the balance of his jazz, electronic, ambient, minimalism, and electroacoustic music, he had to pick a direction to move in. He needed an element in that complicated mix to focus in on, to refine. Of course, there was always the option to keep the balance where it stood, but with Petrol he had already begun exhausting that possibilities efficacy. To stand still was to stagnate. So the choice remained, what was Brian Simon to do. The answer in a very literal sense was ambient, as Tongue is by many hands and feets a much more ambient affair than Petrol, but the real answer, is nothing.

With Tongue, Anenon sacrifices none of the strength or engaging qualities of any of his genre aspirations. The spiritual refrains from his jazz informed brass section remain alluring, despite their quieter tone. His electronic and minimalist aspirations almost benefit from their more backstage presence, elevating songs with simple melodies emerging from below and above. Adding dimensions of organic instrumentation on top of synthetic arpeggios. The balance, while tipped substantially in one direction, manages to keep its form, and hone in its focus towards a more singular goal.

9C418 – Excursions

You’re such a freaking ore, I mined it

Your Stevie is an ore, he’s iron

I just pulled up in a cart

Mined that ore out in the cave

Then I mined up on those diamonds

Or those emeralds, I don’t know nothin’

And my Stevie’s gettin’ diamonds

Like a pickaxe, Steve we mining

All these ores inside my e-chest

Look like I used xray when I went mining

So much diamonds in my e-chest

Ooh, frick, what’s the coordinates

Me and Alex sippin’ drink

Ohh, frick, she take my ores

8Dead Can Dance – Dionysus

We are now entering the 35th year of Dead Can Dance releasing music. From guiding journeys through black stars in the mid 80s, to drawing rich historical soundscapes of Balkan music and ambient music today. Their transformations have been rewarding and revealing, pulling back a similar unease across all borders and conceptual lines. From their 90’s reworkings of medieval and Arabic music to their brief flirtations with African folk.

Their new album Dionysus is a lovingly constructed homage which captures the anxious shuffle of Turkish folk within the oppressive web of Dead Can Dance’s inclinations. Split amongst two ‘acts’ the album slowly heads towards crescendo throughout its first act, weaving its tapestry of sounds denser and denser, emphasizing its underlying claustrophobia and dread. The second act, the resting motion, begins to pull apart that very fabric into its sparest features. By “Act II: Psychopomp” it’s barely recognizable as a part of the hectic tribal ambient that preceded it, instead deserving comparisons to a new iteration of slowly unraveling holy music. As a holistic piece of work it stands as one of Dead Can Dance’s most straightforward and wholly enjoyable projects since the early 90s.

7SUSS – Ghost Box

“Ghost Box is an album of psychedelic ambient country instrumentals created by a group of musicians known as SUSS.”

As the year has pushed on and significant blogs began to take notice of Suss, it’s been passively exciting to watch such a simple idea take on such big wings. Within the small community that is ambient music there is an unceasing passion for new ideas, and simple representations which feel like they should have existed long before.

Taking place somewhere between Songs;Ohia, John Fahey, Brian Eno, and the massive expanses seperating New York City and Portland, Oregon, SUSS is the sound of place and time separated completely from our current life. It’s a shared history we’ve never really experienced, of industrial towns filled with cowboys and a dream for a new world.

6Eli Keszler – Stadium

Despite Eli’s position as a wunderkind of free improvisation with a career now pushing past a decade I hadn’t found the time to listen to him until this year. It’s funny how being late to the party can feel so rewarding, as the culmination of his career Stadium lays down the yellow-brick road to the rest of his monstrous body of work. A culmination in concept that also significantly softens his sound, making his offbeat melodic and rhythmic intentions easy to approach. So while it may sound nothing like the work of Eli in preceding years, if you spend enough time with the album’s invigorating and quiet soundscapes than the rest of his work begins to make sense. Their shape can become visible through their chaotic form.

Stadium itself is more than just some improvisational Rosetta Stone though, it is transcendent shuffles, and chaotic rhythmic clatters played sparse enough to be relaxing. It bends field recordings of simple city noise into foreboding messages on human impatience with synths that sound like Tangerine Dream on a lean bender. It’s subtle tabla and wooden percussive tricks are like fluttering ideas and claustrophobic thoughts projecting out onto you. Stadium is challenging rhythmic improvisation made ambient, and that may well be one of he greatest conceptual victories of ambient music this year.

5Tim Hecker – Konoyo

Tim Hecker is the most foundational ambient artist of the new millennium so far. To me this is an undebatable certainty. From Haunt Me, Haunt Me Do It Again in 2001 to the scene defining magnum opus that was Virgins in 2013 it was widely accepted that he would be the uncontested master of the past two decades. Art is a fickle world though, and it’s easy to see that one album can undo the work of ten. In 2016, with the less positively received Love Streams, Tim Hecker seemed to kill all anticipation for his new work, despite the fact that Love Streams was by no metric bad, or even mildly insulting to his larger body of work. We truly are a fickle people.

With the release of Konoyo, the narrative has been righted, and the collective will has returned into Tim Hecker’s good graces. Personally, I’m not sure I find the showy apocalyptic compositions here as timeless or essential as Ravedeath, 1972 or Virgins, but it is clear that Time Hecker has something worth saying again. Something worthy of his sonic paintings and musical wizardry.

4Rafael Anton Irisarri – Midnight Colours

“The eight new songs were conceived as a sort of soundtrack to the “Midnight Clock or Doomsday Clock” – a symbol which represents the likelihood of a man-made global catastrophe.

Irisarri experimented with the use of heavily “degraded” tape, played through a mis-aligned Otari 8-track tape machine that was constantly on the fritz. “I felt using tape gave the music a particular texture & character, like when you watch old news reels from the 1950’s, you know those that talk about the H-bomb, and how we are all doomed,” he explains.”

To read how Rafael describes his own album, you’d think he’d given into despair. That Midnight Colours was the sound of our end and filled with nothing but the most horrific sounds our New Yorkian friend could conjure. I ask then, of you, my humble reader, to listen to the song given above, “Falling Curtain”. Close your eyes and let whatever images flow in, to flow in, to morph and appear. Do you see bombed out wastages, or lines for what little food we saved? Or like me do you see great open expanses of green, spilling over cliffs onto lakes and rivers. Of life and of life after that? Midnight Colours is as concerned with death as it is with life. And in the final moments of our world, Rafael finds more beauty than most could find in a perfect day.

3Pendant – Make Me Know You Sweet

After a solid half decade of dominating the outsider house scene, Huerco S. (aka Brian Leeds) makes the biggest outward step of his career since his 2013 debut Colonial Patterns. Pushing the ambient direction he’d been pursuing under the Huerco S. name into something completely unhinged. Under this new fully ambient moniker, he unravels those haunting melodies and clunky drums, which had until this moment defined his sound, into bottomless oceans and Lovecraftian warbles.

With titles like “VVQ-SSJ” it even feels like tracks plugged into coordinates. Unsearched corners of the endless water, or barren places just off the coast. The drones shuffle and even occasionally glisten, like waves pushing through into view, but never enough to break up the oppressive monotony of it. Those glittering synth melodies of “BBN-UWZ” or the expansive drones of “NMQ-HYT” are just precariously beautiful lights, hanging from the end of the dreadful things which live in the dark of the water.

2Sarah Davachi – Let Night Come on Bells End the Day

Are you familiar with resonant frequency? Perhaps at least mildly familiar with the old timey footage you saw in high-school physics of bridges being destroyed by nothing more than wind. It’s a sort of natural frequency of a material, where waves begin to add to one another, growing and growing until a physical system can’t hold it anymore. Sarah Davachi is in pursuit of the human frequency, pushing the very limits of sustained tones into consuming and textural masterworks.

Listening to Let Night Come on Bells End The Day gave me a sensation which no album has ever done before. A feeling like my inner ears were pressurized, like I was on a plane, or somewhere deep underwater, as if I was listening to music which was coming from the other side of it. I won’t lie at first I was quite uncomfortable with the whole thing, I mean a pressurized ear isn’t a good feeling is it? But within a few minutes after a sort of acclimation took place, it felt natural, almost awe inspiring, like floating beneath the water of the music. Translucent and lucid.

1DJ Healer – Nothing 2 Loose

DJ Healer (aka Traumprinz, aka Dj Metatron, aka Prime Minister of Doom, aka Prince of Denmark, aka The Man With Too Many Names) isn’t the kind of name you’d expect for a project as sincere and beautiful as this one. Really it seems more in line with the more ironic, experimental, and meta stuff Traumprinz normally releases, not for a towering epic of ambient house. I mean a term like DJ Healer just conjures up so many images of pretentious beat wizards fellating themselves to their own image as sonic doctors, it just can’t be anything but a joke… or is it? It’s sort of hard to turn off your irony-dar these days isn’t it, to talk about things like they aren’t some big joke, to pull off that mask of ironic detachment and open yourself to the world. But with Nothing 2 Loose Traumpinz does that and so much more, opening back the layers caging his soul like they were paper thin.

Sprawling out over the albums massive running time, and individual 12 minute epics, DJ Healer captures elements of faith and purpose, and of kindness and openness unironically and with a gentle hand. The soundscapes are intimate and soft, so quiet that you can’t even really hear them on your car speakers. A bold statement to how and when you should listen to this album, not for listening but for communion. Nothing 2 Loose is an almost biblical statement of purpose, DJ Healer has nothing to lose, and he’s giving everything he has to it. The unspecified ‘it’ being what might well be the most sonically sophisticated ambient house in over two decades.