Now that winter has truly set in in the Southern Hemisphere, conditions for ambient music listening are beginning to peak, which is great, because there have been some high-quality releases in the past 3 months. Here are some records and projects that you may have missed.
I haven't stopped listening to this record since it was released. Max is one of the most reliable ambient music creators in the industry, an artist who can deliver decadent cerebral projects like The Ocean Inside, or unceasing beauty like Ars Lucis. Nocturnes straddles those extremes, oscillating between higher-pitched drone and more bass-heavy low-end work ("Stellar Time" especially). You might be asking "honestly, what sets an expert ambient artist apart from a bedroom hobbyist?" Nocturnes is the answer, the sounds he manages to create are complex and multi-layered. The first three tracks combine the light touch of strings, the heavier, bass-heavy touch of woodwind, and even the occasional tinge of brass. Movements take minutes to set up and longer to execute; the shiny veneer that is the second half of "Dark Sky Opening, Pt. 3" builds for nearly 25 minutes before breaking the surface. Corbacho can comfortably take his place alongside William Basinski, Brian Eno and Forest Fang as the rockstars of the genre.
Having never heard Gas before this record, it was comforting to be able to slip straight into the narrative. No knowledge of previous album Pop is required to enjoy Narkopop, a drone-heavy experience that adds a dystopian element through mismatched drum patterns that, as Anthony Fantano so well put it, feel like they're bleeding through from the hip-hop convention next door to the Opera House. It adds danger and mystery, and the swelling strings and synth arrangements that would normally be used to build tension actually provide a safety zone, a touchpoint in case the percussive elements overwhelm your senses. You can just as easily fall asleep to this record as wake up with it, a rare commodity in the ambient world. There's much to unpack for the immersed listener, note especially the bells during "Narkopop 6" that call up images of a windy front porch in the middle of a hot summer in Nevada, or the off-pitch synths towards the end of "Narkopop 8" that match well with drums that feel like an irregular heartbeat.
The Caretaker - Everywhere At The End of Time Stage 2
There is an inexplicable voyeuristic charm to The Caretaker's incredible concoctions. The second track feels like a mournful waltz, but the mind's eye latches on to an opulent ballroom filled with beautiful people slowly moving in time as their jewelry glitters, softened by the passage of time. This is part 2 of a 6 part series, so it feels more incomplete than An Empty Bliss Beyond This World or Patience. Track 4 could be the backing to a 1950s thriller movie, and despite the title track 5 doesn't appear to hide any desperation. There are more elongated ambient phases, and the scratches and warm sounds that accompany any ancient record are even more of a contributing voice than ever before, bridging gaps between thoughts and movements with more purpose than background noise. "I Still Feel As Though I Am Me" ends with something akin to a Beatles outro during their Lucy In The Sky phase. As a package it's difficult to truly immerse yourself and allow the music to influence and bend your own emotion, rather, it's easier to view it as a time-capsule and let your imagination run wild in black and white. Kirby's premise for these releases is a documentation of early-onset dementia, and these records are meant to be indicative of the loss of health and mind, and eventually death. The concept feels very difficult to grasp, especially for someone who has no first hand knowledge of dementia, but the music is such that personal narratives and the pure act of invoking your own imagination carries any concept you so choose to apply.
Christopher makes good old-fashioned ethereal drone music. His previous collaborations, notably with Taylor Deupree and Ruichi Sakamoto, have been slightly more expansive and diverse. Horizon is befitting of an artist at the very forefront of ambient music production. It is part of his promotion of the Envelop Listening project, taking a three-dimensional approach to the creation and consumption of music. This gives the music a more substantive footprint, and while contemporaries chase a sound that will transport the listener away from reality and into a more utopian (or even dystopian) theoretical dimension, Horizon imparts upon the consumer a mind full of images taken from real life. A windswept field ("Simplicity"), a crisp early morning ("Rotation"), a summer evening ("Two"), a lonely walk home ("Return"). I always say the true stars of the genre can create music that is able to draw a user into an immersive experience or provide calming background music, depending on the mood you're in. Willits has done just that yet again.
The centrepiece of this record really is "Desacrelasation", a truly menacing and disquieting piece of music that casts a shadow over the rest of the album, and any sense of calm or contentment you were feeling. It manages to tinge even the less ominous songs like "Format and Formalize Desire" and "Turn Roots in Iodine" a very slight shade of madness. Their command of so many instruments is also very impressive, you can honestly lose hours identifying each sound and following the duo down each rabbit hole they furrow in.
To be honest, we should have expected something along these lines. Cantu-Ledesma has always been on the more noise-oriented side of ambient music, and On The Echoing Green can be seen as nothing more than a refinement and condensing of tracks like "Love After Love", "The Twins / Shadows" or even "White Dwarf Butterfly". This album is more Beach House than Fennesz, although the beautiful centrepiece "A Song of Summer" could easily be compared to Fennesz's own crowning achievement "Endless Summer". On the Echoing Green is a lovely record, at times quite dense but always capable of poking it's face through the clouds and basking in the sunlight. The disquieting "Vulgar Latin" even has some 1920s vibes, while "Door to Night" legitimately sounds like someone fighting their way through a haunted house at 3am, only to open the door onto a beautiful moonlit evening on the edge of a stunning piece of coastline. An evocative record to say the least.
John Matthias & Jay Auborn - Race to Zero
I had to give this a spin on the basis that John Matthias is good enough on the violin to grace legendary album The Bends by Radiohead. Race To Zero doesn't disappoint. There are some downright tunes on here! "Pretoria" is a stunning waltz, grabbing the ambience from a 1920s box social and pairing it with the piano western sound of the 1950s and the percussion that propelled so many brilliant 90s creations. Each track is a new twist in the trail, and you truly never know what you're going to get. A huge horn section on "Stone Face", industrial strength drums on "Every Word a Mask", and something that sounds simultaneously like a whip cracking and a horse drawing a cart on "Soma Vapour". This album is a true romp.
GP Hall - Industrial Blue
It's not surprising GP Hall has created one of the most diverse ambient records of 2017. His work speaks for itself, and there's a distinct "wall of sound" feel to this record, constructed using a wide variety of expertly played instruments. The way the guitar begins in middle America, and over the course of 2 minutes ends up deep in South America is something spectacular to behold. A wonderful concoction.
Jean-Michel Blais & CFCF - Cascades
We know CFCF as a pioneering electronic musician making high-quality, wide-ranging music. 2016's On Vacation touched on a variety of cultures and sounds, so this collaboration is unsurprising. It's Jean-Michel, though, who dominates the record, his command of the piano the focal point of each track. The outlier is "Hypocrite", the best song on the album and a wonderful marriage between the soaring experiments of CFCF and an energetic and ever-changing riff from Jean-Michel. The record isn't quite as globe-trotting as it looks on paper, but it's a nice piece of music.
Mary Lattimore - Collected Pieces
Mary is an accomplished harpist, and this record showcases just how incredibly experimental and creative she is within her craft. The sounds she manages to conjure on "Bold Rides" are like nothing I've ever heard before, and she very rarely crosses over into any space outside of "warm" and "ambient". There's a Eastern European edge to "The Warm Shoulder", and "Your Glossy Camry" might be the greatest piece of music ever written about the family car from Toyota (I am of course kidding, unless Mary does indeed hold a soft spot for the veteran transport). This is a must-listen in 2017.
Justin Walter - Unseen Forces
This isn't merely a pretty album designed to be hung on the wall. Tracks like "Isotope" and "Sixty" have a distorted quality, a restless energy that occasionally spills over into sound. But Justin certainly does take care of the aesthetics where he can, crafting delicate pieces of music that move too quick to be labelled as drone, but can easily provoke your inner ability to daydream.
Dale Cooper Quartet - Astrild Astrild
There's an incredible moment around 6 minutes into "Huis chevechette". You're acutely aware of your imagined surroundings, as if time has slowed to a standstill. A troubadours voice, a busker with more experience than your average, bursts through the ambience and then settles into it. It exemplifies how this record can lurch from sound to sound and still present a united and consistent sound. "Ta chassis euplecte" goes from warm afternoon vista to cold, dark, Autechre-levels of mayhem, and somehow the transition is as natural as an afternoon storm rolling in from the ocean. This is an expertly constructed album.