Year in Review | Ambient

Year in Review | Ambient

Atmospheric Sounds Come Back Into Their Own

by Joshua P. Ferguson

Late last year, a friend and regular reader on Dialogue Inc asked me if all my musical tastes skewed as hard to the mellow side of the spectrum as much of what I'd been writing about at the time. I said, no; but it got me thinking. And it's been on my mind a lot more these past 11 months with the steady stream of ambient records and compilations defining this year with its beatless landscape.

Ambient music has always held a symbiotic relationship with the rest of dance music. Its concentration on space, atmospheric textures and flowing soundscapes, is largely the stuff many of us are familiar with in deep house, melodic techno and liquid drum 'n' bass, just distilled to its melodic core. But ambient music is also so much more—it's an opportunity for experimentation in time and pace, expression, patterns and raw mood. And for Dialogue Inc it has been the highlight of our listening in 2014.

We certainly haven't been the only outlet to take note of the big year ambient music is having. Ryan Griffin, of the blog A Strangely Isolated Place, penned a fond letter to his longstanding love of the music given its recent renaissance in a piece called "Neither Scene Nor Heard: A Journey Through Ambient Music." The reliably faithful online outlet Fact Mag also chimed in with its own survey of 2014's best offerings with "Return to the Chillout Room: When Did Ambient Music Last Have It So Good?

A number of LPs have also given new weight to our own ambient collection this year, ranging from haunting drone to cold space to lush calm. At the far side of the spectrum,there is Giuseppe Tillieci, who so impressed listeners in 2012 as one half of Voices from the Lake with Donato Dozzy. More recently, under his solo guise Neel, he shed his aquatic confines for the infinite sprawl of the cosmos, composing a seamless and stark journey named after the martian moon Phobos. Filled with alien squawks and fluid textures, and sections entitled "Crater Chain Observations" and "Traveling on Kepler Dorsum," the sci-fi soundtrack is an ode to an oddly-shaped heavenly body on a millennias-long death march towards Mars as its orbit shrinks with each passing century.   

Inching away from the steely expanse of space, but only slightly, Vladislav Delay's Visa is a brooding collection of meditations on the thrum and din of synthesized sound, recorded in frustration of forced downtime after having been denied his visa to tour the US. A clear case of anger being channeled into productive energy, the LP begins with "Visaton," a 23-minute onslaught of jittery synths, stabbing distortion, tension and release. The stuttering synth motif carries throughout four more tracks of melancholic disorder before washing away on the back of the brief resolve, "Viimeinen." 

Falling somewhere between astral jazz and ambient acid, Sebastian Mullaert and Eitan Reiter have crafted one of the year's best in Reflections of Nothingness. A dynamic album that ranges from pristine, ambient sparkle to primitive organic techno to throbbing electronic pulses, it has more range than the other entries here and favors distinct progression over steadfast meditation. With an arc that begins earnestly in the sunrise swing of "Enter the Spiral," peaks intensely on "No Escape" and eases into the classically minded "Falling Apart Into One," the record is a captivating statement of freewheeling expression from a formidable duo.

Speaking of formidable duos, few this year can compare to Marcus Worgull and Motor City Drum Ensemble-man Danilo Plessow. Recording together as Vermont, the pair single-handedly sparked our ambient obsession this year by combining krautrock influences, vintage synths, epic jam sessions and indefatigable spirit. Quirkier in nature than the previous releases mentioned here, Vermont's self-titled debut marks the transition from the techier side of this year's ambient output to its deeper, more lush leanings with sweeping songs that build in waves and crescendo with calming rhodes rather than distorted drone. Whether it's the staccato arpeggios of "Dynamik" or the new age chill out of "Ebbe," this record is marked by bright rather than brooding.

Jon Hopkins, who won us over so definitively with last year's Immunity, returns with "Asleep Versions," showing off the ambient chops he firmly established as a soundtrack composer for films like Monsters and How I Live Now. Revisiting to stand-out moments from Immunity, like "Open Eye Signal" and "Breathe This Air," Hopkins gives new life to them as floating dreamscapes full of weightless piano, hymnal vocals and breathy atmospherics. This is particularly true on "Immunity," which enlists the help of King Creosote to conjure music fit for a spiritual awakening in the Scottish highlands.

And setting us down in a field of wild flowers, light fractals and winks of cheeky fun is the trio of Coco, Steel and Lovebomb, whose full length The Chillout Album recalls vintage KLF, sunsets in Ibiza and pints in a pub in London. Mixing field recordings with the warmth and glow of synth chords and surf guitar, the spirit of the yoga studio and the smoke of spliffs rolled beachside in Bali, the record is best digested as a whole—an immersive bath of sound handcrafted for sunsets, sunrises and the Balearic sense of everything and nothing that so bewitched us this summer. 


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