Thursday, December 18, 2008

Looking Back: Ambient in 2008

Looking back, there’s been a lot of fantastic music released throughout 2008 – I recently filled out a Top 20 list of the year’s best albums, and it was something of an agonizing process for me. After much gnashing of teeth I sent off the list, and then calmed down with a cup of tea. Looking over my list again, I noticed something – quite a few of the albums were ambient releases. And I realize now that 2008 has been an excellent year for ambient. Here, then, are my ambient picks of the year.

Keeping up with Rutger Zuydervelt’s constant stream of releases under the Machinefabriek name is a task that verges on the daunting (take a look at his discogs entry and you’ll see what I mean). Thankfully, there is a starting point – skip straight to Dauw. Not only is it the strongest, most artistically coherent full-length Zuydervelt has produced, it’s one of the very best ambient releases of the year. It’s an incredibly delicate and haunting album, full of subtle yet deeply affecting shifts in tone. It’s richly textured, with Zuydervelt using a palette of gently plucked guitar strings, soft piano notes, sudden creaks and noisy crackles, warm drones. There’s a ghostly feeling to the album, particularly on ‘Fonograaf’ with its crackle and hiss that evokes images of a long-forgotten record discovered in a sealed attic and ‘Dauw’ with its spectral choir. After four shorter tracks, Zuydervelt finishes the album with the (subtly) triumphant ‘Singel’, a 25-minute piece of hushed beauty that almost imperceptibly builds in emotional power. This is amazing stuff – I can’t recommend this album highly enough.

(You can hear the hauntingly beautiful title track over at Machinefabriek’s Myspace site, and the live track that forms the basis for ‘Singel’ is available for download over at The Wire’s website.)

Back in October Pete mentioned what an amazing album Ezekiel Honig’s ‘Surfaces of a Broken Marching Band’ is. Since then I’ve had it on high rotation – there’s something really intimate and comforting about the album, with its found sounds of crowd noise and snippets of conversation that come drifting in and out alongside other everyday noises, handclap beats, muted horns, softly floating piano notes, all wrapped up with warm grooves that gently rock the listener to and fro. ‘Surfaces of a Broken Marching Band’ rewards both casual and careful listening – it’s soothing to drift away to at the end of a long day, but close attention reveals an album that is deeply engaging and emotional, yet somehow elusive. This is one of the things that keeps me coming back – with each listening I discover something new.

(You can hear two tracks from the album – plus some other tracks – over at Honig’s Myspace, where he describes his music as sounding like “bumping into a chair while humming.”)

For those who prefer ambient of the drone variety, the year saw fantastic records from Aidan Baker & Tim Hecker, and Lawrence English. Canadian artists Baker and Hecker joined forces to release ‘Fantasma Parastasie’ an album of gorgeous guitar-based drones, hiss and static that dances on the edge of melody. This is one most definitely for fans of the My Bloody Valentine school of beautiful distortion. Meanwhile, Australian artist Lawrence English explored a world of hazily obscured figures on ‘Kiri No Oto’, Japanese for “sound of mist/fog”, an album which English describes as being “concerned with transposing the visual effects of mist, mirage, snow fall and the like to a variety of acoustic situations.” The fuzzes, hums and drones certainly evoke a feeling of moving through mist, snowstorms, and blinding sprays of light.

(You can hear the final, quietest track from ‘Fantasma Parastasie’ over at Aidan Baker’s Myspace – be sure to check out his cover of Joy Division’s ’24 Hours’ while you’re there. Sadly, I can’t seem to find any full track samples from ‘Kiri No Oto’.)

The ever prolific Bvdub (Brock Van Wey) came close to rivaling Machinefabriek in terms of output this year, with four 12”s, a cassette, an MP3 EP, and two full-lengths released on his own Quietus Recordings, ‘Dreams of Red Chambers’ and ‘Return to Tonglu’. The first time I talked about Bvdub here on ssgs I associated him with the dub-techno scene, although occupying the more gaseous ambient end of the sound. However, ‘Return to Tonglu’ and ‘Dreams of Red Chambers’ see Van Wey moving away from dub and openly embracing ambient sounds and structures – ‘Dreams of Red Chambers’ is almost entirely beatless. Both albums are gorgeous, and well worth tracking down (if you can, since they’re both limited). Van Wey’s knack for crafting drifting melancholic soundscapes is a perfect fit for the ambient scene, so it’s exciting to see what he’ll come up with in 2009.

(You can hear two tracks from ‘Return to Tonglu’ and ‘Dreams of Red Chambers’ along with some other Bvdub tracks over at the Myspace site for Quietus Recordings.)

I’m not entirely sure I should be classing Mika Vainio’s latest release as Ø, ‘Oleva’, as an ambient release, but I’m not entirely sure how else I should class it. It most definitely creates an ambience of its own, and although it’s a far from relaxing album, it’s utterly engrossing. Full of subterranean basslines and frequencies, steely sinister drones, and chime-like sounds that occasionally glitter in the darkness, ‘Oleva’ explores a unique sound, one that entirely belongs to Vainio. Compelling (and sometimes unnerving) stuff.

For fans of the neo-classical sound 2008 has seen an embarrassment of riches. Those looking for a sweeping epic are advised to pick up Jóhann Jóhannsson’s ‘Fordlandia’ (listeners should prepare themselves for “full emotional release” during the peak of the 15-minute closer ‘How We Left Fordlandia’). For something a little less epic, Peter Broderick’s debut full-length ‘Float’ is highly recommended, with ten tracks built around piano, augmented by strings and subtle treatments. The arrangements are simple and uncluttered, allowing the instruments and the sweet yet melancholic melodies to come through loud and clear. Keith Kenniff released strong full-lengths under both his Helios and Goldmund names (although to be perfectly honest I’m not sure either of them are as amazing as ‘Eingya’ and ‘Corduroy Road’), and Volker Bertelmann added string arrangements to his piano pieces on his latest Hauschka release, ‘Ferndorf’.

However, my equal firsts for neo-classical album of the year are Jacaszek’s ‘Treny’ and Max Richter’s ’24 Postcards in Full Colour’. I raved about ‘Treny’ earlier this year, and everything I said then still holds true – an album of hauntingly beautiful melancholia that deftly blends classical elements with electronic manipulations, evoking hazy feelings of nostalgia for something long past. Brilliant, beautiful stuff.

Richter’s ‘Postcards’ are a very different affair – an album of 24 brief musical snapshots, all of which are under three minutes in length, and with only six tracks running longer than two minutes. Richter has said that the pieces are exercises in exploring the musical possibilities of ringtones, but for me they’re expressions of the beauty of brevity. Each piece says just enough to evoke a particular feeling, and then ends. I’ve read some reviews that were critical of this, but for me this is the album’s strength – to sketch each “postcard” in such a short space of time shows both incredible skill and restraint from Richter. I can strongly recommend flipping through this album of musical postcards.

(You can hear two tracks from ‘Fordlandia’ at Jóhannsson’s Myspace, two tracks from ‘Float’ at Peter Broderick’s Myspace, two tracks from ‘Ferndorf’ at Hauschka’s Myspace, tracks from ‘Caesura’ and ‘The Malady of Elegance’ at the Helios and Goldmund Myspace sites, two tracks from ‘Treny’ at Jacaszek’s Myspace, and all of the tracks from ’24 Postcards in Full Colour’ at this site – just click on each of the photos.)

So, there you have it – my favourite ambient releases of 2008. But how about you? What moved you (oh so quietly) this year?


  1. Best Ambient like Album in 2008 for me was Grouper - "Dragging a dead deer up a hill"! A perfect mixture between indie and drones... and Groupers wonderful voice. Very special!

  2. @axibert - ya, that grouper record is beautiful!

    the 7" related to peter broderick's 'home' lp ('Roscoe / Games Again') on bella union has been spinning pretty often here lately.

    & also, 'bumping into a chair while humming' is probably the most endearing description of experimental music ever :)

    most of the rest i missed completely; thanks for the tips, will be digging!

  3. This is agreat list; gonna track down some of this stuff. Thanks.


  4. I'm very much in agreement. A couple on here I haven't heard yet, but Aidan Baker and Tim Hecker, Jacaszek, Ezekiel Honig, yes absolutely.

    What about The Sight Below, Fennesz, The Caretaker, Philip Jeck?

    Great list. Also lots of fun adjectives. I haven't posted mine yet but it sounds like it'll be up your alley. It'll appear here: I'd love to hear your thoughts.

  5. man, as always, you are toooooo kind :)

    thanks so much

    and trust me... it's gonna get waaaaay more ambient in 09. get ready ;)


  6. growing's "all the way" and fennesz's "black sea" are on heavy rotation 'round clom towers.

  7. second on the black sea, listening to it as the sun came up over the resevoir the other day nearly had me in pieces. seems to have come a bit early for the end of year lists, whats the craic with them all being 'albums of the jan-oct period'?

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  9. Very kind and nicely shaped sharing, some new digging waiting for me and i'd also add Fennesz to the list..


  10. Hey Everyone,

    Glad you liked the list ... hopefully there's something in there that'll you'll find appealing!

    @ axibert: I haven't heard the Grouper album. From what you've described it sounds nice! It's on Type, right?

    @ jake: Yeah, Honig's description of his music really made me smile ...

    @ Alex: I was going to say something about the Philip Jeck album, but my post was already running quite long. But, yeah, "Sand" is a good album. I haven't heard The Sight Below - what kind of stuff does he/she/they do?

    I've read good things about The Caretaker, but haven't heard any of his stuff. However, I recently stumbled across his website, which has stuff you can freely download, so I'll check it out. The descriptions of the music sound fascinating.

    I decided to not say anything about the new Fennesz as I only heard it recently, and I'm still processing it. The second half of the album is great, but the first half hasn't clicked with me yet ... although I could just be coming at it from the wrong direction. I definitely need to give it some more careful listens.

    I'll keep an eye on your blog for your list!

    @ bvdub: Awesome! Looking forward to hearing what you do in 2009!

    @ Clom: I've heard good things about Growing, but haven't heard any of their stuff yet. But it sounds like I definitely need to check 'em out ...


  11. Great list, thank you
    Tomasz Bednarczyk - Summer Felings
    Move D And Benjamin Brunn - Songs Form The Beehive
    Sawako - Bitter Sweet
    Various - Muting The Noise 01 [Innervisions]
    Various - Sampler 08 [Ai Records]

  12. 24 Postcards is an exceptional album. All of his albums stand out for me. I think he's an incredible composer. The 'Waltz with Bashir' soundtrack, for which Richter composed most of the original score, is also amazing. Beautiful, but also deeply harrowing.

  13. Excellent list... I agree with it 100%... Here's my list that took over a week to compile :


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