This is one of a series of “travelogues”, or year-in-review posts, covering music I especially enjoyed this year. This entry covers the last ten of twenty outstanding releases in the categories of ambient, soundscape, and downtempo electronic. Note that the albums are not in any kind of ranked order, but are simply listed alphabetically by artist.
Orbit Over Luna – Transit
Earlier this year, Shannon Penner announced that he would be taking a break from his Orbit Over Luna project and then surprised us with a summer release that was as beautiful as it was unexpected. ‘Transit’ is a purely ambient album that came together from a variety of demos and experiments in tone and texture and the artists own irrepressible drive to create. There are seven tracks, each with an eloquent and evocative title perfectly suited to the soundscape it represents: ‘the breathing of roots’, ‘saturnine’, ‘chambers of the sea’, ‘sungazing’, ‘Ylla’, ‘un jardin des cieux’, and ‘in the decay of shadows’, and each one unfolds patiently like the unhurried blooming of a flower. Also a talented graphic artist, Shannon created art for each track, making this a very appealing package and perhaps the most fortuitous musical “accident” of the year.
Release: Independent (July 2013)
Favorite tracks: Chambers of the Sea, In the Decay of Shadows
Rafael Anton Irisarri – The Unintentional Sea
The title of ‘The Unintentional Sea’ refers to the Salton Sea, a failed river redirection to assist Californian agricultural development at the turn of the 20th century and ecological disaster for which solutions are still being sought. The complicated history and imagery associated with this serve as both inspiration and powerful metaphor for these desolate and melancholy soundscapes. There is calmness here, but it is the somber calmness reflection and regret. The drones are deep and heavy like the mineral laden water of its name sake and the textures are thick and dusty. But there is also beauty that cannot be denied, a sense of longing for hope that all may not all be lost, which serves as a ballast to the gloom and makes this such a spellbinding record.
Release: Room 40 (November 2013)
Favorite tracks: Her Rituals, The Witness
Seaworthy / Taylor Deupree – Wood, Winter, Hollow
Nature itself is the third collaborator on this sublime recording produced by Australian artist Seaworthy (Cameron Webb) and New Yorker Taylor Deupree. The pair spent several days together one February on a 4,000 acre nature preserve near Deupree’s studio called Ward Pound Ridge where they recorded sounds and images which both inspired and populated the album they created during the evenings in the studio. Generous amounts of field recordings – creek flows, boots in the snow, wind in the trees, the rush of snow – along with impressionistic playing of Webb on nylon guitar and only the most subtle use of bells, melodica, and analog electronics all combine to create a vivid sense of place, isolation, and wonder. By the end you will feel you have taken the journey as well.
Release: 12k (June 2013)
Favorite tracks: Wood, Winter
Secret Pyramid – Movements of Night
Secret Pyramid is the solo project of Vancouver-based musician Amir Abbey and this album was perhaps my favorite drone oriented recording of the year. I almost passed it over as some of the descriptions of it I read lead me to expect something dark and forbidding. A deep melancholy bordering on a sense of loss does indeed haunt all the tracks, but they are also imbued with a transcendent grace so that the album never becomes maudlin or brooding. Instead, I consider it an enthralling, moving, and beautiful record which I can recommend unreservedly.
Release: Students of Decay (October 2013)
Favorite tracks: A Descent, To Forget
Siavash Amini – Chamomile Vol.01
I had my first exposure to the music of Siavash Amini when he was featured as a Soundclouder of the day and immediately recognized that this was an artist that I was going to hear much more from. ‘Chamomile Vol. 01’ is his contribution to the Botica Música Electrónica series from Oído Records. The motif and phraseology of the label’s description comes across a bit New Age, but the music is richly atmospheric ambient guitar rendered with graceful beauty and deep pathos. This was one of my most often played records during the year. Also note that Siavash has an outstanding track in the Futureseqence Sequence 7 compilation called ‘A Mist of Grey Light’ and a new album expected early next year on Umor Rex records.
Release: Oído Records (March 2013)
Favorite tracks: When No One Glitters, A Thousand Rooms
Simon Bainton – Visiting Tides
‘Visiting Tides’ is the work of British musician Simon Bainton. As intimated by the evocative title, the seven tracks are each named after different coastal areas that have inspired the artist. The description tells us “the album draws from an entirely acoustic palette of instruments including piano, acoustic guitar, voice, harmonica, flute, wind chimes and also features the unmistakable cello of Danny Norbury. These are bound together by an array of sampled vinyl records, field recordings and answer phone messages, all processed and arranged on laptop”. On tracks such as ‘Porlock’, Bainton applies very minimal treatment, whereas others are heavily processed into mesmerizing drones, such as ‘Tankah’. The striking cover art is an image of Newborough Dunes, overlooking the Snowdonia mountain range taken by photographer Richard Outram.
Release: Hibernate Recordings (August 2013)
Favorite tracks: Porlock, Dwynwen
Stray Theories – Those Who Remain
Born in Australia and based in New Zealand, Micah Templeton-Wolfe produces beautiful ambient and downtempo electronic music as Stray Theories. Released over the summer, ‘Those Who Remain’ is no doubt his best work so far. There is a glassy smooth purity throughout the album, yet it never feels detached thanks to a well-constructed melodic framework and the depth of emotion that permeates each song. Add the mastering of Taylor Deupree to all of this musical craft and you have one very complete and satisfying album.
Release: Already Dead Tapes and Records (August 2013)
Favorite tracks: Remembrance, Divisions
36 – Shadow Play
36 (pronounced three-six) is the ambient/experimental project of UK musician Dennis Huddleston. It was started after Huddleston took a year off from making music to allow himself to retool his studio and rediscover his creative passion. The result is an excellent collection of vivid atmospheric electronic and ambient pieces ranging from the impassioned title track to the delicate melancholy of ‘Ofelia’, the intensity of ‘Ascension’, and the nostalgia of ‘Heather Spa’. A very enigmatic and beautiful record.
Release: 3six Recordings (July 2013)
Favorite tracks: Shadow Play, Ofelia
Threethings – Antecedent Conditions
‘Antecedent Conditions’ is the debut recording from Threethings, a solo ambient guitar project of Ben Worth, also of the post rock band Kontakte and the experimental sound project Stenorette (with Ben Dyson). It consists of six tracks of ambient acoustic and electric guitar run through a variety of effects pedals woven into a complex fabric of loops and melodies with occasional field recordings and piano. The press material on the album explains that Worth attempted to “find something beautiful in the imperfect and the accidental, the loops contain incidental sounds purposefully left in to maintain the atmosphere of the recording space.” It is impressive to see such a nuanced and patient recording from an artist who can also generate stadium worthy post rock anthems. Fans of ambient guitar will not want to miss this or Worth’s outstanding track on the Sequence 7 compilation called ‘Arkhangelsk’.
Release: Rural Colours (September 2013)
Favorite tracks: Cloud Cover, Tailwater
Zinovia – The Gift of Affliction
Although this is her debut album as a solo artist, Athens-born Zinovia Arvanitidi has been studying, composing, and performing music since the age of 8 and has had work featured over the years in theatrical plays, films, and various other media as well as collaborating on a lovely albun last year with composer Hior Chronik under the moniker Pill-Oh. That explains why this is such a polished and mature sounding record. She has created a set of elegant soundscapes sculpted from cinematic and modern classical elements and masterful incorporation of beats and effects. Surely one of the finest downtempo albums released this year.
Release: Tympanik Audio (July 2013)
Favorite tracks: Communicating Vessels, A Time to Make Amends