A look back at some of the most memorable journeys in music taken this year in ambient music with an emphasis on drone, rich atmospheres, and deep emotional undercurrents.
Editors note: Few of the albums presented in these lists fit neatly into a single genre and we would not have it any other way, nor would the artists. The categorizations used here should not distract the reader from the joy of discovery. They are simply a way to organize and present based on my perceptions of compatible listening experiences and I was not above stretching the boundaries and making exceptions to fit in the most music possible.
Abul Mogard – Circular Forms [Ecstatic]
Always powerful and emotionally compelling, on his latest record Mogard molds his industrial strength drones around abstract geometric forms inspired by visual art to create a magnificent and satisfying work. Epic and soul deep.
Featured track: ‘Half Light of Dawn’
Siavash Amini – Subsiding [Futuresequence]
A sumptuous offering from one of the brightest luminaries in Iranian electronic music that incorporates some of the most distinctive elements of each of Amini’s earlier works while incrementally refining and evolving his sound. Every track is stunning, but the sprawling title track is journey unto itself.
Featured track: ‘Subsiding’
Arash Akbari – Vanishing Point [Flaming Pines]
Akbari skilfully shapes his sounds around this narrative framework and compelling themes to create a very well-crafted and deeply human record. Impeccable textures and atmosphere, but the moving musical depiction of coping with grief is what really sticks with you.
Featured track: ‘Rays From a Dead Star’
Rafael Anton Irisarri – A Fragile Geography [Room40]
An extended hiatus would have been quite understandable given the personal setbacks Irisarri suffered last year. Instead he reasserts his status as one of the masters of the genre with this introspective gem of an album grounded in palpable emotion and exquisite sonic workmanship.
Featured track: ‘Empire Systems’
Jeremy Young & Aaron Martin – A Pulse Passes From Hand to Hand [White Paddy Mountain]
These fluid, stream-of-consciousness instrumental improvisations, each built around a looped piano line, have a warm and rustic earthiness that offer immediate gratification to the ears, but a powerful emotional surge develops as the layers build around Martin’s plaintive cello. Simply gorgeous.
Featured track: ‘Berceaux’
Offthesky – The Serpent Phase [Hibernate]
Hushed, restrained, and suffused with a sparse and elegant minimalism. The piano lines form a skeletal framework over which opaque drones, ethereal voicings, and delicate textures are draped like veils with the additional instruments adding muted elements of narrative color. A truly beguiling offering.
Featured track: ‘Nowhere Point Vanish’
Celer – Jima [Two Acorns]
An perfect balance of stillness and expansiveness, Jima is a blissful excursion through inner space that provides respite and beauty. One simply does not want it to end.
Featured track: ‘Distant Misgivings’
Dino Spiluttini – All I Want Is To Be a Happy Man [Sacred Phrases]
The threnodial tone of this record belies the title and beguiles the ears. Spiluttini takes us through deep personal reflections as his music gropes for happiness and light through the gloom. A slow and patient journey through dark places toward hope and resolution.
Featured track: ‘Reminiscing’
Wil Bolton – Inscriptions [Dronarivm]
“Inspired by the melancholy romance of autumn’. Bolton constructs five sumptuous and evocative drones around field recordings gathered during an artist residency in Tallinn, Estonia. An absorbing and transportive journey.
Featured track: ‘Cathedral Lines’
Zenjungle – Flow [Midira Records]
Phil Gardelis weaves a rich sonic tapestry with his unique melding of guitar and saxophone that give his gritty ambient drones an urban, jazz-inflected tint. His alchemy is at its most potent on this stunning collection of tracks, especially the 12-minute ‘Constancy’.
Featured: track ‘Constancy’
Western Skies Motel – Buried and Resurfaced [Twice Removed]
Rene Gonzalez Schelbeck’s quixotic project has quite a range. He follows up the pristine classical and acoustic guitar playing of “Prism” with this abstract and heavily textured record painted in deep hues and grainy textures. But he always offers the listener a compelling narrative and a pure emotional core.
Featured track: ‘The Quiet Rust’
Umchunga – Should Have Been Done By Now [Hibernate]
Iranian musician Nima Pourkarimi’s first full length record as Umchunga is immersive and gripping with its undercurrent of fierce emotion. Book-ended by a pair of tracks that are unflinching in their bleakness, the more melancholic quartet of tracks in between offer the most satisfying catharsis in their juxtaposition of apprehension and beauty.
Featured track: ‘Should Have Been Done By Now’.
Pleq and Giulio Aldinucci – The Prelude To [Longstory Recording Company]
Together these two artists cover a wide swath across ambient and experimental music and when their two styles combine, it makes for an exceptionally rich and vivid sonic amalgam, made even more so by collaboration with artists such as The Green Kingdom, Christopher Bissonette and Olan Mill. Note: This was the final release of the short-lived Longstory label.
Featured track: ‘Resting on Intensity’
Ed Hamilton – Arabesque [Futuresequence]
Just as an arabesque is an ornamental design consisting of intertwined flowing lines, Hamilton weaves tendrils and volutes of sound into seamless arrangements that mesmerize and delight the ear on this album based on the first four chords of a composition by Claude Debussy.
Featured track: ‘Blue Lagoon’
James Murray – The Sea in the Sky [VoxxoV]
James Murray’s mesmerizing drones capture the complex dynamics and imposing forces that inhabit the atmospheric ocean, a realm of fast flowing jet streams, rising thermal columns, turbulent currents, electrical charges, and dense cloud structures.
Featured track :’Hollows‘
Bill Seaman – f (noir) [Eilean Rec]
This collection by Bill Seaman is drenched in a variety of tones and timbres suggesting the deepest parts of the night. Crackling drones, melancholic piano lines, disembodied voices, and mournful horns.What does 3 AM in the heart of the city feel like? Much like this I imagine.
Featured track: ‘Ending (part 3)’
Hotel Neon – Hotel Neon [Home Normal]
Originally self-released in 2013 by Michael and Andrew Tasselmyer, this collection of drones created with a usb recording device, cheap guitars, effects processors, and a computer cacught the ear of Ian Hawgood at Home Normal and was released on that label in January with a thoughtful and loving remaster that gave us the record as it was meant to be – delicious, glistening drones with a heavy undertow and emotional resonance.
Featured track: ‘Lowly’
Anthene – Repose [Polar Seas Recording]
Anyone familiar with the glacial sound and mellifluous flow of North Atlantic Drift will be at home with anthéne, though Brad Deschamps solo effort under this moniker refrains from any forays into the post rock territory, opting instead for a glassy smooth ambient aesthetic. Add expert mastering by Sean McCann and you have a tidy debut that plays very easy on the ear yet never wears thin.
Featured track: ‘trial of the century’
Alex Cobb – Chantepleure [Students of Decay]
Alex Cobb released this elegant collection of ambient drones on his own Students of Decay label which infuses honest and heartfelt emotion into his fabric of sound with a refined minimalist aesthetic. The title references an archaic term meaning to cry and sing at the same time, a fitting choice for this beautiful record.
Featured track: ‘Disporting With a Shadow’
Linear Bells & Sound Awakener – Belonging to the Infinity [Soft]
Both of these artists had a busy year and several fine releases, but seemed to draw particular inspiration from each other on this collaborative effort that melds French musician David Teboul’s resonant strings and powerful drones with Vietnamese sound artist Nhung Nguyen’s intricate treatments using piano, chimes, and other objects. It commands a sense of mystery and timelessness that befits the title.
Featured track: ‘Lullaby’