2017 In Review: Journeys in Ambient, Drone, and Electroacoustic

This list can never be big enough to include all the beautiful work done in these genres over the course of a year, but here are 25 albums that left a lasting impression. Here you’ll find rich atmospheres, deep emotional undercurrents, and organic, warm, and tactile soundscapes. Among these albums we find as much decomposition as composition, an embrace of stillness and naturally occurring beauty.

Alaskan Tapes – In Distance We’re Losing


In Distance We Are Losing is clearly a chronicle of a difficult passage, but one that ultimately ends on a redemptive note thanks to the transcendent reach of the penultimate track – the gorgeous “Because Finally It’s Everything” – and the tentatively hopeful final coda.  It is a rewarding journey to be sure, but allow time for long, wistful stares into the distance that will inevitably ensue.

Available on digital, CD, and clear vinyl LP

Ghost and Tape – Vár [Home Normal]


Carefully constructed, intricately layered, and organically arranged with purity of intent, Vár is an album of rustic and delicate beauty that not only rewards, but virtually demands, repeated listening.

Available on digital and CD

Lee Yi – An Instant For Momentary Desolation [Rottenman Editions]


I was blown away last year by the discovery of Lee Yi’s dark, soulful drones which balance aching melodies and fine spun textures with a heavy emotional undertow spun by looped and bowed guitar. Here he follows up Redemption Comes with Dawn with another masterful, expansive work that holds its own with the heavyweights of the genre.

Available on digital and CD (some editions may be sold out)

North Atlantic Drift – Departures [Polar Seas Recordings]


Departures fully embraces the shift North Atlantic Drift began to take with last year from the melodic post-rock orientation of their early work toward a preference for pure ambient soundscapes. The duo’s strong sense of melody still remains so what we end up with is the best of both worlds – the glacial majesty of their early sound fused with a new and complex drone substrata that resonates deeply.

Available on digital, cassette, and CD (some editions may be sold out)

Sonmi451 – Panta Rei [Eilean Rec.]


“This album is dedicated to the rivers and streams, crossing the exquisite mountain-landscape of the Alps and Dolomites in the beautiful region of Southern Tirol.” (Bernard Zwijzen aka Sonmi451).  Delicate, subtle, warm, and shimmering, this is a low-fi, minimal feast for the ears with a curative vibe.

Available on digital and CD (some editions may be sold out)

Anthéne – Orchid [Sound in Silence]


Whether making music as anthéne or as part of North Atlantic Drift, Brad Deschamps has a penchant for shimmering tones and glacial beauty.Orchid adds seven spellbinding new pieces to the anthéne catalog, each a study in ambient guitar alchemy, beautiful sound shapes, and discreet use of textural elements which all coalesce to sustain a deeply introspective and nostalgic mood.

Available on digital and CD 

Hotel Neon – Context [Fluid Audio / Facture]


It was the band’s choice on this record not to thrust any particular narrative on the listener but rather, as the album title suggests, to provide a context to which they could connect to their own.  Spend an hour or so with these warm, heavily textured crepuscular drones and you are likely to agree it is mission accomplished. A wholly immersive and extraordinarily atmospheric experience.

Available on digital, cassette, and CD (some editions are sold out)

Lowercase Noises – The Swiss Illness


The Swiss Illness is “nostalgia”, which was coined by doctors studying Swiss mercenaries far away from home, and the physical ailments brought on by their feelings. On his most refined and beautiful work to date, Andy Othling explores this theme as with lush waves of pedal-driven guitar, ethereal melodies, and swelling strings that soar in arcs of longing and sadness.

Available on digital and vinyl LP (some editions may be sold out)

Pausal – Avifaunal [Dronarivm]


Viewed as a whole, “Murmuration”, which is offered in three separate but contiguous movements on the record, is a magnificent, sprawling piece of orchestral proportions and with a scintillating undercurrent, a motif which is echoed in more concise & restrained form on the lovely closing track “Soar”. Ensconced in between are a pair of beguiling soundscapes – the foggy swirls of “Spiral” and the shimmering metallic abstractions of “Scatter”.  A cerebral, exhilarating journey that scales dizzying heights.

Available on digital and CD (some editions may be sold out)

Sven Laux – Paper Streets [Dronarivm]


A paper street is a road or street that appears on maps but does not exist in reality. Here veteran German musician, DJ, & producer Sven Laux takes us on an organic neoclassical journey into imagined wide-screen landscapes awash in swells of violin, cello & piano. Bursting with cinematic flourish, but with a restrained minimalist core serving as the ballast that keeps it grounded.

Available on digital and CD

Arash Akbari – The Rest is Silence [Unknown Tone]


A musician, new media artist and designer, living and working in Tehran, Arash Akbari last beguiled us with the haunting  Vanishing Point released in 2015 on Flaming Pines. He returns in grand form with another complex, heavily layered offering that explores deep emotional strata. Among the highlights here is the soul-wrenching, arresting beauty of ‘For The Stillness Of Watching The World Through Your Eyes’. 

Available on digital and CD

James Murray – Killing Ghosts [Home Normal]


Killing Ghosts is no a collection of mere abstract soundscapes or pastoral musings. There is an even greater alchemy at work here, a visceral sense of isolation and soul-deep reflection somehow conveyed purely through sound and a complete erasure of the lines between exteriority and interiority as the artist struggles to “make some sense not just of [a] peculiar time, but of each and every day spent without those we leave behind”. Immersive, captivating, and deeply personal.

Available on digital and CD (some editions may be sold out)

Ludmila – 1 Day 1 Track [Whitelabrecs]


These dreamy guitar loop sketches created over an inspired 7-day period. may have been born of improvisation, but the soft focus guitar lines, shimmering arcs and warm amp crackles meld into a mellifluous flow as Jori Borla aka Ludmila weaves a hazy, kaleidoscopic daydream that offers a beautiful respite from the clamor of daily life.

Available on digital and vinyl-effect CDr

r beny – cascade symmetry


A soothing immersion in a world of sumptuous textures; a warm and inviting quiescence of time as lush, shrouded, and remotely melancholic as Austin Cairn’s imagery of the Oregon coast on the cover suggests. It is a rare to find to such a near-perfect balance of careful sound design, fine textural filigree, and satisfying gravitas.

Available on digital and CD (some editions may be sold out)

Tapes and Topographies – Signal to Noise [Simula Records]


Awash in gauzy layers of melancholic drone and ornamented with wistful melodies, fine spun textures, and delicate field recordings, the third full-length record for this ambient project of  Texas-based musician Todd Gautreau is a beautiful immersion of sound and suspension of time that evokes warm nostalgia, tender emotion, and deep reflection

Available on digital and CD 

Benoît Pioulard – Slow spark, soft spoke [Dauw]


Field recordings captured in Iceland and France stirred into fluid watercolor dreamscapes woven from guitar, bass, voice, and tape.  Spellbinding, otherworldly beauty that offers soothing respite to the ears.

Available on digital and cassette (some editions may be sold out)

Josh Mason & Nathan McLaughlin – On the Brink [Eilean Rec.]


A metaphorical journey from a unique perspective that examines the state of mind as one faces the possibility of failure, Mason and McLaughlin weave together a restrained, but compelling narrative in one sprawling 54-minute track using guitar, strings, and other sonic ephemera which they subject to tender ministrations via computer, tape machines, and reel-to-reel. The subdued and delicate aural constructions are mesmerizing and rich enough in detail to offer something new each time the journey is taken.

Available on digital and CD (some editions may be sold out)

Marcus Fischer – Loss [12k]


If you’ve read the well-earned rave reviews of Loss but not heard it, you might be surprised at how much of a restrained and understated a listening experience it is. Manifesting concepts of loss through sound can be a tricky affair, but Fischer does it masterfully here as he manipulates fragile, diaphanous tones through reel-to-reel tape using its inherent decay and his own sense of tone and space to create a nuanced and compelling personal reflection on “coping with the permanence of absence” with an emotional impact that will sneak up on you. Requires and rewards thoughtful, focused listening.

Available on digital and vinyl LP 

Rafael Anton Irisarri – The Shameless Years [Umor Rex]


How did this monumental album not yet get a review on these pages? I still have to wonder, though it perhaps it has to do with facing down some intense emotions and stark realities. Without a word, Irisarri tackles the anxious existential zeitgeist of the times and his own mortality. This latter aspect resonated deeply with me as the liner notes express Irisarri has outlived his father who died in his 30’s, an experience not unlike my own. A huge added bonus here is the collaboration of fellow emotive drone-master Siavash Amini on the closing tracks with devastating effect. An absolute stunner.

Available on digital and red vinyl LP 

Toàn – Histós Lusis [Eilean Rec.]


A new project from French musician Anthony Elfort which based around music composed entirely by samples found on old records, live instruments and field recordings, Histós Lusis offers highly organic compositions set against an exotic and ornately textured backdropIn the dedication of the album, Elfort cites the Latin phrase ‘post tenebras spero lucem‘ meaning ‘after darkness I hope for light’, an apt metaphor for the expansive journey this album offers.

Available on digital and CD (some editions may be sold out)

Bird Traps – The Rainbow Body


Plaintive melodies drawn in long, slow arcs of the bow across the strings of Skinner’s instruments ebb and breathe in an ethereal, ephemeral space somewhere between the ambient and the cinematic. Each of the five pieces is deeply meditative in nature, haunted by a world-weary mournful air that seems to yearn for peace and resolution. While the title track and the near 20 minute “Colour Peace” are the most extensive of the lot, it is the gorgeous closing combination of “Ribbon Cane” and “Heavy Paddock” that are most likely to breach your emotional defenses.

Available on digital only

Leandro Fresco and Rafael Anton Irisarri – La Equidistancia [A Strangely Isolated Place]


A meeting of creative minds over long geographical distances (Fresco in Argentina and Irisarri in New York), this album also intersects some key musical and symbolic mid-points as it consummately strikes a balance between careful sound design & raw emotion, melodic sensibility & textural aesthetics, and melancholic reflection &  purifying catharsis. In the sublime center of all of these things we find these six beautifully constructed, soul-searching instrumentals that are capable of forging a powerful human connection.

Available on digital and clear vinyl LP (some editions may be sold out)

Norihito Suda – Light Snowfall [Fluid Audio / Facture]


One Bandcamp fan described this album as being “akin to listening to the earth breathe”.  Light Snowfall offers nearly 90 minutes of weightless, serene ambient deeply in tune with nature; peaceful oscillations that come to rest on the ears like a cool, comforting blanket.  The elaborate Fluid Audio physical release is long since sold out, but you can still enjoy these soothing immersions in digital form.

Available on digital and double CD (some editions may be sold out)

Secret Pyramid – Two Shadows Collide [Ba Da Bing Records]


Drawing inspiration from the vast Pacific Northwest where he is based, Amir Abbey aka Secret Pyramid builds plaintive minor key melodies into monumental edifices of sound that somehow never lose their intimacy or emotional compass. This music is full of compelling paradoxes – crepuscular and illuminated; tentative and transcendent; lush and barren, majestic and devastating. Paradoxes yes, but it is these very conflicts that are at the heart of the album’s themes.

Available on digital and vinyl LP 

Warmth – Home [Archives]


One thing you’ll notice about Warmth is how many fellow musicians are fans of his work. Home is a very generous offering of his deep, fluid, contemplative soundscapes with optimal saturation of both tone & texture. Add in an extensive set of remixes by the likes of Hotel Neon, Purl, Leandro Fresco, and Robert Farrugia and the artwork from Alexander Kopatz and you have a premium ambient release that exemplifies the aesthetic of the excellent Archives label.

Available on digital, double CD, and double vinyl LP