2019 In Review: Ambient & Drone


Once again, this list can’t be big enough to contain all the fine work done in these genres over the course of a year, but these are 20 albums that left a lasting impression. Here you’ll find rich atmospheres, deep emotional undercurrents,organic, warm, tactile soundscapes composition & decomposition, and a generous embrace of stillness, beauty, and self-reflection.

anthéne – Weightless [Home Normal]


2019 was another prolific year for Brad Deschamps including multiple albums from his solo anthéne project across a swath of labels. You could not go wrong with any one of them, but I found Weightless especially endearing. Written before the birth of his baby daughter, it was made as an album for her to sleep to and indeed it swaddles the listener in beautiful gauzy folds of ambient textures. On Home Normal’s website, the label designated the album’s genre as “Warm Analog Sleep Echoes” and that says it perfectly.

Released on CD & digital.

Benoît Pioulard – Sylva [Morr Music]


Benoît Pioulard (né Thomas Meluch) also had a busy 2019 with multiple collaborations and a burst of solo releases in the latter part of the year capped off by this stunning nature-inspired multimedia offering that combines a 10-track album with a beautiful linen-covered book of photos taken by the artist. The music is awash in the kind of sumptuous, sepia-toned soundscapes we’ve come to expect from Meluch interspersed with affecting lo-fi pop gems. The companion art book contains 100 photographs curated from a collection taken with a vintage Polaroid SX70 camera over two years of environmental explorations which were then arranged in diptychs to complement and enhance the aesthetic experience.  All in all, quite a special package.

Released on vinyl LP, CD & digital separately or bundled with art book

Black Brunswicker – Hidden Amongst the Trees and Foothills [Past Inside the Present]


The intersection of two wonderful new discoveries this year – Ethan Helfrich’s Black Brunswicker project and the recently launched Past Inside the Present label where Helfrich released this summer gem. A peaceful mediation and beautiful exploration of open tunings inspired by such guitarists as John Fahey, Jack Rose, and Robbie Basho and transformed into pastoral ambient soundscapes.

“Playing guitar has been a constant source of peace for me and these are some tracks that came out of this difficult period. Looking back now, I feel like I’m in a different, better place now. I hope this music will bring peace to others just as it has done for me.” – Ethan Helfrich

Released on CD, cassette tape & digital.

Cheekbone / Hirotaka Shirotsubaki [Muzan Editions]


An exceptionally pleasant split from Muzan Editions featuring a beautifully spread table of ambient goodness from two fine Japanese ambient musicians – Kouichi Moriuchi, aka Cheekbone, and Hirotaka Shirotsubaki who has also recently appeared on such labels as Archives, Krysalisound, and Organic Industries. On the limited edition cassette release, one is featured on side A and the other on side B, but you may find as I did that it works beautifully as a full album experience due to their complementary styles.

Released on cassette tape & digital.

Christopher Willits – Sunset [Ghostly International]


“Begin the music 15 minutes before the sun sets.”

As he traverses the phases of twilight, Christopher Willits tints his contemplative drones with the spectrum of colors from the incandescent yellows & oranges of the golden hour to the cool, diffuse purples & blues of the approaching evening. Environmental cues are woven into the background to complete the sense of immersion. Whether you listen to Sunset as instructed or just let the music transport you from another setting, these beautifully sculpted soundscapes come as close as one can imagine to capturing the magic of being fully present in the gloaming.

Released on digital only

Ex Confusion – I Remember When [n5MD]


Atsuhito Omori has been making instrumental music as Ex Confusion for the better part of a decade now, but this release marked a notable shift from the shoegaze-tinged ambient gauze of his earlier releases toward a more overcast, tenebrous mood. On track after track, Omori suspends sumptuous melodic arcs in a quiescence of time while emotional colors radiate like the muted blaze of autumn leaves against a grey sky.

Released on vinyl LP, CD, & digital.

Hotel Neon – Vanishing Forms [Archives]


Hotel Neon escorts us from the sun-dappled forest floors of last year’s Means of Knowing into the vast, empyrean realms of Vanishing Forms, an album that seems very much about balance – the balance between shadow & light, ballast & float, stillness and motion. Sound moves in slow convection cycles while undulating shapes take form, disperse, and reappear. With each accretion, whatever you might have been thinking about before you started listening drifts further and further away and the beautiful hum of Hotel Neon just goes on and on.

Released on CD & digital.

Ian Hawgood – Impermanence [Slowcraft Records]


Ian Hawgood‘s name is inseparable from the contemporary ambient & experimental music scene. His widely lauded Home Normal label recently marked its tenth anniversary and he is sought after by many an artist or label when a keen ear and a sure hand on the mastering controls is needed for one of their albums. Hawgood’s own records, however, have been few & precious so it came as great news to see one arrive this spring which was the result of patient late-night cultivation over nearly a five-year period spent living in Warsaw and Tokyo before ultimately selling off his entire collection of synths and reels, some of which went to the British Library.  A sublime document of sonic ephemerality and textural filigree.

Released on CD & digital.

Jens Pauly – Vihne [Whitelabrecs]


A musician and artist from Cologne, Germany, Pauly performed in punk and metal bands before going on to compose more synth-based solo work. The liner notes for his Whitelabrecs album Vihne justifiably compares its intricate electroacoustic guitar, piano, and cassette treatments to something one might hear on the revered 12k label from artists like Marcus Fischer or Taylor Deupree. Indeed, there is a certain soothing pastoral warmth in its tapestry of sounds and a restrained minimalism that invites the listener to bring their own context to the music.

Released on CD & digital.

Kirill Mazhai – Hearts Must Change [Fluid Audio]


The source material for this album by by Belarusian sound artist Kirill Mazhai is a family history caught on film dating from 1875 through to 1965. What Mazhai unlocks from these photos are not so much the stories they might tell, but the emotional context. Title such as “All Wounds Explained” or “Beach Party, Later” hint at a narrative, but it is the intensity of feeling that resonates in these profoundly melancholic and affecting drones.

Released on CD & digital.

Moss Covered Technology – Slow Walking [Polar Seas Recordings]


Moss Covered Technology is such an apt moniker for Greig Baird‘s project that so organically marries a sense of place and appreciation of nature with synthesized sounds and pedal effects. That magic is on display in this lovely outing on Polar Seas Recordings that is the next best thing to a solitary walk in the open air. Also deserving of mention is Southern Points which came out early in the year on the Hibernate label, a reflection on family and home life inspired by a day out experiencing the scenery of England’s southern countryside & coastline.

Released on vinyl LP & digital.

Pepo Galán- How Not To Disappear Completely [Lontano Series]


Imperfection. Paradox. Humanity. These are the words that introduce Pepo Galán’s deep and expansive album on rohs! records Lontano Series offshoot.  The Málaga born artist sculpts an emotive, thought-provoking narrative from microtones, vintage tape sounds, broken loops and melancholic textures as something of a hopeful response to Human Values Disappear released in 2017 on his own El Muelle Records. Densely layered with great attention to textural detail in a way that amplifies the compelling emotional subtext rather than obscuring it. Additional noteworthy releases by Galán’ this year include For Victoria on Fluid Audio/Facture and Strange Parenthesis Remixes on Archives.

Released on vinyl LP, CD, & digital.

Porya Hatami / Aaron Martin / Roberto Attanasio – Sallaw [Dronarim]


Sallaw” is a Kurdish word that expresses the passing of time and this album by the same name finds three distinctive instrumental artists collaborating seamlessly to explore this theme across four compositional soundscapes, each one named after a month representative of the changing seasons. A master of weaving subtly immersive atmospheres by balancing natural and electronic sound sources, Porya Hatami maps out the shape of the sonic terrain that serves as the backdrop of the album while Roberto Attanasio’s ghostly piano lines chart a course through this wondrous landscape and Aaron Martin’s emotive cello veritably ache with unfulfilled longing in the face of the immutable progress of time. The artists each leave ample space for each other’s most nuanced expressions while not a single note ever feels the least bit contrived or inorganic.

Released on limited and special edition CD & digital.

r beny – Echo’s Verse [Dauw]


“Myth makes Echo the subject of longing and desire. Physics makes Echo the subject of distance and design. Where emotion and reason are concerned both claims are accurate. And where there is no Echo there is no description of space or love. There is only silence.”

This quote from author Mark Z. Danielewski frames the latest effort from modular synth wizard Austin Cairns aka r beny who adds mellotron and tape loops to create yet another exceptional foray into warm, organic, efflorescent sounds full of soulful melancholy and longing.  Very nicely complemented by the

Released on vinyl LP & digital.

Samsuo – The Other Gold Side [Whitelabrecs]


Samsuo is an artist based in Cambridge, UK who makes his Whitelabrecs debut with The Other Gold Side, a serenely muted drone ambient sound bath built around looped guitar and synth improvisation manipulated with added overdubs and and steeped in a sense of stillness and contemplation. Cloud-shaped melodies are slowly drawn and patiently elongated to create the pleasantly out of time feeling that permeates the album.

Released on vinyl CD & digital.

Stijn Huwels – Tomodachi [Dauw]


Some artists just have a knack for engendering special collaborations and Belgian musician Stijn Hüwels is one of them. The starting point of the Tomodachi was a request from Hüwels to ten fellow musicians requesting a sample, melody or field recording he could use to create a new piece of music. The result is conversation without words between kindred spirits woven together into a beautiful ambient tapestry.

“Slowly, I tried to make a consistent story from the different pieces I got. That’s how the album was formed and how it got its final shape. I decided to call it ‘Tomodachi’, Japanese for ‘friend(s)’. That’s the only thing I can say about the album: it’s about friendship and music”. – Stijn Hüwels

Released on cassette tape & digital.

Sven Laux & Harry Towell – Until We Fall [Fluid Audio]


The penultimate release of 2019 on Fluid Audio brings together two artists who have much in common.  They each manage labels, make solo records, and collaborate frequently with others. But what brought them together was the discovery last year that their partners were each expecting the birth of their first child – Sven in July and Harry in September.  Described as a ‘restful sonic story to play to their babies as an audiobook without words’, Until We Fall  is a beautiful ambient lullaby for adults as well as children, deftly weaving in sounds extracted from their home environments in urban Berlin and rural Lincolnshire with reassuring waves of soothing drones and distant melodies just beyond the edge of sleep.

Released on limited edition CD & digital

the volume settings folder – Hothocleana [Oscarson]


Since starting his ambient-drone-post rock music project in 2011, M. Beckmann has been making a unique brand of music as the volume settings folder while drawing on the “countryside ambience” of North-East Italy as his main inspiration. Hothocleana offers his some of his most delicate and tender work to date in the form of beautiful melodic shapes wrapped in a fine-spun gauze of temperate drones, soft tape hiss, and gently decaying loops.  It is also in some ways his most direct as the album prominently features the acoustic guitar in its most organic natural form.

Released on vinyl LP, CD, & digital.

Warmth – Parallel Remixed [Archives]


The aura of tranquility and the vast depth of field that made Warmth‘s Parallel such an exceptional recording when it came out last year also proves to be a solid foundation for reinterpretation by the likes of Shuta Yasukochi, Pepo Galán, Purl, The Green Kingdom, David Cordero, and Powlos on this album of equally immersive remixes. Agus Mena rounds out this solid offering with his own contributions both as Warmth and his other musical alter ego SVLBRD. Pure ambient bliss.

Released on CD & digital.

zakè (扎克) – Orchestral Tape Studies [Past Inside the Present]


Since arriving on the scene less than a year ago, Indianapolis-based Past Inside the Present has rolled out a rather dazzling catalog of ambient releases of exceptionally high quality. Among these is Orchestral Tape Studies by “healing sound propagandist” zakè (扎克), an homage to minimalist symphonic composers in which fragmented orchestral loops have been compiled and woven together with oscillating repetitive strands of textural ambient drone. The result is a wonderful meditative exploration of liminality and tonality and one of the most serene and beautiful albums you could hope to enjoy.

Released on CD, cassette tape, & digital.