2020 in Review: Ambient & Drone

In a year that has deprived so many of us from interactions that we once took for granted, music can be a great companion allowing us to feel connected, comforted, and even transported through just the sounds that fill the space between our ears. I’ve always found that to be especially true of ambient music, but never more than now. With gratitude to the entire community of musicians that have persevered with their art and creativity during these dark times, here are just some of the albums that made for great company throughout 2020.

anthéne – Collide

[Home Normal]

Link: https://homenormal.bandcamp.com/album/collide

Brad Deschamps continues to consistently produce a steady stream of excellent ambient music as anthéne with yet another year of albums across multiple labels not to mention outside collaborations and appearances on charity compilations. You cannot go wrong with a single one of them, but I was ever so slightly partial to this October release on Home Normal where he dials up a collection perfectly weighted drones warmly shaded in sepia and gray.

Released on limited edition CD and digital

bvdub – Ten Times the World Lied

[Glacial Movements]

Link: https://glacialmovements.bandcamp.com/album/ten-times-the-world-lied

Brock Van Wey, better known as bvdub, manages to be as expressive as ever while eschewing both beats and vocals on the same record for the first time to unleash a tsunami of cathartic drones that wash over you in wave after beautiful wave. An emotionally charged antiphon in which “all distortion is intentional”.

Released on CD & digital

Chronovalve – Light

[Home Normal]

Link: https://homenormal.bandcamp.com/album/light

The long-awaited follow up to Mike Engebretson’s 2013 debut as Chronovalve on Home Normal and it is a thing of beauty. Fusing billowy ambient atmospheres with orchestral synth and ethereal melodies, it evokes a kind of euphoric calm and wide-eyed stillness.

Released on limited edition CD & digital

David Cordero & Pepo Galán – As a Silent Tongue Shadow

[Muzan Editions]

Link: https://muzaneditions.bandcamp.com/album/as-a-silent-tongue-shadow

A fine collaboration between David Cordero and Pepo Galán which they recorded in Sevilla, Málaga & Cádiz in the south of Spain. Over the course of the album, there is a beautiful tension that develops between the silvery ambient layers and the weight of a somber melancholy that keeps pulling toward the dark edges.

Released on limited edition cassette and digital

Dawn Chorus and the Infallible Sea – Liberamente

[Azure Vista Records]

Link: https://dcatis.bandcamp.com/album/liberamente

The second album from the trio of zakè, Marc Ertel and Damien Duque known as Dawn Chorus and the Infallible Sea creates a cocoon of serenity with its gentle undulations of ambient guitar that become almost orchestral in nature. The empyrean sounds and empathetic melodies make this a record you can take refuge in during difficult time.

Releasd on CD and limited edition blue vinyl LP as well as digital download

Erik Williamson – The Streets Are Quiet, But the Birds Are Very Loud

[Fluid Audio]

Link: https://erikwilliamson.bandcamp.com/album/the-streets-are-quiet-but-the-birds-very-loud

Another debut artist making a strong impression on me this year is Erik Williamson from Brisbane, Australia with this collection of tape saturated drones that reflect on personal themes through abstract expression. Curation becomes composition as Williamson morphs and layers his original sources until they take on a recondite aura and out-of-time feeling while still allowing contours of melody to remain discernible in the final form of each piece.

Released in a bespoke limited CD edition with handmade notebooks and astronomy prints as well as digital download

Federico Mosconi – Sails

[Unknown Tone Records]

Link: https://unknowntonerecords.bandcamp.com/album/sails

Italian guitarist & sound artist Federico Mosconi goes for an especially reflective mood on this outstanding release that seeks to “embrace the audience as if drifting through moonlit seascapes at dusk”. To that end, he creates vivid sonic imagery through billowing drones and grand orchestral gestures punctuated by brief passages of crystalline guitar that serve to illuminate the scene at the most discrete moments. A painterly work that really engages the imagination.

Released on digital only

Hotel Neon – Moments

[Sound in Silence]

Link: https://soundinsilencerecords.bandcamp.com/album/moments

Following the dense ruminations of last year’s Vanishing Forms and the disquieting atmospherics of their spring EP Tortured Shapes, Hotel Neon follows a quieter and more contemplative path with this lovely December release. Moments is a solemn and peaceful journey, one that blissfully respires in wide open spaces hushed by rushing autumn breezes and sweeping orchestral undulations. Like drawing a long, deep breath in clean open air.

Released in two limited CD edtions (standard & deluxe w/bonus track) as well as digital download

Jeannine Schulz – Ground . The Gentle

[Stereoscenic Records]

Link: https://stereoscenic.bandcamp.com/album/ground-the-gentle

Based in Hamburg Germany, Jeannine Schulz is an artist who only started releasing her ambient music this year. In a short time she has created a number of enjoyable EPs and this excellent full-length label debut on Stereoscenic which offers a collection of hushed melodies ornamented with intricate filigree patterns and varied textures.

Release info by Stereoscenic Records

KMRU – Peel

[Editions Mego]

Link: https://kmru.bandcamp.com/album/peel

KMRU is the moniker of Joseph Kamaru, a sound artist, and producer based in Nairobi and a leading exponent of a growing experimental music scene there. Anecdotally speaking, Peel is an album that I observed garnering a great deal of praise not only from listeners but from many fellow artists from around the world and deservedly so. A captivating mix of field recordings and electronics masterfully arranged into hypnotic patterns and subtly shifting moods ranging from short sketches to long form journeys.

Released on vinyl 2x LP and digital

Meanderings – Our Hope Is Lost At Sea

[El Muelle Records]

Link: https://elmuellerecords.bandcamp.com/album/our-hope-is-lost-at-sea

It is always nice to be floored by an album you did not see coming, especially late in the year, and so it was for me with this record from Los Angeles based multi-instrumentalist, composer, & sound designer Dann Michael Torres as Meanderings. Our Hope Is Lost at Sea is an exploration of loss, hope, and nostalgic contemplation conveyed through “solemn patterns and melancholic phrases” using extended range & textural guitars, prepared strings, tape loops and field recordings. From the arresting “Empty Words” that opens the album to the soulful undulations of “You’ve Simply Had Enough of Drowning” that ebbs it toward its gentle conclusion, these eleven pieces resonate with elegiac beauty and raw emotion.

Released on limited edition CD & digital

Pie Are Squared – Con Calma


Link: https://whitelabrecs.bandcamp.com/album/con-calma

Pie Are Squared is the solo project of Italy-based Egyptian musician Mohammed Ashraf who appeared twice on Whitelabrecs this year, once with his contribution to the label’s Home Diaries series and this lovely release which began with recordings gathered on a mobile phone while on the go and then fleshed out at home with effects and layered treatments to create a sense of daydreaming and detachment from mundanity. Though tension and anxiety begin to creep into the middle passage, by the end all is resolved and it lives up to its title which means ‘calmly’ in Italian.

Released on limited edition CD & digital

r beny – Natural Fiction


Link: https://rbeny.bandcamp.com/album/natural-fiction

Few artists can find the soul inside the machine like Austin Cairns aka r beny. Natural Fiction is his hauntingly beautiful “soundtrack to a film that does not exist” composed on synthesizers, samplers, tape machines, and voice. Had it been an actual movie, I think it would be one that end up leaving you in a heap for hours afterwards. Also not to be missed is Seafoam and Dust, a stunning box-set reissue of his first three albums fully remastered and accompanied by new artwork and bonus tracks.

Released in two limited cassette editions (currently sold out) and digital

Rime Trails – Beyond the Farthest Hebrides

[Shimmering Moods]

Link: https://shimmeringmoodsrecords.bandcamp.com/album/among-the-farthest-hebrides

Rime Trails is an artist from Denmark who prefers to work under a cloak of anonymity, but while we may not know their name, we do know by now that they can be relied upon to create captivating soundscapes such as this imagined journey to the remote isles of the Hebrides portrayed in watery drones and shimmering piano patterns that paint the contours of sea and coastline through sound.

Released on limited edition CD and digital

Silent Vigils – Wake

[Home Normal]

Link: https://homenormal.bandcamp.com/album/wake

The conclusion of a triptych by Silent Vigils, a project from Stijn Hüwels & James Murray that began three years ago as “an exchange of gestures across the water”. Wake represents the final coda in a a trajectory of loss, acceptance, and renewal with patiently unfolding melodic structures that stretch resolutely toward the light. The subtle compositional elements that reveal themselves are keenly felt as a the ache of sadness slowly dissipates into the radiance of the final track.

Released on limited edition CD & digital

Slow Reels – Farewell Islands

[Morr Music]

Link: https://slow-reels.bandcamp.com/album/farewell-islands

Another excellent collaboration involving James Murray, this time with Ian Hawgood who at the time was living in Warsaw and spending long evenings creating loops with his collection of vintage reel-to-reel machines. An exchange began with Murray weaving in piano, guitar & synthesizer parts from his London studio and sending them back to Hawgood to transfer back to tape for final mastering. These beautifully burnished sounds will envelop you while the elongated melodies find soulful expression beneath a patina of analog textures.

Released on CD, vinyl LP, and digital

Still Harbours – Armature

[Lontano Series]

Link: https://lontanoseries.bandcamp.com/album/armature

The second of two albums this year by Still Harbours, a duo comprised of Bradley Deschamps, aka anthéne, and Jamie Jones, aka Fossil Hunting Collective. Striking a slightly more contemplative tone than Fluorochrome which debuted in February on the Ambientologist label, these eight tracks weave a shimmering web of oscillating drones with a heavy undertow. The album closes on its most moving track as the mournful minor-key melody and slowly surfacing guitar textures of “The Shape of Modern Tragedy” land with particular poignancy.

Released on limited edition CD & digital

Tapes and Topographies – Inoculations


Link: https://dronarivm.bandcamp.com/album/inoculations

“Contemplative melodies of sorrow and light. Comforting gifts of hope.” After four albums on his own Simulacra label, Todd Gautreau brings his Tapes and Topographies project to the venerable Dronarivm label with another fine collection of contemplative ambient vignettes that are not so much soundscapes as short films for the mind.

Released on limited edition CD and digital

thme – that’s what it will be like


Link: https://whitelabrecs.bandcamp.com/album/thats-what-it-will-be-like

Thme is a project Théo Martin, an artist who was raised in the suburbs of Paris and began producing music on his own as part of a student exchange program. that’s what it will be like is his debut album developed during a period of intense work with focus on creating a sense of slowing down time. Showing extraordinary patience and depth right from the off, he has created a beautiful ambient reverie to get pleasantly lost in.

Released on limited edition CD & digital

Warmth – Life


Link: https://archivesdubmusic.bandcamp.com/album/life

The fifth ambient album by Spanish sound artist & producer Agustín Mena as Warmth, and one which he ascribes to a sound more closely resembling earlier records like Essay and Home while still embracing some of the “darker” aspects of his more recent work. To my ears, every Warmth album has had a rare pristine quality to it, but Life is arguably the most impressive incarnation of the project to date. The balance, serenity, and depth of field juxtaposed with deep melancholy make for an immersive and satisfying inward journey.

Released on limited edition CD and vinyl LP