The act of creating a sense of a place or capturing a moment in time is a fairly common motif in a great deal of instrumental music, especially ambient, but it is intrinsically at the very core of these works released in 2021. Some are personal narratives or depictions of landscape either real or imagined while others are sonic interrogations or interactions inextricably linked to the locations where they were recorded. Wherever they fall on this spectrum, they all offered some truly memorable stationary traveling during a difficult year.
Aidan O’Rourke – Iorram (Original Soundtrack)
A luminous score by fiddler, composer & producer Aidan O’Rourke for Alistair Cole’s portrait of the modern fishing communities in the Outer Hebrides, the first ever Gaelic-language feature-length cinematic documentary. Even separated from the film, O’Rourke’s soundtrack is a powerful evocation of one of the world’s unique places unfurled in a tapestry of achingly beautiful melodies, archival recordings, and elegant arrangements that deftly juxtapose traditional and contemporary musical forms.
Available on both CD & digital via Reveal Records.
Anna Phoebe – Sea Souls
An award-winning violinist and composer (not to mention broadcaster) whose range spans from the most sublime classical performances to rocking concert & festival stages with the likes of Jethro Tull and Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Anna Phoebe offers her own “deeply personal love letter” to the ocean and the Kent coast where she lives. The inspiration for the album took hold as she was developing a 10 minute music package for a radio arts program and became this enchanting12-track journey that embraces the sea in all its sparkling beauty and brooding mystery. Adding depth and color to the proceedings are contributions from a number of guest musicians including Klara Schumann (cello) and Phil Manzanera (guitars).
Released digitally and on CD and blue vinyl LP featuring original artwork by Sophie McElligott
Bethan Kellough- Gravity + Sand
Her first multi-track release since the release ofAven to much acclaim by Touch in 2016, Los Angeles based sound artist and composer Bethan Kellough returns with a vivid sonic journey on a scale that belies its compact size. Self-described as “sounds held in memory between two visits to the same location”, the field recordings teem with intricate details while managing to capture a sense of the vastness of the surrounding landscape as Kellough weaves them into bold musical compositions ranging from swooning neoclassical strings to kaleidoscopic electronica. Often albums of field recordings offer rewards only to the most patient of listeners, but Gravity + Sand shows they can be part of a compelling sonic narrative in concentrated bursts as well.
Released digitally by the Italy-based Superpang imprint
Birds in the Brickwork – Twelve Months
A photography & music project of epic45 guitarist Ben Holton, Birds in the Brickwork debuts with an evocative collection of impressionistic musical sketches, one for each month of the year tying into a wall calendar featuring his own photographs. An introspective portrait of life in the English Midlands rendered with authenticity and fondness.
Released digitally by Wayside & Woodland with a 12-month photographic calendar
Cédric Dind-Lavoie – Archives
A unique and imaginative project in which Canadian composer & multi-instrumentalist Cédric Dind-Lavoie curates an anthology of archival performances of traditional French-Canadian songs from the 40s and 50s deftly layered with newly recorded arrangements. Much more than just a curator of the material, Dind-Lavoie proves to be a skillful and expressive accompanist whether discreetly framing the original work with the lightest of touches or adding vibrant colors with the same energy and immediacy as he might if he could step through the corridors of time right into the rooms where the songs were being performed.
Released by Corne de brume in limited CD and vinyl LP editions as well as digital download
Dave Depper – Europa
Finding himself in Europe late in 2015 after nearly a year of touring as part of Death Cab for Cutie, Dave Depper decided to devote at least a little time every day to improvising on his guitar on a cobbled together looping setup. By the time he returned to Oregon, he had accumulated over ten hours of material which he distilled into this meditative 9-track album. Presented as something of an audio diary, the track names reference the cities where they were recorded – Berlin, Brussels, Copenhagen, Munich, Manchester, and Vienna.
Released by Jealous Butcher Records on CD and 2 vinyl LP editions as well as digital download
Erland Cooper – Holm
It seems there is a permanent spot in this list each year for something by award-winning multi-instrumentalist, composer, & producer Erland Cooper. For the past three years running, it has been the latest installment of his dazzling triptych of albums focused on his home of Orkney – Solan Goose (2018), Sule Skerry (2019), and Hether Blether (2020) – and thankfully he has kept the music coming with this collection variations and B-sides that take music from across the trilogy and put it in the hands of friends and other admired artists to rework. The result is more pure enchantment albeit of a slightly different nature thanks to the elements introduced by such talents as Isobel Waller-Bridge, Bill Ryder-Jones, Vince Pope, Simeon Walker, Paul Weller, and more.
Released for download & streaming by Phases Records
Explosions in the Sky – Big Bend (Original Soundtrack)
Inspiration strikes close to home as the iconic Austin-based post-rock band was tapped to provide the soundtrack for a PBS Documentary about Big Bend National Park in their home state, a score which they went on to expand and transform into a glorious full-length album that manages to explore new sonic territory while frequently hearkening back to the uplifting lyrical heights of their most beloved early work. A very welcome return indeed.
Released on CD as well as black and “desert rock” 2x vinyl LP via Temporary Residence
Eydís Evensen – Bylur
Every chord change takes me back to a moment in my life: I can remember the thought and the feeling of when and why I wrote it.Eydís Evensen
Fortresses – Eve
This assured and capable debut by multidisciplinary artist Sam Ashton under the alias of Fortresses presents three gently undulating drones made with a Mellotron iPhone app from manipulated guitar, synths, and field recordings that trace the arc of a day not by marking time itself but through the “less immediate means” of portraying shifting patterns of light, shadow, and color. The inspiration for its making arose from Ashton’s own walks around London, where he is based, and the breezes the rush through its streets and gardens are woven into his beautifully drawn melodic progressions.
Available as a digital release from Dragon’s Eye Recordings
Glåsbird – Siberia
This was a busy year for the anonymous Glåsbird project with two double-length albums released including this expansive sonic journey into the vast realm of Siberia. Accompanied by images and captions provided by researcher/photographer Nelly Elagina, the music spans two themed discs – one focused on the forbidding beauty of the landscape and a second which ponders its future in the context of climate change. Worthy of honorable mention is the other release, a soundtrack to Return to Sea and Sardinia, Daniele Marzeddu’s documentary film centering on a 100-year old journey undertaken by author D.H. Lawrence.
Released by Whitelabrecs in a limited deluxe edition vinyl-effect 2-disc CD and digital download
Grasscut – Overwinter
The first new album in six years for this project from Emmy-winning and BAFTA-nominated composer Andrew Phillips and writer/musician Marcus O’Dair was inspired by early morning and late night walks around their home city of Brighton during the wintertime. Embers of hope glow in the beautifully orchestrated music which is haunted by encounters with rough sleepers on the city’s seafront and luxury developments as well as the backdrop of the Grenfell tower tragedy which was the focus of a BBC documentary Phillips was scoring at the time. A companion release of instrumental versions of the songs is also now available.
Released by Lo Recordings on limited vinyl & CD editions accompanied by stereoscopic photography image cards created by Pedr Browne in a custom metal case complete with viewer
Melissa Pons – Mata Atlântica
Field recordist and sound designer Melissa Pons takes us on a peaceful, wide-eyed journey into the Brazilian Atlantic Forest (or Mata Atlântica, as it’s known in Portuguese), the second-largest rain forest in Central and South America after the Amazon. Recorded in the Cantareira National Park. Nearly two hours of carefully recorded and sensitively recorded sounds allow the listener to get a sense of the immersion she experienced in a wondrous, but now sadly endangered, environment.
The sounds I chose for this release are amongst the most beautiful I recall and transport me immediately to the warm ground, the fresh scent and to the lush views in every direction.Melissa Pons
Released digitally by the artist
Seaworthy & Matt Rösner – Snowmelt
Recorded during two field trips to Kunama Namadgi (Mount Kosciuszko), the tallest mountain on Australia’s mainland, Snowmelt reunites Seaworthy (aka Cameron Webb) and Matt Rösner as they create a new sonic tableau far from the coastal setting of the 2010 collaboration Two Lakes. There is a bracing, melancholic stillness to this record which features extraordinarily vivid field recordings of melting ice, flowing streams, and windswept landscapes interwoven with pining guitar sounds recorded in an icy cabin.
Released digitally and limited edition vinyl LP by 12k
Tim Linghaus – Memory Sketches II
German musician & composer Tim Linghaus adds a touching new installment to the project he started several years earlier in which he gives musical form to some of his most precious memories. In the first volume and its companion B-side release, Linghaus spoke openly about some of the key markers in his life such as growing up in the GDR, experiencing the fall of the Berlin Wall, graduating school, and the loss of his father. In the second iteration, he confesses that he has more work to do in cultivating and preserving memories from this period and he does so with tenderness and musical aplomb.
Memory Sketches II is the second try to give my most precious memories a shape because, otherwise, they might disappear together with the person, the scent, the sound or whatever it is that the memory is about.Tim Linghaus
Co-released by Schole Records (CD & digital) and 1631 Recordings (digital only)
Wil Bolton – Sumida Colours
London based artist & musician Wil Bolton truly is a global citizen, often weaving environmental sounds from places all around the world into his electroacoustic soundscapes. This beautifully conceived travelogue is rooted in a visit to Sumida, a ward in the metropolis of Tokyo that is the birthplace of famous Japanese artist Hokusai. Using environmental recordings and instruments collected during his stay, Bolton weaves color-keyed notes together with local street sounds, his trademark delicate guitar textures, and the tintinnabulations of a toy glockenspiel, bells, and furin (wind chimes) to create seven serenely meandering meditations that together form a portrait of the city from a unique perspective.
Note: two other of Wil’s album released this year could just easily have held this spot and are also worthy of mention – Cumulus Sketches (Home Normal, Jan 2021) which incorporates rural and urban environmental sounds recorded in South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Sri Lanka and Above the Neon Glow (Hidden Vibes, July 2021) which features field recordings from a summer spent in New York City capturing locations from Manhattan to Coney Island and Queens.
Available digitally and on limited edition CD from Italy based Krysalisound.