2021 in Review: Ambient & Drone

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. From their cinematic vistas and atmospheric soundscapes to their a generous embrace of stillness, beauty, and self-reflection, the albums in this category are especially well suited to do just that. With gratitude to the entire community of musicians that have continued to persevere with their art during discouraging and uncertain times, here is a survey of some of this year’s most memorable inner journeys.

36 & Awakened Souls – The Other Side of Darkness


Blissfully deep ambient immersion is what you get with this stellar collaboration between Dennis Huddleston aka 36 and the husband-wife duo of James & Cynthia Bernard known as Awakened Souls. The eight lavishly constructed tracks they created are more than enough to justify the price of admission, but it ends up being like three albums in one with an additional disc featuring alternate versions of each track rendered by both artists – the “After Dark” versions mixed by 36 and a nicely variegated set from Awakened Souls that blends in other stylistic elements from the James & Cynthia’s respective wheelhouses. Lots to dig in to and savor with this one.

Released by Past Inside the Present on 2x CD and 2x vinyl LP in both black and ‘transparent smoke’ and featuring artwork by John Hobbs

Andrew Tasselmyer – Yesteryear


Andrew released three solo albums this year not to mention an one very early in the year as part of Hotel Neon one very near the end as one half of Gray Acres. It feels like splitting hairs to choose between them and from the listener’s perspective there is no need to. I recommend all of them unreservedly, but found this collection Germany’s SEIL imprint especially thoughtful and moving. Employing a variety of samplers, piano, strings and handheld tape recorders in a mostly improvisational approach serves its theme of reflection on “what, and who, we’ve lost” with delicate poignancy.

Released digitally and on limited edition cassette by Seil Records (note 10% of sales go to charity)

Anthéne – Maritime


Brad Deschamps had quite a prolific year even by the high standard he has set for himself of late with 5 albums and EP as Anthéne as well as separate collaborations with Clara Engel, Simon McCorry, and Ian Hawgood. All are worth seeking out, but I was ever so slightly partial to this autumn release on Ambientologist which adds a touch of the shimmer and stillness of the sea to particularly beautiful set of ambient compositions.

Released digitally and on limited edition 12″ vinyl LP by Ambientologist

Arash Akbari – Fragments of Yearning


Despite growing increasingly darker en route to its somewhat harrowing conclusion, there is an otherworldly beauty and moving gravitas woven into the densely layered sounds created by musician & visual artist Arash Akbari that inexorably pulls one in. A thought-provoking meditation of the human condition that requires no words.

Released digitally and on limited edition cassette tape by Karl Records

Chihei Hatakeyama – Late Spring


The liner notes for this gem of a release from Chihei Hatakeyama tell us the Tokyo-based sound artist & musician re-examined his approach to performing while developing the album over parts of three years. With this fresh approach and utilizing a new set-up to record his guitar and synthesizers, he extends his mastery of sonic space to create a shimmering web of aural bliss.

Released on CD, LP, and digital by Gearbox Records

Enrico Coniglio – Alpine Variations


Glacial textures and swelling guitars combine to create a cinematic journey into a mountainous landscape of the imagination on this solo outing from Italian musician & sound artist Enrico Coniglio. Added points for the beautiful packaging (as ever) from Dronarivm.

Released on limited edition CD and digital by Dronarivm

Federico Mosconi – Dreamers and Tides


In the studio, Federico Mosconi is as much an explorer as a musician with a growing catalog of stunning experimental works that blend fluid guitar passages with live electronics and sound processing. Braiding light & shadow and melody & sound across five majestic movements, he creates a truly memorable journey from which you will be in no hurry to return.

Released on limited edition CD and digital by Dronarivm

Hollie Kenniff – The Quiet Drift


I long for a kind of quiet where I can just drift and dream

David Lynch

After years of collaborating with husband Keith on projects like Mint Julip and Meadows, Hollie Kenniff stepped out confidently as a solo artist with her 2019 debut Gathering Dawn (n5MD) and followed it up this year with an absolute stunner. Developed over the course of moving house from Washington to Maine and, ultimately, Canada she gives musical life to the above David Lynch quote as she spins layers of guitar, synths, strings, and (especially) voice into a resplendent, wide-eyed drift through inner space.

Released digitally and on limited edition CD and white vinyl LP by Western Vinyl featuring cover photo by Jennifer Latour.

Ian Hawgood & Wil Bolton – Emerging


Ian Hawgood seemed to be everywhere this year and for fans of ambient music that is a good thing – a very good thing. This was one of several fine collaborative projects Hawgood appeared in, teaming up again here with Wil Bolton in an exquisite blending of his trademark warm analog textures and reel-to-reel treatments with the glint and gleam of Bolton’s modular synths.

Released digitally and in two CD editions (regular and deluxe) by Hidden Vibes

Jason Van Wyk – Threads

Link: https://n5md.bandcamp.com/album/threads

One of the standout releases on what proved to be a very good year for the California-based n5MD label, South African composer & musician Jason Van Wyk takes a headlong dive into the more ambient, electronic side of his music that proves deeply satisfying to listen to. Wrapping melodic structures in abundantly dense layers and decorating them with interesting foreground textures, the album strikes an ideal balance between deep introspection and widescreen cinematic flourish.

Released on limited edition vinyl LP and digital download by n5MD

Jeannine Schulz – Luminous

Link: https://polarseasrecordings.bandcamp.com/album/luminous

A Hamburg-based musician & sound artist who also has a background in dance, Jeannine Schulz has a gift for blending gentle melodies and ambient textures in a particularly inviting way that always feels centered and balanced while demonstrating a keen ear for when to introduce acoustic elements to add depth & color. This is not music to set the world on fire nor was it meant to be. Try it as a companion for a morning coffee, an afternoon walk, or a quiet evening and you should find it pleasant company indeed.

Released digitally and on limited edition CD by Polar Seas Recordings

Jens Pauly & Stijn Huwels – When the Night Ends

Link: https://vaagner.bandcamp.com/album/when-the-night-ends

The first collaborative album from Jens Pauly and Stijin Hüwels, completed via a series of online exchanges between their respective locations in Germany and Belgium. An inspired pairing it turns out to be as the filigree of Pauly’s finespun textures seem ideally suited to the long melancholic arcs of Hüwels’ droning guitars. Hopefully this collaboration will not be their last.

Released digitally and on limited edition cassette tape by Vaagner

kj – Saturnalia

Link: https://polarseasrecordings.bandcamp.com/album/saturnalia

Kj Rothweiler, known simply as kj, debuts on the Polar Seas label with this introspective gem centered around two expansive long form pieces. The closing track (“waters”) stands out especially as it conveys a deep, palpable sense of melancholy with its grand orchestral tones and the celestial beauty of its intertwining melodies.

Released digitally and on limited edition ‘cloud clear’ vinyl LP by Polar Seas Recordings featuring photography by photography by April Suen.

Loscil – Clara

Link: https://loscil.bandcamp.com/album/clara

Amazingly, the source material for this album the title of which comes from the Latin word for ‘bright’ is a single three-minute composition performed by a 22-piece string orchestra in Budapest taken from a lathe-cut recording which was “scratched and abused” to add texture. This limitation clearly turned out to be more inspirational than confining to Scott Morgan aka Loscil as he shapes, molds, elongates, and embellishes that source material into something expansively deep and immersive.

Released digitally and on CD & vinyl LP by Kranky

Michael Gordon – Spectrum and Flow

Link: https://mistermichaelgordon.bandcamp.com/album/spectrum-flow

Lovely ambient serenity here from Toronto-based multi-instrumentalist, producer, & composer Michael Gordon (North Atlantic Drift). Dedicated to his wife with a wish to “bring peace and calm in a world moving ever faster” it is an album Gordon says he would nearly drift off to sleep while mixing himself. Released without label fanfare or any additional commentary, this comes across as a pure kind of ambient music created instinctively with love & care and that is no small thing.

Digitally released directly by the artist

Olan Mill – Citation Index

Link: https://shimmeringmoodsrecords.bandcamp.com/album/citation-index

From the sprawling long form “CI-MXD” that opens the album and continuing through pieces like “Redox”, “Combustion”, and “Photocatalysis”, Alex Smalley aka Olan Mill binds repeating patterns and threads into something resembling an orchestral suite on the theme of energy. An album that can be enjoyed on multiple levels, the track titles may send you scurrying to a dictionary or your favorite search engine to learn more, while the sheer billowing beauty of the music may soothe your soul and animate your own inner resources.

Available digitally and on limited edition CD & cassette tape by Shimmering Moods

Rosales – Still, Tomorrow

Link: https://archivesdubmusic.bandcamp.com/album/still-tomorro

Brought to us by the Archives label based in Spain, Rosales is a new collaborative project made up of Ian Hawgood and Brad Deschamps (aka Anthéne). The style of the two artists mesh here into a beautiful crush of sound that they mold into warm undulating drones that can go on forever.

Available digitally and on limited edition CD & cassette tape from ARCHIVES featuring cover photograph by Alexander Kopatz

Tapes and Topographies – In Muted Forms

Link: https://shimmeringmoodsrecords.bandcamp.com/album/in-muted-forms

Todd Gautreau released a quartet of albums this year under his Tapes and Topographies moniker, two on his own Simulacra label along with a pair of first time appearances on other labels including this one on Shimmering Moods which skews a little more toward the opaque end of his sonic spectrum giving it a slightly more cinematic feel that makes it ever so easy to sink into and effortless drift into heavy introspection.

Available digitally and on limited edition CD by Shimmering Moods featuring cover photography by Christopher Sardegna

Tomonari Nozaki – Waves

Link: https://secretpress.bandcamp.com/album/waves

After a lengthy quiet period during which he released occasional singles or the odd compilation track, it was lovely to see Tomonori Nozaki (aka UNKNOWNjp) arrive at the end of the year with a new full length album on Secret Press. In his inimitable fashion, he once again weaves sumptuously warm, granular textures into majestic swells of sound that envelop the listener in waves of nostalgia. Regarding those singles from recent years, by the way, Nozaki has compiled a selection of them into a Bandcamp release called Harvest (2019) which is also recommended.

Available digitally and on limited edition grey cassette by Secret Press featuring artwork by Anya Ole-Irin

Yann Novak – Lifeblood of Light and Rapture

Link: https://yannnovak.bandcamp.com/album/lifeblood-of-light-and-rapture

Lifeblood of Light and Rapture is an eminently listenable sonic journey that demonstrates Yann Novak’s masterful command of texture, harmony, and atmospheric sound design, but it is also a profound meditation on what the artist sees as his own and society’s tendencies toward nihilism. While this accounts for the brooding nature of the drones that rumble in the albums deeper strata, ultimately it is translucent and ethereal nature of its upper layers that allows it to elude its ballast and stretch toward the light.

On Lifeblood of Light and Rapture, I wanted to explore this parallel—that so many of the things we do to try and make this world livable also contribute to its destruction…I hope this record breaks that cycle, that it can achieve its intended purpose of bringing light into the world without causing any damage. 

Yann Novak

Released digitally and on limited edition CD by Room40