Despite the fact that there are plenty of current artists upholding the Eno standard (see especially Stars of the Lid and William Basinski), the “ambient” tag is increasingly being applied to a newer sort of mostly digitally-based music that isn’t quite ambient (at least a la Eno) but doesn’t fit better in any of the other established categories either. Within the past few years, if you’ve been listening closely, Eno’s term and his term-defining sound have been drifting apart, ever so slowly, creating a fresh, atonal resonance. Evolving organically from the more experimental wing of IDM, there is a whole new movement of music that clearly draws from ambient ideals – largely beatless, voiceless, but not always, not always – and tends to be quite dark and noisy. Something new is in the air.
The career of one Xela (aka John Twellis, UK) is instructive. His first two records (2003, 2004) are crystalline though somewhat generic examples of IDM, laptronica. His next album, The Dead Sea (2006), shocked long-time fans but made a new one in me. It is a theme album about a ship at sea that is taken over by zombies. You’ll laugh until you hear it – it’s creepy as hell. Since then, Xela hasn’t turned back from the abyss. So far this year he has released a total of 4 tracks on various tapes and a split lp. The shortest one is 19 minutes long. What to call this? Drone ambient doom?
A recent compilation called “Ambient not not Ambient” reflects the same genre genealogy while the awkwardness of its title raises the question as to whether or not a new term is needed to describe what it has become. Curated by Paul Dickow, whose own output under the name Strategy has evolved in the past few years from IDM beats to the beatless soundscapes of this year’s Music for Lamping (the title itself sounding like a lost Eno record), with help from a fellow named E*Rock, nearly all the music was recorded, altered, produced, mixed and remixed on a computer. All tracks are new and exclusive to this release and it’s priced to move – a 76 minute CD for the price of an EP. Highlights reveal the wide-ranging sounds contained within – E*vax's sinewave piece kicks things off in a nice and recognizably ambient way, Bird Show's track evolves into a catchy, minimalist pop song, Yellow Swans deliver understated, distant-sounding psych, Wzt Hearts produce an excellent, ear-ticklingly textured track, and Sawako's delicate fragment is based on wind chimes.
The breadth of this comp, its sheer sonic variety is, on the one hand, interesting for the question it raises – can this really all be considered ambient? On the other hand, though, the more tracks squeezed on to the CD, the shorter each track must be, and Ambient music is a genre that, above all, requires duration. Since most tracks aren’t given enough room for the sounds to develop and settle in to the listener’s mind, “Ambient not not Ambient” isn’t able to very satisfyingly answer its own question. Some of this ends up fitting Eno’s definition of ambient music in another sense, i.e. that it can be ignored. But just try and ignore the Grouper track. As soon as Quiet Eyes begins, I stop doing whatever I’d been doing and zone out in the general direction of my speakers for the duration.
She has a knack for doing that, as anyone already familiar with Grouper (aka Elizabeth Harris, of Portland) will know. The Grouper project began as a voice at the bottom of a deep, dark well. Way Their Crept (2005) is all echo, all reverb, nearly all voice. The aesthetic is ambient, though, because this is voice as an instrument of pure sound. Lyrics are indecipherable and inconsequential. There is something genuinely otherworldly and haunting about it. With each album since, she has been rising closer and closer to the surface. The pure echoing sound of her first release begins in Wide (2006) to separate into discernibly different, though still echoing, voice and guitar. Cover the Windows and Walls was one of last year’s best records. It’s like she can’t decide from track to track whether she wants to climb out into the light of day or descend back down into the depths – some songs are so clear that the sound of guitar strings can be heard, lyrics can almost be excavated from below the layers of murk, but others rival the endlessly reverberating chants of her earliest recordings. Drone ambient shoegaze?
With a title like Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill who would have expected the new Grouper record to sound so much more clean, crisp, and straight-forwardly pretty? Grouper has emerged from her well, for better or worse. Whereas her earlier albums are not not ambient, the new one is not. That is to say, despite the fact that the boundaries of what is considered ambient have recently become much more wide and inclusive, the new Grouper record is not ambient. It is stark bedroom dream pop. It’s beautiful and will no doubt be high on lots of year-end lists and it is great – just not as good as her other records. Very few of these recordings resemble the Grouper I know and love, but, among the few that do, Tidal Wave might just be her most chill-inducing song yet. Like any of the best Grouper songs, when it hits you it hits hard.
Grouper’s label, Type Records, which is run by John Twellis, aka Xela (remember him?), is home to several artists whose music has variously been lumped into the ambient category. One Norwegian artist not satisfied with the “ambient” term, has taken matters into his own hands. After first making his name as one half of the critically acclaimed duo Deaf Center, whose first release was also the first release on Type Records and might be to blame for setting off this whole movement, Erik Skodvin has lately been releasing solo records under the name Svarte Greiner. The name, which translates into English as something like “black branch,” reflects both the natural sources of his sounds (crows cawing, twigs snapping underfoot) and its overall oppressively dark mood. He insists that his music is not ambient, but “acoustic doom,” a term of his own invention. I like it.
The newest Svarte Greiner release just came out and is a 20-minute EP called Til Seters. Like his first album, Knive (2006), “Til Seters” consists of dense layers of sounds, wide ranges of frequency, from long drones to short almost percussive noises, played on musical instruments as well as non-musical ones. It sounds like the soundtrack to my imagined Norwegian winter – a good way late at night to forget the heat, humidity and dangerously bad air quality outside in this actual Knoxville summer.
While you’re waiting for Skodvin’s promised upcoming LP, check out Miasmah, which is less a record label than a music gallery curated by Skodvin. Despite the fact that artists on the label already hail from such diverse corners of the world as Texas, Norway, Poland and Siberia, each new release is more pure acoustic doom. So far, the hands-down stand-out is
Treny, Jacaszek's jawdropping new record.
Michael Jacaszek (Poland, pronounced Yatzashek), like Eno, goes professionally by last name, but the similarities don’t go much further. To make “Treny,” Jacaszek started with source sounds made on traditionally classical instruments, such as piano, strings, harp, as well as wordless vocals from a classically trained female singer. He then processed some of the sounds beyond recognition, left others alone and recombined it all again to make one of the most beautiful records I have ever heard. This is classical music looped through the widely-encompassing ambient realm, through the possibilities opened up by years of experiments in electronic music and looped back to classical. The only Polish track title I can understand reveals its deep generic roots – Walc (“Waltz”) – and the only non-Polish title (at least I’m guessing) is Lament, which neatly sums up the melancholic feel to the record as a whole.
After all this unrelenting darkness, the final track of “Treny” manages without sounding out of place to suggest, dare I say it, a hint of hope.
Link to the slightly edited-down, published form: http://www.knoxvoice.com/arts/street-cred/not-necessarily-not-ambient/