2020 in review, silver lining edition: ambient music!

by Dave Maier

2020 has been a wild ride, but it’s almost over, and I’m here to tell you it wasn’t all bad, as some great music came out this year – so much, in fact, that we’ll have to have two or even three podcasts this time even for the small taste which is our annual year-end review. Here’s part 1 (widget and link below).

Jonathan Fitoussi – Soleil de Minuit

We heard a great track from this guy in a recent set, and here he is again with a terrific new album of unashamedly retro space music. “Soleil de Minuit” (“Midnight Sun”), for example, performed on a Buchla modular system, electric organ, and electric bass, sends off a distinctly Michael Hoenig vibe to my ear. Keep ‘em coming, Jonathan, we love it.

In the liner notes, Joseph Ghosn explains:

In these tracks, or should we say, between them, something new unfurls. Where, in the past, musical mechanism, melodic shades were shaped by atmospheric frames, reluctant to choose between amniotic and repetition, what’s at play here is of a different nature, more rhythmic, all made of vibrating percussion, of synthetic sparkles that bump into each other and reverberate. 

A strange club takes shape during these songs, a club where one dances without noticing, where one grants himself a sudden elevation of the body, limbs vibrating in unison with a totally twisted brain. 

The hypnosis of the percussion, the trance of the desiring-machines, the synthesizers immanence, dreaming themselves as bongos, as bass, vibraphones, marimbas, while floating high above, or sometimes far below, timid waves, drones, threads connects the beats together. 

This is not a dance record, but this a record that’ll caught you dancing, dreaming inside of these tracks leading to other places that at first only exist because of the power of the spirit: Rayons solaires, Vents magnétiques, Soleil de minuit, Continent blanc, Amazonie 

So many dreams that float and dance into the swirling infinity of ghost synthesizers. 

Front cover (above) : Victor Vasarely – Constellations (1967) © succession Vasarely / Fondation Vasarely / © Adagp, Paris.

KMRU – life at ouri

This is one of many fine 2020 releases by Frankfurt’s Seil label (we’ll hear another in part 2). KMRU is not a college radio station in Arizona, but instead, it appears,

the moniker of Joseph Kamaru, a sound artist, and producer based in Nairobi. One of the leading exponents of the burgeoning experimental music scene in Nairobi and beyond he was listed by Resident Advisor as one of ’15 East African Artists You Need To Hear’ in 2018 and is a regular performer at the fabled Nyegenyege Festival having also presented live performances at CTM festival and Gamma Festival.

Here’s his own page (not linked to by Seil; Bandcamp is weird that way sometimes) — many freebies there!

Jar is a journey through the dust of time. Merging found sounds, analog warmth and granular dreams along the way.

Artwork by Joseph Kamaru 

José Soberanes – Da Igual Si No Lo Entiendes

Here’s another new name to me. The first thing I heard by José was a track on an anthology on the Faint label out of Spain, which we’ll hear from later in part 2. Check out his page for more. I don’t speak Spanish, but I bet that title means something like “It’s okay if you don’t understand.”

José Soberanes is a sound artist from the small town of Tula de Allende, Hidalgo, Mexico. Through his various projects, his work has appeared on labels such as Twice Removed, Impulsive Habitat, Éter Lab, Found Toys Creative and Mexican labels We Only Share (WOS) and Abolipop/Suplex. 

Jose began working with sound [in around 2012] but has been rooted in music since his childhood with diverse influences including IDM, minimalism, micro sound, modern classical, experimental ambient, sound art, death metal and jazz. 

His approach to producing Ambient/Drone music begins with small trips around his neighbourhood, taking in the sounds and moments that occur before taking this inspiration back to his studio. 

José thanks Arturo Colín Vallejo for the magnificent visual composition for the soul of this material.

original release: https://weonlyshare.bandcamp.com/music

Steve Moore – DataVision

Here’s another retro space music artist, from an entire disc of same, featuring Steve Roach and a lot of unfamiliar names. Get your sequencer fix here!

Behind The Sky proudly presents Portals: A Kosmiche Journey through Outer Worlds and Inner Space. Featuring enough analog and modular synths to build a rocketship, Portals […] is a love song to unabashedly melodic analog synthesizer music of cosmic proportions and the utopian science fiction of the 70s. 

Put on your helmet, strap yourself in and prepare for a sci-fidelity experience of retro futuristic synthesizer music. 

Here’s Steve’s page — plenty of stuff there, including several soundtracks and music by Steve’s band Zombi.

Written, performed and produced by Steve Moore 

Gear List: ARP Avatar, ARP Solus, Elka Rhapsody 610, E-Mu Vintage Keys (for Mellotron sounds), Korg Polysix, MFB-522 Drumcomputer, Roland CR-78, Roland System 100M, Sequential Circuits Pro-One, Sequential Circuits Prophet 600 


Andrew Sherwell – Without 03 v3 / Without

We’ve heard this guy before as well, and we’ll hear him again too, as I can’t get enough of that rich, thick, reverberant drone. He’s got a great deal on his complete discography at Bandcamp, so if you like this you should go pick that up.

A spectral presence seems to occupy Without. It either crosses over into the physical world naturally and by its own accord or is called unexpectedly forward via an evening séance, but it’s also the ghost of a past that leaks into the present and refuses to stay buried. 

David Tagg – Untitled [track 4] / Language

Another familiar name here. This is a recent collection from one of my favorite ambient guitarists, although of course when he’s done with it it’s impossible to tell what’s guitar and what isn’t. Not my favorite release of his actually, but this track takes us from here to there perfectly well. Check out his page as well for some name-your-price deals on some of his best work. Here’s David’s frequent collaborator Brian Grainger with some thoughts about David’s music:

Language is David Tagg’s thirteenth full-length album, a set of six pieces that explore ideas, instruments and approaches not previously considered on earlier recordings. Language brings to mind many possible interpretations of the word, all of them relevant and none of them assured – Communion with self, family and friends, God? With the resonating strings on wooden fretboards or with the resonance of the Earth itself? Speech, wordless and prose alike, spun from a beating heart pulse, filled with longing, hopeful in reaching out across the distance but resigned to the exile of isolation, disconnection, foreign tongues. Somewhere in the midst of these considerations, Tagg pools together fragments of melody and suggestions of overtone, plucked from Georgian winds, distilled through the veins of amplifiers, synthesizers and microphones, laid to rest gently upon miles and miles of humid brown tape. Perhaps that is the key of Language, an understanding of music as a non-verbal communication, a tool that can be grasped as a workflow or a weapon. Indeed, for years, Tagg has considered himself less of a musician and more of a craftsman, and Language feels cogent in this way, a plinth inscribed with a few lines of poetry in an unreadable shorthand, built for longevity and utility just as much as any kind of sentimentalities that might be otherwise assumed. For the people reading this who don’t follow, assure yourselves that the movements made in the darkness and uncertainty are for the best, that you can calm yourself in the faith, trusting the able hands of this silent sculptor to push back against the fear, the hesitation, the utterly alone, and we can all be together here, happier, safer, bound only by vibration and love, distances forsaken, abyss refused, everything that we need. 

Mondo Skull – Rings of Saturn

Here’s another new name (given name = Guido Henneboehl), from the latest collection from San Francisco’s Silent Records. Label boss Kim C. explains:

“The theme is the “horizon of eternity” which also represents what many people are feeling during our year of covid, i.e. an infinite “now” or a temporal ganzfeld.

All the tracks on FHTT12 are expansive, adventurous, inventive and unique in their vision of what constitutes drone-ambient. This is not the typical synth pad and electronic twinkles ambient music heard in abundance these days. This is not your hippie aunt’s music for sound baths.”

Actually my aunt was the farthest thing from a hippie you can imagine. She loved opera (favorite singers: Nicolai Gedda and Elisabeth Schwartzkopf) and had a master’s degree in mathematics. But I digress.

In any case FHTT12 is indeed quite a wide-ranging assortment. This track caught my ear immediately, with those lovely shortwave sounds (one of my favorite sound sources), but there’s quite a bit of good stuff here, including a new track from dronemeisters Sleep Research Facility, whom I had totally forgotten about (we’ll have to check that one out later on). Kim promises a full release from Guido later on, so be sure to keep an eye out for that.

Tropic of Coldness – Bethel

Tropic of Coldness is new to me, but apparently they’ve been around for a while:

Tropic of Coldness is an Italian-US duo both based in Brussels, Belgium. David Gutman and Giovanni La Placa have been recording together since 2011 […] The sounds are slow and evolving as a long process of fully improvised guitar patterns are finely tuned into cathartic drones. 

These pieces are landscapes that tread the finest lines: between hope and despair, fragility and strength. In between these lines are each one of us and the choices we make.

Richard Ginns – Point Dunes

Eilean is one of my favorite ambient labels, and this collection is, alas, their final release. On the other hand, it’s release #100, and you can get the entire collection for a mere 100 euros (look forward to an Eilean-only mix or two in 2021!). Richard Ginns is another new name, but this track is typical of the label sound: spacious with just enough glitch to keep your ears piqued.

[full disclosure: Bandcamp says this was released on December 28, 2019 — close enough!]

this is the final eilean rec. release which close the map and the project with all the music artists involved since the beginning, during these last 5 years. 

109 music artists / 82 tracks / 6 hours of sounds. 

61 unreleased and new tracks / 21 tracks from back catalogs (16 from eilean rec. + 6 from some other labels) 

Sonmi 451 – Module 2020_5

Another favorite (and another artist with a thrifty full-discography sale). About this, his latest release, Bernard says:

“The pieces of music in this album are mostly created with modular sounds so it is not a “classic” Sonmi451-output though it is also (an perhaps even more than previous releases) all about dreamscapes and achieving a dreamlike state.”

That’s all for now, but again, there will be at least a part 2, and maybe even a part 3, still to come. Best wishes for a happy 2021 (we deserve it)!

Direct link: https://www.mixcloud.com/duckrabbit/stars-end-annex-2020-pt-1/