The first time me and my best friend at University were hanging out, we were talking about the bands we liked; Pixies, Pulp, Pavement etc. “Do you listen to much ambient?” I said. He shrivelled his nose slightly and replied, “A bit indulgent isn’t it?”
I think a fair few people will be nodding in agreement with him. To the uninitiated, ambient music is not really actual music, it’s the noise of a broken 90’s television. Or that it is so quiet, so minimal it barely registers as a solitary decibel. People struggle to understand the depth and nuanced emotions this ‘nothing’ ‘noise’ can produce. If you were to choose a genre in which new grounds of form and sound and instrumentation are consistently evolving, there is only one winner: ambient.
The best, most challenging and gut-wrenching music comes from the world of drone. This monthly column will hopefully allow people not familiar with these kinds of artists to discover something new, something that may alter how they see music itself. Or maybe they’ll just go, “Nah mate, it’s just elevator music.” It will be for people who already get excited the moment Sarah Davachi raises an eyebrow. And it’s for me, to discover new things and engage in the fame and fortune that comes from being an infrequent internet-only music writer. Right then, let’s dive in.
Album of the Month: Gavin Miller – 3 Days
Gavin Miller is one half the ever-brilliant electronic duo worriedaboutsatan and for the past few years he has been releasing ambient music under his own name, the latest being this month’s 3 Days. His latest record is a wonderful display of lush, piercing and meditative ambience that offers a wide scope of emotions despite its short running time.
The twin musical prongs of the record are Miller’s gorgeous, reverb-drenched guitar and Sophie Green’s lovely, almost Celtic-like violin. Each track builds from the hypnotic, often glacial drone of Miller’s guitar playing, (Third) being a prime example. The track’s centre is a stretching reverb guitar line, layered with simple but equally distorted picking and then the melancholy purr of Green’s violin. Lead track (Fourth) features the meshing of synth and guitar until the two are indistinguishable, each feeding into the other to create brain-soothing lush. But the layered guitar and violin are draped in such sadness the song is imbued with a strange but utterly wonderful mix of emotions. Sadness and joy, peace and anxiety; the swath of human emotion co-exist within the magic of Miller’s music.
This feeling of opposing emotional states defines 3 Days. (Fifth) sees a shimmering, luminous guitar combined with a discordant violin which is in turn complimented by Miller’s relaxed, enchanting picking. 3 Days is a record that oscillates, shifting tones without the feeling of jarring jump-cuts. Final track (Sixth) is the record at its most reflective, the sound of running water offering a sense of hopeful engagement set against the backdrop of mournful reverb.
3 Days may last a little under half hour but there is a wonderful breadth of emotion and sound contained within. Miller has managed to create a record that never sits still but never rushes, slipping from one tone to the next with delicacy. A sublime, intense but often euphoric record.
Other Good Stuff
Rife is one of three January releases by duo Bengalfuel and it is very much the ‘reading’ music side of ambient. Its long-form tracks are light and blissful; opening song Peace is 30 minutes of lovely, minimalist electronica that sounds like the feeling of ultimate relaxation made sonic. This record feels very classic, you could imagine picking it up in a record shop in 1976. Which is not say it isn’t any good; Katherine is a gorgeous, sweeping piece that holds your attention and is subtle in its ever-evolving layers of electronic sound. But the record is overall too long and while containing some lovely moments, this particular Bengalfuel album is lacking an idiosyncratic spark.
Notanymore is the second release by Mute Branches on the ever-interesting Disintegration State label. This is very much a record of scope, both in terms of sounds and tone. Each track is a distinct individual and listening to the album feels like stepping into seven different, often melancholy worlds. Opening track Acceleration Pack is a pulsing, almost danceable number with a throbbing bass and frenetic backbeat drums. While Sunken Restaurant sounds as if it were recorded underwater, it’s recurring piano motif frays at the edges and its lo-fi feel would not sound out of place on an MF Doom record. Album highlight Zoner II combines plaintive guitars with a droning, baritone piano and a bass that burrows into your bones to glorious affect; it is a deeply emotional, jarring song that seems to span a lifetime of feeling over its eleven minutes. A very interesting, if ultimately fragmented record.
Silent Odes is the first release by Luna Monk on the Amsterdam based label Shimmering Moods. Based around field recordings made in the Welsh Valleys and the Lake District, Silent Odes is a haunting but tender collection. The record examines the specific solitude you feel when you can engage with natural surroundings, especially those that contain every ambient artist’s favourite: running water. Monk builds on these recordings with the use of delicate, warped synths. A walk in the sky uses the trickling sound of the water valley as percussion layered with a lush synth and nicely distorted snare. Standout track Sweet Serenades features Barwick-esque vocals over the top of a free-form piano and lovely birdsong recordings which manages to sound both experimental and calming. A lovely, intimate record by an artist who will continue grow in stature and acclaim.
Following on from last year’s staggering Parallel, Warmth continue their tradition of releasing full-length remix albums with Parallel Remixed. Featuring remixes from greats such as Shuta Yasukochi, this offers a nice bookend to what was arguably the best album of 2018. Highlights include David Cordeo’s reimagining of Convex as a woozy, bubbling electro track, with a lovely 8-bit like leading synth line. SVLBRD’s remix of Saros is another beauty, fusing beautiful stretched piano sounds with the subtle crackle of static. Another strong release from an artist who continues his rise to the summit of the ambient canon.
Well done on getting to the end of the first edition of Sculpted Silence, I am sure there are now multitudes of die-hards to the ambient cause. Well, maybe not, but feel free to join me next month as I run down the best February releases.