A Journal Of The Dark Arts
February is an interesting month. For much of the Northern Hemisphere, yr still frozen solid, hibernating away from the cold and the ice and the howling winds, praying for the return of the sunlight, for the thaw. Yet it’s a transitional season, wildflowers starting to break through the permafrost, blossoms shaking off their torpor, reaching for the sun.
It’s the perfect time to release a Dark Ambient album.
February 2020 saw some exceptional Dark Ambient releases. There’s a new one from minimalist Dark Ambient sound sculptor Thomas Köner, trading in his usual arctic drones for an extended meditation on sound itself. There’s some beat-driven clinical dark ambient from Sassu Ripatti‘s Vladislav Delay.There are two excellent neoclassical Dark Ambient records from relative newcomer T.R. Jordan for the always excellent Past Inside The Present label. There’s some more pure-sounding Ambient from the also-essential Geographic North. Then there’s some almost newage-sounding recordings from Specta Cliera, but with a bit of a brooding meditative shadow, for Neotantra.
There’s also some truly malevolent, misanthropic death industrial from Metavoid for Malignant Records. And the tech-noir Dark Ambient of Dead Melodies & Zenjungle for Cryo Chamber, who continue to make a strong case for being the best Dark Ambient label of the 21st Century.
We’ve compiled some Dark Ambient albums from some newer and lesser-known names – the lofi dictaphone Dark Ambient of 52 Pickup and the post-industrial ennui of Corporate Trashland. And there’s the subterranean rumble of Montreal’s musique moléculaire.
Here are our picks for the Best Dark Ambient Albums of February 2020.
7 dark ambient meditations laid straight to microcassette recorder…
Sometimes rawer is better. Like horror movies, a genre from which Dark Ambient often borrows heavily, sometimes slickness and over-production can negate some of the chilling dread. Dark Ambient music faces a similar predicament – too much digital gloss and finish breaks the fourth wall, breaking the spell by tipping its hand. It tells you exactly what it is, like a mainstream horror film, preventing the music from ever becoming truly unsettling or disturbing.
With that being said, Degraded Time Capsule by Minneapolis, Minnesota’s 52 Pickup isn’t your usual Dark Ambient music, instead leaning towards ambient music’s roots in modern classical music. Rather than sounding like a score for some hidden, squalid dungeon or nightmare hellscape, Degraded Time Capsule sounds more in-line with the chamber performances of Claude Debussy or Erik Satie. Perhaps observed through a wormhole in time.
Degraded Time Capsule was written and recorded in one day, with 52 Pickup’s largely piano-driven minimalism captured by a dictaphone microcassette recorder. The resulting recordings, played back at variable speeds, sound rough, degraded, like they’ve been buried in the Earth. It’s also a nice guided tour through some of the genres tangentially connected to Dark Ambient, from MIDI-soaked gothic Dungeon Synth to post-minimalist Neoclassical Music. A lovely time capsule of a particular moment in time, indeed.
Dark Ambient furniture music from the on-going collaboration between Aria Rostami and Daniel Blomquist for the exquisite Geographic North label.
Sketches For Winter VIII: Floating Tone is ambient music of the ‘furniture music’ variety, as composer Erik Satie would have it – music to explore, to get lost in, like furniture hanging out in a room. Floating Tone is built around delicate, ambient minimalist piano a la Erik Satie, which is then laced with brooding shadows, like a darkness hanging around the periphery of a picture, giving the goings on a brooding vignette feeling.
Sketches For Winter VIII: Floating Tone is worthy of inclusion among the best Dark Ambient albums of February 2020 for the fact that it achieves its affect musically, rather than via post-production or studio trickery. Instead of merely CGI-ing in some clanking manacles, Aria Rostami’s piano playing has a mysterious, ungrounded quality to it, dancing around the harmonies like a will o’ the wisp and never quite settling. Gorgeous packaging and production, as well, as always from the magnificent Geographic North label.
Bruised and sullen death industrial power electronic Dark Ambient
What’s a Dark Ambient best-of list without some malignant, malevolent post-industrial aesthetics? Not much, that’s what. Studies For A Vortex leans towards the industrial roots of Dark Ambient, in the early 80s, arc-welding harsh noise, power electronics, and throbbing beats, which are then tarred-and-feathered with ominous shadows and unholy atmospherics, all of which form a platform over which Andre Coelho spews his antisocial invocations and eulogies.
Studies For A Vortex is legitimately chilling. It sounds like some tortured outsider, living in some abandoned industrial space, sharpening their metal and honing their hatred for humanity in the dead of night. Are they Human? Demon? Machine? It won’t matter when yr tasting their steel.
36-minute long droning Dark Ambient from Montreal’s musique moléculaire takes you on a guided trip into the Underworld
Dark Ambient music is adept at both creating alien worlds and otherworldly soundscapes as well as showing us hidden sides of the world in which we inhabit. On Tunnel, Montreal’s musique moléculaire do a bit of both, taking us on a subterranean journey with an extended sci-fi meditation.
Tunnel sounds a bit what like what it might sound like if The Morlocks from H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine were running some futuristic laboratory beneath the surface of the Earth. Or if Pennywise the Dancing Clown was building a modular synth rig instead of a sculpture of pain, fear, and loss.
Tunnel is comprised of one longform track, over 36-minutes long, falling somewhere between Dark Ambient, soundscape, modular synthesis, and noise. Sine waves are captured in ferric amber and then chopped, screwed, and mangled – slowed down, sped up, and generally bent beyond recognition. It’s a peculiar, uncanny sensation that makes you feel like the ground’s going soft beneath your feet.
musique moléculaire invite you to re-investigate the world we’re living in, what’s happening in the depths and the gears that keep society turning.
Emotional soundscapes and decaying Midwestern rustbelt drones from Dayton, Ohio’s Corporate Trashland
Like we commented about musique moléculaire’s Tunnel, Dark Ambient music is excellent at expressing hidden aspects of modern living, giving voice to subtle thoughts and feelings not often noticed or commented on. In the case of Corporate Trashland, that’s the hopes, dreams, and anxieties of a decaying Midwestern industrial center.
The Ambient aspect of Dark Ambient music is intimately connected to place and physical space. It’s like the voice of a particular environment. Corporate Trashland is what it might sound like if central Ohio could talk, as if all of the hopes and dreams of a fair and just life of working class people had dredged into the soil. Warner Brownfield and Brendan Youngkvist act as sonic mediums, recording those hopes and dreams onto stereo tape.
Corporate Trashland is more meditative and reflective than terrifying or disturbing. Snippets of conversation cut through burring power electronic drones, while tender acoustic guitars drift out of the staticky ether. It’s like a time-lapsed audio journal of a vanishing way of life, and of the land itself. Corporate Trashland is a beguiling, emotional ode to a too-often-unseen/unheard America.
Anthropocene is a tech-noir Dark Ambient album about depraved humanity dwelling in the shadow of monolithic technology.
The combination of noir jazz and Dark Ambient music sounds like a hard sell. One is often set in 1940s Los Angeles, full of dames and detectives and old timey telephones. The other is set in some circle of Hell, or a desolate space station. I mean, what are we gonna do, have Philip Marlowe investigating a murder on a Russian space station… (might be onto something with that one…)
It’s not as much of a reach when you think about it, though. Both evoke mystery, darkness, sometimes misanthropy. Both deal with the immensity of modernity, and our insignificance within it. It’s just gotta be pulled off just right for the pieces to fit, for the illusion to be complete.
The pieces fit seamlessly, like the fine teeth of some immense gears as depicted on the cover of Anthropocene, using the unlikely orchestration of alto sax and other reed instruments and ambient guitar.
Zenjungle‘s reeds ring out, lonesome and mournful as you could hope, drowned in mist and shadows with bilious ambient guitar, cloying and lowdown as cemetary mist, as car exhaust on frigid night air.
As always, Cryo Chamber really know how to nail a concept, how to create an immersive soundworld for you to slip into. Considering how much a strong concept and atmosphere can lend to Dark Ambient music, it’s one more selling point for Cryo Chamber as the best and most essential Dark Ambient label of the 21st Century.
Starshine modular techno Dark Ambient glows like a futuristic museum at night on Last Light
Imagine a museum of technology in the future; a wall of reel-to-reel decks whirring noiselessly, antiquate servers pulsing like a heartbeat, like digital dreaming, all somehow conversing with one another, whispering, whistling, and churning of their binary dreams, while moonlight lances the inky, dusted air.
As with the pair of T.R. Jordan albums (see below), Last Light from Cambridge, MA’s Specta Ciera, a project of prolific ambient composer Devin Underwood, doesn’t sound much like traditional dungeon crawl synth. But the increasingly-essential Neotantra label dub it thus, and so we give it a listen.
What we have here is a series of clinical New Age modular synth recordings – the kind that would’ve graced a documentary of motherboards circa 1985. Rather than the usual musty, yellowed production many antiquated electronic recordings feature, however, Last Light is played clean, sparkling, shimmering even, like cut silicon, neon-refracting through its facets. The digital space is every bit as dark as the fuller emptiness of analog recordings. It just evokes futuristic hyperspace, instead.
Neotantra have been releasing modern New Age recordings at a furious pace for the last little while. They remind us there was actually some good stuff to be found there, some excellent sound design and production and presentation, all smudged with a whiff of sandalwood and myrrh, the tang of bells and crystals. Sometimes the dusk brings strange visions, sometimes the dust whispers…
Beatific synthetic Dark Ambient from one of the masters of textural music.
For as often as it references a specific space or place, Ambient Music is just as likely to evoke previously undreamed-of soundworlds. Electronic music is untethered to the constraints of physics and the physical world. Spare, sparse sine waves can be molded into anything an electronic musician can dream of, like saltwater taffy or sculptures of light.
Sound artist Thomas Köner is well-known for creating minimalist, microtonal, like 1993’s Permafrost, a crackling, floating meditation on an Arctic landscape. On Motus, Koner turns his microscopic ears on sound itself, wandering amidst the sloughs and valleys of deep electrical pulses. Motus is meant as a commentary on the body as hearing organ, as the skin as extended tympanum, picking up on subharmonic subsonic bass frequencies, responding with awe and dread.
Motus is intended as dance music for some utopian dancefloor, one where blackclad ravers get lost, trancing out to the sound of Jacob’s Ladders and clinical oscillators. It’s similar to other beat-driven ambient classics like Wolfgang Voigt‘s dub techno project, Gas, or the white labcoat clinical beats of Autechre. Köner reminds us there’s no such thing as beatless music. Everything is a pulse, a wave, a sine wave to surf upon.
Neoclassical ambient traces the evolution of a relationship for the essential Past Inside The Present label
Dark Ambient music is especially adept at illuminating interior landscapes, whether that be psychological experiences, astral worlds, or emotions. Just For You, by Washington D.C.-based composer producer T.R. Jordan reflects on the evolution of a relationship, with all of the soft focus and mixed feelings of memory, in a gorgeous album of emotional, piano-driven neoclassical ambient music.
Just For You doesn’t sound like your typical Dark Ambient music, a la Lustmord/Raison d’Etre, yet Past Inside The Present insist that it is, as is the Recollections Suite, the companion cassette, which is also included in our roundup of the best Dark Ambient of February 2020. Genres, like language itself, are descriptive, not prescriptive. It’s not our place to gatekeep what is or is not Dark Ambient music. It’s merely our job to find, and report on, exceptional music wherever it may be found. And Just For You is exceptional, indeed. An incredibly moving emotional meditation from a talented, emerging artist. Much recommended for fans of Max Richter, Nils Frahm, or Erased Tapes!
An emotional, neoclassical string-drive Dark Ambient suite in five movements…
Sometimes things are not what they appear to be. Sometimes, we have to take things at their word. When Indianapolis-based label Past Inside The Present labels this emotional suite of neoclassical ambiance as ‘Dark Ambient,’ we must decide for ourselves if that is accurate.
So what does this cello-driven ambient music have to do with ominous atmospheres and post-industrial aesthetics? It’s not even ‘dark,’ per se – more like shadowed, sun-dappled, reminiscent – like sunlight flickering through the leaves, conjuring distant memories. It’s not even melancholic, per se. Instead, swooning cellos and ambient electronics spell out the often complicated nature of memory.
T.R. Jordan is a new-ish composer, with only a few credits to their solo name. They released two albums on the always-excellent Past Inside The Present label, both of which are included in this month’s round-up. With an all-star pedigree, featuring cellist Mark Bridges, who’s previously worked with Loscil and Kranky Records, as well as being mastered by The Sight Below’s Rafael Anton Dirisarri, T.R. Jordan is emerging, fully-formed, as a modern composer and producer with something to say and the chops to say it. One to watch…
Beat-driven post-industrial Dark Ambient for a planet in crisis.
Vladislav Delay is best-known for his beat-driven dub techno and elegant ambient and house music. ‘Ominous’ is not usually the word that comes to mind when you listen to Sasu Ripatti, although you might experience ‘immensity,’ ‘detachment,’ or various other descriptors often attributed with Dark Ambient music.
Ripatti’s taken the last few years off of his Vladislav Delay project to focus on soundtrack work. He found himself called into action after visiting the Arctic Circle, finding himself alarmed at the toll that climate change is having on that delicate landscape.
Rakka still sounds like Ripatti’s signature Vladislav Delay output. It’s still largely built around rhythms and largely devoid of melody. The beat sculptures are then dropped down a mineshaft, however, with the beats being swallowed by dark, cold wind. Elsewhere, the hissing, sparking post-industrial beats seem to be floating underwater, like all of the particularite ice that heralds an iceberg’s collapse.
Not all Dark Ambient music has to be beatless, per se. Like the horror genre, with which Dark Ambient is often associated, a lot of it times it boils down to a feeling. As you can see from this list, sometimes you got to peel back the surface to see the shadows.
That about wraps it up for the best Dark Ambient albums of February 2020. What’re some releases that you were digging last month, new or old? Let us know! Always curious to hear what y’all are listening to, and always trying to keep up with as many dark sounds as possible.
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