A Journal Of The Dark Arts
The streets are all empty. We are all living in quarantine. We are essentially living inside of a Dark Ambient album now. Now is the perfect time to listen to Dark Ambient music, provided you’re of a particular disposition. Time has lost all sense of meaning. We are socially isolated like no other time in history. Sit back, relax, and let your mind lose its grip….
Don’t worry, though… many of March 2020’s best Dark Ambient albums are more thoughtful, emotional, introspective, than downright terrifying. It’s like the Dark Ambient producers of the world collectively recognize that we’re already freaked out and traumatized enough. Hell, even us here at Forestpunk, who’ve probably clocked a good 5,000 hours listening to Dark Ambient music in our lifetimes are having a hard time listening to some of the really hair-raising stuff.
Among this month’s offerings, we’ve got a bunch of newcomers, along with some of the most legendary names in the genre, most notably Nine Inch Nails’ free Coronavirus offering, Ghosts V and Ghosts VI. You’ll also find some pure Dark Ambiance from Belgium’s Adaestuo, some surprising Brian Eno-esque space ambient from Austin indie rockers Shearwater, some Twin Peaks-worthy MIDI sublimity from Angst Sessions and some gorgeous, emotional Dark Ambient minimalisms from drone legends Slow Dancing Society. And much much much much more.
Here are the best Dark Ambient albums of March 2020.
We kick things off with some pure Dark Ambient from Belgian black metal/Dark Ambient project Adaestuo.
What’s a Dark Ambient round-up without at least some chilling atonal strings, some malignant operatic microtonalism, some martial rhythms, and deep, dark ink black drones? Manalan Virrat is the purest, most undiluted Dark Ambient album of March 2020, as many of the month’s other offerings gravitate towards tangentially-related genres like neoclassical music, ambient proper, or drone.
Well, fear not. For those looking for some sheer sanity-shredding dread, Manalan Virrat has you covered, with a rich tapestry of throat singing, Eastern instruments, sinister whispers, and damned divas. If there were an opera house in Tarsem Singh’s The Cell, Manalan Virrat is what their production of Madame Butterfly might sound like.
Manalan Virrat was recorded in the frozen wastelands far north of the Arctic Circle between the pagan holidays of Ostara and Walpurgisnacht. The permafrost has seeped into these recordings, as it’s some of the most truly sinister, cold, inhuman, malevolent Dark Ambient on offer in March 2020. Which, of course, should come as the highest possible recommendation. It’s very easy for this style of gothic industrial Dark Ambient to tip over into cheese territory, but such is not the case with Manalan Virrat. Quite the opposite, in fact. Instead, it’s legitimately unsettling to the point of being terrifying. If you wanted pure sonic soma, you’d be better off sticking to regular ambient music.
Lynchian MIDI sublimity degrading into noisy dark ambiance
You hear the phrase “Lynchian” thrown around a lot, describing a loose conglomerate of different artworks in various mediums. It could mean anything from the Gothic girl groups David Lynch likes to include on his soundtracks; the damned, nocturnal doom jazz of Bohren & Der Club of Gohr or the Kiliminjaro Darkjazz Ensemble; the b&w post-industrial arthouse aesthetic of Eraserhead; and, of course, anything having to do with Twin Peaks.
Twin Peaks has had the opportunity to accumulate quite a bit of psychic bric-a-brac and detritus over the last 30 years. For many, the first thing that springs to mind is the epic MIDI romanticism of Angelo Badalamenti‘s iconic theme song, which sounds like it could score an old 8-bit NES game or vintage anime more so than one of the weirdest, most existential TV shows ever to grace the airwaves.
Twin Peaks music has evolved a lot over the past few decades, as new generations of underground art weirdos fell in love with its noir cosmic Americana. Things get even weirder and harder to pinpoint with the mindfucking Season 3, which featured modern avant-garde music and bands alongside the classic themes and soundtracks.
On Sorgens Aska, from Sweden’s Angst Sessions, romantic MIDI pastoralism gives way to digital disorientation, as synthetic strings dissolve and erode into a pulsing mass of flickering static. It’s like if Vangelis were to score a documentary about digital cathedrals circa 1987, envisioning the oncoming sublimity and awe of a global consciousness.
Distant, dreamy, emotional neclassical Dark Ambient for isolated times…
Dark Ambient music is rarely one thing, anymore. Instead, it’s more of a Venn Diagram, where various experimental genres overlap. Of course, one of those circles in ‘Neoclassical,’ usually from the likes of modern composers like Endless Melancholy or Library Tapes. Of course, not all neoclassical music qualifies as Dark Ambient – it needs to have a special something, often drowned in cavernous reverbs and laced with existential synth drones. The neoclassical music acts as the human subject, perhaps, while the Dark Ambiance sets the stage and conjures the scene.
Of course, not all neoclassical music qualifies as Dark Ambient – it needs to have a special something, often drowned in cavernous reverbs and laced with existential synth drones.
Leviathan (In Times Of) is a short and very sweet EP by the electronic duo of Max Lewis and Mirza Ramic. Built around tender, plaintiff piano miniatures like something from Erik Satie’s reveries or Nils Frahm’s field recorder, these delicate melodies are then dropped into a digital infinity, a deep gravity well of digital reverb, all made the more interesting with little flourishes of strings and the occasional sound manipulation.
Leviathan (In Times Of) delivers a much-needed and utterly devastating human narrative to this on-going nightmare, as well as a bit of much-needed hope.
Longform dark ambient drones from an isolationist sleep concert from Italy
Robert Rich‘s Somnium is one of the most infamous, legendary, and influential Dark Ambient albums of the genre, and for good reason. The monolith longform opus, clocking in at an eye-crossing 7 hours, marks everything the genre could be. It surpasses the mock dread of knock-off, cut-and-paste Dark Ambient albums in favour of something more subtle, mysterious, and otherworldly. It’s every bit as soothing and meditative as it is disorienting and disconcerting.
On Notturnale, Italian Dark Ambient artist Naresh Ran delivers their own take on Rich’s legendary sleep concerts, laid to tape during the first night of Coronavirus quarantine. Notturnale‘s 14 tracks end up clocking over 4 hours of deep, dreamy drones, which range from downright sinister to almost euphoric, at times. Notturnale never gets stale or boring despite its intense length. It’s always evolving, with strange sounds ebbing and flowing throughout the liquid pulsing bass drones like messages dribbling up from the subconscious. Or perhaps beyond.
One of this month’s highest-profile Dark Ambient album is also one of its most unsettling, but without relying on the usual gimmicks.
With most of the world under lockdown due to the COVID-19/Coronavirus, tons of artists have been giving away all kinds of stuff to help people pass the time. Of the onslaught of streaming performances, movies made available, free tools and resources for artists and creatives, and many many albums, perhaps none of them have been so high profile, or as excellent, as two brand new Dark Ambient albums from Nine Inch Nails.
Ghosts V and Ghosts VI are the latest installments in the on-going but long dormant Ghosts series, which remain some of NIN’s best work to date. Despite appearing out of nowhere, Ghosts V and VI do not disappoint, standing up not only to the excellent Ghosts I – IV but many of Nine Inch Nails’ best moments in general. Many moments on V and VI bring to mind some of Nine Inch Nails’ or Trent Reznor‘s more ambient moments in the past, mostly the delicate minor-key piano interludes of latter-day Nine Inch Nails albums, or Trent Reznor’s soundtrack work with Atticus Ross, a la The Social Network. Much of the material on Ghosts V and VI orbit those melancholic minor key piano ballads, which are here sometimes augmented with some distant lonely trumpet, like some of the more isolated moments of Miles Davis or cool jazz. It’s a new texture for Nine Inch Nails, from what i recall, and a good look.
It’s pretty impressive that Ghosts V and VI can be genuinely chilling and unsettling with hardly any post-production at all. Instead, Trent Reznor relies on open-ended harmonies and inconclusive tonalities to give a feeling of restlessness, searching, of being lost. And seeing as how we’re essentially living inside of a Dark Ambient album, at this point, Ghosts V and Ghosts VI are just the soundtrack we all need right about now.
A ridiculously accomplished debut LP encapsulates nearly every genre tangentially-related to Dark Ambient
As we comment often on these pages, Dark Ambient music has evolved a lot since its unholy conception in the late ’70s. Dark Ambient is no longer restricted to post-industrial music in the vein of Throbbing Gristle, Lustmord, Cold Meat Industries, etc. In the last 30 years, Dark Ambient’s shadow has fallen over heavy metal, dance music, hip-hop, hell, even country, blues, and folk.
Over the span of Rose Parade‘s four sprawling, expansive tracks, you can hear nearly every variant of Dark Ambient music in one place, at one time. Droning doom metal is the most prevalent, a la Sunn O))), with the duo of Matthew Bachor and William Shepherd coaxing ominous downtuned guitar squall. You’ll also hear a bit of harsh noise and even some skewed and smudged hip-hop, showcasing the big ears and wide-open imaginations of Rose Parade. Bonus points for retaining a certain raw sensibility, as well, with the sound of fingers on knobs and palms on pedals. Personally, i prefer a bit of lo-fi grit in my Dark Ambient music, so this one ticks all the boxes for me! Great album art, too!
Unexpected and excellent sci-fi Dark Ambient from an arty indie rock band!
It’s not every day you hear a band that’s been signed to Sub Pop making an excellent Dark Ambient record! I thought i was seeing things at first when i was going through the listings, putting this months’ best Dark Ambient albums together. I didn’t think there was any way a band formerly responsible for some (admittedly excellent) proggy, arty orchestral indie rock coud pivot so thoroughly.
Imagine my surprise when greeted with the sparse, austere, barely-there minimalism of Europan Benthic Detritivore. The single longform electronic meditation, clocking in at almost an hour, sounds like Brian Eno‘s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, slowed down and degraded, as if it’d been catching unfiltered solar radiation for several decades. Turns out i might not be fully imagining things as Shearwater have a previous Brian Eno connection, with the Austin indie rockers covering David Bowie‘s infamous Berlin trilogy. Looks like the isolation and technological desolation got to them….
Sparse, elegant, austere dark ambient/drone, like nightfall on another planet
Dark Ambient music isn’t always menacing. It can be hypnotic, meditative, otherworldly, or surreal. At times, Dark Ambient music can be rather beautiful even in its alien way. As can be seen and heard on the most recent from some long-standing masters of the form, Slow Dancing Society.
Slow Dancing Society, the solo project of Washington’s Drew Sullivan, have been investigating the intersection of Dark Ambient, modern classical, and drone since 2006. Light is an on-going fascination for Sullivan since the beginning, with 2006’s The Sounds of Lights When Dim. Failing Light, Sullivan”s second album so far in 2020, brings to mind far-flung planets in distant orbit, far from the light and heat of the life-giving celestial body. It also brings to mind subterranean bunkers, with cool sodium illumination casting sharp inky shadows across clinical living quarters.
Failing Light is gorgeous, emotional and musical in its drifting, drawn-out neoclassicism. Delicate melodies emerge from the gloom like rabbits emerging from their warrens as the winter thaws into spring. Failing Light reminds us that there is beauty, even amidst the terror. That there is hope, even in light of crushing despair.
Warm droning synth Dark Ambient proves it’s not all cold desolate isolation…
Honestly, generic, stereotypical Dark Ambient music can get kind of boring. Sounds that merely imitate the cold, antisocial, Xeroxed aesthetic of early 80s Staalplaat releases elicit more of a yawn rather than a shiver. While the transgressive foundation needed to be laid, establishing the aesthetics and fascinations was mandatory, the best and most interesting works these days expand and expound upon what is possible within the genre.
Life, the fifth ambient album from Spain’s Warmth, isn’t especially terrifying. It’s not concerned with diabolical realms or psychological pathology. Instead, this short EP veers more towards the mysterious and expansive, the aural equivalent of The Shimmering from Jeff VanDerMeerr’s Annihilation. Who knows what wonders, and terrors, lies beyond that curtain?
Life gets bonus points for being one of the most musically accomplished amongst this month’s best of the best Dark Ambient releases. Lush synth pads seem to duck and dance around pulsing, continuous bass drones, like watching an ecosystem evolve in a particular geography. This is truly what ambient music, in general, is best at achieving – imagining non-Human stories and atmospheres.
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