A Journal Of The Dark Arts
This dreadful year is creeping towards its close. It’s a strange time… the holidays are still approaching while much of the world is still hibernating in bunkers, waiting for a vaccine while the Coronavirus/COVID-19 wreaks havoc and lay waste like the Red Death. Make no bones about it, 2020 has been awful by almost every conceivable metric. It’s been a good year for music, though, especially anything dark and brooding, murky and mysterious.
Unsurprisingly, given the nature of this year, there’s been some truly exceptional Dark Ambient music. We’ve put together some of the best Dark Ambient albums of November 2020, for your consideration. Please note, all of these albums are available on Bandcamp. It’s still Bandcamp Friday for a few more hours, so there’s still some time to support the musicians and labels, with all proceeds going directly into their coffers.
Dark Ambient music takes us to all manner of alien landscapes, but the best Dark Ambient albums of November 2020 are full of surprises even by Dark Ambient’s standards. You’ll hear the existential drop shadow beneath furniture storefronts and catalog’s with Shallowblod and visit crumbling brutalist public housing with Tucson’s Emotari, alongside masterful musical works like the grimy Dark Ambient drone metal of Jinkstraum and some raw, bleeding Dark Ambient drone from the master of loopy melancholia William Basinski.
One of the joys of regularly rounding up and recapping the best dark ambient music is coming across new and unknown names. It also shows you all the ways the genre is evolving and mutating. This is especially important with a rather subjective genre like dark ambient, bringing to mind Supreme Court Justice Stewart’s admonition on pornography, in regards to Louise Malle’s film The Lovers – “i know it when i see it.” When you really pull apart the term ‘dark ambient’ you’ll find mostly emptiness and space. ‘Ambient,’ after all, just means “relating to the immediate surroundings of something,” whereas everyone’s take on ‘dark’ is going to be different.
As someone who listens to perhaps an unhealthy amount of dark ambient music, i sometimes interpret the genre as conjuring gloomy, shadowy, often sinister environments. This makes it adept for giving voice to lost or hidden stories of a landscape, any landscape. As in the cast of Ontario’s Lauren Hope on the spare, evocative American Gothic EP, giving a spectral voice to the vast loneliness of the wide-open grasslands.
If you’ve ever driven across a prairie or grasslands, you’ll most likely have come across some abandoned homestead or decaying ruin. What happened? How did it get there? What strange horrors caused these inhabitants to flee, never to return, leaving the unguarded concrete slab to rot in the wind, gathering cheap wine bottle glass like fleas. The American Gothic EP invites you to inquire what happened, and listen for the answers on the moaning wind. Sonically, it sounds something like if Ry Cooder had taken to emotive synthpop for his Paris, Texas soundtrack. Or if Dylan Carlson had taken up monolithic synthesizers to express his cosmic Americana.
Improvised dark ambient drones from Brazilian composer and improviser Andre Gurgel.
There’s something refreshing, cathartic about improvised dark ambient music, laid straight to tape rather than meticulously sculpted like studio albums in the genre. It brings to mind the death industrial roots of the genre in the late 70s and early 80s, where mohicaned noiseniks laid disorienting, truly disturbing sounds straight to cheap cassettes, bundled them in groddy xeroxed art full of all manner of atrocities and sent them to their network of similarly disturbed friends and collaborators in their network.
While it’s appreciated when dark ambient musicians take things back to its post-industrial roots, it’s not nearly enough to merely ape the style. I don’t think any of us really need to hear another shitty harsh noise, power electronics, or death industrial album adorned with imagery and samples from serial killers or rapists again. It’s not edgy, it’s just tired.
For an album to truly be notable by today’s standards it needs to bring something new to the table.
Looking at the bare, dreary textural album art from Brazilian composer Andre Gurgal‘s Um Pássaro Velho e Meditativo, you might think yr in for an hour of static harsh noise, textural rumble and scrape like you might hear from the Helen Scarsdale Agency, or, at least, a sliver of weightless ambiance a la Brian Eno‘s Apollo Atmospheres and Soundtracks. You’d be mistaken, however.
Instead, here we have 4 slight tracks of improvised instrumental music, covering a range of styles. Album opener and title track “Um Pássaro Velho e Meditativo” is the purest dark ambient on display, stark sine and square waves shivering and squinting in stark cold light. Even still, there’s something almost Lynchian about these drones, bringing to mind the digital gothic MIDI organs of Angelo Badalementi‘s soundtrack. There’s a feeling of early, improvisational dark ambiance on display, as well, bringing to mind some of the ritual clatter of kosmische groups like Faust or Cluster. Which just makes the unadorned bossa nova acoustic guitar of “A Rosa e a Cruz” that much more magnificent and memorable. If you’ve ever been looking for a crossover between Seu Jorge and Maurizio Bianchi first of all, hats off to you! And 2. You’ve just found yr holy grail.Um Pássaro Velho e Meditativo by André Gurgel
A certain sub-sect of Dark Ambient music is just the dark side of yr everyday newage/drone music, as can be heard with legends of the genre like Steve Roach or Vidna Obmana. Rather than merely soundtracking infernal nether regions, like dank dungeons or torture cellars, this flavour of Dark Ambient music functions like regular ambient music, but at night.
Following The Walkers from Boise, Idaho’s Diam Mati in collaboration with the enigmatic Innocent But Guilty, sounds like watching the stars over some stone monolith. Or the wreckage of some ruined shopping mall or freeway underpass. Or both. Powerful machine drones are run through resonant spaces and drowned in reverb, like listening to the sound of some strange ritual echoing through steel pipes, made all the more evocative by the album artwork collage by Berlin’s Alessandra Weber.FOLLOWING THE WALKERS by DIAM MATI feat INNOCENT BUT GUILTY
For a dark ambient album to truly stand out among the nearly endless torrent of new releases coming out every single day, not to mention hold its own among the giants of the genre, it helps to be relevant for the times we’re living in. On Certain Ambiance from Santiago, Chile’s Shallowblod project, the dark ambient template is turned to a furniture catalog or showroom, dredging out the inherent eeriness and melancholy of sterile storefronts and model homes, forever empty, forlore and melancholy.
Certain Ambiance does for furniture stores and model homes what Richard Chartier’s Pinkcourtesyphone does for romance and glamour, conjuring a modern, minimalist eternity, floating in the ether. Whether it’s hell or a bardo or a space station, that’s for you to decide.
Shallowblod call Certain Ambience a “waiting room” for a proper album in December. Cannot wait to hear, based on the quality of this ethereal weightless drones and hissing dark ambiance.CERTAIN AMBIENCE by shallowblod
Let’s be honest, once you strip back its neon/pastel exteriors, vaporwave is actually pretty dismal and grim. A mall that never closes? Have you ever really stopped and thought about that reality? The buzzing of artificial lighting at 3 am, the heavy fugue of chlorine wafting on the breeze like the wake of some horrific WW I battle, muzak drifting eerily, incessantly, into eternity. Do the people who work there ever sleep? Do they have homes? When you turn up the dark ambiance, vaporwave reveals itself for the grim grinning spectre it, in fact, is.
On Est 1922, Tucson, Arizona’s Emotari draws out the long shadows inherent in vaporwave, peeling back its strict rictus to find the mouldering face beneath. With its cover art of crumbling public housing, Emotari reminds us that the modernist mission has been a complete, dismal failure. Not because its ideas were bad or its heart wasn’t in the right place but because it was sold out by corrupt, greedy individuals. A social democracy and an oligarchy cannot exist in the same space.
Est 1922 by Emotari
On Est 1922, Emotari does for mallsoft what Leyland Kirby’s done for old timey big band with his The Caretaker project. Someone needs to write a story about a crumbling, brutalist public housing project, that isn’t Candyman or High Rise, that is.
Some gorgeous dark ambient drone metal that hits that sweet spot between soothing and dismal.
I’m all for broadening the scope of what’s considered dark ambient music. I’m here for all of the permutations and mutations and offshoots of dark ambient music. Dark ambient folk music? Yes please! Dark ambient vaporwave? Give it to me! But i’m also wary of straying too far off the mark, lest we lose our way and run the risk of “playing tennis without a net” to quote Robert Frost. We’ve got to have some pure, unadulterated dark ambient music in the mix.
EP V by Jinkstraüm
And that’s what you’ll get with EP V from Pays de la Loire, France’s Jinkstraum. Dark Ambient of the metal variety, that is, along the lines of Neurosis‘ Tribes of Neurot side project or the might Sunn O))). This is exceptional dark ambient drone metal, however, mixed to perfection, with guitars (seemingly) ebbing like ripples on dark water. It’s as contemplative as scrying in a pool of black ink, of walking on a beach at night.
With its focus on time, decay, and degradation and the associations with 9.11, William Basinski‘s music inherently has a melancholic, mournful air about it. It’s usually of a fairly ethereal nature, however, more of a ghost or phantom than a spectre, if you will. On Lamentations, though, Basinski’s trademarked loops become truly elegiac, cracking open, weeping, and bleeding with all of the pain and heartbreak that 2020 has had in store.
Lamentations by William Basinski
It’s much more in-your-face and immediate than Basinski’s usually gentle, subtle synthetic classicism. And yet, there’s still the exquisite production and emphasis on melody. If Leyland Kirby were to manipulate some Erik Satie chamber music to express the pain and longing of a wheezing, gasping world, it might sound like Lamentations.
Oregon’s infamous Cryo Chamber label have taken us through all manner of strange, alien, and evocative landscapes over the course of their existence. Not seem quite so familiar, yet so foreign, nor quite so striking as a setting for a Dark Ambient album as foggy Victorian London as we hear on Crier’s Bane, a collaboration between the UK’s Dead Melodies and French Dark Ambient musician Beyond The Ghost.
Lamentations by William Basinski
Crier’s Bane forsakes the usual dystopian electronics for more of a post-rock pallet of noir trumpet of all things, like West Coast cool jazz on ice in a morgue. These post-jazz late night meanderings are then slathered in fog and dipped in shadow, where you can practically see the flickering gaslight with strange shapes floating in the mix. It’s like Miles Davis or Jon Hassell getting together with Burial and Lustmord. One of the best Dark Ambient albums of the year!
We end our list with a much-appreciated 24-bit remaster from Iran’s Alphaxone, always a reliable purveyor of 21st Century Dark Ambient. Dark Complex excels in that, sounding like some floating obsidian pyramid in Blade Runner 2049‘s outskirts. Its a world for objects, but no people. Long shadows, inky black in cool blue LED light. Ominous and soothing and, above all, endless, this is music for the non-anthropocentric city.Dark Complex – [Remastered/24bit] by Alphaxone</iframe