Sunday, August 7, 2011

Klaus Schulze - Irrlicht

Space music doesn't get as much credence as it use to. Don't tell anyone you like it, or you'll be seen as a tripped out hippie freak. Even more so than traditional ambient, space music is something to float to. It's more about intensity, rather than calmness, it's more about filling all the available space, rather than quiet meandering.

Klaus Schulze is mostly known for being in what seems like half of the Krautrock bands in Germany in the 70's. He was extremely prolific as well, having been involved in over forty works since the late 60's. He has played with Tangerine Dream, Ash Ra Tempel, The Cosmic Jokers and Pete Namlook to name a few.

Irrlicht is his first solo album, fresh out of the guitar-based jams of Ash Ra Tempel. I believe that Schulze uses Irrlicht to display the magnitude of the creation of the Universe. Using mainly his organ, along with various other instruments, Satz: Ebene slowly builds momentum with spacey sound effects until it explodes into a fiery mix of swirling oscillations and vividly ethereal organ drones over the twenty minutes. Satz: Gewitter is almost the calm after the flourish, as it drifts along in the aftermath. Satz: Exil Sils Maria is unrelated to the last two pieces, and is just an creepy but enjoyable drone, tempered by small sections of almost-earthly music towards the start. They soon disappear, leaving strange noises and sweeping wind washes. Apparently, the whole song was recorded and then reversed, leaving it as it is.

I can't count how many different ambient genres Irrlicht would have influenced, everything from space music, to dark ambient, to drone. And even more incredibly, it was done without a synthesiser, a staggering thought. Even though it is an technically an ambient album, it takes the ambient sound and rams it up to eleven, creating a potent maelstrom of weightlessness and presence.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Pete Namlook and Dr Atmo - Silence

Pete Namlook is the Frank Zappa of ambient music. Not that he has children called Moon Unit or Dweezil, but the fact that over his career he has released a ridiculous amount of music. As of 2005, he'd released over 135 full length albums since the early 90's, mostly choosing to collaborate with others. As it stands, he's easily one of the most prolific artists in the history of music.

Silence is one of his earlier releases, a collaboration with Dr Atmo, who I'll admit I've never even heard of, but he is apparently a German DJ that's released a few world ambient albums for Namlook's famous Fax label. I was extremely ecstatic to be able to find this release for cheap in a second hand vinyl store, as Fax vinyls are usually only released in limited numbers.

The first song Omid/Hope sweeps along its repetitive strings slowly, with a high pitched synth bursting through every so often, along with a distorted voice. It's quite sad, and gives me the impression of being stranded out at sea. Garden of Dreams is likewise slightly depressing, and just drifts on synths until a faint piano line and unobtrusive drums interrupt at the half way point of the song.

Santur starts of very much like the previous song, before it explodes (for an ambient song anyways) into an advanced upbeat 'new age' song, with jungle drums, weird moaning and an off tune guitar. My description of it sounds bad, but the song is at least interesting. Trip sounds like... a trip? It's like riding on some kind of rainbow train (I'm confused as well), as the background sounds continually morph and shift.

As it ends, so does the album, with three of the songs (Santur excluded) over a whopping 20 minutes. I can't really recommended Silence too much, because other than Omid/Hope, it's rather pedestrian. Good background music, but then again, most ambient is.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Brian Eno and Harold Budd - The Plateaux of Mirror

You can't have an ambient blog without talking about Brian Eno; there wouldn't be ambient music as we know it without him. His first and best known ambient work Ambient 1: Music for Airports is awe-inspiring (and needs to be reviewed here!).

Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror isn't as good as it's predecessor, but not many ambient albums are. At the same time, Ambient 2 is less of an experiment, and also less of a purely Eno-written album. This time, he enlists noted pianist Harold Budd, and works around him.

There isn't many synths here, or at least noticeable ones, on most tracks. It's just Budd and his tinkling piano, drenched in reverb and echo. One track with Eno's synths is Not Yet Remembered, and it's probably the most memorable track here. The use of synths as pseudo voices almost makes it sound like a fully fledged conventional song.

While there are other great moments, and make no mistake that Ambient 2 is a wonderful album, I think the Eno/Budd partnership hit their peak with The Pearl a few years later. Ambient 2 is just a taster of things to come.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Robert Rich - Rainforest

Robert Rich is one of the more well known ambient artists going around (even though I always get him confused with Steve Roach, and bizarrely enough, Steve Reich), and Rainforest was his major breakthrough album and still his most famous, however unimaginative the title is. But that's 80's New Age marketing for you.

But it sounds exactly like its title; it's a rainforest! Lots of tribal drums, flutes and general jungle noises. It is interesting to note, that Rich designed the tracks around a 'natural' tuning system he created, away from the traditional Western scales. To me, it barely sounds different, but I'm not a musicologist.

Still, the more upbeat tracks are somewhat stereotypical, almost New Age. There is nothing particularly wrong with that, but I've heard it all before. It's the slower songs that are far better. Songs such as Sanctuary and The Raining Room (dedicated to brilliant Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, for the record) have more depth and resonance then their rhythmic counterparts.

But the best song on the album is also the longest; Veil of Mist, which clocks in at nearly 11 minutes. It's a fusion centrepiece of the rest of the album, slow drums, wailing saxophones, and emotive piano.

Rainforest won't win any awards for anything (other than most popular 80's ambient album outside of Enya *shudders*), but it's good enough. Not a heavyweight, and Rich would mature away from the New Age scene after this, but Rainforest is passable for what it is.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Two Different Types of Ambient

In my opinion, you can split up ambient music as a whole into two different categories:

  • Pure Ambient - This is what most people think of when they hear the word 'ambient'. There are zero beats here; it's all light synths/keyboards/guitars/basses/noises. The songs just drift along, there is nothing hold them down. This is usually more of a direct attempt at evoking a feeling or a place, without the distractions of overbearing rhythms. Dark ambient and space music can also fit into this category. A good example of this is Seven Ancient Glaciers, by Aglaia.

  • Beat Ambient - A silly name, but you get the point. It's still very relaxing, but there is usually something going on that will grab your attention more, whether it be beats, vocals at the forefront, a faster tempo, whatever. This can be closely related to trance, house or folk, but still evokes something. "Chillout' is another dumb term, but I guess it fits here. A slightly more involved example of this is Cascade by Future Sound of London.

I like both different groups in different ways, and for different things. Rarely will you get a Beat Ambient song that you could sleep peacefully too, but sometimes you can get bored easily if you actually listen to a Pure Ambient song.

Welcome to Ambient Sounds!

Yes, I know, another blog from me. But this one is different.

In all honesty, there are very few relevant blogs to do with ambient music out there. Even if there is, all they usually do is provide a tracklist and a download page, useless to a concerning ambient connoisseur such as myself (and hopefully you). Ambient music doesn't generally receive much kudos, especially online, which is surprising for such a rich and varied genre.

So I'm here to try to rectify that as best I can, with ambient music reviews, ambient music book reviews, ambient music website reviews, and whatever else ambient related I can conjure up.

I'm usually pretty flexible when it comes to the question of 'what can be considered ambient?". However, I don't share the view of the otherwise brilliant book "The Ambient Century" by Mark Prendergast, where pretty much every piece of music that has any sense of space can be classified as 'ambient'. I'm sorry, Jimi Hendrix just isn't ambient. But hopefully I'll be covering things such as psybient, space music, synths, ambient house, IDM, and maybe even some illbient (what a dumb name).

So, let's get started!