Category Archives: Ambient

“Push the Sky Away”

cave
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
Push the Sky Away, 2013

I certainly like Nick Cave, but I’ve never felt compelled to love him. I’m fascinated by a tendency I’ve noticed in his best work though: the ability to capture a beautiful notion — the idea of God, the thrill of falling in love, the aspiration of the self — before sentencing it to a slow, miserable death by melancholy. You hear the same principle at work in “Push the Sky Away.” Lyrically, this is motivational, no-limit, follow-your-dreams stuff — you’d almost expect to read these words in a self-help manual. Musically, of course, it’s a different story: dirge-like keys, atmospheric loops, a creepy children’s chorus. The effect is memorable — beautiful and spooky at all once — but sometimes you wanna tell the guy it’s okay to ease up.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/09%20Push%20the%20Sky%20Away.m4a]

iTunes/Amazon

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“Overtones”

mast
Jonny Greenwood
The Master OST, 2012

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master wouldn’t be half the film it is — whatever film it is — without Jonny Greenwood’s original score. Churning, poetic and confused, Greenwood’s work does nearly all the emotional heavy lifting, adding depth and texture to a film that wouldn’t be much more than an extended acting class without it. Any conclusions I’ve drawn about the The Master’s thematic weight or insight over the years stem directly from how it feels to hear this music over those images. I have no idea how Greenwood arrived at this specific set of sounds given what he had to work with, but that mystery keeps me coming back to the film.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/01%20Overtones.m4a]

iTunes/Amazon

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“The Dance #1”

day of
Laraaji
Ambient 3: Day of Radiance, 1980

Part of Brian Eno’s groundbreaking Ambient album cycle, Day of Radiance was performed exclusively by multi-instrumentalist Laraaji, with Eno layering and tweaking the original recordings to develop the final result. “The Dance #1” in particular is fascinating because the effort taken to produce the music is so at odds with its effect. The song is built from aggressive, almost assaultive hammered dulcimer patterns, looped under and above each other to create a rhythmic, hypnotic sensation not unlike the one found in Steve Reich’s “pulse” music. The difference here lies in Eno’s minimalist approach — all that sound and feeling from a single instrument. Listen long enough and you’ll find your thoughts slipping away into the music, which of course is the idea.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/01%20The%20Dance%20No.%201.m4a]

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“Articulate Silences Part Two”

lid
Stars of the Lid
And Their Refinement of the Decline, 2007

I don’t think there’s a more fitting title in the Stars of the Lid canon. The song itself embodies the name: a succession of droned chords, occasionally accented by cello, each interrupted by a brief pause. The effect is profound but fleeting, music as still-life, mental flash cards that flicker and recede. Those seeking total immersion are encouraged/dared to take the entire 2-hour journey. This is music for yoga, for people who don’t do yoga.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/1-03%20Articulate%20Silences%20Part%202.mp3]

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“Hands”

200px-Four_Tet_-_Rounds
Four Tet
Rounds, 2003

“Hands” is the sound of Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet, playing to his strengths as a composer and found-sound stylist. Building up from a child’s heartbeat to blurry, chopped cymbals and simple piano, this quiet song surprises with its capacity to hold our attention. Eventually a direct drumbeat enters, the perfect foil. And while I’m sure the process of locating and shaping these sounds was anything but, the end components are fairly simple and easy to identify. Naturally occurring, organic sounds that have been electronically manipulated; a robot approximation of free jazz, as conceived by someone who’s never actually heard the music before. I can’t say I like everything Hebden puts his name on, but when he’s on he’s on.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/01%20Hands.m4a]

iTunes/Amazon

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“Jacquard Causeway”

boc

Boards of Canada
Tomorrow’s Harvest, 2013

Unlike many Boards of Canada devotees, I didn’t lose my shit over Tomorrow’s Harvest, last year’s comeback album from the influential, Edinburghian ambient outfit. My interest in the group skews more toward their warmer, earlier work; Harvest ran a little too ‘80s-horror-flick cold for my blood. But BoC are too in command of their form for the entire project to be a wash, and “Jacquard Causeway” still sends chills down my spine every time I hear it. As a failed drummer in a former life, I’m a sucker for weird, fucked-up drum patterns; you could lock me in a room with the “Causeway” beat on repeat for hours and I’d be happy as a clam. BoC know what they’ve got here, taking plenty of time to build and contract repeating synth phrases around that plodding, irregular heartbeat. It’s the album’s longest and most replay-worthy song.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/04%20Jacquard%20Causeway.m4a]

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“Fuzzy Reactor”

boris
Boris & Michio Kurihara
Rainbow, 2007

What to say about “Fuzzy Reactor” that can’t already be explained by that title? It sounds like what it is: a swirling, psychedelic jam with a krautrock engine. This is my favorite track off “Rainbow,” the collaborative album from experimental Japanese band Boris and guitarist Michio Kurihara. Like the best ambient/incidental music, it has the power to make you forget you’re listening.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/07%20Fuzzy%20Reactor.m4a]

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“Iambic 9 Poetry”

Squarepusher_-_Ultravisitor
Squarepusher
Ultravisitor, 2004

Who or what exactly is Squarepusher? After 20 years, the question is more open now than ever. The UK’s Tom Jenkinson first stood apart from his ‘90s IDM peers by virtue of musicianship – he didn’t just program acid-house drum breaks, he played them live. That skillset leaves Jenkinson a lot of rope at times, but also allows for moments like “Iambic 9 Poetry,” a track I’d file under “truly sublime.” Keep in mind that everything you’re hearing here – drums, bass, keys and whatever else – is being played by the same guy, essentially jamming with and against himself. The end result is a musical masterclass in building and sustaining mood.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/03%20Iambic%209%20Poetry%201.mp3 ]

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“SWING IT LOW”

morphine

Morphine
Like Swimming, 1997

Occupying a space opposite most of Morphine’s musical output, “Swing It Low” feels like the dream at the end of the party. Over an insistent, flanged-out shaker loop, delicate guitar, ambient hum and tablas – and sans the group’s signature “low-rock” bass/sax combo – vocalist Mark Sandman looks forward to brighter times. “I got buttons burstin’ in the air/Ideas, runnin’ fingers through my hair/My shoes, they’re ready to move.” It’s a rare optimistic missive from a musician not generally remembered for them.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/12%20Swing%20It%20Low.mp3 ]

Amazon

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“XTAL”

Aphex Twin
Selected Ambient Works 85-92, 1992

This one hit like lightning the first time I heard it, and that was from streaming a 30-second sample on CDNow back in summer ’99. Careful readers will note I was already several years late to the party at that point, but “Xtal” is nothing if not timeless. I’m willing to bet on the same magic in 2014. In his prime, Richard D. James laid the foundation for much of what was to become popular in late-90’s electronic music and still is today. If there’s a prettier piece of ambient techno/electronic/IDM/whatever floating around out there in the ether, I’ve yet to hear it.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/01%20Xtal.mp3 ]

iTunes/Amazon

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