Guide to Ambient Music
Guide to Ambient
Dark Ambient is quite the diverse genre of music, this guide to ambient will shed some light. Within the realms of dark ambient we have heard enormous variation in sounds and styles. These styles have slowly taken form over the roughly three decades of dark ambient. Yet, each style always seems to have the distinct characteristics of dark ambient. So to start with, what exactly is dark ambient?
I would suggest that dark ambient is a kind of music, which is minimal on percussion and vocals. If there are guitars present there will never be a solo or a lead riff. Occasionally you will come across albums which do have a bit of guitar. But it is rarely, if ever used in the conventional manner. Field recordings are often key to the sound. They can be the main component connecting an album to an ambient genre. How these field recordings are used can be varied. The variations in field recordings is one of the main ways to distinguish one style from another. Synthesizers are another key component. Since the ’70s synths have been used to create a whole new level of sound. This has never been achieved before, through thousands of years of music. Live instrumentation is yet another key element, though not necessary. Acoustic guitars, flutes, and cellos are able to bring a lofty concept back within the realms of humanity. Yet, tribal drums can be incorporated to take us to a whole new realm of consciousness. Vocals are the least used vessel of instrumentation. Yet, when utilized through singing, chanting, or spoken word, they often become the most potent ingredient.
These variations can have a dizzying effect on novice listener. Due to the plethora of ambient styles. Even within any record label, it is easy to find numerous variations. So, for the sake of fans of the Cryo Chamber label, we decided to give a run-down of all the various styles within the label. Each style will be paired with an album from the label which seems to fit it perfectly. Take note that, sub-sub-genres become a tricky topic and it is possible to argue that an album fits in several different categories. But, if you know what you are looking for ahead of time, know what you love, and why you love it, this can make finding suitable releases much easier.
Ugasanie “Arctic Hysteria”
Polar ambient is a style which looks to reflect a cold, bleak, and barren landscape. Artists will often take field recording equipment into a frozen mountainous region. There, they are able to capture all sorts of sounds: wind gusting through the barren trees, owls hooting as they perch high in the pines, wolves howling to their pack. Artists like Northaunt made this style of music popular in the early ’00s. Cryo Chamber has one of the forefront artists of polar ambient within their roster. Ugasanie, coming from the Ukraine, has a deep love of these barren regions. Ugasanie travelled to various locations in the far northern parts of Russia. There he collected many of the field recordings which he would incorporate on his albums White Silence and The Call of the North. Some artists are content with painting this picture of a frozen barren landscape. A landscape devoid of all humanity. Yet, with Ugasanie there is much more to the story. The Call of the North took us on a journey into the polar regions. Arriving in the vast frozen tundra, Ugasanie was able to capture many sounds of Arctic tribal peoples. During the climax of The Call of the North, we hear a man, as he loses his mind and evacuates his shelter. Gripped by hysteria he flees into the blanket of snow, never to return. These polar regions are full of stories of cabin fever, doomed excursions, and the old Nordic gods.
Sabled Sun “Signals VI”
Space ambient is definitely the most subtle form of dark ambient. Drones take the lead in space ambient. The main focus is on subtle shifts in the texture of the drone. If you skip around in one of these tracks, you may find that there is hardly any variation. That’s okay. Variation and dynamics are not the point of space ambient. The point here is to feel the calm and infinite darkness of space. Sabled Sun is the best example of this sort of sound. Signals I-VI is roughly six hours worth of this space ambient style. Listening for the full hour of each section is highly recommended. Over the course of the hour, one hears the depths of space as they encroach upon your brain waves. The gently flowing drones are the perfect backdrop to meditation, sleep, and writing. The subtle nature gives the listener a nice soundscape. Achieved without ever encroaching on their concentration.
God Body Disconnect “Prisoner’s Sacrifice Facing Arcadia”
Sci-Fi ambient by definition must fall within the realms of cinematic ambient. This style takes cinematic ambient to a realm of pure science fiction. Drones and field recordings are the basis. These field recordings are often mechanical and futuristic. The presence of robots, spaceships, and alien life could all be found within. God Body Disconnect finishes out the recent ‘Locus Arcadia’ collaboration. On “Prisoner’s Sacrifice Facing Arcadia” we are enveloped in cinematic sounds. A breathing apparatus is constant, depicting the astronaut’s helmet. Buttons are pressed and an airlock opens. Staticy voices cut through the mix, indicating some alien presence. All the while an airy drone builds the foundation, as if we are inside some massive space station. These sci-fi ambient projects, which also include Sabled Sun – 214x series, have proven to be some of the most intriguing releases on Cryo Chamber. The stories are becoming so intricate that there seems to be plenty of area left to expand within this style.
Post-apocalyptic ambient is one of the most oppressive forms of dark ambient. It is based around the theme of the end of the world. So, obviously this is nothing nice. Tracks often incorporate drones and field recordings. After the bombs have dropped and the black clouds of soot settle, what remains? The answer to this question should horrify the listener. It should turn their stomach, as it paints a picture of our planet, rotten to the core. Neizvestija was one of the first artists signed to Cryo Chamber. On his album ‘Majak’ he delivers a story which takes place in the burnt and irradiated remains of the Russian region of the same name. Geiger counters crackle, voices seem queer and distorted, humanity witnesses its final days…
Atrium Carceri “Crusted Neon”
Cinematic ambient, is not soundtrack music. It is understandable that one might think this. But, cinematic ambient is actually a replacement for the movie itself. The music is the cinema and the soundtrack all in one. In this style we will often hear many field recordings, of all different varieties. The boundaries of this style can become thin, almost non-existent. At one moment there is only a dripping of water or a gentle storm. But, the sounds can quickly open up into a living scene. Dialogue, footsteps, and background noises are all ways of conveying this style. Atrium Carceri is an originator of this style. Going back to his first album ‘Cellblock’ we see that the seeds of the cinematic dark ambient genre started here. Previous artists had certainly touched on this style before. But, with Atrium Carceri, the style became the totality of his project. Each album another chapter in the story. He would later start a sci-fi story within this framework, under the alias of Sabled Sun.
Phonothek “Heavy Thoughts”
DoomJazz ambient is possibly a lazy name for this style. As I have lifted it directly from the Mount Fuji Doomjazz Corporation. Yet, the style is quite distinct. True to the name, most doomjazz has strong jazz undertones. There are always live instruments incorporated. Trumpets, pianos, and even the occasional jazz vocals come together under the dark ambient banner. A style is produced which is at once true to jazz and utterly foreign. This is a late night jazz. A jazz played in dark smokey clubs. Giving a nod to the eras of old, but roundly centered in the present. The style was made popular by the likes of Bohren & Der Club of Gore as well as the afformentioned Mount Fuji. Phonothek has recently brought a polished and revitalized version of this to Cryo Chamber. Tracks like “Heavy Thoughts” bring out a deep dark sadness, within the setting of a jazz lounge. The trumpet echoes through the void. Laden with a deep melancholy, the sounds are jazzy, but they become something unique and dark.
SiJ & Textere Oris “Near The Dam”
Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) ambient incorporates sounds which are particularly pleasing to the ear. Sounds which are able to calm and lull the listener into a deeply sedated state. ASMR is defined as: a euphoric experience characterized by a static-like or tingling sensation on the skin that typically begins on the scalp and moves down the back of the neck and upper spine, precipitating relaxation. It has been compared with auditory-tactile synesthesia. SiJ & Textere Oris have released a beautiful example of ASMR ambient in action. On “Near The Dam” there is a thick wash of sound coming from the field recording of a dam as water pours over the side. Then we have “The Map” by protoU. protoU incorporates many subtle sounds here. Which all succeed in lifting the listener to a new level of relaxation and consciousness.
Metatron Omega “Transductio”
Ritual ambient is one of the more popular varieties of dark ambient. It has been around almost as long as the genre itself. Some labels even dedicate their entire catalog to the style. There is a distinction to be made within ritual ambient. There is the passive form and the active form. In the active form of ritual ambient artists conduct a ritual. The music itself is that ritual. Often performed in a live setting. Acts like Phurpa and Halo Manash are perfect examples of this style. Conversely, passive ritual ambient seeks to illustrate the environment, feelings, and awakenings. The emphasis is on the emotions present during a ritual. The sounds are not a ritual themselves, but a glimpse through the window, as an outsider. Metatron Omega has brilliantly captured the latter in his latest release ‘Sanctum’. Tracks like “Transductio” incorporate everything from chirping birds to chanting monks. The atmosphere is detailed and perfected, whereas active ritual ambient is more known for its raw and harsh nature.
Urban ambient is not necessarily a documented style. But, I posit that it seeks to paint a picture of something most akin to a dark rainy inner-city night. It is heavy in drones and industrial field recordings. There is little direction from a storyline. The music begs the listener to delve deep into their own soul. In this way, the music is perfect for self-reflection, story writing, and other activities. Activities which won’t benefit from a directed narrative. Keosz pull this style off to perfection with their latest album ‘Be Left To Oneself’. Tracks like “Forfeited” give a sense of melancholy and solitude. Yet this doesn’t happen within the framework of loneliness or isolation. It is more subtle. More open to interpretation. There seems to be a sense of hope and infinite possibility just beneath the surface of sadness.
Kolhoosi 13 “From Comradery To Sustenance”
Martial ambient is similar in its themes to martial industrial. But, there are key differences which separate the two. Martial industrial has been a well-known genre for decades. This is due in large part to acts like Ordo Equilibrio Rosario, Rome, and Karjalan Sissit. Martial ambient takes the militaristic aspects of these acts and brings it down to a more subtle level. It is devoid of the drums and loud vocal sections which define martial industry. Kolhoosi 13 showcase the subtleties of this style on their release ‘Monuments Of Power’. The intro track “From Comradery To Sustenance” seeks to paint the landscape of a war-torn zone of conflict. Shortly after the fighting has seized, all hope is lost. Rifle fire can be heard in the distance. Some staticy track is heard playing on the radio, reminiscent of an intro scene from the Fallout series. This style paints a bleak picture of the after effects of total war. After humanity has dealt itself a fatal blow.
Flowers For Bodysnatchers “Hearken Our Storm”
Neo-classical ambient seeks to combine classical instrumentation with a foundation of field recordings and drones. This can be one of the hardest styles to pull off. Too much instrumentation will push the music into neo-classical. Too much drone and it becomes something strictly dark ambient. Finding a balance can afford for some of the best and most emotional dark ambient in the genre. Flowers For Bodysnatchers have a knack for finding this balance. On “Hearken Our Storm” there is a solid basis of drone leaving an ominous yet warm texture. As the piano and string arrangments slowly enter the mix, the sound opens up into one of the most emotional experiences music can deliver. Yet, all the while intricate use of field recordings keeps the eerie cinematic side within constant focus.
Guitar drone ambient, as it sounds, is prodominantely guitars using high levels of sustain, slides, and reverb effects. This replaces the synthetic drones of most dark ambient. Guitar drone ambient sits on the fringes of post-rock. Yet, it is devoid of drums and other things which would add that explosive energy often found in post-rock. Guitar drone ambient is often extremely subtle and relaxing music. ‘Helluland’ by Northumbria is the main contribution to this style on Cryo Chamber. On its title track, we hear a live performance by two musicians, guitarist and bassist. Through the use of varies devices and effects the artists are able to paint a cold and dark soundscape. When done correctly, it is hard to believe all the sounds could actually come from a set of guitars.
- Written by Michael Barnett