At the heart of all ambient music lies the drone: a single tone, or cluster of tones, that stretches on into infinity, buzzing and shimmering, without end. That coruscating beam was the organizing principle of La Monte Young, John Cale, Tony Conrad, et al in the Theatre of Eternal Music, and has traveled through the work of minimalists like Phill Niblock, Rhys Chatham, and Pauline Oliveros to arrive undisturbed and unadulterated in latter-day drone artists like Éliane Radigue, Eleh, and Sarah Davachi. Drones can be harsh or soft, deceptively static or wildly dynamic; they can be placed in service to more complex sounds, as in the case of the ambient dub act Seefeels spell-binding "Utreat," or they can be the main attraction, as the Swedish composer Folke Rabes "Was??" proves over the course of 26 mind-expanding minutes.
Its impossible to imagine ambient music developing as it did without the influence of krautrock. In fact, its worth remembering that although Brian Enos Ambient 1: Music for Airports was immediately preceded by an extended period in Germany, producing Low and "Heroes" for David Bowie and recording 1977s Cluster & Eno with krautrock heavies Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius. Deconstructing western pop down to its most psychedelic gestural properties, German musicians had already struck upon ambient musics defining characteristics, fashioning a sound as ephemeral as vapor. The "Berlin school," meanwhile-a loose assemblage that included Tangerine Dreams Edgar Froese and onetime TG member Klaus Schulze-transformed progressive-rock bombast into increasingly electronic and ethereal shapes, pioneering the glistening timbres and tumbling arpeggios still fashionable in ambient music decades later.
If it was Brian Eno that first gave shape to the idea of ambient music, it was rave culture that gave it wings. While the bass bins of the main stage thundered away, denizens of the chill-out room floated away on a beatless bed of synths and samples. Early Warp compilations like Artificial Intelligence reimagined electronic music for home listening, and Aphex Twins ethereal Selected Ambient Works Volume II soon set the gold standard for late-night soundtracks for insomniacs. Around the same time, Berlins Basic Channel / Chain Reaction crew was applying dub alchemy to techno, rendering it as smooth as a chrome-plated pulse, while Wolfgang Voigts GAS project, along with the Kompakt labels Pop Ambient series, traded minimalist rigor for lush, liquid atmospheres bursting with color.
Chalk it up to high techs growing pains. In the late 1990s, media werent quite as frictionless as they feel today. CDs skipped; dial-up modems gurgled; and hard drives hiccupped as they whirred. Out of this jittery din came artists like Oval, who scribbled in Sharpie on his CDs and then sampled the attendant stuttering, and Pole, who harnessed the clicks and pops of a broken filter unit to create a kind of dub techno as grainy as the ocean floor. Mark Fell and Mat Steels duo SND took the style-often dubbed "clicks and cuts," after the name of a compilation on the Mille Plateaux label-to its shivery limit with tiny pinprick noises that could raise the hairs on the back of your neck. And Carsten Nicolais Raster-Noton label used the aesthetic as the jumping-off point to explore a spine-tingling fusion of ambient and techno.
Contemporary ambient music begins with Brian Eno, who laid claim to the term with 1978s Ambient 1: Music for Airports. But the idea stretches back a century, to Erik Saties idea of "furniture music." And its roots sink deep into electronic musics mid-century origins, as the advent of oscillators and then synthesizers allowed artists to sculpt sound in ways never before imagined. You can hear ambients early stirrings in Daphne Orams exploratory work for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, in which squealing circuits trace the limits of comprehension; you can hear the sound taking shape in the hypnotic repetitions of Steve Reichs earliest experiments with tape. Groundbreaking synth studies from Suzanne Ciani, Beatriz Ferreyra, and Laurie Spiegel expand upon the otherworldly atmospheres that will become so central to the form. And at the intersection of new music, disco, and post-punk DIY, Arthur Russells World of Echo imagined yet another form of proto-ambient music by turning pop songs diffuse as clouds.
Dark ambient trails ambient music like a shadow. Leaden, loamy, emotionally numb, it might be the ultimate know-it-when-you-hear-it music. Dark ambients roots are in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as industrial musicians began experimenting with glowering, beatless drones, and it flowered in the early 1990s, as Scorn, Main, Lull, Final, and other similarly sternly named artists collectively arrived upon an echo-laden sound that came to be called "isolationism." Pete Namlook and Klaus Schulzes The Dark Side of the Moog formed a bridge between the space music of the Berlin school and the bleak psychedelia of the 1990s, while Lustmord, Robert Rich, and Steve Roach have translated dark ambients charcoal drama to more expressive ends.
New age, long derided as so much crystals-and-incense mumbo-jumbo, has seen its reputation improve in recent years. Partly, thats thanks to compilations like Light in the Attics I Am the Center: Private Issue New Age Music in America 1950-1990 and Soul Jazzs Space, Energy & Light: Experimental Electronic and Acoustic Soundscapes 1961-88. Both served to remind listeners that some new age was pretty awesome, even if it did have titles like "Dolphin Dream" or "The Third Eye of Atlantis." Theres considerable overlap between the new age movement and the early years of ambient music. The pioneering synthesizer musician Suzanne Ciani dipped into new age on albums like 1982s Seven Waves. Ambient and new Age pioneer Laraaji ended up recording for Brian Enos Ambient series after Eno heard him playing new age music in Washington Square Park. And today, pioneering new age work is being folded back into the electronic music canon: Consider the case of Pauline Anna Strom, whose ethereal, drifting synthesizer music-recorded at home in the 1980s-was recently reissued by New York experimental powerhouse RVNG Intl.
In the 2000s, a number of artists on the noise scene gradually swapped ear-scouring feedback for more dulcet synths and arpeggios rooted in the Berlin school of the 1970s. Chief among them were Emeralds, whose dozens of cassette and CDR releases, and subsequent spin-off projects such as Steve Hauschildt, Mark McGuire Imaginary Softwoods, Outer Space, Mist, et al (not to mention scores of releases put out by John Elliotts Spectrum Spools label), generated a prolific cottage industry in psychedelic burble and shimmer. At the same time, Oneohtrix Point Never and other artists tagged as "vaporwave" were channeling yesterdays VHS fantasies into a retro-futurist uncanny valley, where Windows 95 startup chimes served as doorways to new dimensions of perception.
You might think of the final playlist in our Ambient 101 series as a catch-all: Here weve gathered everything that didnt fit in another category, such as Hiroshi Yoshimuras wonderful Music for Nine Post Cards. (In an ideal world, wed have an entire playlist dedicated to Japanese ambient and environmental music, and another one for Italian artists like Giusto Pio, but sadly, little of either genre is available on Spotify.) Here, too, weve put the American-primitive guitarist Chuck Johnsons ethereal Balsams and the modular-synth sound-sculptor Emily A. Spragues Water Memory. But as the songs came together, a theme suggested itself: a buoyant, rosy sort of bliss, the kind promised by new age but without the spiritual trappings. Its a playlist for Sunday mornings with coffee, for early morning on the river, for being in the moment or being outside the moment entirely. It goes to the heart of ambient musics simple pleasures.
The ’90s have never sounded better than they do right now—especially for modern-day indie rockers. There’s no shortage of bands banging around these days whose sound suggests formative phases spent soaking up vintage ’90s indie rock. Not that the neo-’90s sound is itself a new thing. As soon as the era was far enough away in the rearview mirror to allow for nostalgia to set in (i.e., the second half of the 2000s), there were already some young artists out there onboarding ’90s alt-rock influences. But more recently, there’s been a bumper crop of bands that betray a soft spot for a time when MTV still played music videos and streaming was just something that happened in a restroom. In this context, the literate, lo-fi approach of Pavement has emerged as a particularly strong strand of the ’90s indie tapestry, and it isn’t hard to hear echoes of their sound in the work of more recent arrivals like Kiwi jr. or Teenage Cool Kids. Cherry Glazerr frontwoman Clementine Creevy seems to have a feeling for the kind of big, dirty guitar riffs that made Pacific Northwestern bands the kings of the alt-rock heap once upon a time. The world-weary, wise-guy angularity of Car Seat Headrest can bring to mind the lurching, loose-limbed attack of Railroad Jerk. And laconic, storytelling types like Nap Eyes stand to prove that there’s still a bright future ahead for those who mourn the passing of Silver Jews main man David Berman. But perhaps the best thing about a face-off between the modern indie bands evoking ’90s forebears and the old-school artists themselves is the fact that in this kind of competition, everybody wins.
It may be that 2019 was the best year for ’90s metal since, well, 1999. Bands from the decade of Judgment Night re-emerged with new creative twists and tweaks: Tool stretched out into polyrhythmic madness, Korn bludgeoned with more extreme and raw despair, Slipknot added a new drummer (Max Weinberg’s kid!) who gave them a new groove, and Rammstein wrote an anti-fascism anthem that caused controversy in Germany (and hit No. 1 there too). Elsewhere, icons of the era returned in unique ways: Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor scored a superhero TV series, Primus’ Les Claypool teamed up with Sean Lennon for some quirky psych rock, and Faith No More’s Mike Patton made an avant-decadent LP with ’70s soundtrack king Jean-Claude Vannier. Finally, the soaring voice of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington returned for a moment thanks to Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton, who released a song they recorded together in 2017.
Taking a look at the playlists for my show on Boston’s WZBC might give the more seasoned college-radio listener a bit of déjà vu: They’re filled with bands like Versus, Team Dresch, and Sleater-Kinney, who were at the top of the CMJ charts back in the ’90s. But the records they released in 2019 turned out to be some of the year’s best rock. Versus, whose Ex Nihilo EP and Ex Voto full-length were part of a creative run for leader Richard Baluyut that also included a tour by his pre-Versus outfit Flower and his 2000s band +/-, put out a lot of beautifully thrashy rock; Team Dresch returned with all cylinders blazing and singers Jody Bleyle and Kaia Wilson wailing their hearts out on “Your Hands My Pockets”; and Sleater-Kinney confronted middle age head-on with their examination of finding one’s footing, The Center Won’t Hold.Italian guitar heroes Uzeda—who have been putting out proggy, riff-heavy music for three-plus decades—released their first record in 13 years, the blistering Quocumque jerceris stabit; Imperial Teen, led by Faith No More multi-instrumentalist Roddy Bottum, kept the weird hooks coming with Now We Are Timeless; and high-concept Californians That Dog capped off a year of reissues with Old LP, their first album since 1997. Juliana Hatfield continued the creative tear she’s been on this decade with two albums: Weird, a collection of hooky, twisty songs that tackle alienation with searing wit, and Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police, her tribute record to the dubby New Wave chart heroes (in the spirit of the salute to Olivia Newton-John she released in 2018). And our playlist finishes with Mary Timony, formerly of the gnarled rockers Helium and currently part of the power trio Ex Hex, paying tribute to her former Autoclave bandmate Christina Billotte via an Ex Hex take on “What Kind of Monster Are You?,” one of the signature songs by Billotte’s ’90s triple threat Slant 6.