There’s a popular TikTok that made the social media rounds recently that appears to offer the secret to achieving the elusive sense of internal harmony. According to its creator—and several other naturalistic healers on the internet who follow a metric called the Solfegio Frequency Scale—the frequency that can “repair your DNA and bring unconditional love to every aspect of your life” can be found at 528 Hz. While those claims are tenuously scientific at best, the pursuit of calmness and inner peace through music is a laudable goal. Artists like Jorgen Kjellgren and Forest Robots were brought to ambient music in the pursuit of beauty and tranquility; it felt like the only suitable format for expressing their outsized love of travel and nature. Others, like the artists featured on Touchtheplants’ Breathing Instruments compilation, seek a more abstract form of harmony, representing the act of breath in variously captivating compositions. Though this month’s selections for the best ambient on Bandcamp may not be tuned to the “love frequency,” their meditative methodologies produce similarly grounding results.
2 x Vinyl LP
The first compilation record from Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s Touchtheplants imprint, Breathing Instruments is as playful as it is pensive. The project asks each musician to take the act of breath as inspiration; the resulting record feels like an uplifting puzzle, the acts of inhaling and exhaling manifesting in both explicit and more interpretive portrayals. The fluttering, chromatic pulses of Emily A. Sprague’s “Flew” mirror the way a ribcage rises and falls with each inhalation; Mary Lattimore’s “She Remembers Sitka,” featuring delicate harp scales, feels a bit further afield, its serenity conjuring the natural energy of breath without directly referencing it. And then there’s Julianna Barwick’s “Newborn,” a fitting accompaniment to her recent, vocal-focused album; here, breath is represented by layered synths that undulate glacially. About two-thirds of the way into the song, her voice takes a sharp inhalation before following the synths on their descending and ascending scales—enmeshed in such soft, smooth tones, her pointed first breath is a reminder of the ways respiration is not just calming, it is revitalizing.
The Swedish composer Jörgen Kjellgren has been known to lead guided meditations, his deep vocal register its own form of binaural weighted blanket as he slowly guides listeners into calmness. His relaxed pacing belies his prolific output as an ambient artist, releasing nine EPs over the course of 2019. Invincible Summer captures the deliberate, unhurried pacing of his recorded meditations. Combining field recordings and the dense, digital warmth of his software synthesizers, Kjellgren slowly layers textural tracks. The effect is a sense of continuous upward movement, like the most soothing version of the Shepard tone. The songs were inspired by his travels with family around southern Europe, and tracks like “Cádiz” atmospherically reflect the golden radiance of its Andalucian namesake. But as with his meditation, the reverberating tones on Invincible Summer are engulfing even from shadier pastures.
Compact Disc (CD)
Francisco Dominguez makes music under his moniker Forest Robots as a way to communicate his love of nature to his daughter. The music videos that accompany the slight, dulcet arpeggios feature vast, ice-capped landscapes devoid of any signs of humanity. His compositions similarly carry an eerily spacious stillness; “A Detailed Cartography” progresses slowly, as small plucked strings meet expansive synths, evoking small moments of human intervention in an otherwise pristine calm. “Glacial Architecture of the Mountain Corridor” renders rounded, xylophone-like chimes to almost resemble falling raindrops. The final track “All Across The High Plain After The Storm,” with its staccato, almost halting piano, evokes the strangeness of inserting oneself into the uncontrollable grandeur of the wilderness; as a final synthesized chorus takes hold in the song’s last third, the vastness of the wild takes over, cleansing in its wake.
For those who know the taut acid techno of New York producer Gunnar Haslam, his work under his new pseudonym Guy Hobsbawm might seem jarringly still. Communes Qui Poussent Comme Des Champignons Après Le Déluge, or “communes that grew like mushrooms after the flood,” is meant to represent his vision of a post-dystopian society. On “Exil au Serir,” mechanical buzzing dots the track at an ominous frequency, a form of world building that conjures abandoned cities, defunct machinery, societal ruin. That aligns with his more dynamic work with Delsin Records and L.I.E.S., which often sounds like a soundtrack to an apocalyptic sci-fi film. But the palettes of drone and ambient also allow Haslam to pursue new moods; “Blanquistes du Nil” and “Brumaire” both evoke an eerie serenity with their droning tones. In those moments of quietude, the end of the world is rendered in contemplative shades.
Transcendental Movements Vol. 1
Over the past four years, IDO, or Intercontinental Dance Organization, has cemented a reputation for deep, dub-heavy techno, far warmer and more human than the sparse intensity that typically comes out of its home base of Berlin. On Transcendental Movements Vol. 1, the label takes a step back from the dancefloor to reflect on ambient music through the prism of techno and IDM. The resulting compilation is stirring. Olaf Tonstein’s “Algol” features minimalist drum programming over a plush droning tone; Neel’s “Alchemy” doesn’t have a beat per se, but a shuffling synth creates an image of rapid movement. It’s ambient music by way of a peak-time comedown, relaxation that’s cognizant of the heightened pace by which we often live our lives.
The Invention of the Human
The cover of Dylan Henner’s latest album The Invention of the Human features lettering that appears to be ripped from a medieval illuminated manuscript. Upon further inspection, however, it becomes clear that the curves and colors of the font are digitally rendered, pixels blown out to show their individual shapes. This mirrors the experience of listening to the album, the Brighton-based producer’s first for the London label AD93 (formerly Whities); recordings of crickets chirping on the aptly titled “I Was Reading the News But I Felt So Sad I had to Stop” give way to what sounds like a digital voice trying to sing. Henner uses the album to explore the evergreen existential questions of humanity by asking his synthesizers, “What do you think a human sounds like?” The answer varies—the richly orchestral ”The Lake was Covered in Lilypads” suggests it takes the form of synthesized vocals; others suggest a more natural coexistence, with sustained notes layered atop field recordings of human speech. Both outcomes are far more graceful than its Ex-Machina-esque subject matter might suggest.
Ezra Feinberg & John Kolodij
Ezra Feinberg & John Kolodij
The Queens-based guitarist and composer Ezra Feinberg makes music that feels infinite; his album from June, Recumbent Speech, is circuitous, giving the impression that his chord progressions could build in perpetuity with the same buoyant enthusiasm. John Kolodji’s work under his High Aura’d moniker achieves a similar effect by layering synths atop his acoustic guitar, building a contemporary take on folk music with the addition of electronic instruments to an otherwise acoustic setup. On their first split, the two meet in the middle of their respective comfort zones—on “Castle & Sand,” Feinberg uses the drawn out echoes of his guitar to create a spacious world in between the digital and the real. On “Beyond The Fragile,” Kolodij uses the textured strumming of his guitar to add an extra layer of sound, the brushed rhythms of his fingertips against its strings are haptic enough to evoke small goosebumps. It’s not entirely a peaceful listen, but a contemplative one, a record that asks us to reconsider what we define as stillness.
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
Joshua Hodges has long used his STRFKR project to work through his shifting moods and surroundings. The jerky, dance-punk beginnings of his self-titled debut gave way to more outright synth pop by the mid-‘00s, connected by a lyrical throughline of solipsistic musings on love, loss, and anxiety. But his first record of 2020, Future Past Life, saw a shift towards more folk-indebted modes, slower movements, and more patient pacing. His second record this year, Ambient 1, the first STRFKR album to include no lyrics at all, takes that relaxed perspective to the extreme. For an artist known for his hyperactive compositions, Ambient 1 is a surprisingly peaceful listen, from the wiry synths that reverberate on “Anxiety” to the more robust, almost didgeridoo-like tones on “Concentrate.” If the tired cliché is that an artist’s pivotal moment is “going electric,” a return to more analog instruments, as with the use of modular synthesizers here, might symbolize a similar progression for an artist so steeped in the digital world.