A quick browse through the Bandcamp ambient tag will reveal any number of works from composers unified in their artistry through atmosphere, but with wildly differing approaches to how they achieve their goals. From the intimate and warm to the unsettling and tense, ambient is a diverse and endlessly thought-provoking genre. Every month, Ari Delaney will walk through the best recent releases you can find right here on Bandcamp.
In this edition, we’re highlighting albums released from December 15 through January 15, including project debuts from artists both fresh and well-established, and a dungeon synth album influenced by the chilling atmosphere of The Elder Scrolls video game series.
the volume settings folder
Compact Disc (CD)
Seemingly a sister album to his 2017’s All the Rhythm I Have, Always The Same, Never Alike is the newest work from M. Beckmann, an Italian drone artist who’s been releasing music as the volume settings folder since 2012. Returning from a one-year hiatus, Beckmann presents some of his most touching work to date, an exploration into a vast array of production methods arranged into a solid conceptual piece. A combination of field recordings, live arrangements, and synthesized elements make this release stand out; though they’re united by the same minimalist approach, these songs each have their own distinct angles. “Tundra Nosebleed,” with its airy motif, is my personal favorite; its dense, multi-layered stacks of string-like textures and their continual interplay with distorted bass frequencies and feedback create a breathtaking landscape of noise.
Benoît Pioulard, who has put out albums on the renowned Kranky (and has also been self-releasing on Bandcamp for the last 12 years), has recently been working with dauw, a Belgian cassette-based ambient label. Off the back of such releases as Slow spark, soft spoke and Athanasy, 1993, Pioulard has quickly established himself as something of a central focus for dauw. On the two-part 11.03.17, listeners can expect to find erratic guitar plucks dominating the mix in the later moments of “Part 1,” interspersed with lower-key, haunting vocals cutting through the haze of instrumentation. “Part 2” abandons the warmer qualities of the previous track—higher-pitched synth pads of varying timbres creep into focus slow enough that listeners might not recognize the change across sections. One thing to note is the constant feeling of comfort and stability, perhaps aided by its narrower depth of field. Across 11.03.17’s runtime, I never felt like I was waiting for a payoff; rather, the music became part of my environment—and that’s what ambient is all about.
On this debut of his new project Definitely Miami, Patrick McCarthy (of Light in the Attic Records) explores the overlap between varied analog synthesis and ambient textures. Definitely Miami, recorded over the course of a year, makes liberal use of synthwave-like tones, drenching the album in a distinct retro feeling from the very first few notes in “Close,” the meandering mood-setter of the album that boasts a very pretty progression of filtered chord stacks. The album then progresses into tracks such as “Canopy,” which begin to push the boundaries of this lush, warm synth sound, offering greater compositional depth and creepy introductory sound design. A personal highlight is the penultimate “Closer Still,” which uses muffled plucks and unending choir-like background elements to create its heavenly atmosphere.
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP, Cassette
The description of Matt LaJoie’s The Center and the Fringe points out that the album was performed without any use of overdubbing, but LaJoie has managed to craft an experience so rich and diverse in sound it would be almost impossible to tell otherwise. Most cuts on The Center and the Fringe sit in a frankly weird place, sonically. Take “Venusian Ballroom,” in which the background loops keep up the track’s energy, as a contrast to the deliberate, reflective main guitar line. The culminating point of the album is its chilled-out, rhythmic title track, which breaks from the record’s established irregular guitar sound and minimal instrumentation.
Guild of Lore
Compact Disc (CD), Cassette
The influence of composer Jeremy Soule on The Elder Scrolls video game series can be felt in full force on Winterstead, the first full-length from Californian artist Guild of Lore. Over the course of its 10 tracks, Winterstead paints the image of a sparsely-populated and sprawling medieval landscape. I can’t help but envision the comfort of the archetypal fantasy tavern in “The Long Lodge,” and its obvious contrast to the rest of the album’s noticeably chillier atmosphere; the track creates the feeling of a brief respite from a perilous winter trek. With a blend of classical instrumentation, frostbitten melodies, and expert pace, this is the perfect soundtrack to see you through these long winter months.
Alicks’s Unwritten begins with its eponymous track, a four-minute soundscape with indecipherable vocals layered on top. Higher frequencies glide through the field as the filtered synthesizer filling the lower ends of the mix slowly develops. Without much warning, we eventually hear the same voice (now with much more clarity) speak: “Oh yeah, this is Unwritten.” A few seconds later, drums fill the empty space the synth occupied just seconds ago, in an exchange with a chopped vocal. And in the transition between the first two tracks of the album, its greatest strength is displayed: contrast. The chapters of Unwritten don’t just blur into one another; each new track brings a refreshing chapter to the finished project. Both placed later on the album, “melt away” and “i hit the floor” use vocal manipulation and layering marking to memorable ends.
On Primal Destination, U.K. dark ambient artist Tom Moore (operating under the name Dead Melodies) tells a wholly cinematic space-age tale of horror. Primal Destination really finds its footing in moment-to-moment changes for the bulk of its runtime: flashes of percussion here and there, additional instruments fluttering in for a moment or two. This keeps the listening experience engaging, permitting the use of largely unchanging main synthesis as the backbone of several tracks such as “Somatic Mutation,” “Encounter,” and “Subterraformed.” Its title track is arguably the strongest, with Moore fusing environmental noise, deep bass growls, and chilling animal effects to form the perfect atmosphere.
Ron Jons Surf Shop
Over their current 20-year run, Landing have established themselves as a consistently versatile force in indie rock and shoegaze. The newest offshoot of the project—comprised of members Aaron Snow and John Miller—is Ron Jons Surf Shop, a psychedelic drone project smaller in scope than Landing, but a logical extension of their oeuvre. Sampler ‘18 is Ron Jons Surf Shop’s debut, and it’s an exercise in musical momentum. The EP begins with a pair of tense and intimate tracks consisting of wide, jangly guitar samples and unsettling, sporadic flashes of synth pads, and culminates in “A Sampling of New Electronic Music,” a 10-minute spacey opus with meticulous sound design.