Tag Archives: Ambient

Album of the Day: Fhloston Paradigm, “After…”

Philadelphia DJ/producer King Britt has one of the longest résumés in electronic music—not to mention R&B and hip-hop. He first gained notice working with then-roommate Josh Wink on 1990’s “Tribal Confusion” by E-Culture; a few years later, he became Digable Planets’ tour DJ. And he’s cultivated a number of widely differing aliases and project names. As Sylk 130, Britt spearheaded a luxurious neo-soul live band; as the Nova Dream Sequence, he paid explicit homage to Detroit techno.

Fhloston Paradigm (named for Fhloston Paradise, a planet in the 1997 film The Fifth Element) is Britt in womb-like ambient mode—the man clearly spent some quality time with space-staring labels like Apollo and Rising High. Creating a sound palette to be “used only in that project,” as he told The Fader, Britt set out to make a drum-less and lyric-less album—though hardly one devoid of vocals. In fact, one of the keys to After… is that it’s practically an album of collaborations, including singers—among them Nosaj Thing, Ryat, Moor Mother, and Puerto Rican Space Program. But in every other sense, the album belongs entirely to Britt.

The title’s ellipses is no accident, and not just because each of the album’s songs are continuations of the word. After… has a serenely willful feel, an imbuing of soulful positivity. Britt’s limited palette manifests in tracks that start simple and then keep building, whether in cross-melodies like the ones in “…Life”—the wordless “ahhh”s of Pia Ercole smearing across intricate percussion and wisps of woodwinds—or the freestyle manipulations of sonar blips on “…The Fact,” suggesting life on Mars might be full of mischievous critters. The finale, “…Hours,” featuring Puerto Rican Space Program, ends with the simplest of ascending figures on a synth patch that suggests Raymond Scott’s ‘60s ad work, not to mention the vastness of the outer limits.

Michaelangelo Matos

Chuck Johnson’s New Album Is Partially Inspired By An Injured Dog

Chuck Johnson

Photo by Andrew Paynter.

For some people, breathing deeply while visualizing a calm place is enough to stay grounded. For Chuck Johnson, an experimental guitar player and composer, all he needs to do is listen. A student of Pauline Oliveros’s deep listening program, Johnson has honed his ear for tuning, resonance, drone, and pitch-seeking through explorations on the six-string guitar, modular synthesizers, and most recently, the pedal steel guitar.

His latest release, Balsams, is his most meditative work yet. It’s an instrumental record featuring his first primarily pedal steel compositions with song titles that reference healing and relaxing substances. “In spiritual terms,” Johnson says of the album, “…it’s sort of like seeking. Trying to find a unity of some kind, to reconnect with something bigger than you, or deep inside.”

Composed while he was caring for Bubbles, an injured dog, Balsams is inspired by the science of alternative tunings and Johnson’s years studying Oliveros’s deep listening techniques. As the name suggests, Balsams is a salve to the stress of today’s unending press cycle, a breath of fresh air for the listener to stop, relax, and regain control.

The Balsams listening experience, as with previous Johnson records, is both otherworldly and strangely familiar. The tonal shifts, accentuated here by synth bass, feel like they were written in the stars at the beginning of time. These six tracks feel less like pieces composed in a traditional sense; instead, under the direction of Johnson’s deft ear and smooth instrumentation, they feel more like sounds found on a direct channel hidden deep within the human experience. “I think there are a lot of universal reasons why humans are drawn to it,” Johnson says of drone music, “…universal, meaning something we all have in common in our DNA.”

We talked with Johnson about the many meanings of balsams (and Balsams), applying previously learned concepts to a new instrument, music as meditation, and one of his earliest sonic memories.

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Music to Soundtrack the Apocalypse

Fossil Aerosol Mining Project

Fossil Aerosol Mining Project

Apocalyptic thinking is as ancient as mankind; when human beings first realized there was a future, we also realized there would be an end. The Zoroastrian Frashokereti is the oldest surviving eschatology, and surely there were others that predated it. Centuries later, Europeans in the Middle Ages felt terror toward the advent of the year 1000 that was driven by a belief that the soul would continue to live after the Apocalypse. They made prophetic music, often based on the Book of Revelations, and that creative impulse was also surely not new to man, the music maker.

In 2017, our own fears of the future are different—perhaps more terrifying precisely because they are driven by very real, corporeal dangers, like environmental disaster, pandemic, and nuclear war. And instead of music about the Apocalypse, we have music about what comes after, which is not paradise but a devastated, emptied world, cold enough, as author Cormac McCarthy wrote, to “crack stones.”

And we have our own, growing tradition of music that imagines the post-apocalyptic wasteland. Aesthetically falling under the “dark ambient” umbrella, much of this is drone-based, beat-less, and lacking any obvious human presence. Some of it is made to intentionally express that humanity has no future, some subconsciously broadcast terrors from the zeitgeist, all of it reflects our contemporary expectations for the future.

Comments on the Bandcamp pages for the albums in this list reflect an unexpected inclination to use the music as an aid to relaxation and sleep, finding comfort in the enveloping chill of the sublime. This is music to read Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, and of course Joanna Demers’s Drone and Apocalypse by. Thinking about the End of Time is so human, so natural, that we might as well enjoy it.

Bandcamp has a deep catalogue of and community for dark ambient music, but this flavor of post-apocalyptic music is far less clearly defined. The following is a list of some of the best examples of the style, curated from the ominous world.

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A Second Act for the Penguin Café

Penguin Cafe

Few bands have been as difficult to categorize as England’s Penguin Café Orchestra. Their songs traversed folk, minimalist classical, and various indigenous styles, particularly from Africa, and showcased a delicate group interplay, the loose edges of which made the music feel even more human and vital. Founded in 1972 by composer and multi-instrumentalist Simon Jeffes and cellist Helen Liebmann, PCO were marked by shifting membership and instantly ingratiating tunes.

When Jeffes died of a brain tumor in 1997, that seemed to be the last of the Orchestra—and, strictly speaking, it was. But 10 years ago, Jeffes’s son Arthur reconvened some of his father’s old compatriots for a trio of memorial shows in London, then began a new group under the name Penguin Café, minus the Orchestra, to showcase both Simon’s classics and his own new tunes. The group self-released A Matter of Life… (2011) and The Red Book (2014), but their new album, The Imperfect Sea, comes out through the sharp-eared British experimental label Erased Tapes. (The album was one of Bandcamp’s Essential Releases the week it was released.) Broader-stroked and more sonorous of tone than his father’s work, The Imperfect Sea is nevertheless a frequently gorgeous successor to the Orchestra’s poky beauty. We caught up with the 38-year-old Arthur Jeffes, who was in the midst of a house renovation in Kentish Town.

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How The Arizona Desert Shaped Karima Walker’s Nomadic New Record

KarimaWalker_by_EugeneStarobinskiy_600

Learning about an artist’s place of origin provides context on their creative upbringing. For the impressionistic music of Karima Walker—her latest album, Hands In Our Names, is a potent combination of sound collage, tape loop, atmospheric noise and soul-bearing Americana—place is not just context, but a participating force. Field recordings stomped and mulched through effected cassette players reflect the red desert around her hometown of Tucson, Arizona.

Punctuating the ambient passages are moments of more traditional, yet no less emphatic songcraft, often featuring Walker’s golden yet melancholy mezzo-soprano looped ad infinitum. Lyrically, Hands In Our Names finds Walker taking in her surroundings. “Night points you as a compass,” she breathes on “Holy Blanket,” “Venus rises o’er the mountains.” Later, on “We’ve Been Here Before,” “there’s a place you’ve never seen/Where the trees at midnight ring/’Neath diamond skies and soda springs…”

Throughout April, Walker performed on a double-headliner tour with label-mate Advance Base (fka Casiotone for the Painfully Alone). We caught up with Walker as she finished her tour, and discussed her latest release, favorite places to write, how to balance the imaginative with the traditional, and more.

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