The digital era has been hard on music labels, and especially hard on the production of physical copies. Thankfully, this crunch has also inspired a bout of creativity. Tessellate Recordings, led by Harry Towell (Spheruleus) has just launched an ambitious effort to raise funds. The selling point is clearly the music, an overview of modern ambience that gathers 28 artists on 26 tracks for two hours of meditative glory. The unique aspect is the intentional and literal mapping of each artist, a demonstration of the global nature of the genre. In addition, each artist has provided a photo of home or local surroundings that pops up whenever the digital track is played. This latter aspect helps listeners to connect to the musicians as well as to the music. For anyone even remotely interested in ambient music, this is a must-hear; and to anyone interested in keeping the scene going, this is a must-buy. Over half of the artists have already been featured on A Closer Listen, and the others fit in nicely as well.
When presented with this much music, one naturally begins to ruminate on the state of the genre. Must ambient music always be soft, or relegated to the background? What makes particular artists and tracks stand out? If it stands out, is it still ambient? Whatever one may think of the necessity of ambient music to sound like other ambient music, the truth of the market is that the field is glutted with similar performers. While a lack of originality may be fine for the average listener, it seldom translates into memory, reviews or sales. Certain Earthtones tracks contain an extra element that the others lack; to this reviewer, these tracks point toward a continued evolution in the genre. Listener favorites will vary, but to this reviewer, a few are particularly noteworthy.
Ruhe is a newer performer who has been impressing us over the past few months, thanks to a series of releases (A Beautiful Weakness, Organs, Easing) that have varied in their timbre, but not in their quality. “45°51’37.94 N, 122°40’11.24” succeeds by including a generous amount of sound sources ranging from tape loops and field recordings to guitar and dulcimer. The ear needs variety, which Ruhe is happily willing to provide. The same is true of Danny Clay‘s “Silent Snow Secret Snow”, whose music boxes might have found a home on A Beautiful Weakness. The key to this track is the bed of tweets and crunches, a combination that brings out its wintry intentions. The prolific Wil Bolton continues in this vein with the stuttered guitar and foreground traffic of “Descent”. These selections share an interdisciplinary connection; instead of simply implying the outdoors, these tracks include the outdoors, but without the tired overuse that all-too-often plagues the genre.
The compilation also includes a few tracks that don’t sound like what listeners might expect. Ekca Liena‘s “Three Eight (Earthtones Version)” delves into drone by incorporating elements of filtered abrasion. In the same manner as the previously highlighted pieces offer horizontal variety, “Three Eight” offers vertical variety, enough to make the listener sit up and take notice. Lauki tackles the same subject in a different manner on “Barcelona”, with percussive glitches and the sound of what might be a sampled foghorn. Must ambient music be soft? Apparently not ~ and these tracks prove the theory. Finally buried deep in the album is Felix Gebhard‘s “Around the Block”, which sounds like a typical ambient piece until a marching band passes by, conjuring pleasant associations with Sigur Rós “Se Lest” and concluding with the notes of live brass.
Should you purchase this compilation? Here’s a simple test: if you’ve read this far, then you’re the right person for Earthtones. Purchasing the album is a great way to show one’s support not only for Tessellate, but for the physical format and for ambient music in general. (Richard Allen)