ACL 2013: Top Ten Ambient

OrgansAmbient music continued to stretch its wings in 2013.  Among our top picks: an album conceived as a love letter, an EP addressing mental illness and a 7″ vinyl that samples the original Dracula.  It’s not just piano and birds anymore.

The amount of ambient music we received this year nearly doubled, but our coverage slightly decreased.  The reason: it’s easy to make ambient music, but it’s difficult to make enduring ambient music.  These artists succeeded in different ways; some did what others were trying to do, only they did it much, much better; others blazed their own (quiet) path.  In so doing, these artists accomplished what some considered impossible: they made ambient music memorable.

And now, in alphabetical order, we present A Closer Listen‘s Top Ten Ambient Releases of 2013.

Barn Owl ~ V (Thrill Jockey)
Formulating their own style of “doom dub”, this San Francisco duo’s fifth studio album could have been billed as “music to watch evolution to.” Barn Owl has long fashioned cosmic outsider ambient music, but V is a leap into exceptional new heights. While the clouds slowly form holy images, percussion (real or implied) drives this album from deep underground. This album is poised to scissor the veils we hold up, revealing a more primal consciousness, as if we are witnessing the dawn of language or the birth of a sun. V is a rich and potent beast.  (Nayt Keane)

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Ben Fleury-Steiner ~ Clearings (Rural Colours)
There’s something both relieving and disturbing about a forest clearings. A clearing is relaxing to the sight, but the enclosure usually seems out of place in the rhythms played by trees. It might give pause to a tired traveller, but if we imagine the clearing in a foggy winter evening, the cold at the back and only a few crying night-birds to keep company, it could easily turn into an image of the verge, an apocalyptic feeling of the clearing being the only clearing, an alienating sense of being inside against a backdrop of an infinite, towering outside. Clearings is a powerful ambient work in which there is more at stake than aural environments, a chillingly touching reminder that the genre is much more experimental, much more on the edge of an infinite outside, than it usually gets credit for. (David Murrieta)

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Federico Durand ~ El Idioma De Las Luciérnagas (Desire Path)
No, it’s not just pianos and birds anymore… except sometimes it is. Federico Durand uses the sounds of nature (insect chirrups, the sea, and, yes, birds in the trees) as delicate background colour to his thoughtful compositions of chimes and piano, guitar and bells. There’s a brilliant lucidity and clarity to this album but it’s the sense of narrative to El Idioma De Las Luciérnagas that just gives it a lift above many other ambient works, with the music shifting in response to nature and subtly changing as the shadows lengthen, the sun sets and the fireflies come out to play. (Jeremy Bye)

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Field Rotation ~ Fatalist: The Repetition of History (Denovali)
One of two entries this year from Christoph Berg, Fatalist: The Repetition of History falls under the more sombre Field Rotation moniker. Creeping stealthily across the mist-laden land presented on its cover, the record is a mournful ode to the cyclical nature of life, but seems in direct counterpoint to the idea of ‘rebirth’. Through its languorous final third, the cynical nature of Berg’s interpretation is apparent on every plaintive chord, each sighing note. (Chris Redfearn)

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Kreng ~ …And Then In the Morning (Sonic Pieces)
Even a 7” from Kreng is worthy of inclusion on a year end list, especially when mastered by Nils Frahm. Pepijn Caudron has yet to give us a proper follow up to 2011’s immaculate Grimoire, and since he’s now soundtracking a new horror-commedy starring Elijah Wood, we may have to wait a bit longer.  Luckily little releases like this are here to tide us over.  Not one to rest on his laurels, Caudron braves new territory once again, offsetting his suspense cinematic tape music with new elements. The careful dissonance and creeping melancholia are still present, but the addition of Flamenco rhythms puts the listener a just a bit off balance, and the surreal recollection of a dream by a young woman confuses the mood with its ambiguousness.  Lush, beautiful music that makes the most of its time constraints.  (Joseph Sannicandro)

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Loscil ~ City Hospital (Wist Records)
City Hospital is a complex release that earned an elaborate reissue in 2013.  The new jackdaw frame surrounds the music; the music accompanies a novella; the protagonist reflects the author.  The turns of the prose are echoed in the music, which also incorporates hints of Peer Gynt, a parallel tale based on a fairy tale, interwoven with wonder and fear.  For the best experience, we recommend reading while listening; the combination celebrates the aural and literary sublime.  (Richard Allen)

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Raising Holy Sparks ~ For Fran, Etched in Glass & Water (Fallow Field)
We still don’t know if Dave got the girl, but For Fran, Etched in Glass & Water is a love letter through and through.  It’s a languid, wistful, hopeful reflection of the fact that love and regret inspire in equal measure.  A lovely array of instruments makes this album stand out from the pack; the Appalachian dulcimer and shruti box never sounded so good together.  As good, perhaps, as Dave and Fran may be?  Perhaps one day we’ll find out.  (Richard Allen)

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Ruhe ~ Organs/Easing (Unknown Tone Records/Cotton Goods)
When this pair of releases was unleashed early in the year, we knew they were something special.  We just didn’t know how special, as both ended up in our Top Ten and are combined here to allow another lucky artist a spot on our list.  Easing is more soothing in nature, while Organs offers more grit.  Together, they solidify our opinion that Bryan Ruhe is about to become the next big name in ambient music.  To us, he’s already arrived.  (Richard Allen)

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Wixel ~ Revox Tapes (Jordskred)
The old Revox B77 tape recorder was lovingly brought back to its prime. The heads turned and the sound of ambient drifting imprinted itself upon the tape. The machine caught fire, but it left behind melodic ashes in its strips of sound. This is the magic of Revox Tapes – something beautiful, made so by the imperfect becoming perfect. Accidental experiments become precious moments, never capable of fading.  (James Catchpole)

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woodworkings ~ day breaks the morning shapes we speak (Own Records)
The latest album from Kyle Woodworth has the distinction of being the newest album to make our year-end list.  While it was only released a few days prior to this feature, we received a copy well in advance and have been enjoying it ever since.  day breaks the morning shapes we speak traces the late-year shift from autumn to winter with warm tones and inviting textures.  It makes the perfect soundtrack for a family drive home.  (Richard Allen)

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