We've shared our albums/songs/compilations/gigs/more of the year, now it's the turn of Articulate Silences, Ambient Sounds columnist Ben Bland to compile the finest ambient (which is a loose term also encompassing drone, minimal techno, etc) releases of the year featuring Grouper, Loscil, AWVFTS and more.
It’s been a packed year in the ambient calendar, with highly anticipated releases from big names being joined by a herd of newcomers. This list of twenty, which is unranked, is by no means comprehensive but reflects a good deal of the diversity in the world of ambient music in 2014. Expect more great ambient tips on Drowned in Sound in the New Year, but until then…
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Archive: Volume One
A terrific early release from the Little Crack’d Rabbit label, Archive: Volume One is a fantastic collection of minimal drones and barely existent electric post-folk balladry. A creepy and evocative first release that builds into the suffocating drone of ‘Dustcloud’ and soft psychedelic relief of ‘Sunset, San Augustin’.
This is one of my very favourite releases of the year, courtesy of reliably excellent cassette label Reckno. Nine tracks of deeply submerged ambient dub techno, Must Dissolve is the sound of Porter Ricks trapped underneath an oilrig and creating beautiful watery elegies for those near departure.
Duane Pitre & Cory Allen
The Seeker and the Healer
Pitre and Allen are both enormously talented drone artists in their own right, but this collaborative effort might be the finest release in either’s discography. The sounds here are mostly those of Pitre’s bowed guitar, but Allen was given the task of constructing the release, which is a wonderfully flowing sea of superlative drone.
The first of two Oli Barrett releases on the list this year, Woodsmoke is two sides of deeply haunted drone. Mostly composed from cello and tape manipulation, this is a long way from the warmth of Barrett’s work as Petrels, instead proving to be one of the finest dark ambient drone releases of the year.
Liz Harris is probably the closest thing that ambient music has to a contemporary female superstar, despite her determination to avoid the spotlight. This is her most emotionally affecting work to date, with ‘Clearing’ and ‘Holding’ staking a claim to being the most heartbreakingly intimate songs of 2014. Although Harris has moved increasingly towards singer-songwriter territory on this release, the muffled solitude of these recordings still befits a place on this list.
Icelandic cellist extraordinaire Guðnadóttir has one of the most distinctive compositional voices I’ve heard in the last decade or so. Her albums Without Sinking and Leyfdu Ljonsu were untouchably somber works of genius. Saman is more understated than its predecessors, being shorter and slightly less emotionally heavy, but still it makes its mark.
More cello here, this time from James Bryan Parks, who places the instrument at the heart of this release under the moniker HolyKindOf. One of many superb releases from new label Eilean in 2014, the three pieces collected here are gloriously multi-layered slabs of aching sadness, which alternately desolate and soothe.
Ian William Craig
A Turn of Breath
“The male Julianna Barwick” is how I’ve heard many listeners describe Ian William Craig. The comparison is partially apt at least, thanks to Craig’s blissful operatic vocals, but this is far less new age in atmosphere than Barwick’s work. The instrumentation here is buried under scratches and tape distortions that cloud some of Craig’s natural melodic inclinations.
Kyle Bobby Dunn
Kyle Bobby Dunn and the Infinite Sadness
Another epic from Canadian trickster Kyle Bobby Dunn, one that contains possibly his finest set of song titles to date. Spread over nineteen tracks and approximately 130 minutes, this is typically longform stuff from one of the most noteworthy ambient artists in operation at present. … Infinite Sadness acts an emotive journey through the deepest depths of the subconscious.
Wilderness of Mirrors
Legendary Australian sound artist Lawrence English may have produced his best work to date here. On an album inspired by the physicality of live music, with Swans given a specific mention in the press release, English has created an album capable of consuming one’s entire aural surroundings. A capsule of slowly unfolding transformative drones that threaten to swallow the listener whole.
Spanish duo LCC have one foot rooted in the world of dub techno, something that the harsher sounds on this record make entirely obvious. Ultimately, however, the drone triumphs over the drop and the beat, which are largely hidden beneath waves of ambient sound. What they leave behind is sometimes troubling but always intriguing. This is yet another winner from Editions Mego.
Sea Island is seventy minutes of constantly shimmering beauty from veteran sound artist (and Destroyer drummer) Scott Morgan. This is undoubtedly the most significant entry into Morgan’s discography to date. The shining white cover is matched by the glistening delights contained within. Morgan has always played with the nautical, but has never before created something that so profoundly evokes the healing impact of water upon the body and soul.
Dortmund native Marsen Juhls is as reliable a practitioner of post-techno ambience as there is, and Beautyfear sees his work as Marsen Jules (spot the subtle difference there folks) remain as consistently inventive and addictive as ever. Delicate, and yet substantial, I’ve described Juhls as a disciple of GAS in the past, but this sees him take his music in new, albeit equally hypnotic, directions.
Monolyth & Cobalt
Not surprisingly, for a record called Polarlicht, this sounds like it was recorded deep in the arctic tundra. The freezing winds burn as much as they chill across the eleven tracks assembled here, which see Matthias van Eeclo create his most unified full-length to date.
Another top draw effort from Oli Barrett under the Petrels moniker, Mima is not a great leap forward from last year’s near perfect Onkalo but it is a fantastic record nonetheless. The second half, especially the delightful ‘Treetiger’, proves the highlight. More excellence can be expected from Barrett in 2015.
Music for Film and Theatre
Given her background as a singer-songwriter, Karijord may be seen as 2014’s Norwegian equivalent to Keaton Henson. Unlike Henson, however, Karijord has long composed alongside songwriting. Music for Film and Theatre includes some of the most gorgeous music you could wish for, culled from various compositional projects over the previous four years. Anyone impressed by Henson’s Romantic Works needs to hear this.
The French duo Saåad have become stalwarts of the European drone scene in recent times, and Deep/Float is their most impressive release to date. Operating mostly in the darker areas of ambient drone, but not immune to showing a little of the light at the end of the tunnel, the six tracks here absorb and reward in equal measure.
What Wind Whispered to the Trees
A stellar effort from one of the finest young composers in the ambient world, What Wind Whispered to the Trees is a tour de force of Hecker-esque noise drones and heartache-inducing violin parts from Nima Aghiani. Supremely melancholic, but ultimately uplifting in its beauty, Amini is certainly one to keep an even closer eye on in the future.
A Winged Victory for the Sullen
What can I say about the partnership between Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Wiltzie that hasn’t already been said? Their debut record remains one of the finest in my collection, but it may just have been matched by this new effort. This is astonishingly beautiful music from two of the humblest, and yet most gifted, composers on the planet.
Rückverzauberung 9: Musik für Kulturinstitutionen
Is there anything left for the man and the legend that is Wolfgang Voigt to prove to ambient fans? Apparently there is, judging by this latest release. Divorced from the beat that has formed much of his output, especially as GAS, Voigt finds new ways to emphasise change on an album that manages to constantly move whilst forever remaining static.