The day that I discovered netaudio was a happy day indeed. I had actually become really interested in ambient music shortly before that, somewhere around 2002 or 2003. I gave myself a good mental kick in the ass at not having immersed myself in this wonderful genre in the preceding years of my musical awareness (which go back to the 80s, I must confess) and set to collecting as much of it as I could. While I was searching around for new stuff, I came across the world of legitimately free music kindly provided by artists who’d rather I heard the music than try to sell it to me. One of the first was Altus. I don’t know if the music recorded by Mike Carss was the first netrelease I downloaded, but it had to be one of the first. So it’s been a real pleasure to listen as his talent developed, grew and diversified over the years.
At some point I may well devote a bit of a retrospective to Altus, but I’d like instead at this time to point out a series of recordings he’s put out recently on Free Floating Music. This is quite a new netlabel but one that has gotten off to a hell of a start with a series of wonderful releases by some of today’s top ambient artists. I’m very impressed with the quality of the output and the little touches like the artwork.
Altus has developed, as I said. I believe I first downloaded his “Elements” quadrilogy, ie Earth, Air, Fire and Water. While the early stuff like the Elements and the Winter Embrace albums is good music and I still recommend it, it feels a bit more “soundtracky” than pure ambient, by which I mean the pieces on the whole have a more standard structure than ambient “drift” music. They would, in fact, make excellent film soundtracks, closer to Vangelis than to Stars of the Lid, if you see what I mean. I view this as the nascent beginning of Altus’s ambient journey (though I’m listening to Air to refresh my memory, and damned if it isn’t pretty excellent!). While his music is still more melodic than some of the more abstract ambient artists (see my review of Matt Borghi) and generally prettier, there’s no doubt that his grasp of the variants of the genre has strengthened over the years, as he has taken side trips from his orchestral style into dark ambient (Shadow District, City of Ashes) and drony, spacy ambient (Coma Cluster, Sleep Theory Volume 1, Complex Silence 22). My personal favourite remains Black Trees Among Amber Skies (with Coma Cluster a close second), which fuses all of these elements together into one of the finest ambient trips I’ve ever taken, definitely evocative of the melancholic depths of fall and winter. You should download it.
The Sidereal Cycle is a collection of long-form pieces (the fourth is to be released in 2013, I believe) based on “the temporal cycle that it takes an object to make a full orbit, relative to the stars.” (good ol’ Wikipedia learned me that). With this kind of spacy topic, you can expect that the music would be drifty and floaty, and Altus doesn’t disappoint. In fact, he shows a facility for that style that he hadn’t quite demonstrated yet in his stellar career. Little-known fact, but these hour-long pieces that don’t seem to do much take a lot more doing than you might think, and not many have really mastered the art. Altus now has.
The first in the series, subtitled “Cygnus”, has a light, airy feeling to its pads, definitely on the cheerier, uplifting end of things, and is the perfect musical accompaniment to the end of a bad day when you need some lifting. There are a few of Altus’s trademark melodic fragments, but they stay properly unresolved, blending into each other delightfully.
The second, “Andromeda”, takes a more sombre tone, almost mournful and is quite redolent of my favourite mentioned a few paragraphs above. A great addition to that mood of sad pondering that takes us all once in a while, or on a soggy fall night. There are a few changes of mood as the hour goes by and some subtle harmonic adjustments, but the tone remains delicately sorrowful.
The third, “Orion” (released Dec. 2012), takes yet another subtle tone, this time stately as befitting the piece’s title — like gazing up into the sky to view the constellations (incidentally, I’m a bit thick, so Orion is the only constellation I’ve ever been able to find…). This is definitely closest of the three to classic “space music” and will fit in nicely with your Steve Roach, Jonn Serrie, Micheal Stearns, Thom Brennan, etc., collection. Mind you, all three of these tracks will.
The Sidereal Cycle finds Mike Carss at the absolute top of his game as one of the best (as well as the most prolific) ambient music composers in the world today. He’s conquered every subgenre he’s tried out and excelled in each, and if you have any interest at all in this kind of music, you simply must sample his discography. You could do a lot worse than starting with these three beautiful long-form pieces.
UPDATE MARCH 2013! Part 4 is now available.