12K is an electronic music label run by one Taylor Deupree, who also releases his own material via the label. The label has an excellent track record of releasing fine experimental ambient albums in many genres, though I’d say traditional purdy ambient is not the label’s bag. That’s not to say there isn’t beautiful music on the label, just not the New Agey type — rather, 12k’s output is cutting edge electro-acoustic hybrid sound art, hip as eff, but not too hip to be enjoyed by a square, if you know what I’m sayin’.
I got one of them Emusic accounts and checking out the latest from 12k is part of my monthly browsing. So that means I have plenty of that stuff on my hard drive and there’s nary a week when a couple of 12k albums aren’t residing in the “Ambient” playlist on my iPod. So it behooves me to inform you of some of the fine releases the label has put out over the last few years.
I’m sure these recordings have been reviewed extensively elsewhere and 12k doesn’t need my help in promoting its releases, but hey, this blog is for me to talk about things I like. So I will.
Note the wonderful album covers, which always seem to precisely capture the spirit of the music therein. A nifty album cover goes a long way, my friends. This is just a sampling of some of the many, many fine releases on the label. Click the album title for more info and the link for a sample.
Sawako – Hum (2005)
Hum is pretty representative of a certain kind of Japanese sound art. The pieces are delicate filigrees of chiming, bell-like sounds, field recordings and Sawako’s charmingly childlike vocal additions. There’s unquestionably a Zen-like clarity to this music, and I don’t say that because Sawako is Japanese — I’m a student of Zen Buddhism and there are plenty of “turning words”, so to speak, on this album. There’s one particular moment when a cat meows plaintively, and it jars my brain to clarity every time I hear it. These beautiful miniatures are a treasure, and I return to this album often.
Sample track: “Pink Liquid Cotton Candy”
Illuha – Shizuku (2011)
I’m cheating a bit here. I reviewed this album extensively back in 2012, and I generally don’t like to repeat myself. But to recap: this is a painfully beautiful union of the electronic and the acoustic, particularly on the first track: “every little sound, no matter how quiet, seems to take on the greatest of intimate, contemplative importance, and no sound is wasted, because the spaces between the notes are just as important.” A release that really tugs on the heartstrings. Read the review.
Taylor Deupree – Faint (2012)
This is label founder Deupree’s latest solo release as of this writing. He’s covered a lot of territory in his career from glitchy experiments to more drony laptop ambient to a combination of the two. This is one of his more immediately appealing releases, being an attractive selection of quiet, stately drones. Deupree, like the rest of his gang, doesn’t just hold down the keys on a keyboard, he makes overlapping waves of sound (in this case, there’s a bit more guitar than usual) and field recordings into a seamless, moody drift that creates a trance unbroken until the end of the recording. The soothing waves of “Sundown” make for one of the loveliest, most peaceful ambient pieces I’ve heard in a long while.
Willits + Sakamoto – Ocean Fire (2008)
This is the union of a prominent new talent of today (Christopher Willits) and a legend (Ryuichi Sakamoto). No introduction should be needed his body of work. Willits is also very well-known and respected in his field. Sakamoto is not playing untreated piano as he does in his collaborations with Alva Noto. Here Sakamoto’s altered piano sounds and Willits’ guitar meld in a series of mesmerizing pieces, some dark and edgy and some otherworldly, that were apparently improvised. It’s a moody, understated recording but one that I find myself returning to quite regularly.
Sample track: “Ocean Sky Remains”
Solo Andata – Solo Andata (2009)
The cover says it all: this is a collection of dark-hued pieces perfect for a sleepless midnight. Again featuring field recordings, this time of a nocturnal nature (often of rain and other types of water), the pieces are mostly abstract but there are also some violin, guitar and ghostly vocal parts. The spectral vibe of the album is very consistent and the pieces hold enough interest to be listening material rather than merely “ambient”. A wonderful album that even at times has a distant but updated vibe of Robert Rich’s work, for you fans of classic ambient.
Sample track: “Ablation”
Tomasz Bednarczyk – Let’s Make Better Mistakes Tomorrow (2009)
This is a real favourite of mine, and once again the album image of a bird in a blue sky really expresses the carefree sound of these little pieces, created mostly with piano and guitar, manipulated and with extra atmospherics. It sounds like a memory of a child’s summer day caught in a Polaroid. There’s a delicacy to the sounds that’s almost achingly fragile and inhabited by a sense of goodness. Yeah, that sounds kind of hippyish, but it’s how I feel about it. Each of these vignettes is a tiny finished jewel. I like this a lot.
Sample track: “Kyoto”
Giuseppe Ielasi – August (2007)
August is a very subtle release of soft, undulating drones and clinking, rustling percussive sounds. The second track sets up a hypnotic wave, developing into a crescendo of distorted guitar à la Saito Koji or Tim Hecker, that makes for a definite highlight track for me. If this is August, then it’s a hot day and you’re sitting in the park with nothing to do watching shadows move across the buildings around you. This is an unassuming album that will nonetheless grow up on you with repeat listenings.
Sample track: “4”
Marcus Fischer – Monocoastal (2010)
Monocoastal is a minimalist album of disquieting, sparse tones, hints of melody, rattlings and pulsings created by a mix of synthetic and real instruments. The mood is very hushed, like a dusty room in pale sunlight. Fischer is certainly a master of restraint, since this mood remains unbroken from start to finish. With the customary 12k smattering of field recordings added to the mix, it’s a mood you don’t want broken.
Sample track: “Shape to Shore”
Stephan Mathieu – A Static Place (2011)
This is possibly the most “standard” album on this list, since it contains a series of peaceful, sustained drones that rise, fall and oscillate. You’d never know that the sounds are from old Renaissance and Baroque music records “playing … back with two mechanical acoustic HMV Model 102 gramophones”, then processed and manipulated. The effect is similar to Alio Die’s wonderful early music/ambient fusions. Any way you slice it, Mathieu has succeeded admirably, for the result is a very beautiful album.
Sample track: “A Static Place I”
Fourcolor – Letter of Sounds (2006)
Fourcolor is one of the projects of a Japanese artist. This is a rather cheerful album with more rhythmic, IDM-ish influences on some tracks and some lovely vocals not dissimilar to those found on Sawako’s recordings. There’s a warmth and friendliness to this recording (as reflected in the cover art, naturally!) that is most appealing. Both groovy and ambient at the same time. Fourcolor has a number of recordings and also records under the name Minamo. Those recordings are also excellent.
Sample track: er, couldn’t rustle one up. Check out what’s on the 12k site.
Small Color – In Light (2009)
An ususual release for 12k, this is an ambient J-pop release by a duo. “Charming” is the appropriate word for this album, a collection of hushed, dreamy pieces for guitars both acoustic and electric, accordion, electronics and soft female vocals. Elegant beats accentuate the dreaminess as the recording flows and ebbs. Really incredibly pretty music that is childlike without being too cute, know what I mean? Makes you feel good to be alive. You must not take a pass on this one.
Sample track: “Hikari No Hana”
Lawrence English – A Colour for Autumn (2009)
Lawrence English makes some of the best moody drone ambient around and has recorded for a number of labels. His one release on 12k is one of his best. Music that is minimal, melancholy and repetitive but compelling and hypnotic, this combination of spectral soundwaves and subtle guitar plucking is hypnotic as all hell and perfect for a bout of meditation.
Sample track: “Droplet“