Almost a year into the existence of my blog, three of the most popular posts I’ve done have been my “10 netlabel ambient albums you should own” lists. This is gratifying, because I can see y’all are clicking the links and listening to and maybe even downloading these releases, which warms my cockles.
The golden era of netlabels started a few years ago, mid-to-late-2000s. Now that Bandcamp is the thing and more people are just going it alone entirely, netlabels aren’t quite as prominent (though they are still plentiful), but they still play an important role as a reliable collection point for good music. This series has ended up being a bit of hard drive archaeology. Mind you, the reason I select these albums is they are all recordings that at one point or another I’ve played frequently. And rediscovering some of them has a been a treat, I must say.
As always, I defy you to declare that these recordings are not as good as things that are sold commercially. These albums are the artists’ donation to your soul, so do them and yourself a favour — download and enjoy this music.
and Part 3 of this series.
And while I’m at it, some of the netlabel albums I reviewed back when this blog was a lowly start-up could use a few more listens — if I thought enough of ’em to write a bigass review, they must be great, right?
Phillip Wilkerson – Sun Tracer
VACVVM – Peaceful Atom
Saffron Slumber – Somnogen
Ta! (links are in the album titles for the legit freeeee downloads.)
Lee Rosevere – Light Years (Test Tube, 2008))
Ambient dude Lee Rosevere also runs the Happy Puppy netlabel. But this release on Test Tube is some classic ambient goodness, a true trip to outta space, albeit a bit more experimental than pretty. And space music is, after all, one of the foundations of the genre. The 20-minute “Nebula” takes its time developing (after all, nebulae don’t just appear overnight) as the initial piercing, bleeping tone is slowly replaced by drones that phase around the sonic spectrum. “Onyx” is more of a noise piece, while the majestic “Deathless” has a lighter, friendlier tone and is very restful. Some really sweet space drone happening here!
Stephen Philips – Neptune Is a Gas Giant (Earth Mantra/Relaxed Machinery, 2008)
Stephen Philips runs Dark Duck, an ambient label (Steven, make those L. Bourdin recordings more widely available, please! I mean it, I want bad). He’s also a very accomplished ambient composer himself, doing both lighter works and more challenging experimental ones. This old Earth Mantra release is a big hour-long slab of appropriately titled space drone, the perfect accompaniment to scrolling through some Hubble photos. The pads float in a delightfully celestial manner. A very assured release of interest to anyone who likes longform ambient.
Spheruleus – Forgotten Outland (Resting Bell, 2011)
There are a number of Spheruleus releases out there, and this one of the best. A “sound-art” type album, Forgotten Outland would go well on ye 12k label, because there’s a crackly, hazy feel to it, with field recordings, ancient-sounding piano and sounds of unknown origin bouncing around. “Grey Haze” creates a lovely ambiance out those musty, hazy sounds, while “Grass Stands Green” uses trebly guitar sounds to create a delicate tension with that underwater piano sound. Quite pretty music. Also is available on Spheruleus’s Bandcamp if you want higher quality.
Ryonkt – Gray Sky (Resting Bell, 2008)
Sometimes you just like something, and you’re not entirely sure why. This is a small, unassuming release of a single eighteen-minute track. And that track is a drone. A pure, pure drone. There’s something to be said for that, though. As the minutes go by, a few more notes are added and nice little tonal pockets as well. So it’s not as solid and monolithic as one of those Eliane Radigue pieces that sort of bore into your head with their (sometimes pleasant) monotony. It’s just a lovely wee drone, nice to sleep to and nice to work to. So it could use a few more downloads. Go do that.
The Accidental Psaltery – Sending You Going (Resting Bell, 2011)
Well, if ain’t yet another goshdarned Resting Bell release. Someday they’ll notice all the nice press I give them here. Anyway, now here’s an interesting one. This is an album of psaltery, which is a medieval instrument similar to a zither. Its chiming, bell-like tones are also similar to a Finnish kantele and are perfect for ruminative music. There’s nothing on this album but solo psaltery, but I can tell you that this music is quite absorbing and ambient in that the pieces are quite simple, with repetitive themes. The notes echo and spiral around, and the effect is tranquil. You may not wish to absorb all 70 minutes of this in one setting, but if you just leave it on in the background, it really does induce a pleasant state of mind. Nice to hear something different from an ambient netlabel, aside from all the usual computer-music fare.
Strom Noir – Kueyen (Resting Bell, 2009)
Bloody hell, more Resting Bell! I swear I didn’t remember where all these came from before I looked them up again. Strom Noir does great stuff, and this recording has been played a couple dozen times over the years around this house, I’m sure. Kueyen is a selection of deep, dark ambient pieces for those who like things like Roach’s The Magnificent Void. And lots of you do. Based on drones, of course, there’s a ton of really nifty little sonic touches such as what I’m pretty sure are some processed guitar sounds, some hints of vocal samples and field recordings, and waves of big sounds crashing over you. More than ambient, this one really does hold up to some close listening. Some nice big sounds to be heard here.
Dennis Moser – Approaching the Maritime (Mandorla, 2006)
This two-track EP features Moser soloing quite prettily on guitar. It reminds me a very much of the sort of playing Robert Fripp did on such releases as Evening Star, over subtle electronic backing. His sound is thick and fluid, almost like an Ebow is being used (I suppose it might be), matching the titles of the two drone pieces, “River and Sea” and “At the Tidal Flats”, and his playing is skilled and measured without getting too flashy. Really, there’s not much else to say about this other than if you like tasty ambient guitar, then you’ll be playing this album a lot. Note that this album is NOT on Resting Bell, Earth Mantra or Test Tube…finally.
Nettless – Phobos and Deimos (Earth Mantra/Relaxed Machinery, 2010)
If you want space music suitable for blasting around the planetarium, look no further! The sounds on this recording are as spacious and boundless as the cosmos itself, very much in the Jonn Serrie vein of interstellar vibes. Giant pads create a backdrop for appropriately swooping and gliding sounds that hearken back to the eighties heyday of early space ambient. A long album, this one is definitely a trip. The highlights for me are the lovely “Martian Soil”, 23 minutes of lighter textures, and “Tharsis”, which features some beautiful piano parts. Space music fans must have this one!
Minimal States – Like a Photograph (Test Tube, 2009)
Another unassuming shorter release that just happens to tickle my ambient bone, this two-track EP uses field recordings and very delicate, quiet pads to create a wonderfully contemplative atmosphere. “Circadian Rhythms” does get louder and more rhythmic as it goes along, but still in a tranquil way, even during a short IDM-ish passage. “Stereopsis” ramps up the birdsong (I have a soft spot for birdsong), along with deeper but more quieter sounds and some chimy guitar parts. This release has a lot of personality — make sure you grab it. Also available via Bandcamp.
Marcel Pequel – Alneodies (Rain, 2006)
Now that everyone can record stuff cheaply, there’s a lot of pianists popping out their own works. And of course not all of these are good. However, amongst the pile of Harold Budd wannabes, this release stands out for me. A collection of short, simple pieces of reverbed piano backed by beautiful synth pad drones or subtly shifting chords, it’s basically all you could ask for in a piano ambient release — plenty of space between the notes, pleasant textures and carefully chosen parts. Pequel did good here, and anyone who likes piano stuff will take some joy from this nice little album.