Ascendant is an ambient superduo of sorts, comprised of Chris Bryant (Signs of Life) and Don Tyler (Phase47, and Make Your Own Taste’s best ambient album of 2014, Amytis Rising by Fire Temple, his duo with cellist Christine Hanson). Tyler is also a renowned mastering engineer, so you’d expect this to be some top quality audio. This is actually the debut release of a record label they have founded, Synphaera Records.
Ascendant works in a genre that sits between dance and pure ambient, which I guess you could call chillout, psybient, and some other silly names, if you want. Basically ambient music with funky beats and traces of melody rather than just a constant wash of sound. It came from the early nineties salad days of The Orb, FSOL, System 7, etc., and has become quite established through acts like Carbon Based Lifeforms, Solar Fields, Aes Dana, i.e. the Ultimae Records roster, amongst many more.
This kind of music can be quite generic in sound, and it’s hard to put your own personal spin on it; you don’t want it to be relegated to being the pickup lounge entertainment of greasy people with their hair slicked back in weird places — and often, alas, it is.
But as we know, just about anything can be done well and right. Those aforementioned acts sure did; I’ve spent many hours with the frosty textures of FSOL and the warm, cuddly pads of Carbon Based Lifeforms (see my review of their beatless album) and Solar Fields. This kind of music can be quite uplifting, as long as the balance of beat and texture is handled well. If I feel the slightest inclination to get up and groove around my room, rather than sit quietly rocking in my chair, frankly, I’m out. I listen to music for the vibes, man.
Ascendant’s music is appealing to me because if the Ultimae roster’s music sounds warm, this is warmer. It’s probably the difference between the more distant Scandinavian spirit and the more emotionally direct American one, but there’s a sense of mystic wonder in this album that takes it to another level, much like, I’d say, you’d find in Steve Hillage’s better work. There’s also more than a touch of Berlin School in the sequencing, and a natural rather than cosmic energy in some of the pads that makes me feel all Thom Brennany, or like, say, the same feeling I get from the wonderful pure space ambient of Between Interval, Altus or Phillip Wilkerson.
The opening “Remains” is definitely very Klaus (Schulze) in those ringy sequenced bits, but with emotive minor key chord changes to get things started in dramatic fashion. By contrast, “Existence” ramps up the beats in a very trancey way, but not obtrusively; while energetic, the beats and sequencing lead to a meditative state.
I won’t go track by track, but the vibe alternates mainly between the swooning beauty of sweeping pads (“Probability”, the very sweet-sounding “Beams”) and the ringing of cosmic sequencers and insistent beats (“Alignment”, “Capicity”).
The important thing for me, being sort of old-fashioned, is that while each track is a gem unto itself, the album is a full experience, which is what you can say about the best in any genre of music; it’s not just background, though it works perfectly as such. It also bears closer listening and examination, and in this genre that makes it a true triumph — as well as a really lovely listen.