Ambient Four Ways

Ambient as an incredibly elusive genre, and can be a near infinite category, as it can encompass anything from electronics, through drone, to modern classical and even new age. In a way this wide range of musical possibilities is reflected through four October releases reviewed here.

Very often, ambient is the realm of solo artists using various monikers. Slow Meadow (Hammock Music) is no exception. It is a solo project of Houston artist, Matt Kidd. With quite a few releases under the Slow Meadow alias Kidd is after creating what can be called ‘atmospheric ambient chamber music’, which some listeners, not inclined to that sound, might label as new age.

Kidd’s latest release Happy Occident is not an exception to that concept. He uses mostly acoustic instrumentation to create an album, as puts it, that is “like a waking dream of ideas strung together in a nonlinear fashion.”  Luckily, he is more or less right, walking the thin line between ‘good ambient’ and ‘boring new age stuff’, staying mainly on the ambient side. The idea seems to be to create a specific, mostly mellow mood here – but the moment Kidd reaches a possibility that there could be ‘too much sugar in the coffee’, Kidd slowly and skillfully veers into another direction.

Erland Cooper and Leo Abrahams (Phases) have separately made names for themselves, first as an award-winning composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist, the latter as one of the most sought after session guitarists, working with almost everybody, from Eno and Paul Simon, to Bryan Ferry and Adele

It seems that Seachange, their joint effort, is supposed to be a companion to Cooper’s previous effort, Sule Skerry. Without listening to the former album, I can freely say that Seachange works just fine on its own, and is easily one of the more imaginative ambient albums released recently, straddling the ambient, drone and modern classical categories with fluency and ease. On the first listen these three suites (Tide I-III) might sound like one complete piece, they actually are. But like the tide itself, coming, shifting, going, so does the sound Cooper & Lewis conjure, without, at any point, giving away what instruments are involved.

Quite close in that respect is another solo project under a moniker, and yet another Texan, but this time one who relocated to Portland (OR). This time around it is Randall Taylor, who operates as Amulets and his latest release Between Distant and Remote (Beacon Sound).

As Cooper and Abrahams, Taylor covers quite a vast musical ground using tape loops, guitar, field recordings, and electronic processing, often akin to (former) fellow statesman Stars Of The Lid/Dead Texan, or sadly inactive Virginia trio Labradford. But on this album, all possible influences aside, Taylor comes out as his own artist, with an abundance of imagination. If there is one word that could describe Amulets’ sound it would be ‘shimmering’, at moments it feels like Taylor has been electronically processing wind chimes and the effect is quite mesmerising.

Swedish composer Maria W Horn and her new album Epistasis (Hallow Ground) stay mostly on the classical side of things, but Horn obviously does not simply stick to her classical background, combining a variety of avant garde and electronic elements.

The introductory track Interlocked Cycles I could give a listener a false impression that this is all going to be an exploration of solo piano nuances, but obviously inspired by composers like Arvo Pärt. Horn expands her (and listeners) horizons with explorations like the title piece in which four parts are played by the string quartet and four parts are played back electronically. Very engaging, but still very listenable at the same time.

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