Free Radicals is Noisey’s column dedicated to experimental music. We take a look at the trends emerging from the fringes and why they’re meaningful.
The world is louder by the day. How can you focus? How can you prioritize what problems to solve? How can you enjoy a pop song when you can’t even hear yourself think? For those moments, there exists a slower kind of music, a music that allows you the space for your thoughts to wander, for your mind to open, to regenerate some of what was lost. This stuff can be harder to find and to keep up with—but it’s really rewarding if you turn yourself over to it. So here’s a hefty list of the year’s best ambient music.
Ana Roxanne, ~~~
The Bay Area-born composer Ana Roxanne preaches slowness, both in the title of a track and in the general disposition of her misty and mystical album ~~~. Pieces gently blossom, synth pads unfold to reveal gauzy whispers and shy melodies. The arrangements build out from there—slowly, slowly, slowly.
Blithe Field, Ward Unbending
Away from the song-like strictures of the existential music he makes under his given name, Spencer Radcliffe stretches out as Blithe Field. His March release Ward Unbending—full of gasping woodwinds and dazed electronics—feels like a yawn on a lazy afternoon, a contented exhale from a guy who deserves his leisure.
Filmmaker-musician Austin Johnson’s breaking project offers three lost-in-the-world anthems, desperate gasps for contentment in a cold universe. As a nine-minute-ish EP, it’s a slight release, necessarily, but it’s life-affirming in its own little way.
Caterina Barbieri, Ecstatic Computation
The Italian synthesist’s new record for Editions Mego makes bald electronics feel full of unexplainable energy. She foregrounds the human voice for the first time on the stunning “Arrow of Time,” a sign that there are still new horizons ahead for one of the genre’s boldest voices. The “ecstatic” bit in the title is definitely earned.
Conor C. Ellis, Soft Earth
The D.C.-based sound artist’s sole release on Bandcamp is sharp, prickly, and gleams with a surprising beauty. It’s like watching stalactites slowly take form in a server farm.
Cruel Diagonals, Pulse of Indignation
This short EP is full of tensely coiled synthetics that draw as much on the grayscale tradition of post-punk as they do on more formless music. Still, as an exploration of “righteous anger” about endured traumas—per the project’s Bandcamp description—it’s still as enveloping and all consuming as anything else on this list. When it’s justified, rage is a feeling worth losing yourself in too.
Cucina Povera, Zoom
Titled for the humble hand-recorder that the artist uses to capture off-the-cuff ideas, this record is a document of genius-in-process. Its eight tracks are full of the same ghostly vocal arrangements that made her 2018 LP Hilja one of the year’s best, but it’s a little more fuzzy around the edges. The gauziness and the handworn nature suits these lonely pieces; you can feel that they come from a real person in a room somewhere, singing into a microphone all by themselves.
Curved Light, Flow and Return
Though composed over the course of five years and in three cities, the now Austin-based musician Curved Light’s Flow and Return is less an epic journey than a collection of colorful fragments. The tracks are surreal and sharp at the edges, like someone took a hammer to a perfectly good kaleidoscope. The pieces, of course, are still just as beautiful.
Danny Paul Grody, Sunrise, Looking East
An 18 minute ode to the morning sun, in the form of an electric organ horizon and little rays of echoing acoustic guitars, gleaming brilliantly amid the drones. For the mornings when no amount of coffee could ever prepare you for the stresses of the world, this can offer a bit of peace.
Driven by the summer heat and a belief in a philosophy of “low listening,” this tape was a self-conscious effort to perform as little physical movement possible during a live set. The two long pieces that make up each side are, as you might imagine, glacial in both tempo and transformation—demanding close attention to appreciate its subtle shifts. One for the true zoners.
Ellen Arkbro, CHORDS
Ellen Arkbro’s second album for Subtext has a humble name and a humble concepts: two tracks—one on organ, one on guitar—each around 15 minutes long. But the effect of each is mystifying—choosing to celebrate unusual melodic and harmonic intervals, the pieces are slippery and strange—if not for the description provided by each track title, you might not even necessarily know that they were born from acoustic instruments at all. There’s a lot to contemplate, for a project that pretends to be so simple.
Euglossine’s new record is playful, loopy and complex, like what you might expect to hear from a prog band fronted by a forest animal from a Saturday morning cartoon. The bubbly, dizzying “Naturalist” would be that animated band’s hit—IRL it’s the perfect soundtrack to a lazy weekend morning.
Recording with a sparse smattering of electronics in a small bedroom, Christian Fennesz made his most moving solo album in years. It’s minimal in its approach and consequently, its sound. Especially compared to the snowblind recordings he’s made over the last decade, it takes care in illuminating the small gestures and brief flickers of static and melody.
G.S. Schray, First Appearance
Akron guitarist G.S. Schray’s music is like golden hour lighting in the form of the song, bathing whatever spaces they inhabit in an unearthly glow. It’s extraordinarily open, honest, and warm—feelings one could always use more of.
Imaginary Softwoods, Gold Fiction Loop Garden
Apparently first issued on a limited cassette run in 2016, this new to LP (and new to me) release from Emeralds album John Elliott is as earthy and mystically alive as its title suggests. These synth pieces sprout and bloom with a logic that’s at once botanical and otherworldly—like watching a sunflower turn towards the afternoon light, through a prism.
JAB, Erg Herbe
Dreary-eyed synth lines and wheezy woodwinds fill out this technicolor self-portrait of the New York artist John Also Bennett, a frequent collaborator of ambient greats, but seldom a releaser of solo music. Erg Herbe is intended as an inner journey into his psyche, and it’s a pretty pleasant one. His head seems like a nice place to sprawl out and relax awhile.
Jonny Nash, Make A Wilderness
Crafted as a tribute to the lonely landscapes and “non-place[s]” described in the writings of Endo, Ballard, and McCarthy, this record is a sparse one. There are rarely more than a few moving parts at any given time, forcing you to zero in on the empty spaces in the tracks, and the empty space around you too. All of a sudden, you’re so alone.
Kate Carr, City of Bridges
Field recordings of a long Autumn in Saskatoon form the basis of the sound artist Kate Carr’s entry into the growing canon of the label Longform Editions, which gears all of its releases toward the philosophy of deep listening. So zoom in on the small details here: the scritching of feet on pavement, the thrumming vibration of resonant bridges, the chatter of an afternoon at a cafe. It’s the sound of a life lived in slow motion.
Kevin Richard Martin, Sirens
Inspired by the traumatic and tenuous aftermath of the birth of his son, Kevin Richard Martin’s new record is tense and harrowing. Booming bass, monochromatic drones, and hissing atonal elements evoke the fear and uncertainty of the period, but it ends with clarity and hope in the form of a piano piece called “A Bright Future.” Sometimes things get better, even if it seems unlikely.
Lena Raine, Oneknowing
The maker of one of the finest video game soundtracks in recent memory—2018’s lushly mid-fi Celeste—returns with a proper debut that allows her to explore her glistening melodies in higher def. Utilizing vocaloid software to recall how her voice was when she was younger, the pieces are nostalgic and light, like listening to a memory.
Lenora, Songs of the Air
All sorts of simple lo-fi piano loops linger deep in Bandcamp’s ambient tags, but there’s a spark to this solo project from Indiana that few have. The homemade charm and alchemical mystery is enough to make this worth your while, but if and when more elements come into play, this will be a project worth following extremely closely.
M. Geddes Gengras, I Am The Last of That Green and Warm-Hued World
On his new record, the prolific synthesist M. Geddes Gengras offers five lengthy pieces that gasp, drone, and moan. It’s end times stuff, which is fitting for these last days on a dying planet.
M. Sage, Catch a Blessing
The abstract poetics of Chicago artist M. Sage’s electronic compositions get a little goofier, a little looser, on his new album Catch a Blessing. There are moments of stillness and reflection, but there is also space for the free-associative synth-and-sample work that fills pieces like “Polish Triangle.” It offers love and light, for those who need it.
Matthew Sullivan, Matthew
Like a collage of postcards, this tape is both intimate and surreal. Sullivan taks field recordings, slivers and slices them so their original sources are hard to ascertain, but the heart’s still there. You can feel the humanity radiate.
Matchess, Fundamental 256 Hz
Whitney Johnson’s contribution to Longform Editions is a still, simple piece that experiments with intervals and frequencies in an attempt to produce the brainwaves associated with deep sleep. To that end, she offers that she repeatedly conked out at the mixing desk while putting the finishing touches on the record—which is as good a testament to its effectiveness as any.
N.D. Visitor, Unchained
This record is a collection instrumental guitar pieces in the light and misty tradition of forerunning 80s mystics like Durutti Column’s Vini Reilly and Lawrence from Felt. It’s wordless and drumless, but never aimless. Cast your worries aside, and float away.
Nivhek, After its own death / Walking in a spiral towards the house
Liz Harris’ Grouper project has occasionally explored the murk and and mire that settles out underneath more traditional ambient structures, but as Nivhek, she buries herself in it. It’s a slow trudge through her darker impulses, layering abstract field recordings, distant synth work, and foreboding harmonies under a thick film of reverb. It’s heavy, but that’s where Harris lives.
Oren Ambarchi, Simian Angel
My most memorable experiences with Oren Ambarchi’s music have even his crushing live shows, which are heavy in ways that few other music is. It often feels like his guitar work could rip open your pores—it’s thick, unforgiving stuff; like inhaling industrial fumes. His new album Simian Angel is different though—much of his recorded music is really—it’s light and complex, like a culinary foam. It’s a minor miracle that he’s capable of sounds so toxic and so life-giving.
Pavel Milyakov, La Maison De La Mort
The man best known as Buttechno puts a more serious cap on for this release—a collection of dense pieces of twitchy static and curdled melodies. The title translates to “the house of the dead,” which checks out—this is horror movie stuff.
r beny, echo’s verse
The synthesist born Austin Cairns conjures memories you’ve maybe never lived and feelings you can’t quite remember on this six-track collection. Drippy modular melodies and warm tape hiss are a combo that’ll never get old.
Sam Ashley & Werner Durand, I’d Rather Be Lucky Than Good
Like his father—the great experimenter Robert Ashley—Sam Ashley has a knack for sneaking casually profound turns of phrase into seemingly unending streams of consciousness. This record begins with a meditation on the meaning of happiness, then quickly moves into a narration of the story of the doomed cannibals in the Donner Party, before relating the story of people who fall from great heights and live. What does it mean as a whole? That’s not the point. You just admire the small moments. There are so many.
Scott Gilmore, Two Roomed Motel
Scott Gilmore’s billowing and baked recordings edge ever closer to the sideways art pop of fellow LA idiosyncratics like Ariel Pink. But this one’s still surreal and forlorn, luxuriating in its stoned lonerdom. It’s a soundtrack for an abandoned beach boardwalk, long after the sea has come to take the tilt-a-whirl away.
Soda Lite, Vale & Stone
Field recordings of bird chatter and wind and water telegraph the disposition here; this is music meant to celebrate the natural world. The synthetics only serve as an echo to this feeling, dividing and evolving in this beautifully amoebic way.
Tavishi, মশ্তিষ্কের কণ্ঠশ্বর | Voices in my head
At some turns chilly and foreboding, at others warm and inviting, Tavishi’s early 2019 album is best for complicated headspaces, for when you aren’t sure if you want to laugh or cry, but you know for sure that you need to shut yourself off from the world for a while. There’s a song that’s based on sonified data of cancer cells eating themselves in order to survive—which kinda gets at the mood here: there’s both tense struggle, and perseverance in spite of it all.
Tetuzi Akiyama, Ken Ikeda, Chihei Hatakeyama, erroribus humanis et antinomy
This collab is just one of the six full-length records uploaded to the Japanese artist Chihei Hatakeyama’s Bandcamp so far in 2019. All of them are patient and otherworldly, but this one just a little more so. The magic here is in the electric guitar work—played both by Hatakeyama and Tetuzi Akiyama—that wrings totally unfamiliar shapes out of an intimately familiar instrument. Every time you listen, you can find another tiny melody or textured bit of noise to marvel over.
Ulla Straus, Big Room
The pieces that make up Ulla Straus’ Big Room, like much of what’s on this list, are quiet and slow, still move. Slipshod and playful, the synth loops swing back and forth like a pocket watch in the hands of a hypnotist. Look closely—you are getting very sleepy.
Visible Cloaks, Yoshio Ojima & Satsuki Shibano, FRKWYS Vol. 15: serenitatem
RVNG’s FRKWYS series—which pairs young boundary-pushers with their experimental forebears—unites the Portland-based duo Visible Cloaks with Japanese ambient legends yoshio Ojima and Satsuki Shibano on Serenitatem. The results are, predictably, spectacular, twitchy, and digitalist at some moments and warm and inviting at others. It’s environmental music for the Internet age.