As the dark doppelganger of regular ambient music, dark ambient is uniquely suited to approximate states, both internal and external. On the micro-level, dark ambient can simulate abnormal psychology, extreme emotions, and mystical epiphany. On the macro, dark ambient comments on large-scale sociological themes, from environmental catastrophe to the collapse of civilization. On both the macro and micro level, dark ambient imagines a non-anthropocentric world—a world without us in it.
2018’s best dark ambient albums pushed the gamut of what is possible in the genre, expanding upon the Lustmord/Throbbing Gristle/Zoviet:France school of clattering post-industrial menace and pushing it into new forms and genres. At times, this year’s batch sounded like the incidental sounds from some arty drone metal release. It can also sound like distant, dreamy jazz listened through a wormhole in time and space.
Dark ambient and Horror are common bedfellows, and some of this year’s best dark ambien came from actual soundtracks. There’s the uncanny SF of Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury‘s soundtrack for the adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer‘s Annihilation. There’s also the atonal art-jazz of Colin Stetson‘s Hereditary score.
This is music that need not necessarily be beatless and abstract. Two of 2018’s best albums in the genre are actually proper techno, but ripped apart into abstraction. Anthony Linell‘s A Sense of Order sounds like being digested by some malignant AI, while Korridor takes you on a trip through his first proper LP, also on Northern Electronics.
This list of 2018’s best dark ambient albums traverses a range, from obscure and unknown to some of the top names in the genre. Minnesota’s Appropriate Savagery delivered a gorgeous synthetic takedown of manufactured meekness, while the UK’s Aetheric Records reminds us that lo-fi is where it’s at, for those of us who like to push the gamut and actually disturb and disorient. Oregon’s Cryo Chamber shows up repeatedly, which is unsurprising considering their non-stop release schedule of high-def twenty-first century dark ambient.
Here’s a list of some of 2018’s best albums from the genre to transport you inwards or outwards, into deep space, or deep into the dark heart of the ocean.
Welcome to the Machine
In 1968, Harlan Ellison won a Hugo Award for I Have No Mouth but I Must Scream, a dystopian nightmare around emerging supercomputers and the promise of artificial intelligence. In I Have No Mouth…, the Allied Mastercomputer, known as AM, keeps a group of humans imprisoned to suffer for eternity in its virtual belly.
Order, logic, and rationality are all well and good, but they can go too far. As primitive primates, humans will always fear the dark and the unknown; we will be constantly vigilant against chaos, despite the fact that we manufacture so much of our own suffering. Humans, especially those in the Western world, will forever try to micromanage the environments around us, to remove all pain, fear, and doubt. We wither and atrophy in our Nerf prisons as our Human faculties falter due to misuse. At a certain point, the neuroticism becomes a special new kind of Hell that makes the wolves and lions seem quaint in comparison.
A Sense of Order, released in February on Northern Electronics, is a journey into the cold, unfeeling heart of a virtual ecosystem. It brings to mind late-nineties visions of flying around in cyberspace, but this world isn’t nearly so neon and exciting. If anything, A Sense of Order brings to mind the ruined, abandoned cityscapes of Blade Runner 2049. It’s beautiful in its eeriness, at times, while still sounding desolate and forlorn.
If you’re one to sense the inherent melancholy of Vaporwave, or can find the connecting dots between Oneohtrix Point Never and dungeon synth, A Sense of Order is a must-listen.
“That Andamanese men in the 1860s would commonly be renamed ‘Crusoe’ by Britons indicates an early rupturing of the line between the colonizer and the savage, allowing the former to project themselves into the jungle and appropriate savagery for the practice of counter-savagery.” —Savagery and Colonialism in the Indian Ocean, Satadru Sen
For supposedly having segued into a secular, materialist worldview, modernity is surprisingly Christian, with its exhortations to “be nice,” “be the bigger person,” “turn the other cheek,” etc. Western culture is a sheep’s paradise, with politics and ideology replacing Christ as the Patron Shepherd.
Despite the push towards regressive politics in recent years, amorality and alternative worldviews continue apace. Very soon, Christians won’t be able to force everyone on to their Procrustean bed and start sawing. Soon, a new morality may emerge, with each person determining for themselves what’s right and what’s wrong. Whether they choose to consider the greater good or the social contract remains to be seen and will be, most likely, dependent upon how much the social contract and the greater good are serving the needs of the individual.
Dark ambient is particularly adept at deconstructing philosophical systems, especially when paired with other forms of extreme music, such as harsh noise in the case of Minnesota’s Appropriate Savagery. The name itself speaks to dark ambient’s power as both signifier and subject, considering its homonym title. It could be read “appropriate,” as in “suitable,” or it could mean “appropriate” as in “to take something for one’s own, often without permission,” as in the case of the Andamanese culture mentioned up top.
Both definitions seem suitable. Appropriate Savagery employ a language of blistering, blown-out synthesizers, rumbling static, and incomprehensible vocals to comment on a lifetime of abuse and harm. It’s a noisy dark ambient exploration of early childhood malaise and bleak emotional states that is still rather pretty to listen to.
What is the appropriate response to a lifetime of harm? How often can one be expected to turn the other cheek until you’re just a doormat and an enabler? How long until you start to kick back against the pricks, spitting, scratching, and swearing at the closest object of scorn?
Appropriate Savagery remind us that mercy and severity are twin polarities on the tree of life. Lean too hard one way or the other and the whole thing topples.
Make a (doom) jazz noise here.
It’s not a far leap from dark ambient to doom jazz; both evoke empty cityscapes covered in fog, seeped in sin, and devoid of life. Both often subscribe to a Lynchian cosmology where the ground threatens to give way beneath your feet, where nothing is as it seems, where doppelgangers and psychic doubles run amok.
It’s no great surprise that Cryo Chamber, as the most imaginative (and outright prolific) dark ambient label on the scene, would make the leap to doom jazz, bridging the gap between the more experimental drone works of classics like Thomas Köner or SleepResearch Facility with the pitch-black malevolence of Bohren & der Club of Gore or the Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble.
Miles to Midnight sounds like an existential film noire circa 1945, drowned in fog and buried in shadow. Cryo Chamber’s collaborations offer an opportunity for some of dark ambient’s leading talents to work together in surprising configurations. In this case, it’s label-head Atrium Carceri; Cities Last Broadcast, the hellish urban side-project of Kammarheit‘s Pär Boström; and God Body Disconnect, a fledgling dark ambient project from drummer Bruce Moallem, who plays in the death metal band Dripping full-time.
The presence of drums is one of the things that stands out about Miles to Midnight: real, actual acoustic drums. Moallern’s kit keeps a coal-black carbonite chill going throughout the early half of the record, making this the perfect soundtrack for floating around an empty city center like some Godard wraith. It dissolves into ambiance towards the latter half, however, almost as if you’re sucked into some dark portal, like finding a portal to the Black Lodge in some dark back alley.
At this point, at least in 2018, Cryo Chamber can do no wrong. Every one of their albums released this year deserves to be on this list. Follow along with them in the New Year if you want to see quality dark ambient continue to grow, evolve, and spread.
Enter the shimmering with dreamy synths, Western acoustic guitar, and subtle FX from Beak>/Portisthead‘s Geoff Barrow and film composer Ben Salisbury.
This year’s adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer‘s Southern Reach trilogy is the height of new weird uncanny horror/science-fiction. VanderMeer’s Area X resembles the “real world,” but viewed through a distorting funhouse mirror. In this world, towers are inverted and bears sprout screaming human visages. Nature runs amok and humans tremble, quiver, and shake in their incompehension.
Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s soundtrack parallels this uncanny vision, blending traditional film score techniques with atmospheric ambiance. At times, the Annihilation soundtrack almost sounds like Neil Young‘s soundtrack for the cosmic Western Dead Man, with Aphex Twin‘s Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2 playing in the distance; at others, it’s more of a modern, minimal horror score, a la François-Eudes Chanfrault‘s À l’intérieur (Inside).
The minimalism might mean the Annihilation soundtrack is best meant for fans of the film and die-hard dark ambient aficionados. It’ll also appeal to soundtrack fans, looking for the missing link between old-school Western scores and incidental music from Black Mirror, all captured in glowing, high-def sound quality.
…And a dark wind blows
For many fans of underground, extreme musicks (read: dark ambient, black metal, or noise), the murky, lo-fi sound quality is a feature, not a bug. It’s the difference between a high-def Blumhouse horror film and a gritty, grainy arthouse horror flick. The latter has the potential to be infinitely more fucked up, disturbing, disorienting, and genuinely unsettling.
Underground UK dark ambient label Aetheric Records are masters of the sub-subterranean amorphous noise. Rather than some slick, glossy, noisy classicism a la Ben Frost (not that there’s anything wrong with that; we adore Ben Frost, too), Delirium is more like something out of a Thomas Ligotti story, some anonymous cassette tape left on your doorstep that is really a portal to hell.
Delirium, by the wonderfully titled Black_Ops, is constructed around a drifting, bilious drone that gives its brief runtime a nearly HNW/ANW feel, which is interspersed with resonant feedback and shifting sinewaves. It’s like wandering through some abandoned house, only to find a pipe leading to only God knows where, with whispers and gibbering coming from the inky void.
Delirium is one of the most genuinely unsettling Dark Ambient releases of the year, despite its relative anonymity. For those seeking genuine continual derangement of the senses, here’s your soundtrack.
Corroded memories for deconstructed times.
It’s so difficult to form a narrative these days. Deconstruction has revealed the ground beneath our feet is a mire—a sucking mud pit waiting to pull us under. There’s no Wonderland at the end of this rabbit hole, however. There’s no end at all: just freefall.
With nothing certain, our sense of selves become abstracted, untrustworthy. Are we ourselves, or are the marketing magicians merely pulling our levers? Has Ligotti’s nightmare vision of Puppet Life come to pass?
Leyland James Kirby‘s work as the Caretaker has always found the balance between nostalgia and pitch-black terror. He uses various abnormal psychology conditions to comment on the reality of postmodern living. Twenties-era Jazz becomes shorthand for a former gilded age, but the Caretaker photoshops the shadows back in.
Volumes 4 & 5 of his superb Everywhere at the End of Time were some of this year’s finest dark ambient releases, which is all the more striking as it sounds nothing like your typical Lustmord/Rapoon/Raison d’Etre release. Dark Ambient music is a feeling, a perspective, a way of looking at the world and its inhabitants, usually via their absence.
Everywhere at the End of Time Stage 4 & 5 also received the lavish vinyl treatment, with special editions in gorgeous aquamarine wax. Dark ambient music isn’t often given such royal red carpet treatment, so it’s cool to see Kirby getting his dues after so many years of prolifically dishing out disorienting tones of distant dreary dread.
Putting the Ambient in Ambient Black Metal
There’s a lot of overlap in the Venn diagram between dark ambient and black metal. Misanthropic and anti-humanist themes abound, as well as melancholic, desolate atmospheres, which often focus on the duality of nature versus civilization.
You might think of dark ambient music as the ruins of civilization, with black metalheads being the remnants of humanity, vengeful wraith wizards summoning blood incantations.
Leipzig, Germany’s ColdWorld‘s take on black metal has been seeped in ominous synths, vast reverbs, and post-industrial percussion since its onset. This year’s Interludium finds ColdWorld ditching the blast beats, atonal screeching, and buzzsaw guitars for an album of pure dark ambience. The liner notes describe it as, “a journey through utter darkness and will reveal a look into the abyss. Freezing soundscapes will give you chills. Gloomy melodies will lead you to another world. A dark ambient symphony for melancholic souls.”
Fans of ColdWorld’s traditional black metal sound won’t be disappointed, however, with album closer “Interludium VI” bringing back the vocals, guitars, and drums. It’s more “atmospheric black metal” or “post-rock” than your typical kvlt release. It’s another aspect of the shifting, evolving face of black metal.
Long-awaited follow-up to 2012’s Dreamsphere from Stockholm’s Dahlia’s Tear
Sometimes, with dark ambient music (as any genre), it’s a matter of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Sometimes you’re just in the mood for some crepuscular moods to make you feel like you’re exploring some gloomy, run-down cemetery in the fading sunset.
Through the Nightfall Grandeur’s aesthetics will come as no surprise to the long-time dark ambient listener. There’s the epic church bells, the groaning atonal synth, and the distant, ominous whispers. Through the Nightfall Grandeur features more melodicism than most of the other entries on this list, but that’s part of what makes it such a stand-out release. Dark ambient frequently rubs cobwebbed cloaks with both neoclassical music and dungeon synth. Through the Nightfall Grandeur excels, in that regard, by keeping it simple. The piano remains chilly, glacial, ruminative instead of succumbing to your usual post-Philip Glass minimalism so often heard in neoclassical music.
Through the Nightfall Grandeur is much more menu music for some existential turn-of-the-century first-person occult mystery computer game than as a soundtrack for some Wes Anderson or Poul Thomas Anderson flick. It’s still got the lavish production Cryo Chamber has become known for, but it retains some of the malignant lo-fi charm of classic dark ambient records on Cold Meat Industry or Malignant Records.
Techno abstraction to erase the mind.
One way to think about dark ambient music is to imagine the incidental sounds and atmospheres from other genres, minus the “human” elements like melody or harmony. Think of the dark ambient classic Grace by Tribes of Neurot, which serves as a dark ambient drop shadow to Neurosis‘s mighty Times of Grace. Together, they make for a lush, immersive listen. By itself, however, Grace is a stark, minimal day hike through an alien jungle beneath two blue moons.
Much techno music, and especially industrial techno, has no shortage of ambiance in its margins. Clinical beeps and bloops; cantankerous post-Industrial claps, clangs, and bangs; spoken-word and sampled special effects. Even the “musical” component of techno favors the machine-like repetition of Baroque music over simple emoting or expression. It’s more the sound of a giant, nearly infinite player piano roll in the sky, playing through the permutations, than your typical human narrative.
End of Cycle, the debut LP from Korridor on Northern Electronics, takes this tendency even further. Instead of “songs,” “movements,” or “cycles,” End of Cycle exists as a permanent state, like some vast, endless industrial warehouse to wander around in and get lost, indefinitely. Rhythms are more meant to corrode and dissolve than elicit any kind of dancefloor response; this is pure Headcleaner, a cybernetic meditation and endless drift into digital infinity.
End of Cycle reminds us that dark ambient need not be beatless to create a vast, visionary atmosphere to transport the listener to unknown, shadowy realms.
Digital ghost stories from Japan
Kwaidan is made up of radiophonic conjurations of the dead: cut-up, surreal, disturbing, yet not cliche. Meitei really gets in there with more of a slice-of-life haunting than your usual phantasm.
2000s digitalia (backwards sounds, extreme fragmentation) that brings to mind luminaries like Locust Toybox or the mighty Aphex Twin.
Dark, lonely ambient jazz from Vastum‘s Leila Abdul-Rauf
It’s so cool to see people pushing the boundaries of what dark ambient is and does, especially when it comes from the metal camp. There’s a tendency for metalheads to focus on generic dark ambient tropes—the clanging post-industrial percussion, ominous whispers, unruly reverbs—that it ends up sounding more like a soundtrack for a B-grade horror game for PlayStation than an evocation of some distant, alien atmosphere.
Diminution by Leila Abdul-Rauf is an otherworldly conglomeration of lonely trumpet, gauzy vocals, and ethereal electronics. It’s what it might sound like if Grouper were to hold high mass in Miles Davis‘s “Sanctuary,” while the residents of Courtempierre slowly shuffle through the fog outside. The “songs” slowly dissolve into pure abstraction, with echoes gradually overtaking the signal, so to speak, and you are dropped into a radiophonic vacuum of pure night.
Haunted, haunting, essential.
Demonic Dark Ambient art jazz from one of this year’s best horror films.
Colin Stetson‘s groaning post-rock-indebted art jazz makes for an unlike soundtrack for Ari Aster‘s tale of intergenerational witchcraft, demonology, and possession. That’s part of what makes it, and Hereditary as a whole, so striking.
Colin Stetson’s soundtrack for hereditary is built around the ominous bleating blats of Stetson’s baritone saxophone, making for a much more organic dark ambiance that also serves to cut the ties between the film and a certain time and place. Aster’s subtle, slow-burning horror could have come out in 1967, 1977, 1987, 1997, or 2017. It’s refreshing, as there has been a tendency for horror films to call upon either generic library music or popular music from that era.
Instead, Stetson’s Hereditary soundtrack owes more to the arthouse proto-dark ambient soundtracks of Eraserhead or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It helps to solidify Hereditary as an instant classic, of any era, as well as hinting at a new epoch of classical dark ambient mastery.
Oppressive, transportive sub-aquatic atmospheres
One sub-sect of straight ambient music is dedicated to recreating atmospheres, with perhaps a bit of music thrown in to enhance its relaxing properties. Think the new age CD listening station in a Hallmark shop or grocery store, for instance.
While traditional ambient music focuses on recreating beautiful, natural, pastoral scenes, like waves lapping on a beach or the sound of a gentle rainfall in the forest, dark ambient music takes a more sinister approach. Instead of beauty, dark ambient soundscapes focus more on desolate locales, like abandoned mental hospitals, shuttered factories, or, in the case of Abysmal, the dark heart of the sea.
Abysmal is a collaboration between Ukrainian artist Ugasanie and Iran’s Xerxes the Dark, working together to create an aural journey to the deep, dark bottom of the ocean. Abysmal is pure ambiance, with nary a melody in sight. This makes it a bit harder to stand out against the torrent of cut-and-paste electronic dark ambient producers flooding Discogs.com with derivative, unimaginative works. What separates Abysmal from the imitators is an attention to detail, with each sub-bass drone being polished and placed to perfection, and a compelling, evocative theme, which is reinforced by striking cover art and interesting song titles.
Oregon’s Cryo Chamber have become the source for dark ambient of the twenty-first century, and Abysmal is no exception. If you’re looking for a soundtrack from a Lovecraftian role-playing campaign or for reading the Dagon cycle, this is for you.
Wilt – The Red Book (A Tribute to Carl Jung) (Independent)
Dark ambient is particularly adept at evoking internal states—psychological, philosophical, physical, or emotional. The images are stripped of subject, of narrative and plot, letting you explore the murky, liminal spaces at your leisure, free to draw and form your own conclusions.
The Red Book is Carl Jung‘s infamous treatise on dreams and active imagination, constructed during the period of Jung’s “creative illness,” which would give rise to the concept of “mythopoetic imagination.”
Wisconsin’s Wilt recreate these nocturnal reveries and waking dreams using an array of techniques and instrumentation, ranging from drone metal to harsh noise to pure electronic dark ambient music. Vengeful wraiths whisper, moan, and groan in shadowed caves, while waves wash up on sunless shores. It’s an ominous Katabasis, casting light upon the shadows, forcing you to descend within, to see and know thy Self.