Editor's Rating

On Human Stranger, Ambassadeurs' Mark Dobson has taken the complexities of loss and created a simple demand: dance. It's halcyon

8.6
PHASES

AMBASSADEURS is the project of Sussex producer Mark Dobson, a man who’s approach to music is deeply personal, involved. He doesn’t churn it out because he has the means; he fashions and creates and recreates and channels, he sends tunes out into the world when they’re ready to communicate what is intended.

He’s got one previous album under his belt, 2015’s Patterns, which came out on Lost Tribe. Five years on and he’s ready with a pretty and glorious, absolutely humanist, incredibly uplifting set entitled Human Stranger, out on Phases on September 11th – one in which he fashions thrilling dancefloor catharsis from grief.

Five years’ work: pondering, sketching, making, listening. Mark says: “I’m not one of those artists that can just smash out an album. I need to explore the ideas, working on them on and off for a number of years. I felt like I needed to reset, and work out what I was doing. I wanted to start completely fresh with the new album.”

He lost his sister in 2018; a body blow for anyone. Being creative, music was the medium whereby he processed his grief. “It was the musical equivalent of crying or shouting,” he explains. “The whole album is about loss and grief and overcoming that. It’s about all those different emotions you feel going through that process”.

Let’s open up a box which may contain some difficult and dark moments; let’s trust Mark to articulate what he’s been through, where he’s at.

… and what you find is there is absolutely no need to steel yourself at all. “Nocturnes”, the opening track, comes in on a very Berlin-via-Asia exotic soundscape  – the opening riff sounds the traditional Japanese koto, giving a little early touch of the Four Tets; it’s plucked delicately above big granular washes of skittering sound, like a handful of gravel across a frozen lake. Behind it all, there’s pulsing bass held just back in abeyance for now … it marks the bpm, doesn’t throw itself at you. And then it begins to open out and you find yourself in a deep, halcyon, totally uplifting state of bliss-techno, with that proper grin you got when you first heard Papua New Guinea. It’s electronic music with a simple melody line executed with panache; wordless female backing vocals urge you, it, everyone you’re with, upwards. Crikey.

“O.N.E.” pulls us east to the gateway to Asia, Istanbul: eastern scales abound, there’s trills and exotic melodicism, as if overheard while waking, your city ambience, the fan spinning above. As with the preceding “Nocturnes”, it proceeds on a simple but beautiful melodic hook. There’s a smattering of glitch, a medium-tempo break and boy it’s loud, full of sound, from deep synth bass fuzz up through a filtered, staccato mid-ground and bell-like accents to what sounds like a zurna, the Turkish oboe, just faded back to give depth, to make you climb even deeper inside. 

And of course Mark spent a summer in Istanbul, dedicated to immersion, no pastiche for him: “Turkey is just different in every single way,” he says. “Musically, it’s a completely different sounding city to anywhere else I’ve been.”

He walked the city, recording its ambience, let it guide him. “On my previous records I’ve been inspired by Asian instruments, so it was a continuation of that,” he continues: “It was finding these instruments, hearing different things, new textures and sounds.” Boy done good.

Perhaps unusually for an IDM producer who has set out his stall so intently to drag you out the floor, the only vocal collaborator on the record arrives on the deep house magick of  “Roots”, which has a top end palette that glimmers like midsummer sun on water. The cool vocal silk comes courtesy of Los Angeles’ Morgxn, the independent alt.R&B vocalist, who brings real elegance and range to a tune on which Mark just steps back slightly, allows his singer the limelight. Watch the rather lovely and trippy video for this ‘un, below.

“Takeda” springs forth from a bedrock of crowd sound and just lessens the intensity of sound a touch, goes for that slightly more detached meditative state. It’s global song, obviously Japanese in some of its melodic flavour; at other times, wholly Berlin, in the grace of propulsion. Overall it’s deeply human, embracing as it does the cultures of here, of there, celebrating that in an era of inward populist fracture. He spent much time in Berlin and says of his time there: “I definitely got inspired by the clubs we would go to. I was hearing music a lot more on big sound systems. This isn’t a ‘headphone album’ – it’s meant to be played live, and with a sense of space.”

“Rescue Me” is perhaps the first track where a little sadness, just a little yearning emotion creeps in. Check that vocal melody, which seems to embody one of those strange moments in grief which achieve a state of grace: so sad it’s calm, life turned up to 11, beautiful yet lost in loss. It still bids you lose yourself in movement and the communal state of that, the simplicity of dancing, but I get this touch of remembrance, of never-forgetting. It has scattering texture and a minor-key organ standing proud behind filter-tech choppiness, it has style, it has happysadness.

Talisman” pulls an interesting trick in its quest for sound textures: if I’m not mistaken (and as an old-skool shoegazer, I don’t think I am), it pulls its opening sound source from Slowdive’s “Catch the Breeze”, let’s those complex guitars and vocals swathe you, before dropping it out for a big cathedral of bell- and vocal-filled space. I won’t attempt to splice the two genres inelegantly, forming some hideous new compound word. We’re about higher things here, with Ambassadeur. Necessarily it has massive depth and lift.

“Remnants” takes us back a little in the world of techno, brings the clatter and the bleep. These are excellent sonics. Again the midground is full of reverb’d, delayed, filtered and generally fractured strings and more, beckoning you inside. Whereas some IDM is meant to be admired, handled, turned like an objet d’art, the music of Human Stranger knows that sometimes you just need the dancefloor to achieve the state of overcoming. It could actually be twice the length for me, for a proper loss of self in sound, and tap me on the shoulder some point then; OK?

“Gone” just starts to slow things up, for we are approaching the end of the album folks; it wants epic, it gives epic, it gets epic. It pulls some of the tropes of what we might call stadium techno, hitting exactly the right notes, as it were; but it doesn’t fall for the middle-eight rolls, for wringing every last drop out of you; it holds right where you need to be … when the breakdown comes it’s to massive space, piano chords holding the melody line while the air fills with the sorta ambience you’d find on a record by Monolake or Loscil or even Stars of the Lid.

What Mark’s fashioned with Human Stranger is incredibly clever. What could have been a fully introspective and quite challenging work has actually emerged as a clever record of very simple demands. He’s processed his emotional journey rather than told it; he’s seized what we have, the beauty that defends us from the dark, the beauty of melody and the global village, the majesty of humans dancing. Sometimes the answer really is that simple.

Ambassadeurs’ Human Stranger will be released on digital formats on September 11th. To order or stream a cracking record, click here.