ALBUM REVIEW: Various artists – ‘Ambient Layers’: a state of the art, 20-track journey on 7K!



JUST in case you think your humble reviewer has achieved some messily transposed inaccuracy in the above title, nope, it’s actually right: for 7K! is the subtly rearranged, boutique classical and ambient exploratory imprint of its hugely well-regarded and seminal German label !K7 – home of (*takes deep breath) Ursula Rucker, A Guy Called Gerald, Koop, Beth Hirsch, Kruder & Dorfmeister, Smith & Mighty; so many more acts spread right across the nexus of nujazz, deep house, IDM. The musics that make you move.

And here’s a neat thing: 7K! has decided to take the temperature of the obverse of the main thrust of the imprint: that is, the music that stills you; the music you listen to after a hard night on the dancefloor, when your body’s given its all but your mind is still active: the sphere of ambience.

To this end, this week, the label is releasing a 20-track (unfortunately) digital-only round up of some of the very best in modern ambient thinking and composing from across the broad sweep of the sphere: be it stemming from analogue or electronica; from classical or generative or experimental. It’s all fish to the net; what matters is that it’s in that sweet spot of blissful and also enveloping, stimulating.

The album? Ambient Layers.

It’s the third in 7K!’s Layers series, following on from last year’s Piano Layers; and String Layers, from earlier this year. Within, the label promises “an experiential selection”; and like all the best comps that have ever found a home in your heart, it does so by hooking in you in with some of the biggest names from the wider world of ambience and experimenta down the years, such as Adam Wiltzie from A Winged Victory For the Sullen and Stars of the Lid; Robert Lippok; Christina Vantzou, who debuts her Daughter Produkt project.

There’s also rising stars, such as former Jóhann Jóhannsson collaborator Rutger Hoedemaekers (whose first single drop ahead of next March’s brilliant album for 130701, “The Invention Of The Moon”, we’ve already been completely seduced by here), alongside an assemblage of those artists who’ve been lingering too long at the edge of your consciousness – and new names you’ll be so glad you’ve heard for the first time.

Let us begin, then: the accolade of opening this 20-track journey goes to experimental British soundtrack composer Roger Goula, whose “Ontology Of Things” serves as a brilliant thematic intro, being from the school of high, stirring modern composition in which the orchestral finds congruence with electronics. It’s heavy on the bass undertow, swirling violins, chattering sequencer sustain. Herdis Stefánsdóttir essays through glorious flute warmth and subtle feedback, before Adam Wiltzie’s guides you through “How To Disappear Inside A Thirty-Piece Orchestra” with all the minute, enrapturing changes to drone sustain he’s been such a master of these past decades. As you’d expect (and yup, I’m a total fanboy, right back to seeing SOTL in the front bar of a Manchester pub in 2003) it’s thrilling and graceful.

Ryan Teague steps the high drama down into a more subtle and autumnal piano-led piece, with little tronica motifs playing out and the power of synth crescendo and diminuendo in his retro-tinged “Floodgate”. Australian psycho-acoustic designer Tilman Robinson brings such depth and delicious ~Scapelike crackle to his gradually unfurling, breathtaking minimalism that his albums immediately went on my wants list. Think a cleaner Tim Hecker absolutely bound for the stars and you’re partway there. Wow.

TENGGER are a husband, wife and son based in South Korea whose name is Mongolian for “open expanse of sky”. Their brand of motorik minimalism has its roots in a Seventies’ synth aesthetic, but with much more going on. “Solongo”, their track, gradually transports and seduces you. Lisa Morgenstern‘s contribution, “Calling You”, begins in a squelchy place akin to a Seventies’ sci-fi soundtrack before absolutely raising the hairs on your neck with otherworldly vocal intensity; like a choir singing at the heat death of the universe. Banabila & Machinefabriek thankfully ease back on the intensity a little while also creating an entirely alien, evocative clickscape with whirring propulsion and the leavening of lonely, dispossessed acoustic instruments.

Holographic Light play in a clean and blissful glow of nicely processed tonal ringing and a pristine synthscape, which abuts nicely with Frieder Nagel‘s evocation of the promise and tabula rasa of the new day, “Dawn”, which propels out from an ambient piano into a grand and impressionistic work of jazz vamping, motorik, big squelchy tone swoops. Pjusk, a Norwegian duo who usually ply their trade for 12k, move things in a dubby, dreampop direction with “Seil”.

Midori Hanno

Japanese-born, Berlin-based Midori Hirano takes the aquatic piano stylings of Harold Budd and finds the darker undertow, the deeper currents and surges that can draw you down, ending in an anaesthesia ring; she’s the perfect amuse-bouche for Rutger Hoedemaekers, who will have sealed his place in your modern compositional heart before summer. His “Done Our Share Of Reading And We’ve Worked On Our Lace” has post-glacial wintriness and the widest cinemascope, beautiful and awe-inspiring all at once, suddenly flowering into string-led sunlight. He really is a coming man.

Mind you, he’s in esteemed compositional company with Robert Lippok, who also knows a thing or two about using every sonic tool at his disposal to inspire, uplift and dazzle, as he shows on “With Tomorrow”. Christine Vantzou’s new art project, Daughter Produkt, moves things from the simply grand and glacial towards a more complex chill on “Anisotropy” (it’s ‘the property of substances to exhibit variations in physical properties along different molecular axes’, chemistry fans). It mazes with discorporeal voices, disjointed textures, drones moving towards, but never quite reaching, atonal meshing.

Doug Kallmeyer, formerly of 302 Acid, moves in an immersively William Basinski decayed and textured venture that also has a little Basic Channel in its dubby, propulsive mystery – the suggestion of beats rather than the actuality keeping a real headphone winner ticking forward. Hannes Kretzer’s “Juno Had A Sad Dream” sits on a bedrock of old-skool drone thrum, deeply buried harmonics peeling off slowly, tectonically, in a meditative manner, catching the light in a prism of retro synth wash.

Norwegian-Irish singer-songwriter Tara Nome Doyle enters into a collaboration with Kompakt’s 1k Flowers on the curiously named “Clemency”, which has a very Julianna Barwick spectral grace. Awkward Moments, who record for Resident Advisor by day, drop by with one of the purer ‘tronica moments on the comp: their “Delighted To Be Free” plays out in a bewitching burble very much akin to early Autechre. It’s for Guillaume Tiger to perform the closing ceremony, which he does admirably in the 144 seconds of “Le Rivage de L’Etre” (‘The Shore of Being’); a little sketch of beguiling textures.

Ambient Layers is really quite a trip through the current state of the blissful/emotive sonic arts. The tracks herein come from IDM, post-classical, drone, electronics; and from right across the globe. There’s so much to burrow into here, experience deeply; and unlike many compilations, there are no absolute curveballs, no wacky weird cuts and no filler. Everything is at the very least very good indeed, and ranging up to breathtaking.

I know I carped slightly at the beginning about the unavailability of this comp on vinyl; but here’s the great thing about it being digital. Set it on repeat and like Max Richter’s Sleep, let it guide you through a whole, amniotic diurnal cycle. It’s really very great.

7K! Records’ Ambient Layers will be released on digital download on December 4th; pre-save your copy here.

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