Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Getting Instrumental, Part I


The TMI music library has a generous portion of instrumental selections, but very few could be classified as "ambient." As a style, ambient music can be dead boring (this means you, Brian Eno's Music for Airports) or so aimless and that it should really be tagged "pink noise for pretentious people."

Some fans of the form might balk at the suggestion of similarities between indie-approved ambient music and new age music, but the line is often as vaporous as the music itself. Besides, this kind of thing is all about mood and execution.

Here are two new ambient instrumental discs that made an impression, and yes, one even drifts into new-age territory.

The Distance Brings Us Closer
The sprays of fuzz, feedback and (possibly imagined) overtones created by this husband and wife duo treads territory familiar to anyone reasonably familiar with shoegaze rock, especially the stuff that eschews drums completely. Distance marks the band's fourth LP, with a few EPs and live recordings in-between. Earlier efforts, per the band's MySpace page, have tribal elements. The lack of percussion here indicates a common evolutionary process for bands that produce this sort of trance-like material. "Born Yesterday" launches the listener gently down the stream-of-consciousness with a full 15 minutes of rippling static and drone. A short series of sci-fi pulses breaks up "Dimanche" just after the six-minute mark -- but don't let that jar you. This is ideal listening for a winter commute when it's not rainy or dark enough for something more immediate.

Reference material: If Seefeel's colder, cosmic crop-dusting experiments appeal to you, Northern Valentine will satisfy. And you should probably check out Louis and Bebe Barron's way-ahead-its-time soundtrack to Forbidden Planet.

(Noise Order)
This Seattle trio provides a perfectly good excuse for laying on the couch, after dark, staring at the mood lighting and waiting for a nice cozy feeling to kick in. "Whiteout" sounds like a medieval madrigal for the well-tempered synthesizer, and as such stands out from the rest of this debut LP. Unlearn uses keyboards, drums and guitar to weave gauzy stretches of chords that sometimes coalesce into twinkling melodies. Yes, there's some soundtrack sounding moments, but one of these guys might own Piana's Snow Bird -- and that helps keep it interesting.

Reference material: Unlearn's press materials mention the "conversation that Sigur Ros brought to the mainstream" but that band's from Iceland and The Typing Monkey didn't understand a word they said. Check out Piana, as we mentioned earlier.

Epilogue: If the suggestion that there's a permeable membrane between ambient music and the crystal healing power of new-age music has you composing an angry letter to The Typing Monkey, please listen to The Best of Hearts of Space: First Flight before you do. Or go to the Hearts of Space Website and read both "A Brief Profile of Space and Ambient Music" and "The N Word" from the "The Music" section of their site.