The Guardian OCTOBER 5, 2009 - by Paul Sullivan


Thought ambient music had been drowned in a sea of new age nonsense and chill out? Think again! Artists such as Sun O))) and The Orb are giving the genre new hope.

For a good five or six decades, you could trace a fairly solid and respectable "quiet music" lineage, starting with Erik Satie's furniture music (musique d'ameublement), through the work of the classical minimalists (Steve Reich, Terry Riley, John Cage et al), drone dons such as La Monte Young and Phil Niblock, and up to Brian Eno's late 1970s experiments (Music For Airports, Discreet Music etc). But the effects of Eno's merging of the avant garde with pop culture - "Satie with synths" if you will - were twofold. On one hand he coined the phrase "ambient" and brought the concept to a wider audience; on the other he (unwittingly) spawned an era of hybridised sub-genres: ambient dub, ambient techno, industrial ambient... and on and on and on.

While some of these sonic experiments should have been hauled in front of the International Genre-Rights Tribunal - particularly those where ambient's good name has been conflated with spurious terms such as new age, progressive and chill out - others have worked hard to keep the lineage's avant-garde associations alive.

Take the masterly Monoliths & Dimensions, released by Sun O))) earlier this year. Regardless of the band's new age undertones (they dress as Druids, unashamedly tout Mother Earth imagery, are not afraid to employ harps), the album's emphasis on sustained tones and repetition is a direct continuation the fine work of Niblock and La Monte Young, albeit intertwined with elements of classical, jazz and metal to create a bold and kaleidoscopic statement.

Jónsi Pór Birgisson (frontman of Sigur Rós) and his boyfriend and visual artist Alex Somers also grapple with the modern ambient tradition on their languorous Riceboy Sleeps, recorded over a five-year period on acoustic instruments and mixed down on a raw food commune in Hawaii. While Jónsi admits elements of the record are "too loud to be ambient", they dutifully acknowledge their debt to Eno.

Vladislav Delay (aka Finland's Sasu Ripatti) has also turned "organic" on his forthcoming Tuumaa, trading in his usual explorations of dubby electronica in favour of rediscovering his jazz-drummer roots. Alongside Lucio Capece (clarinet, sax) and Craig Armstrong (piano, Rhodes) he has crafted a brooding, semi-improvised record that's mesmerising and repetitive in all the best ways.

Last but not least, veteran purveyors of "ambient techno" Alex Paterson and Thomas Fehlmann (aka The Orb) are also back this month with Baghdad Batteries, the third in their Orbsession series. Metropolitan track titles such as Styrofoam Meltdown, Suburban Smog and Orban Tumbleweed (see what they did there?) aside, this gorgeously undulating record happily spans dubby drones, floating electronica and thudding techno.

Examples abound. Suffice to say, these records illustrate that ambient, far from being "dead", is alive and well - and a good deal more diverse since being pushed from its ivory tower.