John Jones in conversation with South of North founder Dominik Rodemann. I was first introduced to the Amsterdam-based label South of North by way of their 2018 debut […]
Ambient music in the 1990s: Five crucial albums from a fertile moment
KLF, The Orb, Plastikman and more ambient classics from the 1990’s.
At the beginning of the year, the essential Music from Memory label issued Virtual Dreams: Ambient Explorations In The House & Techno Age, 1993-1997, an ear-opening survey of a deep global scene that brought the theories and ideas of artists including Brian Eno, Harold Budd and Laraaji into the chillout-rooms. Just as the genre’s pioneers helped temper the LSD- and cocaine-fueled jitters of the 1970s with soothing come-down music, starting in the 1990s ecstasy-fueled rave kids looking for a place for a cuddle puddle gravitated toward chillout rooms.
Upon the release of Virtual Dreams, writer and friend of ISC Andy Beta wrote a Bandcamp feature on that collection and a few more deep listens from the movement. One particular quote from that fascinating read captures the spirit of the music:
“I grew up with ’90s ambient, and that style and period of music is near and dear to me,” Tim Humphrey of the new 90s ambient reissue label re:discovery records told him. “It takes you away to another place, like reading a great sci-fi book. It’s mysterious and futuristic, you can escape from whatever is going on in your life. The music makes you dream.”
Below, five entry points into 1990s ambient music, with a caveat: Because most of us already know and love Aphex Twin, Eno, and Boards of Canada, we’re focusing on relatively lesser known releases.
The KLF – Chill Out (1990)
The groundbreaking British duo of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty helped foment the British rave movement of the late 1980s with sample-heavy electronic tracks. Released in 1990, Chill Out was a whole other creature: an uninterrupted 45-minute musical exploration of the American South. Like Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, it’s a journey. Unlike that classic, though, the KLF use as building blocks a host of wildly innovative samples by artists including 808 State, Pink Floyd, Elvis Presley, Van Halen and Jimi Hendrix.
Biosphere – Substrata (1997)
Released on the Eno-affiliated label All Saints, Biosphere’s late 1990s classic moves from acoustic to electronic instrumentation as seamlessly as snow drifts. Norwegian producer and musician Geir Jenssen is based in Tromsø, which is within the Arctic Circle, and such geographic isolation informs Substrata’s essence.
The Orb – Orbus Terrarum (1995)
The third album by dub-inspired British ambient team is first to feature genius producer Thomas Fehlmann, who joined as a full-time studio member alongside founding member Alex Paterson and producer Andy Hughes. A soothing bass-heavy excursion, Orbus Terrarum hits its peak on its two extended final tracks, Occidental and Slug Dub.
Labradford – Mi Media Naranja (1997)
Few acts crafted such a singular path through the ambient 1990s than the Richmond, Virginia trio Labradford. One of the earliest bands on Chicago label Kranky, they released five albums from 1993-1999, and each is worthy of attention. But our fave is Mi Media Naranja from 1997. As with each of Labradford’s six albums, it features bassist Robert Donne, guitarist/vocalist Mark Nelson, and keyboardist Carter Brown, with the lovely addition of strings to augment their sound.
Plastikman – Consumed (1998)
One of the most sublime ambient techno records ever released, Richie Hawtin’s Consumed is a quietly mesmerizing project that, while sticking to techno’s four-on-the-floor rhythm, seems to upholster the beats in plush velvet.
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