by Jay Sandwich
Ah, you’ve come.
Your nostrils tingle with the scent of misty roses in the hour of the gloaming. Lurking in the trees, stalking the rows of the cemetery, the hunger of a humid night under a full moon in June.
We have gathered for you creators of the perfect visionary soundscapes to accompany you on this journey.
For that is what dark ambient is all about: the journey. There can seem to be no beginning nor an end; there is not a climax. Only the atmosphere. Ambient music is soothing, with few instruments, and sounds with large gaps in between.
The kind of music that plays while you get a massage: music that calms you, relaxes the breathing and frees the mind.
Dark ambient is the atmosphere of a lonely nightmare, soft violence, utter fear. And in facing this fear through listening to the music – through bearing that exact experience – one comes out the other side feeling rather liberated, risen, freed. For in facing fear we conquer it.
Generally speaking, that’s a very important theme to appreciate about dark music: that shared experience between creator and listener, the cause and effect of having put that emotional work into the music and then effecting the same responses in the listener.
One could argue it is a spiritiual experience for through endurance we grow stronger.
Endurance is another big theme in dark ambient music: the notes and beats and frequently repeated, suggesting endurance in both the repetitive, machinelike motion and pain evident in the vocals. But there is always sensuality in this music, for in its ghostly state it feels so very and truly alive.
Dark ambient music is about the experience of feeling while listening. From guttural, deep and quiet vocals just a bit offkey, to muffled horror sounds, there are elements some find disturbing and others find calming.
Personally I find them to be a bit of both, as per that aforementioned liberating experience.
Ambient music as a genre took root sometime in the 1960s, when synthesizers were becoming more affordable to the average consumer.
It is true that the accessibility of the synthesizer led to an ever-increasing presence of the instrument in music from the 1960s and 70s, but – as with most genres of music and art – the group or artist who invented or began the genre shall forever be argued upon.
The synthesizer opened up endless doors to new sonic possibilities, with its myriad sound effects and capacity for programming and recording. In the late 1960s music took on rather a psychedelic and fantastical sound in the form of prog rock.
Bands like Genesis and King Crimson were experimenting with synthesizers and creating an entirely new atmospheric experience for the listener. The length of songs extended to make room for instrumental parts that sounded otherworldly, ethereal, sometimes downright haunting.
Into the 1980s, synthpop is very popular and mainstream, so following Einstein’s law of universal relativism, we begin to see dark branches splinter off into goth and industrial music, with both sounds and words often containing strong and slow beats, injury to the body, minor chords, haunting sound effects, machinery, heavy emotional content and response from the listener. With every technological advancement, music becomes heavier.
And so, naturally, this led to the experimentation with an exploration of instrumental ambient music to suggest the so called dark themes of confusion, feeling lost, melancholic, haunting, horrifying or mysterious, to name a few.
Here it is: a collection of the names of dark ambient artists you should know about.
Nocturnal Emissions has been around since the late 1970s, initially as a sound art project by art student Nigel Ayers and a few other members. He is based in the United Kingdom.
Since the mid-1980s, it has primarily been Ayers’ solo project. As you go through the bandcamp page, you will notice quite an extensive discography.
The sounds primarily orbit about dark ambient but venture into electro techno stuff, post-industrial and noise music. He avoids the music industry and has rather a big cult following.
Since the early 1990s Nocturnal Emissions contains a lot of sacred, magic and ritual elements.
This American band has also been around since the 1970s, but released their first full-length album in 1983. To this day they have released more than 30 full-length albums.
With such a large output, they have of course experimented with progressive rock, metal, classical, sacred music and jazz, all in addition to ambient.
They have received their best critical response to their industrial dance. In this phase they began using lyrics more prominently in the 1990s, as a change from their previously mostly instrumental music.
Little is known about the members of Zoviet France, other than their names. The musical group has been around since 1980 and gone through several personnel changes in that time.
Their music incorporates some industrial elements but is altogether out of this world. We link to a rather profoundly disturbing track of theirs: the 20-minute long Shamany Enfluence from the 1988 album Looking at the Ground.
Lustmord hails from North Wales and has been active since 1980, releasing at least one album each year since. He is a musician as well as a film score composer, known for having worked on The Crow.
His work is exceptionally dark, as he combines all kinds of clips from field recordings in crypts and other such creepy places where death lurks and mixed them into his work.
He is in fact widely recognized as the founder of this genre. One of the elements unique to Lustmord is the expanded bass lines that remind one of the darkest depths of the ocean.
His work is altogether ominous, haunting and calm, with just the right tempered balance of dark and ambient.
Coph Nia is a newer band on the list, having founded in 1999 after the height of industrial music. They come, appropriately, from Gothenbug, Sweden.
The very slow beats in a lot of dark ambient music, combined with the ominous sounds, one is likely to associate with dark ritual and moonlight.
Coph Nia sounds like ritual music and is utterly empowering with spoken, monotone vocal style. Their name comes from a passage from Aleister Crowley.
Their songs contain a lot of western magical themes.
Another fantastic artist from the United Kingdom. Scanner is the stage name of musician Robin Rimbaud and he has been making music since 1982. He works under this name because he uses cell phones, police scanners, radio and cell phone signals in his works.
These indiscernible hints at human life – and the broken communication – make for rather a profound emotional impact on the listener. In the early 1980s Rimbaud played with a band and released cassette tapes of their recordings. He debuted Scanner in 1992.
In addition to music, he creates artworks, plays classical music and helped develop a natural light and sound alarm clock with Philips Electronics.
He also creates performance and installation art and has been honoured with many awards over the years. Some of his compositions are utterly chilling.
Wiese passed away at the age of 67 in 2009. He was a fantastic multi-instrumenalist who made compositions using Tibetan singing bowls; he is widely known as being a master of those bowls, having created several full-length albums with them. His work is very spacy and meditative, but the slowed notes of the singing bowls add a slightly unnerving seriousness to his work (we mean this in the best way possible).
It is through this mood created his work falls into dark ambient. There are elements of drone presented through an ever-zooming, pulsing lens.
He studied Mysticism in the Far East for many years, the influence of which can certainly be heard in the songs. For example, his entire album Maquam is about the stations of enlightenment within Islamic mysticism.
About Jay Sandwich
Jay is an ex-shred guitar player and current modular synth noodler from a small town somewhere. Quote: “I’m a salty old sandwich with a perspective as fresh as bread.” No bull.