The Best Dark Ambient Artists and Albums You Should Know About

 

Ah, you’ve come.

Welcome.

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.

Early Ambient

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.

<Read our more detailed history of Dark Ambient music here>

Here it is: a collection of the names of dark ambient artists you should know about.

  1. Nocturnal Emissions
    https://nocturnalemissions.bandcamp.com/

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.

 

  1. Controlled Bleeding
    https://controlledbleeding.bandcamp.com/

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.

3. Zoviet France
https://soundcloud.com/zoviet-france

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.

  1. Lustmord
    https://soundcloud.com/lustmord

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.

  1. Coph Nia
    https://cophnia.bandcamp.com/

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.

 

  1. Robin Rimbaud AKA Scanner
    https://soundcloud.com/scanner

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.

  1. Klaus Wiese

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dmM_uPw2-c&t=807s

What is Dark Ambient Music? History, Characteristics, Artists, and More

Dark ambient music is a sub-genre of ambient music that features dark, sometimes grinding / sometimes soothing, foreboding post-industrial soundscape dirges that speak to themes of isolation, embattlement, guilt, pain, torment, fear, suffering, hatred, shame, betrayal, disassociation, resentment, paranoia, anger, neglect, and…you name it, if it’s on the negative end of the spectrum, it’s probably in there! 

The music also is informed at times by the same occult imagery and themes that occupies darker types of metal, such as the teachings of people like Aleister Crowley (Satanism), as well as various forms of mysticism, religion, and magick.

(cue music)

…but also more positive things like beauty, reflection, exaltation, and dare I say some sort of escape and / or release do at times find their way into dark ambient music – in essence, it is a reflection the human condition itself, in all its terrible majesty. (cue picture that sums up human condition)

That said, calling the genre ostensibly negative and obsessed with evil themes is not a fair or balanced assessment of this music, I do not think.  The reason being is that emotions, even if they are strong or negative, if pushed through, somehow turn into a hard-earned positive, which is, I believe, part of the philosophy of dark ambient music.  Mind you, this is my theory only.  It may in fact be the true essence of darkness with no light at all.  I choose to be cautiously optimistic, however.

The term “dark ambient” was said to be coined by Roger Karmanik (aka Brighter Death Now), Swedish record producer for label Cold Meat Industry, sometime in the 90’s. 

To say that dark ambient is a post-industrial genre, is to suggest that once industrial music was established with bands like Ministry, KMFDM, Coil, Frontline Assembly, Einstürzende Neubauten, Skinny Puppy, in the later 1980’s and early 1990’s, dark ambient was born out of this genre as part reaction, part extension to the genre.  They are definitely of the same ilk, I believe, although I would venture to say they are the flipside of each. 

Industrial music is certainly not ambient because it is too full of sounds and conventional instruments.  Take away the guitars, drums, basses, and synth lines, and add in sounds not native to rock but perhaps more relevant to forms of worship, and this atmosphere of post-industrial is basically the essence of dark ambient, with other elements making their way in.  

Here’s Too Dark Park by Skinny Puppy, which is not at all dark ambient, but definitely a relative, and something I am compelled to place here for reference due to its tangential influence and inherent greatness.

If you were to picture a visual representation, dark ambient music might evoke a yawning void into which one might hurl oneself, and, once inside it, you start to make out shapes in the fog as you are falling into the abyss.   

Often times, dark ambient music seems to create a feeling of dread that just won’t leave you.  But it is not simply creating fear, it is also about facing fear, and almost learning to…admire it?  I’m not sure, but in listening to the music, there is a certain appreciation for the sonic textures found within.  

Despite reaching for the outer limits as it does, and the music being fairly niche, meaning the fanbase isn’t the same as say electropop music, however, the fanbase for this type of music is only growing.

History of Dark Ambient Music

Dark ambient dates back to 1960’s and 70’s, with its gnarled roots planted firmly in a few different musical genres, including ambient music, as well as krautrock, prog rock, free jazz, industrial music (as mentioned), synth pop, and even such concepts as ASMR.  I will qualify these influences shortly.  As in now.

To begin, we must include a band like Popul Vuh, and their album Affenstunde from 1970.  Popul Vuh is a pioneering synth-based band who used both moog synths and ethnic percussion in their music, hence helping to launch an entirely new and uncharted era that would become the sprawlingly diverse ambient genre as a whole.

At a relatively later time, musician Brian Eno (formerly the keyboard player for Roxy Music) started making purely ambient music, starting with Another Green World (1975) and culminating with his famed Ambient 1: Music For Airports (1978). 

Music for Airports I think is largely credited with being the first full-length album of pure ambient sound which seems to leave behind the trappings of progressive rock and actually embodies the spirit of true ambient music, although it is hardly dark in theme. 

Despite not being particularly dark in mood, this album certainly informed what dark ambient would become, with its sprawling soundscapes that never really leads to any climax, but is itself just one long climax (or anti-climax). (cue Ambient 1: Music for Airports)

Many artists in the 1970’s were experimenting with synthesizers, as they were becoming more affordable in price to the average consumer.  Still, it was a select few who knew what synths were worth getting, and could use them effectively to create highly emotional music.

Tangerine Dream, for instance, had mastered the art of the full length synth-based instrumental album long before Eno dabbled in it, being closer to the time of Popul Vuh, and their masterpiece Zeit from 1972 is evidence of this mastery of which I speak. (cue Zeit)

Zeit and much of Tangerine Dream’s work in general is a better stylistic fit for what would later become dark ambient music, but the debate as to who actually spurred the movement will be debated forever, no doubt.  Still, it is interesting to examine who did what and what impact it had.  Another band you might want to check out would be the band Can.

At the same time as synths were becoming a major force in the musical landscape for the first time, progressive rock was beginning to explore much darker themes than had ever been presented previously. 

Bands like King Crimson were experimenting with sounds that were not previously part of popular music’s lexicon, and, not only that, but the arrangements were different – longer, more unsettling, and traversing into territory that confused some but thrilled others. (cue Larks’ Tongue in Aspic Part I)

That said, it was bands like King Crimson, Pink Floyd, and others that were in the process of creating vast soundscapes of raw emotion that were, I think, meaning to express another dimension to human emotion that the typical rock bands of the time were not only not capable of, but other people who may not have had any emotional investment in music up until that time started to take notice.  The outcasts, the geeks, the weirdos, the shunned, etc.  But also, the intelligent, the particular, the discerning, the free-thinking.  

Some of these people would become musicians themselves and create what would become dark ambient,  while others would become lifelong fans.  The only pre-requisite was that you had to be ready to accept new forms of songs, and new emotions set to music.  

With all of these things going on, it wasn’t until until the late 70’s and bands like Throbbing Gristle came along and changed the trajectory of music forever, with their album D.o.A.: The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle. (cueD.o.A.: The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle)

The Beginning of Dark Ambient

This was the true beginning of a different direction for music – the direction that dark ambient music would eventually come to inhabit and elaborate upon.  With found sounds, un-nameable discordant noises, strange babbling voices, drones, sirens, a genuinely unsettling effect is created that was perhaps more untamed and less pretentious than anything previous.  This album is something you might hear played in an insane asylum, or if someone from an insane asylum was given a recording studio, they might make this.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this album has been used as a backdrop to any kind of mental health documentary.  That said, it is a perennial favourite of mine. 

Around this time, the world was paranoid about many things, including all out nuclear war, and it was finding its way into society via games and movies, with many movies of the day being genuinely terrifying, ie. The Exorcist, The Omen, and then followed by the slasher films.  The world was getting more filled with terror by the second, and much of the music was reflecting that as well.  New and exciting nihilist bands were forming all the time, beneath the surface, just as synth pop and MTV were becoming more mainstream.

Whether The Third And Final Report was the first or the most important album to help define this new sound, it doesn’t matter.  It was certainly a signpost on the road, and an album helped to create a new format for albums which opened the floodgates for both a new type of musician and a new type of fan.  In some ways, this composition by Throbbing Gristle is more sound collage than it is any kind of music, and yet it was presented as music, as accepted as such.  It got the gears turning.  

As mentioned in another article, the tendency for artists to use synthesizers to create popular music splintered off into what would become electropop and synth pop, while some artists went in a darker direction, creating genres that were darker and less mainstream, but still upbeat, such as synthwave

Still others went down an even bleaker path towards what would become industrial music and eventually dark ambient music. (cue Prime Mover by Coph Nia)

You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby

And so, somewhere between the mid-80’s and today, dark ambient music was born and began to grow and evolve.  In my recollection, ambient music didn’t register (with me at least) until artists like Aphex Twin became famous for his Selected Ambient Works albums.  From there, I became interested in where the genre came from, and the directions that it had been going. 

That was simply my entry point into the ambient genre as a whole, with dark ambient being one highway to drive down after taking many detours through all of the genres I’ve previously mentioned – industrial, ambient, progressive rock –  to arrive at a genre with its own distinct characteristics which does exhibit certain trademarks, but seems as well to have no visible / audible limits.

With dark ambient artists like Oöphoi, Coil, Aghiatrias, CTI, Deutsch Nepal, Hafler Trio, Rapoon, Klaus Wiese, Lustmord, Coph Nia, Nocturnal Emissions, PGR, Thomas Köner, Zoviet France, Lab Report, Akira Yamaoka, Robin Rimbaud, Endura, Controlled Bleeding, Vidna Obmana, Daniel Menche, Lull, Hwyl Nofio, and so many others creating and having had created so many epic and deeply affecting and emotional albums, dark ambient is a rich and vibrant community of artists that exist mostly on an underground level, and yet making some of the most epic music possible.  

To hear some more recent dark ambient music, check out our playlist below…