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

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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…

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