9.30PM-ish: I’m riding the Docklands Light Railway – an automated metro system that snakes above ground through east and southeast London – and it feels like I’m one of the last humans left on earth. The towering banking structures of east London's Canary Wharf usually have this effect, especially late at night when strip lights shine through the windows of mostly vacant offices. But the music in my headphones is contributing too: it’s a heavy mix of blackened metal and nocturnal ambiance – perfect for the end of the world.
The group are called Bliss Signal. Created by the electronic producer Mumdance and metal musician James Kelly (WIFE, Altar of Plagues), their eponymous debut album (released this September; listen below) is a hypnotic, heavy and engulfing listen. It’s ambient to a degree, if very very visceral. And it’s proper alone-time music too, serving to make my train journey feel cinematic – which is good because I’ve done that same route approximately 240 times since moving earlier this year.
That feeling – of being alone, but starring in your own film, and therefore not sad and alone but alone with comforting purpose – is something you can usually get from listening to ambient music. I’ve written before about how the genre helps me feel relaxed; how it can be used to return to the present moment. I still get that feeling. But the genre has also become something more to me. It’s an antidote to urban loneliness, where the music in my headphones brings new meaning to the spaces around me.
Unlike other music, which predominantly tells you what to think using lyrics, ambient leaves space for the action to unfold. Of course, you can still detect tone and the context behind the record. Bliss Signal, for example, have clearly made night-time music on this album debut: the cover art shows two mystical looking deer caught in headlights; there’s a track called “Floodlight.” But there’s also room to bring your own experiences in too, relating different ambiance to different moods, times and places in a way you can’t really achieve with pop music.
On the flipside of Bliss Signal’s dense, rain-sodden dystopian metal-music is a new release from Yamaneko (released this month), which is full of angelic new-agey light, called “Aquarius Echo Chamber”. The London producer feels similarly about ambient music and solitude, telling Truants Blog last year that he started writing music in 2007 so he would have something to listen to when walking around cities alone. "I made a bunch of mixtapes in Acid Pro that are probably all long gone now," he told them, about his songs built from those walks, "but the process of going through video game ambience, YouTube samples and field recordings and making tracks specifically for blend/transition purposes and using them in mixes has stuck with me ever since."
Clocking in at 23 minutes, "Aquarius Echo Chamber" track is lush, lightly touched with rippling synths as if to give the feeling of being underneath or near water. His music is relaxing, never too heavy, but not boring either. He simply breathes serenity into expansive spaces, giving his songs a healing quality – which makes it no surprise that Yamaneko was commissioned last year to write music for a spa. Think of his tunes as the modern equivalent of Hiroshi Yoshimura’s Green, and the closest you’re gonna get to being in a soothing water garden without actually being in one. They’re also full of good faith too, that things will soon be at peace. “All of my music is driven by emotions and hope,” he said, in that same Truants interview.
These affirmations of positivity were brought into the real world earlier this month when Yamaneko played his first full live show. Inside the basement of south London venue Rye Wax was a sign: “Everything Is Going To Be Alright”. “I have a bunch of phrases that echo through my mind a lot anyway – almost like mantras, I guess,” he told Clash Magazine. “My main one was: Everything Is Going To Be Alright. I insisted it would be the first one that people saw.”
I didn’t go to the show, but I like and get that sentiment. It’s something you could easily feel applies to a lot of ambient music. Or at least in my experience it does. When you’re alone, you don’t always want to be listening to, say, Ariana Grande (even though I think she’s released the song of the year). It’s too hyperactive, too sugary. But god forbid you listen to something depressing, and push yourself down into a slump.
You don’t necessarily want to not be listening to music either, since the sounds of the world – people chatting on the train, laughing, etc – can sometimes be a reminder of the fact you’re hanging out alone. So ambient music gives a platform for these mundane experiences to be a little more exciting, or at least less dull: to elevate a leisurely afternoon in some new-age spa. Or, as I experienced, to make a train ride late at night feel like the end of the world.
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