Dark ambient is a music genre that can be traced back to the 1970s. Fans of bands like Nine Inch Nails and their instrumental tracks are sure to gravitate toward this often haunting, yet also alluring genre.
Here’s everything you need to know about dark ambient, including the most famous artists and albums.
WHAT IS DARK AMBIENT MUSIC?
Dark ambient is an underground music subgenre. It combines the gritty darkness of industrial with the atmospheric world-painting properties of ambient.
Due to the heavy lack of lyrics and traditional pop and rock elements, some critics dismiss dark ambient as being “not real” music.
Well, we’re here to set the record straight.
THE HISTORY OF DARK AMBIENT MUSIC
The post-industrial genre can be traced back to the late 1970s, which then opened the door for dark ambient, or ambient industrial, as it was more commonly known. By the mid-80s, dark ambient had spread throughout Europe and established itself as its own genre.
Although it was still seen as an underground music movement, there was enough interest and passion for the sound that artistes continued to compose it.
Thanks to musicians like them, it’s still incredibly popular today, even if you don’t see any of it charted on the Billboard Hot 100. Chances are, you’ve already heard something very similar when enjoying horror and sci-fi scores, as well as video game soundtracks.
THE ARTISTES THAT CONTRIBUTE TO DARK AMBIENT MUSIC
Despite Europe being responsible for a lot of the musicians that craft dark ambient music, they actually hail from every corner of the map.
Let’s take a look at some prominent and important figures from the genre.
Between April and August 1970, renowned American sculptor Harry Bertoia recorded what is considered one of the first entries in the dark ambient catalogue.
Bertoia began building sound sculptures in the 1950s after hearing the resonant possibilities in the metals he worked with. He was also amazed as a child when witnessing a group of people making music with pots and pans.
It took a few years to fine-tune before it was released, but his 1978 sound art/drone/dark ambient offering Space Voyage/Echoes Of Other Times left many hypnotised, even if some scratched their heads in confusion. Mike Oldfield released Tubular Bells in 1973, which was a more melodic representation of Bertoia’s style of experimentation.
Whether it’s the albums as Sephiroth that he made, or the music he created under his own name, Ulf Soderberg’s work is a good place to start when getting into the world of dark ambient.
Soderberg has converted many nay-sayers of the genre and turned them into die-hard fans of himself and other artists.
Soderberg isn’t one to stay holed up in the studio permanently, as he’s recorded many elements of his music out in the field. Travelling to places like Iceland, Cairo, and creepy Nordic forests to capture the perfect sound, her grabs you by the hand and takes you to an unknown ruinous realm full of eerie sounds and ritualistic drums.
Peter Frohmader was a German composer, musician and visual artist. Born in Munich in 1958, he also went by the pseudonym Nekropolis, a name he used to release some of his early works.
He was already in a rock band at the time called CIA, but under the guise of his experimental side-project, Nekropolis released Musik Aus Dem Schattenreich in 1981.
Five more albums were released as Nekropolis, with the last appearing in 2003.
Frohmader utilised industrial and domestic tools, self-made instruments and electronic media to perform some of his music. His influence reached as far as Britain, Japan and America, where he saw greater success than in Germany.
Bands like The Sisters of Mercy, Throbbing Gristle and Deine Lakaien noted Frohmader’s impact on their styles.
CHRISTOPH DE BABALON
German experimental artist, electronic producer and DJ Christoph De Babalon is best known for his work on Alec Empire’s label Digital Hardcore Recordings.
Although he released a few of his earlier compositions on smaller labels when he still lived in Hamburg, his career picked up when he befriended Empire at a rave in 1994.
The 1997 If You’re Into It, I’m Out Of It is the second full-length album of De Babalon’s, and it was recorded and produced on Amiga computers. It’s considered one of the label’s stand-out records and was praised for combining dark ambient and early breakcore, as well as for delivering a dark, idiosyncratic atmosphere.
NATURAL SNOW BUILDINGS
Natural Snow Buildings (2014). Credit: Jan Dobrý/Wikimedia Commons
The mysterious and incredibly productive French duo of Mehdi Ameziane and Solange Gularte have released multiple albums featuring their fusion of ambient, experimental and psychedelic rock with drone elements.
They met at Paris University in 1997 when a film was playing in the library, formed the band together in 1998, and made their first demo tape in 1999.
From the 25 albums they recorded together between 2003 and 2016, their 2009 release Daughter Of Darkness is held in the highest regard by many fans.
Bubbling over with ideas, both members of the band have their own solo projects too; Gularte as Isengrind and Ameziane as TwinSisterMoon.
Both side projects have seen six studio albums made – Ameziane even has two EPs on top of that.
Ambient, noise, industrial, electronic and experimental Swedish music composer Peter Andersson is the man behind the dark ambient project Raison D’Etre.
Formed in 1991, Raison D’Etre’s first recording Apres Nous Le Deluge was released on tape cassette in 1992. The name of the band is a reference to a line from Carl Gustav Jung: "The individuation is the raison d’etre of the self."
The phrase raison d’etre translates to “reason for being”.
With Raison D'Etre, Andersson was able to explore the genre of dark ambient to its full potential, manifesting gloomy soundscapes in the listener’s mind with the use of Gregorian chants and the sound of metal scraping.
Raison D'Etre’s library will keep you busy for days, with Andersson’s latest offering under this name landing in 2018.
GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR
Godspeed You! Black Emperor performing live at Roadburn Festival 2018. Credit: Grywnn/Wikimedia Commons
In 1994, the Canadian drone/experimental/post-rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor was formed in Montreal, Quebec by Efrim Menuck, Mike Moya and Mauro Pezzente.
In 2003, a year after their third studio release, they announced an indefinite hiatus, but later reforming in 2013 and released another four albums of worlds for us to fall into.
Their 1997 debut studio album F♯ A♯ ∞ (pronounced “F-sharp, A-sharp, Infinity) was originally released in limited quantities and was distributed through live shows, subsequently gaining a cult following via word of mouth.
The track “East Hastings” was chosen for the score of the 2002 film 28 Days Later. However, due to issues with the rights to the song, it does not appear on the soundtrack made available for retail.
Founded in the Summer of 1997 in Leipzig, Germany by Frank Merten and Henry Emich, Herbst9 have become a mainstay in the world of dark, tribal, ritual, and space ambient music.
They released their first studio album From A Dark Chasm Below in 1999 and then followed that up with another eight to date; their most recent being Ur Djupan Dal in 2018.
Usumgal Kalamma (2011) appears to be the perfect balance of H9’s familiar style, supported by over a decade of experience composing music. It is regarded as the band’s best work by many.
If the Herbst9 catalogue still hasn’t satisfied your hunger, Merten and Emich are also behind the industrial side-project Land:Fire, which has an equally impressive discography.
Ambient musician Layland James Kirby from Stockport, England, had a long-running project called The Caretaker between 1999 and 2019. Under this name, his sound was characterised as exploring memory and its gradual deterioration, melancholia, and nostalgia.
Early on, Kirby made use of treated and manipulated 1930s ballroom pop recordings and has since been praised by The Wire, The New York Times and BBC Music.
The impetus behind this project was the haunted ballroom scene from the 1980 movie The Shining.
Kirby’s first three releases, Selected Memories From The Haunted Ballroom (1999), A Stairway To The Stars (2001), and We'll All Go Riding On A Rainbow (2003) are referred to as “the haunted ballroom trilogy” by fans and critics alike. Aside from dark ambient, these works are also archetypal of the weird music genre, hauntology.
American master producer and musician Jason Lescalleet began releasing his experimentations with music in 2000.
The title of his debut album In Which The Silent Partner-Director Is No Longer Able To Make His Point To The Industrial Dreamer is almost as long as his back catalogue, which is closing in on listing 50 records.
Lescalleet’s 2006 release The Pilgrim is rated as one of dark ambient’s best albums by many. His trademark usage of reel-to-reel tape decks, as well as other technology that people have deemed obsolete, has kept listeners locked in and asking for more for over two decades.
Lescalleet makes additional use of his production skills when he works with other artistes. He’s also the founder of the Glistening Examples record label.
WHY DO PEOPLE LISTEN TO DARK AMBIENT MUSIC?
People listen to dark ambient music for many different reasons. When you’re not focusing on lyrics and just letting the sounds influence your atmosphere and mood, it’s a great way to boost your creativity in a variety of ways.
The lonely, isolated feeling that often surrounds dark ambient listeners can remove distractions and help when writing, painting, reading, meditating, sleeping, or even just relaxing.
A lot of music is keen to get where it's going in three and a half minutes or less, but not dark ambient. If you’re going to let this misunderstood genre whisk you away, you may as well drop your guard and embrace it.
Cover Credit: Godspeed You! Black Emperor performing live at Roadburn Festival 2018. Credit: Grywnn/Wikimedia Commons
Elevate the way you listen to music with KEF
Writer | D.B. Damage
D.B. Damage is a freelance content writer passionate about creative subjects like music, film, and video games. He studied I.T. and music technology at college and has a background in managing and promoting local bands.