Ambient music doesn’t tend to play the singles game. Certainly not anymore, anyway, now that digital ease and convenience has driven the single’s commodity form into the margins of merch tables, boutique labels, and limited releases. A subtly diverse subgenre based on patient, enveloped listening occupies these territories, of course. Modern Love, the Manchester label Andy Stott calls home, certainly does, if the wealth of 12-inches he’s released there in less than ten years is any indication.
But ambient’s diverse embryonic threads, which in the ’60s and ’70s ranged from classically-trained avant-gardists to synthesizer early adopters and adventurous pop stars, consolidated around album-oriented rock, most visibly in the work of the genre’s putative forefather Brian Eno. Several decades later that single-averse legacy hasn’t gone away: two of the more important releases marking ambient music’s commercial and critical resurgence in the ’90s, Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2 and Global Communication’s 76:14, were essentially compilations repackaged as long-players, their track titles abstracted as if to discourage division into discrete songs.
Which is not to say these tracks, or any of their millennial progeny, don’t work out of context. Even casual fans of electronic music know their favorite Vol. 2 tracks, if not by name exactly. (My favorite is unofficially named after a vegetable.) But these tracks, which tend towards porous, flexible structures, really come alive as fragments of wider soundscapes, whether in the closed text of an album or the ongoing world-building of an artist’s sonic identity.
It’s somewhat unusual, then, for the most vivid realization of an ambient vision to arrive as a fully-formed song. Andy Stott’s “Violence”, unleashed late this summer in advance of his third full-length Faith in Strangers, is one such instance. Airy minor chords, a lumbering tempo, and subterranean bass evoke a familiar terrain of derelict atriums and distant freight trains. Familiar too is the waifish mezzo-soprano, waxing quixotic on predators and prey. Here, though, her voice and the spare, blown-out synths around it are angular, abrupt, and abrasive, as if by accident: these minor corruptions in tandem pull a thread of cryptic menace.
But what really gives “Violence” its power is its commitment to songform. By mapping the dyads of beauty and grotesquery, quiet and loudness, and harmony and noise onto the dialectical structures of anticipation and melodicism, Stott conveys uncanniness — a central theme of his music — with unusual clarity. The song’s most seductive moment, an earsplitting riff played over pop-and-hiss drum fills in the climax, is also its ugliest. It’s an astonishing piece, and scary as hell, too: even compared to the sum-of-its-parts alienation of Sunn 0))) and Scott Walker’s Soused, and the heavy-handed corporal punishment of Pharmakon’s Bestial Burden, “Violence” is the most terrifying record I’ve heard this year.
Consequently, “Violence” towers over the eight tracks that remain of Faith in Strangers, much like moai statues invoked on its cover. That’s not to say they suffer by comparison. On the contrary, they comprise what is easily among the richest ambient albums in a while, and one of the year’s best electronic offerings. Nor is it to say that “Violence” doesn’t fit; the monastic atmospherics of the tracks that flank it on either side, “Time Away” and “On Oath”, suture it nicely into Faith in Strangers’ breathy, metallic fabric. It means that “Violence”, by embracing the kind of self-contained dynamism typically anathema to ambient music, condenses in an immediate, invigorating six-and-a-half minutes what the rest of album covers in eight times that.
Most of Faith in Strangers is a groove machine, albeit a despondent and sometimes hostile one. Aside from “Violence”, it tends towards melodic minimalism, which sometimes sounds like nightmarish incidental music, as on closer “Missing”, and other times cedes the floor to brooding hi-hat workouts, as on “Science and Industry”. The title track — and second advance single — is both the album’s second-most song-like song, and its least adventurous: a sleek, immaculate update of drum-and-bass-inflected ambient techno, à la older Brits the Future Sound of London and the Orb — or Millie & Andrea, Stott and labelmate Demdike Stare‘s minimal techno project. “No Surrender” and “Damage” are noisy expeditions through the oversize, elastic basslines of UK grime and dubstep, while “How It Was” blends these styles for the kind of industrialized downtempo that dominated 2012’s Luxury Problems.
Make no mistake: Faith in Strangers is pretty outstanding, an eclectic, innovative, and cohesive addition to the ambient canon. Yet for all their bold gestures, most of its tracks remain beholden to the genre’s tradition of layered open-endedness. What makes “Violence” so exciting is that it uses the rather conventional means of verse-hook-verse structuration to reconcile the poles of meditation and, well, violence, while keeping both rather majestically intact. If it bears resemblance to anything, it would be Fatima Al Qadiri’s “Shanzhai”, a minimal-goth deconstruction of “Nothing Compares 2 U” that is this year’s other most beautiful-grotesque record. If the rest of Faith in Strangers represents Stott’s mastery of well-travelled compositional terrain, then “Violence” points the way to thrilling new horizons.