best ambient albums of april 2024
POLLUTION OPERA / Photo: Danse Noir

Ambient Matters: The Best Ambient Albums of April 2024

April was a glorious stew for lovers of this music, and you’ll want to make sure to check out our new playlist showcasing this month’s best ambient entries.

We’re still reeling from the sheer abundance of albums released in April — so much so, in fact, that we had to double the size of our list. This time, although we prefer a loose definition of “ambient music”, about half of our chosen titles would garner enthusiastic nods from purists. That said, artists like PLANT VOX, Madeleine Cocolas, Pinkcourtesyphone, and Ulrich Krieger demonstrate yet again the limitlessness of the form, even for those who choose to work within its established parameters. 

Of course, our list wouldn’t be complete without artists who stretch those parameters almost beyond recognition (or, in some cases, just blow them to bits outright). As we’d expect, Einstürzende Neubauten, Pollution Opera, Lord Spikeheart, and the new Merzbow/Meat Beat Manifesto collaboration all march decidedly off the beaten path, but all of them incorporate genre hallmarks enough to quality. Meanwhile, new albums from Michelle Moeller, su dance110, and the Palace of Tears occupy slippery positions between several genres at once. 

In short, April was a glorious stew for lovers of this music, and you’ll want to make sure to check out our new playlist showcasing this month’s best ambient entries. At nearly four hours, it just goes to show what a sonically fertile time we’re living in. Enjoy! 

S. Hollis Mickey — Cocoon (Full Spectrum) 

A moving testament to the endurance of the human spirit, Cocoon provides a powerful, if delicate, reminder to use our time wisely. By the time S. Hollis Mickey set out to record this album, her myalgic encephalomyelitis had progressed to such a degree that she was severely limited from playing music. Hollis recorded each of the tracks on Cocoon, literally one sitting at a time — playing in a reclined position as long as her energy permitted. The simplicity of her lines on harmonium, kalimba, toy piano, flute, effects pedals, and voice belies the eternal beauty she was able to capture. Hollis has been unable to make music since completing the album, a fitting epilogue to a versatile career that also includes work in sculpture, installation, textiles, and various other modes of performance. For listeners, though, Cocoon need not function as an ending, but as the beginning of the precious time, we still have left.

PLANT VOX — REset (Platoon) 

London-based composer, pianist, and sound artist Helen Anahita Wilson started PLANT VOX with the intention of providing a sonic balm for listeners to heal themselves and restore. Wilson, who has a PhD in Music and Health Humanities from SOAS University of London, uses an ingenious set of techniques to give “voice” to plants. Much of what we hear on REset is the result of Wilson transposing the plants’ electromagnetic activity to a digital sound palette, with tone sequences based on the DNA codes of the various plant species featured.

Here, she focuses on adaptogens — Lavender, Valerian, Ashwagandha, and others known for their stress-reducing properties. Wilson also close-mic’d the actual sounds of the plants and combined them with touches of both Western and Indian classical. A continuous long-form composition, REset stands apart from even the most captivating examples of the “sound bath” music that proliferates on YouTube these days. REset, which delivers quite powerfully on what Wilson set out to do, will have you seeing (and hearing!) the world around us in a wondrous new light. 

Pollution Opera — Pollution Opera (Danse Noire) 

There are moments when it’s clear that the current musical paradigm is being annihilated and re-birthed before our very eyes. Pollution Opera’s self-titled debut is unquestionably one of those moments. And, though it’s a jarring, confrontational listen, the thrill is undeniable. The brainchild of Nadah El Shazly and Elvin Brandhi — both creative powerhouses in their own right — Pollution Opera draws from the sound pollution of El Shazly’s native Cairo to paint a picture of a horrifying future.

One of the noisiest cities in the world, Cairo is perpetually enveloped by what the pair describe as a “sound blizzard smog”. So El Shazly and Brandhi, on visiting the city together, responded to the sensory overwhelm like any reasonable person would: by taking tandem motorcycle rides through the din and screaming their heads off. At times, El Shazly and Brandhi sound genuinely unhinged as they revel in a miasmic aural swamp. Even listeners inured to performative shouting will find themselves rattled by the blood-curdling rawness of their expression.

Make no mistake, though: there’s beauty and craft in spades here. Field recordings, El Shazly’s elegiac traditional electronic fusions, and Brandhi’s free-spirited noise bravado all cohere in remarkable ways. By diving into ugliness and going with it, Pollution Opera achieves a sublime harmony all its own. 

missing scenes — who is this for? (Varia) 

While out on a walk with his daughter one night in 2021, Portland, Oregon-based electronic musician Robert Hunter looked up at the moon and decided to create a piece of music between every full moon over the coming year. His triptych of albums cold moon/worm moon, pink moon/buck moon, and sturgeon moon/beaver moon document that process. Over that period, however, Hunter found himself growing more introspective and asking himself why he was making music in the first place — or, more precisely, who his music was for.

This state of ruminative uncertainty permeates his new album, who is this for? Hunter, inspired by the likes of Coil and Hilary Woods, worked on a custom-designed modular synth system to construct central drones around which “drifting fragments and textures” orbit. Like his previous three titles, who is this for? reflects Hunter’s preoccupation with waxing and waning, light and dark, and the relationship between form and space. The end result is a work that soothes the senses while unsettling the psyche. 

Various Artists — Anthology of Contemporary Music From Far East (Unexplained Sounds Group)

Something of a modern-day answer to Alan Lomax, Italian producer Raffaele Pezzella continues his ongoing effort to uncover obscure ambient sounds from all over the world. Pezzella, who puts out his own dark ambient/drone music under the name SONOLOGYST, inadvertently stumbled into his role as global curator when he sought to connect with like-minded artists in his home country. His scope has kept expanding ever since.

Almost ten years later, his label Unexplained Sounds Group has released a slew of compilations showcasing the work of producers as far-flung as Lebanon, India, Iran, Russia, Mexico, and Indonesia, to name just a few. To date, USG has made forays into nearly every inhabited continent, drawing attention to a remarkably extensive nerve network of independent artists creating ambient and ambient-adjacent music.

As usual, Anthology of Contemporary Music From Far East unfolds like a veritable feast for the ears, running the gamut from machine-shop industrial metal to spectral noise to electro-acoustic twists on traditional sounds. One of the most appealing things about USG’s releases is the way they capture artists both reflecting and bucking against their native backgrounds. Once again, Pezzella shows us just how vast the world truly is, with artistic and cultural contours that remain endlessly varied no matter how interconnected we become. 

Michelle Moeller — Late Morning (AKP Recordings) 

On her debut album, Oakland-based composer, pianist, and programmer Michelle Moeller maintains an irrepressible sense of mischief. At times, Moeller warps her sounds to an unnerving degree, which induces a feeling not unlike walking into a deserted room filled with funhouse mirrors. At other times, she allows the sober elegance of her piano phrasing to shine through. Mostly, though, Late Morning conveys Moeller’s apparent delight in the act of exploring sound — playing with it in the truest sense.

On Late Morning, disparate genres bump together like metallic orbs made of mercury — sometimes fusing into one another in the process. A moment of computer-enhanced surrealism, for example, morphs into sunny jazz improvisation, while elsewhere, the conservatory ambience transforms into a kind of virtual cartoon studio. Along with avant-garde percussionist Willie Winant and mixing engineer Briana Marela, Moeller makes particular use of the contrast between up-close and distant sounds. Some sounds, in fact, have no sense of dimension at all, pulling the listener into a flat, synthetic plane.

As much as she leaves her mark in the realms of timbre and composition, Late Morning reveals Moeller to be quite the sculptor of space itself.  

Meat Beat Manifesto and Merzbow — Extinct (Cold Spring) 

No one would ever mistake the work of Japanese noise icon Masami Akita, AKA Merzbow, for the serenity-inducing sounds of, say, Brian Eno. Though he’s pushing 70, Akita hasn’t lost a step when it comes to summoning torrents of noise harsh enough to strain the limits of tolerance. This collaboration with Meat Beat Manifesto leader Jack Dangers certainly doesn’t go easy on the ears. In fact, Extinct, with its two tracks that sprawl out to over 15 minutes apiece, is a relentless exercise in sonic punishment. Dangers compares Akita to the abstract painter Jackson Pollock, and described the piercing squalls of static and feedback that howl throughout this album as a “plexus of chaos”.

That said, both Akita and Dangers are nothing if not intentional in their sense of sonic architecture. In that regard, Extinct is the epitome of an ambient release, at least in a literal sense. No matter how busy or oversaturated the soundscape gets, a remarkably fine-tuned sense of space pervades. With Extinct, the pair arrive at a seamless marriage between Akita’s paint-peeling abrasion and Dangers’ sinewy avant-dance beats. 

Ulrich Krieger — Aphotic III — Bathyal (Room40) 

German composer Ulrich Krieger has long been captivated by the depths of the ocean. As Krieger points out, the ocean floor might as well be another planet from our perspective, which supplies bountiful fuel for the imagination. With the third installment of his Aphotic series, Krieger imagines the Bathyal layer, which lies 1,000—4,000 meters below the surface, completely devoid of light. (Aphotic is derived from the Greek word for “lightless”.)

Alhough Krieger descended even further on the previous Aphotic titles, one still gets the sense of being plunged into an imposing void that dwarfs human consciousness. Fittingly, Krieger arranged Bathyal for bass flute and contrabass (along with accordion), which convey the engulfing pitch-black of an environment few of us will ever experience up close. Turn off the lights, though, and Krieger’s music gets you about as close as you can get through sound. 

Coral Morphologic and Nick LeónProjections of a Coral City (Balmat) 

Like Ulrich Krieger, the Miami-based team behind Projections of a Coral City focuses on the ocean, but their work hits considerably closer to home, where human civilization threatens to get itself into deep water. For almost 20 years now, musician J.D. McKay and marine biologist Colin Foord have worked under the name Coral Morphologic, blending art and science in multimedia campaigns to generate awareness around marine biodiversity — specifically, the planet’s imperiled coral reefs. For Projections of a Coral City, the pair teamed up with Nick León, a fixture of Miami’s burgeoning fringe electronic movement.

After a 2022 collaboration where Foord, León, and McKay projected coral reef images onto Miami buildings, here they transpose the same idea into sound. Once again, they imagine what Miami might look like if rising sea levels foster conditions for corals to re-claim the city’s human-made structures. They also pay homage to coral as a primordial life form to which we all, in a sense, owe our existence. Though coastal erosion is certainly a daunting prospect, the music itself hews towards a rapturous awe that glimmers with beauty and resounds with a joyous respect for life at all levels. 

Eno: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Universal Music) 

Speaking of Brian Eno, it’s hard to think of a figure who’s done more to solidify the profile of ambient music in popular consciousness. This soundtrack to Helvetica/Objectified/Rams director Gary Huswit’s documentary draws from 14 albums spanning the breadth of the venerated producer’s career. One caveat: listeners will have to wade through a variety of configurations and styles that are often at odds with Eno’s groundbreaking work in the ambient medium. Eno’s artistry would be best served in a box-set format, but the flip side is this soundtrack will surely introduce all but the most dedicated fans to facets of his muse that they weren’t already aware of. Eno may be a bumpy ride, but it’s well worth it.  

We also highly recommend…  

Madeleine Cocolas — Bodies (Room 40) 

Phil Niblock / Anna Clementi / Thomas Stern Zound Delta 2 (Karlrecords) 

GmbH: An Anthology of Music for Fashion Shows 2016—2023 Vol. 1 (studio LABOUR) 

The Palace of Tears — Veiled Screen, Woven Dream (Independent) 

Einstürzende Neubauten — Rampen (apm: alien pop music) (Potomak) 

su dance110 — Shang Can (3087)

Pinkcourtesyphone — Arise in Sinking Feelings (Room40) 

Harvestman — Triptych: Part One (Neurot) 

Claire Rousay — Sentiment (Thrill Jockey) 

Lord Spikeheart — The Adept (HAEKALU) 

Celer — It Would Be Giving Up a four-CD box set (Two Acorns)  

Kira McSpice — The Compartmentalization of Decay (Independent) 

asher tuil — Opus (Room40) 

Gagarin — Komorebi (Geo) 

Micah Pick — Frameworks (Audiobulb) 

Kenneth Kirschner — Three Cellos (greyfade) 

FourColor — Lightscape (12k) 

LOREM — Time Coils (Krisis Publishing) 

Laurent Pernice — Antigone (ADN) 

Venusian Motel Guests — All Was Carbon (Independent)