It’s never a bad time to focus on mental health. However, in the current climate of Covid-era fallout, such concerns are especially pertinent. That’s why Coldcut decided to create @0.
The long-running British duo of Matt Black and Jon Moore are best-known for their innovative, sample-heavy electronic music and the Ninja Tune label they founded to release it. In 2016, though, they started the Ahead of Our Time imprint to focus on more experimental, ambient work. Now Ahead of Our Time has released the ambient compilation @0, with the goal of, as Black puts it, “helping to avoid that downward spiral and navigate slowly up and out”. Putting their money where their mouths are, Coldcut are distributing the record company’s profits among three mental health charities.
The thing with charity compilations is the cause is often more thoughtful and compelling than the music. They are often hit-and-miss affairs at best and are scattershot in terms of style and quality. @0 transcends this tendency impressively. Each piece of music is new, bespoke material. The contributors include legendary names like Ryuichi Sakamoto, Suzanne Ciani, and Steve Roach rubbing shoulders with relative newcomers such as Skee Mask and Nailah Hunter. The album is slightly different depending on the format. The CD is a continuous mix by longtime Coldcut collaborator Mixmaster Morris while the vinyl and digital versions are unmixed and include 22 and 29 tracks, respectively.
In any format, @0 accomplishes its brief, swaddling the listener in mellow, relaxing swaths of sound. Slow-building, expansive washes of synthesizer pads dominate, swelling and ebbing with each successive track. This uniform approach allows for a consistently pleasant experience, undemanding by design. As the artist list might suggest, this is the type of ambient music that often straddles the line between the more impressionistic reaches of the shoegaze genre and the less-hokey side of new-age music.
On the former end, Obay Alsharani’s “Dream Within a Dream” quite literally evokes a seashore at high tide, waves crashing and surf spraying as a flute plays in the background. On paper, this may seem like an overly-familiar ambient cliché, but reverb renders the whole thing as if it is being heard through a conch shell. Ill-esha’s “Sonata of Solitude” uses subtle electronic blips and mournful strings to rise out of the sonic cloud. Coldcut provide one of the album’s most sublime moments with their remix of Imogen Heap’s “The Happy Song”. Here, the wash of synths is almost glacial, with what may be the wordless echo of Heap’s voice barely rising through it. Is the title ironic? If happiness is bliss, then the answer is no.
Lest one worry that listing to the album amounts to 90 minutes of staring at a planetarium ceiling, not every track on @0 adheres to the swelling synth approach. Helena Hauff’s “Thalassa” is about as glitch as ambient music can get. Sakamoto’s “Aqua” and Ned Scott’s “Patchwork” are gentle, melancholic solo piano pieces that ultimately sound hopeful and comforting—pure aural medicine. @0’s most transcendent moment, though, is James Heather’s stunning “And She Came Home”, an evocative chamber piece with weeping strings whose melody sounds strangely familiar, soundtrack music for a film that plays in one’s deepest dreams.
A common criticism of ambient music is that it wafts too far in the background, to the point where it has little effect. To that point, some of @0’s tracks are indeed barely there. Noodream’s “The Healing Light of Sound” is a particular offender, a shapeless, formless, 14-minute drone. At the other end of the spectrum, the dissonant flute loops of Rhododendron Forest Rescue’s “FRKTL” nearly break the spell cast by the 20-some tracks that precede it.
Perhaps surprisingly, given its curators, @0 is not the kind of trippy, psychedelic chill-out music that can also fall under the “ambient” umbrella. In that sense, it may be too tame for some. But as a thoughtfully-sequenced, sometimes transportive relaxant, it is an appealingly exquisite proposition.