Photo: Nikita Grushevskiy / Courtesy of the artist

Fave Five: Rafael Anton Irisarri

As one of the most celebrated ambient composers working today, Rafael Anton Irisarri continues to evolve. We celebrate his metal-tinged new album Peripeteia with a look through the albums that made him.

Rafael Anton Irisarri
22 May 2020

For a guy that doesn’t sing, ambient kingpin Rafael Anton Irisarri still communicates a lot through this song titles — and they are often bleak affairs.

Whether the song is called “Infinite Stillness” with his electronic band Orcas or “Burn Me Out From the Inside” with his experimental duo known as the Sight Below or “Oh Paris, We’re Fucked” from his nuclear apocalypse daydream of a solo record Midnight Colours, Irisarri is unafraid to use his mastery of the wordless soundscape to put forth messages that reflect the bleak and uncompromising times we’re living in. Yet his solo efforts and collaborations aren’t feel-bad listens so much as they are utterly cathartic, finding beauty in torn up digital landscapes. He achieved this perhaps no better than his 2017 collaboration with Leandro Fresco called La Equidistancia. The duo’s gorgeous layers of melody proved to be nothing short of a gift for the ears, with that record topping out as PopMatters’ Best Ambient/Instrumental Record of the year.

Ever prolific, Irisarri is back with another beautifully desolate soundscape in the form of Peripeteia, his first solo effort for Dais Records. Referred to in his press release as “power ambient”, there is assuredly a sense of dread that shapes Peripeteia that has always been present in Irisarri’s work but never so prominently featured. Waves of distortion get lost in echo chambers, with walls of white noise soon fading into pink and then into saturated blood red. It is a blistering ambient piece full of tension and release. Its stark tone is reflected in the song titles, with tracks being named “Between the Negative Voids” and “Vanishing Points” as a way to set the listener up for a listening experience that’s brutal and beautiful.

So to help mark the occasion, Irisarri sat down to list his Fave Five records, going with the category of his “Five Favorite Albums of All Time (At This Time)”. Each LP selected gives a little bit more insight into his dynamic sense of texture and composition, setting him for one of the most involved and elaborate careers in ambient music that’s still going strong to this day.

1. Arvo Pärt – Tabula Rasa [ECM, 1984]

This work by the Estonian maestro is simply mesmerizing. I started listening to his compositions almost 25 years ago, and they have never ceased to impress me every time I listen to the recordings. I’ve been lucky enough to witness a few performances of Pärt’s work live, and it’s always been a beautiful experience. ECM as a whole has a very inspirational catalog (Steve Reich, Keith Jarrett, Jon Hassell), and Arvo’s music is the icing on the cake. Arvo Pãrt’s sense of harmony inspired almost all of Peripeteia‘s vocal parts.


2. Bathory – Hammerheart [Noise, 1990]

I love this Bathory album, the start of the so-called “Viking Metal” movement (whatever that means). Particularly inspirational for me is the sound of Quorthon’s voice. The raspiness of it while singing the melodies sort-of-in-tune is like catnip to my ear. There’s so much deep-seated anger and resentment in the lyrics — pure raw emotion when talking about the pillage of Scandinavia by the Christianization process. For me, as a descendant of the indigenous people of Europe (the Basques), I can sympathize with the anti-Christian lyrics. After all, Spain endured centuries of the Inquisition and in the Basque Country, mainly the burning of “witches” (those who practice “pagan” Basque rituals like Akelarre and followed the indigenous region’s mythology).

Sound-wise, the lo-fi overall tone of this album is also rather refreshing for a genre obsessed with “polished” sounds (think all those super pristine sounding metal albums in the mainstream at the time — like
fuck you, Bob Rock). I love things that sound a little bit beaten up and broken. Rough around the edges.


3. Seefeel – Quique [Too Pure, 1993]

Sonically, Quique is an album that changed how I produce music. Massively influential. To date, I still reference whenever working in the studio, particularly the way Mark Clifford layers guitar parts to create blurry clouds of sound. I can best describe the sound as if you were sucked inside of a vacuum cleaner and spun around inside.


4. Cluster – Sowiesoso [Sky, 1976]

I refer to Sowiesoso as my “education”. Sparse, warm, and completely timeless. An album released 44 years ago still sounds like it could have been made and released today. Two German dudes living in the countryside improvising with synthesizers are more impactful than entire orchestras. It influenced scores of people like Brian Eno and many more. Nuff said!


5. Panasonic – Kulma [Blast First, 1997]

The late great Mika Vainio was a massive inspiration to me. Kulma was the first Pan Sonic I ever heard (when they were called “Panasonic”). An old friend sold me this CD actually; he hated it. [He] probably thought it was “broken” and he unloaded it on me for one dollar. Joke’s on him, as it pushed me in the direction that’d lead me to who I am musically today!

It completely changed how I viewed electronic music, how powerful saying little really is: the potency of minimalism, of space, of silence. I had the fortune of meeting and spending time with Mika (I brought him to Seattle in 2014 to perform at Substrata) and have so many great stories. He was a true innovator and someone we all whom he touched with his works dearly miss.