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Ambience with Substance: Dean De Benedictis, Forrest Fang, Pete Namlook & Richie Hawtin, Robert Rich, Peter Schaefer, Saul Stokes

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Not all ambient music is devoid of melody, or substance. Some of it possesses demonstrative presence, elevating the genre of meditative soundscapes to a level of engaging entertainment.

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DEAN DE BENEDICTIS: A Lone Reply (CD on Fateless Records) Also available from, Condor Records, and Backroads Music.

With this CD from 2001, Dean De Benedictis (who has gained quite a reputation in trance and contemporary electronic circles with his Surface 10 identity) delivers a sensitive 79 minutes of delicate and spiritual electronic music.

With this release, De Benedictis' agile electronics appear in accompaniment with many ethnic instruments, such as American Indian flutes (Mayan style), ocarina, Balinese flutes, piano, hand drums, slit drums, and voice. Accumulated by him during his travels through the American West, these instruments motivated De Denedictis to apply his considerable talent to creating a selection of music that would capture the grandeur of the American Indian heritage.

Languid tribal drums swim in the distance amid spiraling flute strains. Electronic riffs become saturated by environmental soundscapes spreading like aerial mesas among the purpled clouds. These haunting passages drift through vistas of wistful flutes that convey the serenity of hundreds of years of successful dreamquests.

Rather than standing in contrast, this coefficient presence of sedate electronics and eerie woodwinds blends to create a union of technology and tradition that is an evocative portrait of fertile spirituality dedicated to unraveling the mysteries of existence.

A substantial portion of all proceeds from "A Lone Reply" will be donated to various American Indian charities.

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FORREST FANG: Gongland (CD on Projekt)

Known for his sensuous application of fractals and algorithms to ambient electronic music, Forrest Fang adds yet another element to his scientific fusion with this 72 minute CD: Indonesian gamelan music.

Blending electronic tonalities with chin-chin, Marxolin, balalaika, bandurria, and Japanese palm harp, Fang creates a flowering island of dreamy melodics alive with esoteric rhythms. Exotic moods flourish through the bubbling synthesizers, enhanced by pulsing tones and shuddering strings.

Atmospheric foundations of languid electronics become soundscapes of diverse expression. The presence of eastern instruments lend the pieces a spirituality that transcends creed, delivering the audience to a placid state of mind mildly energized by trilling crystals. Holistic airs sparkle amid this peaceful ambience.

Fang's sense of melody unfurls like intricate rootwork, expanding basic harmonics with sidereal riffs and flattering textures. Mathematics play an integral part in his compositions, but it is Fang's own creative touch that elevates this music from the predictability or sterility found in most computer music.

The mixture of eastern sounds with western electronics produces a style beyond geographic or cultural classification. This is the music of Gongland, which is remarkably devoid of the presence of any gongs.

Most of the tracks on this CD are short (averaging about four minutes), compressing each tune into separate jewels that shine with distinct charm, be they drifting or soaring. There are two compositions (of eleven minutes each) wherein Fang's exploration involves deeper sonic adventures that unfold with suitable relaxation.

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PETE NAMLOOK & RICHIE HAWTIN: From Within III (CD on Minus Inc.)

This is another in the seemingly endless series of Namlook's ambient electronic collaborations, this time with techno notable Hawtin (aka Plastikman). Not unlike many of those other releases, this one is thoroughly dreamy and wholly worthwhile.

Cosmic tonalities blend with softly rhythmic E-perc strains to produce an excursion through the data networks of terrestrial civilization, in search of artificial intelligence. Lurking in these systems, the music maintains an ambient overtone, peacefully drifting from track to track with a serene loftiness that excellently captures the sensation of immersion into the fluid bitstream of information transfer.

The electronics utilized are textural, with only a hint of activity. The melodies are hardly lackluster despite this minimal structure, achieving pleasant and soothing harmonics. As the CD progresses, more demonstrative melodies emerge.

One passage involves guitar and bass, producing a distinctly cool jazz moment.

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ROBERT RICH: Somnium (DVD on Soundscape/Release/Hypnos)

Dreams have soundtracks like this: languid and liquid, slow-evolving atmospherics of velvet textures and sighing electronic breezes. Acoustic and electronic elements blend with ghostly flutes and slowly tortured guitars to achieve a cosmic fugue that relaxes as much as it invigorates the listener. Mysterious melodies are elongated until their vaporous rhythms become excruciatingly subtle, producing a seething-yet-somber tension. This music is capable of transforming any environment into an isolation tank. Rich's reputation as an ambient pioneer is proven once again with this DVD release of seven hours of ethereal soundscapes, approximating exposure to one of his now-legendary all-night Sleep Concerts.

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ROBERT RICH: Bestiary (CD on Release Records)

On this 53 minute CD from 2001, Rich ventures beyond his signature drone style to explore a more toothy sound (that is fairly reminiscent of the abstract tonalities of Conrad Schnitzler).

Possessing a haunting backdrop of cosmic textures, Rich fills the sonic foreground with shuddering electronics and overt strangeness. Agitated crackling is harnessed and forced to vibrate with playful intent. Harsh pitches merge with themselves to create sparkling rhythms. There's a strong insectoid feeling going on here, enhancing the music with a vivid unearthliness. This otherworldliness cannot be ignored, for its voice is dominant and quite engaging.

Tempos are generated from non-percussive elements which goad the foreign sounds into riveting melodies. What begins as ambience swiftly lurches into livelier compositions that strain the boundaries of contemporary electronic music. But it's a benevolent kind of straining, the kind that inspires and enlightens, introducing the audience to curious new species of sound sculpture.

These tracks are all sonic impressions of exotic (perhaps even imaginary) lifeforms, you see.

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PETER SCHAEFER: Galactic Zoo (CDR on FARN/ Studio Seventeen Productions)

This 71 minute release from 1999 blends extremely ambient airs with traceries of electronic substance.

Schaefer's electronics consist of textural foundations littered with more nimble keyboards and even infrequent E-perc, resulting in a brooding sound that is rich with otherworldly qualities. A peaceful quality is found in each composition, delivering cloudlike moods that tingle with exotic strangeness.

This ambience possesses a strong melodic sense with soft chords and almost-peppy riffs. The music floats aloof, but encounters periodic passages of buzzing liveliness that exhibit restraint, refusing to explode or disrupt the gentle flow.

Understandably, there exists a distinct spacey flavor to this music, since each track is a sonic interpretation of lifeforms not found in our terrestrial ecosphere, like "Fornax-Bugs" and "The Singing Stones from Lalande".

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SAUL STOKES: Abstraction (CD on GreenHouse Music)

This 2001 release features 71 minutes of Stokes' unique electronic music, crafted with machinery designed and constructed by Stokes himself. The material on this CD was culled from live performances from 1997 through 2000, with multitrack modification conducted by Stokes in his home studio.

Because of the unconventional nature of the equipment played by Stokes, the "sound" of this music displays an elusive quality, making codification awkward in standard terminology--while devoid of tempo, the compositions are lush with a melodic quality. The general mode of the music is ambient, but there exists a grittier edge than found in most atmospheric soundscapes. Harmonic in overtone, the melodics are deceptively unstructured. Patterns are present, but craftily immersed in a flowing textural sense.

Washes of languid tonalities sparkle, descending from an abstract sky. These sonic vapors become home to a variety of briefly existent sounds of noticeably unearthly distinction. Shrill pitches (wholly sedated into pleasing aural punctuations) mix with calmly growling vibrations bordering on subsonic qualities. These opposites blend with the atmospheric foundation, elevation the "abstraction" into a gentle interplay that is richly evocative and alive with thought-provoking electronic elation.

All of which frustratingly evades any accurate description of Stokes' lovely music. These pieces may lack recognizable keyboard patterns or discernible beats, but the music is nonetheless vibrant and engaging, far more so than what one might imagine from the term "ambient" or "atmospheric." While exhibiting those tendencies, this music also possesses more substance than conventional soundscapes. That substantiality manifests as music that induces more than basic meditation, these tracks are intended to stimulate the intellect of the listener and inspire unprecedented notions of invigorating caliber.

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