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Ambient: Chris Armstrong, Steve McManaman, Dan Pound, the Solaris Project

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CHRIS ARMSTRONG: A.I. Awakens (CD on Spaceage Furniture Music)

This release from 2008 features 70 minutes of cybernetic ambience.

Joining Californian synthesist Armstrong on this debut recording are: Kate Conklin and Lisa Popeil (on vocal effects), Jonathan Miller (on additional synthesizers and MIDI guitar), and David Philipson (on bansuris).

Ethereal atmospherics are punctuated by metallic rhythms and electronics designed to appeal more to a computer head than the conventional organic entity.

The electronics are very dehumanized, evoking realms populated by mechanical life. While melodies are present, the musical gist is mainly harmonic. The tonalities reverberate between bulkheads instead of wafting on expansive breezes. Tones are generated and bent while synthesized bells contribute lilting chimes which serve to augment the desolate foundations.

While e-perc plays a vital role here, the rhythms are lethargic and metranomic, studied patterns that serve as an auxiliary set of sounds and exhibit no inspiration to motivate the audience’s feet to dance.

The vocal effects conjure a remote choral presence that is cinematic and in no way represents any human involvement in the A.I.’s awakening.

These compositions are extremely sparse and highly cybernetic in character, which purely fits the overall intention of the artist who strives to generate a soundtrack for machinery. This does not mean that the music is industrial or cacophonic; it is actually quite harmonic and potentially pleasant--just designed to appeal to nonorganic sensibilities.

While instrumental in nature, these compositions tell a story of robotic evolution which is outlined in the liner notes.

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STEVE McMANAMAN: Those Who Dreamt (CD on SMC Music)

This release from 2008 offers 53 minutes of edgy ambience excerpted from live performances in Cincinnati in 2006 and 2007.

Mixing electronics and rhythms, these soundscapes possess a dreamy quality tinged with a mildly industrial temperament. Instead of disturbing the serenity, these harsh threads merely imbue the tuneage with a deeper otherworldliness.

Textural layers establish cloudy foundations which inspire a somnambulant disposition. That mode is then tempered with more substantial electronics which nudge the tuneage into the direction of a contemporary genre while maintaining a distinctly pacific mood.

Gentle percussion lends languid rhythms to the drifting melodies. These tempos are understated, providing subtle oomph instead of any overt locomotion. Often, the rhythms are abstract and erratic, infusing the tunes with a quirky sensibility that marks them as unique among ambient explorations.

Guitar scrapings bestow an edginess to the opening track, curiously enhancing the American Indian undercurrents found in that song. Other pieces are agitated by blooping effects that border on illbience. These glitchy embellishments are handled with restraint, though, so that the music retains its atmospheric softness.

Although these compositions are designed to sedate, their illbient quality generates an ethereal nervous demeanor that is not unappealing.

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DAN POUND: Trance Meditation (CD on Poundsounds)

This release from 2008 offers 51 minutes of dark ambience.

While Pound is responsible for all the actual music (performed on analog and digital synthesizers, samplers, electric guitar, didgeridoo, shamanic voice and percussion), he is aided by ambient pioneer Steve Roach who contributed sonic enhancements, arrangement and mastering.

Lush atmospherics evoke a nocturnal mood with dire tonalities and gritty embellishments. The textural flow is dark, more portentous than ominous, instilling a serenity that is laced with a wary sense of external awareness. Swimming in this oily mix are haunting vocal effects, didgeridoo moans, and rattlings of paranormal character, all of which enhance the overall arcane nature of the music.

Traces of an abrasive edginess lurk within the sounds utilized on this album. Pound is to be applauded for his crafty application of these harsh sounds to achieve a mood that remains ethereal, albeit eerie.

While generally grating and disturbing, the electronics are crisp and fluid, never muddy or guttural. That their effect is unsettling owes more to the manner in which they are layered with airy textures that carry the resonance of a wintry pasture. In one piece, heavy keyboard sustains achieve a dramatic presence, while another track allows similar keyboards to express themselves more optimistically in lilting chords.

Percussion plays a very minor role here, generally hiding in the mix or processed to the point where the rhythms no longer exhibit any beats.

These harmonic compositions frequently display hints of melodic substance. This is one of the major appeals of his music, his tendency to utilize fleeting glimpses of melody hiding amid the churning pool of atmospheric consistency. This release is decidedly darker than his usual fare, though.

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THE SOLARIS PROJECT: The Solaris Project (CD on The Solaris Project)

This release from 2007 offers 74 minutes of haunting ambience.

The Solaris Project is Travis Metcalf (on guitar) and Igor Abuladze (on koto).

Gentle guitar soundscapes blend with the plucked string resonance of a koto to produce a pacific ambience.

Do not expect conventional guitar here, for the strings have been heavily processed, transforming their issue into extended drones which waft like self-generated breezes across a still ocean. The result is textural and soothing. There are instances in which the instrument achieves a hint of conventional sound with sustains that are barely recognizable as coming from a guitar.

The koto provides sharp augmentation to those atmospherics, with solitary chords and mildly strummed strings establishing a striking contrast. This polarity serves to create an exotic sound as the piercing koto notes punctuate the winding tonalities like sparkles of light going off in a night sky.

Although these compositions are spontaneous, performed live with no overdubbing, the effect is quite lucid and meticulous. The soundscapes drift with crystalline definition, crafting drones into a tapestry of infinite sounds which evoke an expansive vista of minimal substance. The koto injects an Eastern flavor to these sparse constructions, giving the music a unique character.

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