For fans of ambient music, searching for fresh releases can appear daunting. The rapidity of ambient musicians releasing new music can leave some discographies with upwards of a hundred records. So the question is where to begin. The best advice I can give is to find a label you can trust, one that acts as a curator of great drone and ambient releases more than a machine churning out something that only finds itself lost in an algorithm.
Based in the UK, Elm Records, founded by James Osland in 2013, are curators in the truest sense, small, and genuinely independent; their specialty is “experimental and organic ambience,” but there is variety among their releases. Like any other genre, ambient is equally vast in diversity; some releases skew toward the warmer end, whereas some carry a darker hue; listeners can find releases dating back nearly a decade that feature some artists I already have in constant rotation, Andrew Heath and Seabuckthorn, and some that I’m not yet familiar but look forward to spending more time with.
Elm makes this easy for newcomers; their releases feature a harmonious DIY design aesthetic; featuring Osland’s photographic and design work. A visual mirror to the auditory splendor within. The imagery accompanying their releases encapsulates their mission well as Elm examines the coexistence between the organic and manmade. Each release is given a limited physical run on cassette that contains rich nature photography, sometimes abstractly. Centered on each is their stamp, a circular logo highlighting the catalog number and the artists.
Elm’s upcoming release, On Wonders and Things Unseen, a collaborative album by ambient mainstays Nhung Nguyen, Giulio Aldinucci, and Offthesky, features cool blue water with what appears to be plantlife toward the top. Touted as a “rich sonic tapestry exploring deep pulsating drones, soft lilting piano melodies, and environmental field recordings,” coupled with track titles like “Velvet Blue” and “Waves and Light,” it’s easy to imagine Osland’s design is informed by the artist’s output, a symbiotic bond between musician and designer.
Coming in September, Fran Dominguez, aka Forest Robots’ next album, Horst & Graben, inspired by many of the ambient heroes of the 1970s, acts as a sonic letter for the musician’s daughter, hoping to instill in her profound respect and love for nature. It’s the sort of reverence for the earth that you wish everyone had such a sensitive approach to sharing. Elm’s releases are stirring in this way; they welcome thoughtful dialogue on the state of the world while never being oppressive enough to ward off your own enjoyment or interpretations of the music.
For anyone looking to dive into Elm’s varied catalog, the label offers compilations highlighting various artists that serve as an excellent primer to their focused purpose. For Example, 2021’s The Silence Beneath The Bark is a rich mixture of ambient music inspired by and utilizing classical, drone, and field recordings. It’s simply a collection of nine gorgeous compositions. In addition to their compilations, Elm offer extended ambient mixes on their Soundcloud page appropriately titled the Sleepy Sunday Podcast. These mixes are another unique method the label uses to illuminate independent ambient musicians.
One release from earlier this year, and a personal favorite, Andrew Heath’s Drawings From Imagined Cities, is a long-playing study on the solitude of a city being stilled. Drawings From Imagined Cities works well as eight reflective pieces. Within the past year, the world saw itself unplug, priorities changed, and many sought new ways of approaching how we work, socialize, and live. The album captures the darkness of these moments exceptionally well. Many of these compositions utilize field recordings that are evocative of public spaces. The title track is a slow, unfurling dirge featuring a piano motif that quietly fades near the end. It’s like watching a sunset from a park, conscious that the day is closing for all of us, a shared cradlesong. “Let Me See Trees Again” utilizes organic textures and recordings of birds to evoke a sense of longing for the nature we once neglected but, due to domestic confinement, yearned to be within. Imagined Cities might be the most vital expression of where we all were, the great unifier that extends across borders.
On the moodier side, deer meadow’s all is empty and awake is an ethereal display of more cryptic textures that recall moments spent isolated, inside your head, unsure; as each surface expands and drifts into radiance, one feels hopeful in the realization that we are all alone, yet it’s what brings us together. These arrangements are a little more ambiguous but recall the undulation of water or the slow expanse of time and space, the everchanging landscape eroded by the elements, helpless to change but accepting of that end.
Similarly notable, Grotta Veterano’s A Clear, Grey Sunday Sky is a short airy release, featuring a four-part composition that drifts by almost like the fading light of evening. A combination of drone textures and field recordings. Veterano never hits too heavy with this release; instead, allowing the pieces to blanket you with their grace, slowly as the album proceeds, little embellishments begin to bloom; it’s both melancholic and exuberant in equal measure.
This is always ambient music’s most outstanding quality, the ability to recall a particular time or place and shape its form to fit a myriad of different thoughts and emotions. Listening to a thoughtfully arranged piece of drone music can help unplug from the constant bombardment and excessive energy of more popular genres, media coverage, or just the nonstop hustle and bustle of the workday. As a listener, you have to be open to letting it embrace you. Elm is making this all the more manageable; champions of ambient, their social media accounts often share new finds and old favorites. It’s this spirited approach that makes Elm a label worthy of recognition, there is an attention to detail in the craft of their aesthetic and promotion that makes one feel like they are genuine fans of the music they release. Following Elm is like having a friend earnestly sharing their personal music discoveries with you.
People often come together over pop music, specifically hit songs, yet ambient is a genre everyone can relate with. For those not considered fans, you already are in ways that you maybe aren’t aware of, whether it be the textural compositions within a film soundtrack that sets the tone for the scene, or the orchestra of a field recording that we all listen to daily, it’s the sound you hear when you stop to study your surroundings. The repetitive beat drummed up by driving the highway, the symphony of domestic bliss that is the air conditioner’s hum, or the alien sounds emitting from electronic devices; it’s all something we share regardless of individual differences. The best ambient artists understand this unifying property and arrest these flashes for us to relive. Elm may be a smaller label, but the music they are putting out does an equally great job seizing the breadth of human emotion.