Some Quality Ambient Music

One of the most unrecognized and unappreciated music genres is ambient music; I should know, I hadn’t really listened to an ambient album until this year. It wasn’t out of strong feelings either, it was just a lack of knowledge about what defines good ambient music and what the purpose of ambient music is in relation to other genres. Personally, I ascribe a specific emotion or mood to certain genres, just based on my experiences with them and their energy. For example, I listen to metal to get angry or determined, classic rock to be happy or calm down, hip hop to be challenged musically, classical to feel studious or refined, etc. Previously, I associated ambient music with boring music, simple to make and unimportant. Only recently, when I started listening to the Monument Valley soundtrack on vinyl in my room, did I start to appreciate the unique place of ambient music. Now I want to present three of my current favorite ambient albums and give some thoughts on what makes each one stand out.

Image result for monument valley album cover"If you’ve been keeping up with my posts, you’ll know I already discussed Monument Valley in detail and how much I love it for its style and simplicity. Those same principles work just as effectively on its soundtrack, which is airy, vibrant, and absolutely gorgeous. While some might argue that it belongs in a different genre, I would say that the subtle instrumentation and clear effort put into the sound design and composition place it firmly in the ambient genre. This record has been my first experience with ambient music and it has made me realize that ambient music is meant to be appreciated thoughtfully; each note is placed with purpose and every silence is more expressive, since there are no distractions from the minimal atmosphere. Other music genres often become formulaic (intro, hook, bridge, chorus, repeat), but ambient music is forced to do more with less, leading to really fascinating instrumentation and musical development.

Image result for minecraft volume alpha cover"Another ambient album I’ve been listening to is the Minecraft soundtrack, Volume Alpha by C418. You might be surprised to see another game soundtrack on here, especially one that you wouldn’t recognize if you haven’t played the game. However, it has recently become appreciated as a truly special ambient album; people who play the game might not be able to tell you a song or what it sounds like, but they’ll be able to hear it and tell you exactly where it’s from. Most interesting to me is how well the soundtrack complements the style of the game, but also how well it stands alone. It features a lot of bright piano and synths, along with some really unique instruments that are folksy and adventurous. It’s a great example of the creativity that ambient albums embody, not only in composition but also in atmosphere. Whether in games or as stand alone projects, ambient music is often interpreted as a means of creating atmosphere with background music, but there exist many albums such as this one that are even more interesting and unique when appreciated alone.

Image result for kankyo ongaku album cover"Last but not least is this gorgeous record Kankyo Ongaku (Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990) by various Japanese artists. I never would have found this if it hadn’t been reviewed by theneedledrop, who gave it a very favorable review and piqued my interest. This album stands apart from the first two, not only because it is a stand alone ambient project, but because of its Japanese compositional influences. It fits the common mold of ambient music, featuring crashing waves, chirping birds, and other natural sounds (as expected by the title), but it defies the typical boring stereotypes that usually accompany that style. It does so by being expertly crafted and full of intention; the opening track itself is a testament to the articulate style of the album, featuring precisely placed bells and drones, each with a specific balance and design that creates a thoughtful, meditative space. The whole album is intricate beneath the surface, and requires sharp attention to detail; I listen to it with headphones at night, when everything is quiet and I can truly appreciate every perfectly placed note. This album is the perfect example of what makes ambient music so unique, and I hope that more people can develop an appreciation for these qualities just as I have.

Monument Valley

The history of mobile games is volatile at best, built on cheap gimmicks and popular trends, as seen in games such as Fruit Ninja, Angry Birds, and Flappy Bird. Overall, mobile devices have long been abused and misused as mediums of quality artistic expression, lacking notable works of art and remaining barren of any significant creative expression. It is certainly not due to any inherent limitations of the medium; most modern smartphones can compete with modern laptops and computers relative to graphics and hardware capabilities, but more likely due to the precedents set by the first mobile game gold rush, started by simple, cartoonish games that relied on repetition in order to increase advertisement time. However, one game series stands apart from the rest in every single way: Monument Valley is a stunning and surprising work of art, featuring an amazing style, atmosphere, and complementary soundtrack, all relying on a simple yet endlessly fun and fascinating gameplay. Not only does it demonstrate the true artistic capabilities of the mobile medium and set the bar for future artists and developers, it does it all without relying on cheap ads and gimmicks.

Image result for monument valley game"I discovered Monument Valley when it was first released in 2014, as I was scrolling through the home page of the Apple app store. It was praised as a truly unique puzzle game of “impossible geometry”, and it featured a minimal yet beautifully crafted art style. It was actually the first mobile game that I paid money for, which was certainly unusual at the time, especially considering it was $2.99. In hindsight, I find it fascinating how quality mobile game studios are forced to sell their games so cheap relative to console games, which often range anywhere from $20 – $60, just because the mobile market is dominated by cheap games that depend on adds and in-app purchases. Needless to say, it was the best $2.99 I ever spent: since I first opened the game I couldn’t stop playing, I was completely immersed in the colorful and intricate world of Monument Valley.

The game relies on a simple tap to move mechanic, as the player tries to guide the protagonist Ida to the end of each maze-like architectural wonder. My favorite part is the clear care and detail that went into every level of the game (of which there are only 10 levels), as seen in the design, art style, atmosphere, accompanying soundtrack, and subtle plot that is developed throughout, as the player discovers more and more about this forgotten world of impossible geometry. Compared to other mobile games, its simplicity is its greatest strength: it features a few main characters, a simple mechanical concept, and puzzles that are challenging but never impossible. However, it sets itself apart in its quality and artistic craftsmanship, where each level is its own world, full of clever tricks and beautiful geometric design, which perfectly complements the game itself while also making every frame a work of art in itself.Image result for monument valley 2 game"

Monument Valley is entirely unique and deserves to be recognized as a work of art, just as significant as any great album or famous painting, if not more so for its role in breaking the expectation of what a mobile game has to be. It is not meant to be played endlessly and mindlessly, but instead appreciated and savored; it is not a pitiful attempt at money grabbing, but a beautiful artistic concept that was perfectly executed through the mobile medium. The developers continued to build on the exceptionalism of Monument Valley with Monument Valley: Forgotten Shores, and Monument Valley 2, which I both equally recommend (Monument Valley 2 deserves its own post, considering how it expands on the themes of the first game while completely revolutionizing its art style). I would love it if these games could receive more recognition, not only because they deserve it, but because they represent everything that mobile games should be.

 

Soundtracks that Stand Out

Although I claim to open to almost any style or genre of music, there are a few that I just find hard to bear: whether it be screamo, country, or experimental noise that gives me a headache. Soundtrack music tends to be more complicated. I know a lot of people that can just listen to the soundtrack of a movie, play, game, or tv show from front to back, just like how I would listen to a normal album, and that concept is completely foreign to me. I’ve just always felt like there was something missing from soundtracks, and that missing piece tends to be a strong overarching theme or common aesthetic. Most of these albums lack vocals, relying solely on instrumentation, while simultaneously being the background music to something much more interesting happening visually. For these reasons I often don’t think twice about the soundtracks to my favorite media; when I do, it’s usually only to point out one fitting song or memorable moment, not to listen to the entire album. However, I do think some soundtracks break this monotony, and in appreciating what makes these albums interesting, I think we can learn a lot about what it takes for a soundtrack to stand out, and more importantly what its role is in the overall work of art. To examine these questions, I want to bring up two soundtracks that I find particularly notable: Devilman Crybaby and Swiss Army Man.

Image result for devilman crybabyDevilman Crybaby is an original Netflix anime adaptation of the original manga by Go Nagai, and although I highly recommend watching it, I’ll try to save some of my praise for another post. The essential story is about a young boy named Akira who gets wrapped up in an emerging world of demons by his mysterious childhood friend Ryo. It features existential and dark themes, and raises questions about humanity, society, and love that make you think long after the show is over. It’s a tragedy to be sure; be prepared to cry when it’s over, but it is not without its moments of hope. The soundtrack to the show mirrors this so accurately and poignantly, making it the perfect complement to the show and adding something that makes it entirely unique. The aesthetic of the soundtrack perfectly fits the artistic style of the animation; it’s primal and pounding at times, matching the intense scenes of chaos, and other times it’s subtle and futuristic, setting this iconic tone throughout the show that lasts long after its over. My favorite tracks however are these long orchestral pieces, featuring these solemn and mourning grand piano melodies that are absolutely haunting. They contrast so well, both on the overall album and in the show itself; they provide these thoughtful reprieves from the chaos, where both the characters and audience are forced to reflect on the tragedies of humanity. Overall, I find this soundtrack incredible in how it affects the story, and how well crafted it is that it can stand alone.

Image result for swiss army manAnother great example of a stand out soundtrack is Swiss Army Man, a small indie film featuring Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano. Again, one of my favorite movies; a little quirky and hard to swallow at first, but it leaves a lasting impression and is just genuinely fun to watch. Similar to the Devilman Crybaby soundtrack, this soundtrack stands out for its aesthetic and style: it is fun and folky, featuring a lot of vocals and accapella, accompanied by simple instrumentation and haunting chords. All of the vocals are performed by the two actors as well, which is ingenious, especially during the film when the characters are quiet and the music speaks for them. The movie mostly takes place in the woods and is an unusual love story, which is reflected well in the soundtrack. It features a variety of unusual songs, mostly focused on the relationship between the two main characters, and tells its own story in a way that the film itself can’t. In this way, the soundtrack adds an important element to the story and can’t be ignored. These reasons make the soundtrack stand out, and as a result I still find myself listening to it, reliving the great moments of the story through music.

 

The Soundtrack of My Summer

Do you ever hear a song come on the radio and suddenly you’re taken back in time to when you first heard it? You might have liked it so much that you played it on repeat for the next week, until you got sick of it and never played it again. Then you hear it on the radio and you fall in love all over again, but this time it’s even better, because you remember how great it was listening to it the first time, and it’s associated with a different time in life, where things might have been better or worse, but all you cared about was that one song. I experience this all the time, partially because I overplay things, but also because I’m constantly listening to new music. It’s a great feeling to rediscover a classic, and briefly but vividly remember an amazing moment from years ago. This effect also makes me more conscious about the music I listen to in the present, because I know that the music I listen to now will define my nostalgia in the future. Basically, an over-complicated way of saying that I like to relate certain songs or albums to certain times in my life. This last summer I struggled to find interesting or new music; not that there wasn’t a lot, just hardly anything that I wanted to put on repeat. However, two albums gradually rose to prominence and inevitably became the soundtracks of my summer: “Igor” by Tyler, the Creator and “Relaxer” by Alt-j.

“Igor” came out at the beginning of summer and I listened through it in its entirety the night it was released. It was a memorable project with an amazing atmosphere, unique aesthetic, and bass-heavy rhythms, but I didn’t see much replay value in it at first. It was like reading a book: the first time the story is great and the plot is constantly surprising, but attempting to read it again is daunting and pointless. However, faced with no alternative albums that peaked my interest, I resorted to picking out some of the catchiest, most interesting tracks and started listening to them daily (it was better than nothing, and I can’t live without music). Songs such as “EARFQUAKE”, “WHATS GOOD”, and “NEW MAGIC WAND” became favorites, mainly for their experimental vibes and driving bass lines. Overall the album isn’t bad, but the pitched vocals and gritty aesthetic get old fast, and I was more a fan of his aggressive and dark style on older albums.

The second album I overplayed was “Relaxer” by indie/alternative band alt-j. This album is true to its name, consisting of mostly rhythmic, gentle, and natural songs that feature a lot of acoustic instruments and samples. Only 8 songs long, there isn’t a lot to the album (especially since I can barely stand one of them), but the best ones truly shine, namely “3WW”, “In Cold Blood”, “Adeline”, and “Last Year”. This is an album for long car rides or adventures into the woods; it has a spirit of wandering and mystery that yields endless replay value, as both foreground and background music. It also served as a great contrast to the heavily produced and experimental Igor, meaning I could alternate the two albums and neither of them would get old. The two albums make an unlikely pair, but they complement each other in such a way that helps me appreciate the styles of each. Regardless, these songs came to define my summer: I played them on camping trips, beach trips, long drives, before work, and pretty much any other time I could play music.  Even though they aren’t my favorite albums ever, I can’t wait for that feeling, years later, when one shuffles into my playlist and I can briefly relive the summer of ’19, if only for a few minutes of nostalgia.