The Dark Ambient Community At Large

I have come to realize several things about the dark ambient genre and its greater community, which I would like to share with you. If anyone disagrees with me, I am always happy,  to debate these topics or any topics in which I’m passionate, for that matter.

First off, I’m sure this will be a given for many, but when I say “darkness”, I do not exclusively mean spooky. Darkness in the context of dark ambient manifests itself in a variety of ways.  The heartbreak of a lost love, a peaceful walk through the woods on a cool evening, extra-terrestrial lifeforms visiting our planet, a crackling fire inside an arctic cabin, and a mental tour of the cosmos can all be as equally dark experiences as the man locked inside a cell, hallucinating as he falls further into an institutionalized insanity or the raising of evil spirits by means of  seance or satanic ritual. The greatest common denominator here seems to be a sense of solitude.

Now may be the greatest time to be a fan of dark ambient. There are a plethora of new projects releasing every month. This is truly beautiful, because many of the veteran artists and trailblazers for the genre are still planted firmly in the center of the scene. While new projects crop up around the globe, veteran artists, like Simon Heath of Cryo Chamber and Frederic Arbour of Cyclic Law, are doing everything in their power to keep the momentum moving. Cold Meat Industry, a benchmark label for the genre of dark ambient, may be gone, but a number of equally, if not more, suitable labels have cropped up around the globe. Add to this the advent of Bandcamp, a website which has irreversibly changed the face of underground music, and dark ambient artists are more poised than ever to make a splash in the musical world.

Considering the global scale of this musical movement, it can be quite surprising to realize how much these artists have in common on a personal level. Having talked to many of the leading artists in the genre over the last few years, it has become apparent to me that a love for nature and darkness is almost unanimous. There is a sort of timidness to the genre, a sense of realization that we are not the makers or keepers of our universe. In many cases we aren’t even the keepers of our own livelihoods, personae, or mortality. This humbling realization may or may not have been a defining factor from the very beginning, but by this point in the genre’s evolution it seems to be a given.

As these artists do seem to have so many common interests, it is no wonder that we are seeing more and more collaborative work. We aren’t just seeing collaborations between artists who live in the same town, no, absolutely not. The way in which dark ambient artists are collaborating on a global scale just might be a first for the musical community. I honestly can’t think of another genre which has such a global yet close knit community of artists.

This humble nature also seems to seep into many of the geopolitical topics covered by the genre. Dark ambient albums are significantly less likely to show active signs of aggression toward anyone or anything, instead we often fall into the roll of the oppressed. Take the topic of the apocalypse, one that seems to have been beat to death by the genre and yet manages to continue to feel fresh and relevant. The scenario usually goes: Our governments have corrupted our politics, our waters, and our atmosphere. Now that our brief window of cultural and technological paradise has passed, what is left for us? Many an album answers this question from their own unique perspective. Yet, very few artists within the dark ambient framework ever take on the role of the oppressor. We are not the ones doing the destroying, we are the ones who have been destroyed. We can also look at examples of polar dark ambient type albums, which often depict a frozen planet, maybe right after the dinosaurs, or during our last minor ice age, when humanity had not yet discovered all the tools to destroy each other and our world, at a staggering pace. Conversely, we could be witnessing a planet which has succumbed to a nuclear-induced ice age. Again, in these albums we are looking at a sort of innocence lost, or maybe even an innocence rediscovered. A time and place in which the hunt, staying warm, and surviving are the utmost concerns.

Another telling sign of this union of minds is the prevalence of atheism within the community. Yes, there are many believers in old religions often heavily associated with nature, but even these people share many of the same feelings toward popular religions, persecutions, and general ignorance or naivety. It’s as if we have all been oppressed and therefore we respect the fragility of others. Yet this often can become more of a cautionary tale against collective ignorance than a call to peace. It would seem that many dark ambient artists have a live and let live mentality. There is rarely ever a political motivation behind these cautionary stories, as you might expect from, say, neo-folk artists. It seems like the popular sentiment is: go ahead and destroy the planet, but if you do, this is what you can expect. At a time when political opinions are extremely polarizing, this is probably the best for the longevity and continued collaboration of the genre.

Maybe a combination these similarities in viewpoints are why the community has done such a great job of coming together and respecting one another. I have yet to see any animosity from one dark ambient artist to another. Aside from Lustmord, who would, of course, prefer to be considered the one and only when it comes to this genre. Where else in the world can you currently find a niche, where Americans, Russians, Greeks, Swedes, Aussies, and Persians all come together under one peaceful banner, not to start some sort of revolution, but to enjoy the talents and company of one another. The template set here is truly impressive and could probably teach a few important lessons to other aspects of culture and the global consciousness.

Written by: Michael Barnett

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8 Comments

  1. Thanks for an excellent bit of writing!

  2. Johnny

    Is anyone else who is a fan of dark ambient also a fan of psychedelics? I know we psychonauts can be a very closeted secretive community. This music for me in that state is really powerful. I remember when dark ambient used to be just Tangerine Dream, Brian Eno,(These guys were before my time but deserve mention) Throbbing Gristle, Coil, all of the stuff cEvin Key from Skinny Puppy did also. The aural richness and texture within the “Dark Ambient” genre is so wide and diverse right now so for an old dude like me it’s heaven! I used to have to go to over 4 or 5 different record stores to find one lousy record because Coil and PTV did everything in such limited editions, those days are long gone but I remember them because I’m just as passionate about music today as I was then.

    • Bandcamp is the savior of the underground! I am only mid-30s but I know exactly what you mean about “the old days” of searching your local record stores for those diamonds in the rough. We are sooo spoiled now with all this great music at our fingertips. I think that is why the vinyl format is seeing a renaissance. With so much music available at a click, it is refreshing to browse your collection of vinyl, pull out the record, flip it over halfway through the album. It returns a sense of intimacy to the equation.

      About the psychedelics… some artists have gone into a bit of detail about their experiences with dark ambient and mind-altering drugs. In particular, off the top of my head, I know Atrium Carceri has some elements of this built into their music. Cisfinitum did an album entitled ‘The Bog’ (I reviewed it on This Is Darkness, you can find the review under ‘All Reviews’. ‘The Bog’ focused on making music for and/or about tripping on the secretions from that certain kind of toad that makes you hallucinate. I’m sure there are many other examples but these are the ones that come to mind as I’m replying to you.

  3. Are there any good dark ambient forums? I’ve only managed to find obscure boards which people just spam with their own projects or the occasional thread on metal forums which usually end up with lists of the usual projects.

    It would be nice to have somewhere to gather and discuss this sort of music outside of Facebook and social media.

    • Alas, I agree with you that you will be hard-pressed to find any central location to speak with a lot of the community on these topics. The best chance is on Reddit, but as you mentioned, you are much more likely to find a lot of links without a lot of surrounding discussion. I am envious of the dungeon synth community, they have one facebook group which the majority of dungeon synth fans frequent, they often have very elaborate conversations and debates there. I would love that to be a thing in dark ambient, but everything is just too decentralized right now.

  4. fectoper

    Very interesting article! I think these kind of reflections are much needed from time to time.
    I cannot understand your comments about Lustmord (maybe you could be more specific).
    Would the “absence of personal images” another defining feature? It is a secondary one, but other genres exploit artists’ photos in excess.
    What I terribly miss is a kind of “canon” (best albums ever, like prog fans can find in progarchives; I tend to search “rateyourmusic.com” for quick rankings for artists that I discover). I also miss some agreed set of musical/audio/aesthetic features that you search for in order to decide what is good, what is bad, what is excellent, what is crap in these types of music. When I read reviews I find that, in many occasions, there are not clear criteria, or the writers just describe subjective stories they imagine when listening, and it is very difficult to find reviewers saying “artist X seems to be repeating his/her formula in the last 3 albums” or being constructively critical by pointing shortcomings, half-baked stuff, used clichés, etc. It seems as many blog writers do not want to utter negative comments because they got the free CD from the artist… It is not possible that most of the music that is published is good or amazing.

    • Well my point on Lustmord has to do with the many interviews of his that I’ve read. I’ve never heard him speak of anything positive in relation to the dark ambient genre. He always sticks to his stance that he was the first and no others are really worth mentioning. He could do so much for the dark ambient genre just by dropping a name or two of younger artists which have cropped up over the years. But if you look at ten of his interviews, you will probably only find mentions of Robert Rich and some other mega names on the periphery of the ambient/dark ambient genres. I’ve even read of him saying that he wouldn’t even consider himself part of the dark ambient genre, he seems to feel that he somehow transcends genres and can’t be labeled dark ambient like the rest of those that followed his style, even though 90% or more of the music he’s released is dark ambient beyond any doubt. As a person trying to spread the word of the genre, and all the wonderfully talented artists within, I always feel a sense of animosity when I constantly see news of his work being shared around the community. Many many dark ambient artists look to him as being part of their original inspiration, it’s just unfortunate that he isn’t as willing to show them support when they all support him.

      I haven’t thought too much about the absence of personal images, but that certainly is a common denominator among the majority of dark ambient projects. I think that goes along with the oppressor/oppressed mentality that I spoke of in the article. Metal bands are aggressors/oppressors they stand high on a stage above the crowd screaming and spitting at them (I used to do metal vocals, not saying this makes them terrible or they all have this mentality but it’s certainly the majority). Their music is often extremely aggressive in message as well as delivery. It makes sense for them to show themselves as the gods of their sounds. For dark ambient the crowd often politely sits watching or meditating as the musician stands/sits behind a table of electronics. When you meet them after their set you are likely to find little-to-no ego, just a pleasant person, more likely to be an introvert than an aggressive drunk (again, I’ve been an aggressive, drunk metal guy in the past so…)

      As for “canon” you can certainly find some of these rankings and the like of which you speak, but they are, admittedly, few and far between.

      About the critical reviews, I look at this situation a bit different from you in this way: As a person running a site that writes reviews, I would rather spend my time on writing about something that I love and that I think others should/will love. There are so many great albums in the genre releasing these days that I just skip the mediocre. I will write as positive of a review about an album that I purchased as I will about one that was sent to me for review consideration. Likewise, I will ignore an album that I think is mediocre, even if a label sends it to me. At any given moment I have probably 15-25 albums that I am considering for review. I just can’t justify spending time on negativity about something I dislike when that time would be better served writing about something that I love. So here’s the kicker: do you agree with me generally or not about the quality of the albums that I say are high quality? You will have to be critical of your reviewers when you are reading reviews. Does this guy often say something is great and I agree? Does this guy often say something is great but I think it sucks?

      Thanks for the comments, questions and critiques fectoper. I hope my replies will make sense and be helpful to you!

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