Often when listening to ambient music we make our own context, making the music soundtrack our daily lives or relaxing and imagining some world inspired by what we hear. Of course there are artists who will go that extra step and include extensive artwork or liner notes with the music so that the context and idea behind the music is given and the listener is given a helpful but not mandatory step into another world they can explore at the invitation of the artist. But as ambient music has grown since the days of Brian Eno’s Ambient series, the possibility of what the music could be for seems to have grown ten times as big.
And if anyone were ever to complain that there’s been a decline in the amount of successful, inspiring and plain old good ambient music then that’s where SMM: Context comes in. In its eighth year now, this compilation from Ghostly International sees them exploring the range of music on offer that falls in the basic category of “ambient” but also music that goes beyond (or within, too, I suppose) such a tag. The kind of great thing though is that the people at Ghostly don’t keep a narrow mind and fill up the compilation with artists all from other labels showing that they aren’t trying to put themselves on a pedestal as “the greatest ambient label of all time” (while they do have some brilliant ambient artists, they go way beyond just that). Instead it feels like the work of some eager people who just really love the music they love and want to share it with others and not have them care about where it came from.
I should probably point out that the compilation isn’t completely void of Ghostly signed artists as Rafael Anton Irisarri (aka The Sight Below) sneaks in an appearance. But his patient piano led composition “Moments Descend On My Windowpane” is so different to his usual spaced out (and subtly guitar infused) soundscapes that you could easily be forgiven for letting his presence totally pass you by.
The range on offer over the hour and four minute runtime of this compilation is perhaps one of its most appealing features and not one that will strike you instantly. For those who like to brood with an appropriately creepy atmosphere they need not look further than Svarte Greiner’s “Halves,” a thick and enveloping dark piece that recalls the most sinister moments of Robert Rich. There’s also “Cornelia Amygdaloid” by The Fun Years; an unsettling piece that crackles with a strange sort of rhythmic fashion that, altogether, still sounds alien despite the guitars strumming away throughout (it might well also take the award for the most textured piece on the compilation). For those who prefer their ambience lighter and less looming like an impending storm cloud, then the final numbers on the compilation should satisfy. Dunn’s piece, “Runge’s Last Stand” is the more conventional ambient affair as he treats us to a slow but utterly lovely piece that sees gentle tones glide above one another. It’s near enough perfect to get absorbed in but with its crackling edges it also hints another direction for Dunn to take his fast expanding style. Peter Broderick’s cut on the other hand sees him use acoustic guitar to settle the listener as he seeps in light synths around the strummed and plucked notes before they run alongside and the whole thing settles to a close after a curious kind of ambient crescendo.
Then there are the songs that are a little harder to define and put to a mood. Take Christina Vantzou’s “11 Generations Of My Fathers”: it begins on a lumbering piano melody that grows as the chords come into play beside it. But behind the piano a slow and somewhat mournful string-sounding section emerges to take continue the song on before a resolving organ comes into play to take it to its end point. That kind of sounds like a good too many obvious transitions for an ambient piece but the success of it is how it blends it all so naturally and the transitions become subtle highlights. Leyland Kirby’s “Polaroid” is a curious number that gets along mainly with softly echoing guitar that sounds like the colours on a Polaroid developing in super slow-motion. It’s a pleasant piece but it’s also about twice as long as it needs to be and kind of halts the flow of the compilation just as it’s starting.
As good a variety as these eleven tracks offer and as reassuring as the whole compilation is for the state of ambient music, SMM: Context never feels hugely groundbreaking or exciting. As much as I like some pieces here, I like them on their own (or in the, ahem, context of this compilation) and don’t really feel inspired to seek out more work by them. But, as clichéd as it is to say, maybe some of these pieces are just missing the relevant context and lose their full effect (brief opening number “Motion” by Goldmund certainly seems like it belongs to something else). The problem with an ambient compilation is that the variety can seem like too much work for the casual or the deep listener. When you want to get immersed it doesn’t help to have the mood change every five or six minutes. But then again, if you’re in the right mood and only want a brief escape, you may well find something to suit here.