Yes, a dreaded list.
This is something I’ve been thinking about doing for a while. While other lists take the ranking very very seriously, I don’t. At least, not really. While I’ve done my best to have some semblance of progressive quality from ten to one, this doesn’t mean that number ten is nine places “worse” than number one. I consider each of these albums a masterpiece in one way or another, and it’s my humble opinion that each is highly worth one’s time. Essential dark ambient, in fact. If there are any of these you’ve missed, I urge you to track them down.
I also feel compelled – with hesitance – to explain my own definition of “dark ambient.” These are electronic albums that are dark in nature, concept, and execution. They are neither primarily melodic nor rhythmic. The albums here are focused experiments in mood and atmosphere without using traditional musical structures. I love dark ambient due to its immersive and involving nature, and for the places it takes me. Each of the following are the pinnacle of the experience for me, which they provide in very different ways.
Enough preamble – let’s get to it.
10. Forma Tadre – Automate (Off Beat, 1998)
The underrated Forma Tadre project might be best known for late 90s EBM dancefloor staples like “Looking Glass Men” and “Celebrate the Cult,” but its true genius lies in the Lovecraftian-inspired soundscapes found on Automate. This is an intricate darkness, carefully arranged with the same attention of Forma Tadre’s EBM work, and its creativity and effectiveness has not wavered one iota since its release. Automate 2.0 includes a reworked titled track and extra content, but the grandeur of the artistic spaces is the same.
9. Iszoloscope – Les Gorges Des Limbes (ant-zen, 2004)
Perhaps more well-known for its crushing brand of power-noise, Iszoloscope originally planned to release this beatless wonder as a side project, but instead, it’s the best album in the band’s discography. Impeccably paced and deftly crafted, this is a journey through a twisted and ghost-haunted place that’s as unnerving as it is satisfying. Featuring a darkness that’s shades removed from deep black, Les Gorges Des Limbes is nonetheless one of the most deliciously harrowing journeys I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing.
8. Polygon – Omnon (Polymorph, 1999)
Another underrated project here, and another example of a genre entry that deviates from the band’s other work. Polygon’s trademark is icy clinical atmosphere and programming so precise it’s surreal, but that same surreality is put on full display in this two-disc epic odyssey through interstellar mystery. Omnon is guilty of containing melody, yes, but it’s injected with such perfection into the alien auras that it’s an integral part. Deep space has never sounded so strange, or so wonderful.
7. Tholen – Neuropol (Cyclic Law, 2010)
Now this is what I’m talking about. A concept album built around a fictional AI-run city – the Neuropol of the title – where humans are used and hunted in classic Skynet fashion by murderous machines, this is a realm where technology rules without mercy. Tholen riddles this album with pneumatics, fiber optics, and electric arcs, not to mention voices both human and otherwise. The opening tracks set the mood perhaps better than any other concept dark ambient I’ve heard. Ridiculously good.
6. raison d’etre – The Empty Hollow Unfolds (Cold Meat Industry, 2000)
Considered a bridge between raison d’etre’s chorus-focused early work and its later noise phase, Empty Hollow contains the best of both. “The Eternal Return and the Infinity Horizon” is the best track in the project’s lengthy discography, and one of the best single dark ambient tracks there is. Not to diminish the rest of the album, mind you, which is the peak of the project’s experimentation with its own established identity while leaking into new territory; it’s the most accomplished and consistent album that the band has released. For a project with such a deserved reputation, you can bank on a quality dark experience from its haunting start to its otherworldly finish.
5. SleepResearch_Facility – Stealth (Cold Spring, 2012)
The first of two SR_F albums on this list, Stealth is sourced from the sounds of a B-2 bomber undergoing tests in a hangar. If there’s a better concept for a dark ambient album, I haven’t heard it. This isn’t just a high-level concept, however, but a stunning experiment in field recording and sample manipulation that has an undeniable narrative structure and sense of character among the ocean of drones, buzzes, clicks, whirs, and sweeps. The ghost in this machine is alive and well, and most definitely aware.
4. Terra Sancta – Aeon (Malignant, 2004)
This is the best drone I have ever heard. Huge and epic, while also claustrophobic and oppressive, but it’s gorgeous no matter how you look at it. The layered beds of static carry an unreal strength of presence as they move and shift like some great beast stalking through a blinding sandstorm. And there’s beauty here too: the mind-blowing “Drowned (Desert Earth II)” ends with perhaps my favorite dramatic moment in all of Dark Ambientia: a mournful wordless female voice emerges slowly from the swirling chaos, to give one last song of defiance before the waves of relentless noise overwhelm it forever. It’s equal parts heartache and catharsis, and is the highlight of an album of pure drone genius.
3. Cities Last Broadcast – The Cancelled Earth (Cyclic Law, 2009)
The moment I read this album’s description, I knew it would be something special. Intended as the discovered sounds of a vanished civilization (maybe Earth, maybe not), the only release to date from Cities Last Broadcast carries out its high concept with a master stroke. There were people here, and thriving industry and culture, but now all that remains are the ragged remnants of both: snatches of speech, tones that seem somehow familiar, and a thick sense of lost glory that combine to produce such a powerful feeling of history, it’s immediately obvious that this is a work of rare dark ambient prowess.
2. R|A|A|N – The Nacrasti (Malignant Antibody, 2001)
Speaking of projects that release a sole album of singular genius, may I present R|A|A|N’s majestic opus, The Nacrasti. There’s a concept here, yes, but we’re only given the outline, and the rest is up to us to create. What (or who, or where, etc) the titular Nacrasti is or was is never revealed except in the imagination of the listener. The sounds here are deeply alien, deeply dark, and deeply effective, producing such an organic aura it’s almost overwhelming. And once the sampled pipes appear in the album’s second half, the experience moves into another plane entirely. If someone told me this album was a pure, untainted field recording from the face of a distant planet, or from some deep network of caverns teeming with undiscovered mythology (and undiscovered life), I’d believe it without question. The Nacrasti is distilled Otherness.
1. SleepResearch_Facility – Nostromo (Cold Spring, 2001)
While R|A|A|N rules my heart, SleepResearch_Facility rules my mind. Intended as a homage to the sleeping ship Nostromo from Ridley Scott’s brilliant film Alien, this album still surprises me after hundreds of listens. It works its way into my subconscious (and probably my unconscious too) like no other genre album has ever done. It frees my mind by becoming part of it, if that makes any sense. This is a collaboration between artist and listener like no other, and is electronic noise manipulation made into art. The sense of timing, flow, rhythm, and atmosphere is perfect. It’s creepy, thrilling, and wondrous, all at once. Nostromo varies without ever straying from its established identity. This is the single best electronic album I’ve heard, in any genre, from its accomplished writing to its tapestry of beautiful sound to how dead-on it nails its ambitious concept. For my money, dark ambient has never been better, and I’m skeptical Nostromo will ever be surpassed. Every time, without fail, Nostromo gives me something new. That’s not just something that has never otherwise happened in my years as a music fan, it hardly ever happens in life. It’s for experiences like this that I love music, and previous few have provided it on the level Nostromo does.