Ambient Gathering: Tony Piccoli, Courtney Swain, and Lowxy


As a big fan of ambient and progressive electronic music, I’ve wanted to do something like this for some time. I wanted to grab a few albums in this genre, and just ruminate over them a bit. I know this genre can be difficult for some progressive music fans who are used to bombast and technical feats, but I find ambient music incredibly rewarding, only getting better as I understand its context and goals. For this first Ambient Gathering, I’ll be discussing albums from Tony Piccoli, Courtney Swain, and Lowxy.

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I love an evocative, hauntingly colorful experience.  Tony Piccoli’s new ambient album “Mercury at Dawn” is exactly that.  It released on February 26th and features Tony on all instrumentation and some vocals, Brooke Rousseau on vocals, and was inspired thematically by the photography of Tony’s friend, Greg Stempfle.  As you can probably tell, the album explores the feelings of watching the glorious dawn in all its fiery colors, gradual passage, and metaphorical significance.

I think Tony (of Imminent Sonic Destruction) has captured these emotions well.  The album is a melodic marvel, with delicate keys and finely tuned loops that subtly celebrate grace, natural wonder, and new life.  You will hear hovering notes that steadily become stronger and more vibrant, and these notes morph into melodies, and soon vocals rise from the background into the blinking shine of the spotlight.  Tony has done a great job of inserting sounds from nature, like the chirping of crickets and the songs of birds, and the entire experience just feels immensely satisfying and nostalgic.  And what could we humans have more nostalgia for than the Sun itself?

I was not expecting this album to make me feel such a depth and breadth of emotions.  On the one hand, it sounds like how the dawn makes me feel.  It is familiar in its quiet breath and passionate in its reminder of the beauty right outside our windows.  With muted darkness rising to fierce light, this record spends so much time, precious and well-crafted minutes, on rejoicing over something that we may take for granted.  And sometimes silence is just as jubilant and effective as a roaring melody or a bombastic tune.

All five tracks are beautiful.  From the steady rise of “Eastern Star” to the whimsy of “Closest to the Sun” to the hovering darkness made light of “Path to”, the album starts strongly and mysteriously. Yet, the last two songs are fantastic, as well, with “Path From” feeling more electronic and raw, like facing the full power of the Sun.  The closer “Rise” reminds us, though, not to be afraid of this magnificent object, but to glory in the life that it brings.  What a brilliant album and what a deeply moving experience!

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Courtney’s new album “Fountainhead” was probably not what fans expected.  The record released on March 5th, and features samples collected by Courtney herself in February 2021, along with some sampling from Patreon followers Michael Berg (piano) and Michelle Monette (percussion).  To put it lightly, this album takes time to process.

Courtney is known for Bent Knee and her intimate solo albums, and yet this new offering is pure-blooded ambient, not reveling in melody but instead celebrating space, sound, and suggestion.  It is incredibly abstract, with moments that might seem so raw as to be too much, even.  Yet, this is what ambient artists love, and I think Courtney fits right into the pack.

I am unsure of the exact theme here, but Courtney tells us that she wants us to let our minds wander, almost like gazing at the clouds, and the music certainly lends itself to this.  In fact, I would say that this album can be about anything you want, just use your imagination and let your mind take you wherever it will.  The album features all sorts of strange noises right alongside familiar sounds of waves and recognizable instruments.  In fact, the first half of the album is rather stark, lacking much in the way of musicality or even rhythm.  Slowly but surely, these things emerge, however, and soon I felt immersed in something wholly profound.

If I have any advice about this album, it’s that you must have patience and steadfastness.  After several listens, I started to pick up the pulse of this composition: the blood and rhythm that eventually become almost hypnotic.  Tracks like “Banana Dances in the Snow” do feel like songs of some sort, full of delicate touches and quirky ideas, while other tracks, like “We Say”, actually feature Courtney’s unmistakable voice as it hovers, buzzes, and layers itself into psychedelic sensations.  The last half of the album is truly an arresting and entrancing 20 minutes, especially gorgeous tracks like “Does It Have to Be Beautiful?”, strangely catchy tracks like “Fountainhead”, or the pure abstraction of the closer “Goodbye”.  All in all, this album rewards you for how much time you spend on it, and I know it will continue to flourish as I experience it again and again.

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Recently, I’ve become a big fan of cyberwave ambient/electronic.  This is primarily through the Vill4in record label, and I’ve bought several albums from them over the last year or so.  This style is obviously reminiscent of some things I love, like Blade Runner and cyberpunk aesthetic, but I wasn’t expecting how deep and wide this genre can be in expression and meaning.  The latest release from Vill4in is Lowxy’s “Unequal”, released as 005 in the VOID series on March 4th.

The VOID series has been a smashing success thus far, with some particularly amazing albums from 暗号零. I highly recommend checking out all of them.  Anyways, “Unequal” might be the catchiest of the three albums I am covering today.  It’s one of those albums that takes less focus, and so I listen to it while working or writing.  Basically, it is soothing, secure, and subtle cyberwave, with the addition of some hefty beats on a few tracks, not to mention a real sense of groove.  In other words, it isn’t as abstract as some other ambient albums out there, and that is a good thing since variety is the stuff of life.

The album itself, while lacking vocals for the most part, is rather pensive in its narrative.  It can make you feel alone among millions, hidden in the darkness of civilization.  And, yet, it revels in the little things, the wondrous parts of this world that seem forgotten and trampled underfoot by humans and their drama.  This album is so smooth and inviting—so easy to hear—because it takes us on a journey of feelings that range from apathy and abandonment to confidence and resolve.  Like the cover, we are not truly lost in the blazing lights of the city; we are in fact one with this world.

Every track on this album is a beauty.  Some of them, like “Infinity” and “Paraffin”, explore abstraction and surging waves of color and ethereality.  Other songs, like “Clouds, “Sense”, or the closer “Morphine”, have an actual beat to them, one that borrows from hip hop, pop, and dance to some degree.  In fact, “Away” has a full-blown vocal performance on it and its climax is truly beautiful.  And yet, these songs still feel vibrant and alive in only the way ambient music can express, and I love every minute of them.  “Unequal” overall has an unearthly, yet starkly human feeling to it, one that I’ve come to absorb and appreciate.  I can’t wait for more in this series.

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Find Tony Piccoli online:

ISD Facebook

Bandcamp

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Find Courtney Swain online:

Facebook

Bandcamp

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Find Lowxy online:

Facebook

Bandcamp

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