After gathering a selection of music that survived Christmas recently, I found myself wondering what a good ambient/drone Christmas album would sound like. That thought immediately requires clarification. Just about every kind of Christmas music takes on the ambient mantle at this time of year in the thin sense that it burbles away in the background and submits to being ignored. Even narrowing the notion down to music likely to get tagged as “ambient” at the online store, unappealing possibilities lurk: it’s not hard to imagine Christmas standards invoked in a syrupy, sentimental wash of insipidly cheerful chimes – Santa goes New Age, as it were. But what would a Christmas album sound like that was also serious ambient/drone music? Could it stay recognizably tethered both to Christmas and to the grainy soundscapes generated by the likes of Tim Hecker or Kyle Bobby Dunn? Well, no sooner had I begun to ponder than an answer arrived in the form of a Christmas release from the Hibernate and Home Normal labels titled Festive Greetings.
Festive Greetings, sold to raise funds for the Archway Foundation’s charitable work reaching out to the lonely, offers a collection of 17 tracks by established electronic artists such as Konntinent, Offthesky, Wil Bolton, Machinefabriek, Daniel Thomas Freeman, Clem Leek, and The Boats. It includes a handful of original compositions, steers wisely clear of Santa and Rudolph, and is mostly focused on traditional Christmas carols. The strategies for keeping the horse of Christmas on the left and the horse of ambient experimentation on the right from tearing the musical victim in the middle asunder vary through the album, but are for the most part rather successful.
Some tracks keep the traditional tune clearly to the fore, adding an atmospheric surround. ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ by The Frozen Vaults lets conventional piano and off-kilter strings carry the familiar melody, while embedding it in a tinkling, rustling backdrop that includes the sounds of footsteps crunching through snow. The Ithaca Trio pursues a similar line with the same song, making the two pieces work effectively together as a mini-suite. More sounds of snowy trudging, now with added vehicles and birds, are accompanied by an insistently hovering guitar drone and a cycle of plucked notes, which die away to leave the individual still walking on his way, but now singing the carol softly to himself under his breath as an acoustic guitar picks out the tune. ‘Once in a Royal Boats City’ by The Boats may have displaced David, but keeps the tune intact amid a low-key mélange of percussion, bells and synth tones, with gently cheering results. Clem Leek, continuing a preoccupation with childhood references evident on earlier releases such as Holly Lane, does a creditable job of rescuing ‘Away in a Manger’ from terminal tweeness. An initial music box rendition of the song gives way to a warmly cavernous dronescape in which a languid guitar rendition of the tune surfaces, perhaps explains the re-titling of the song as ‘Away in America,’ and then drifts away again.
Other pieces make the listener work a little harder for the connections. The title ‘Snow on Snow’ obliquely references ‘In The Bleak Midwinter,’ and the resonantly drifting music provided by Antonymes as obliquely hints at the tune of the original. ‘O Holy Night’ by Offthesky hints even more subtly at the original melody, but builds over it a gorgeous shifting world of sound that builds to a stately grandeur before ending in calm. It fits its theme well, evoking wonder. Daniel Thomas Freeman, whose remarkable album The Beauty of Doubting Yourself intriguingly linked drone and salvation at the start of the year, returns us to ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’. This version leaves the familiar melody behind for somberly looping organ notes and bells, creating a more solemnly festive tone.
Still other tracks make little or no connection to familiar tunes, and contextualize their sound design within the Christmas theme mainly through their titles. ‘Icon’ by Strom Noir is a deliciously layered drone whose title invites the listener to listen for transcendence. ‘Always Close’ by Isnaj Duj similarly combines droning tones with a title that might just hint at a connection to the Christmas story.
There are a couple of tracks that are to my ear less successful. Machinefabriek’s ‘Silent Night’ is a throwaway piece that breaks the tone of the album and displays little respect for its original (we are apparently being asked to think of Jesus of Nazareth as a squirrel, which may be cute but is not particularly theologically compelling). Listening Mirror’s ‘Silent Night’ brings a creepy atmosphere that also feels out of place in this context and does little to explain its title. But across the album as a whole the quality of the music is high, and there are several excellent tracks not described here. The release manages to evoke the atmosphere and melodies of Christmas music in a way that is inviting while retaining interesting texture. It stays tethered to the traditional while working with a contemporary palette of sounds, with enjoyable results. To get the physical release it appears you will have to attend the Hibernate/Home Normal Christmas show, but the album can be streamed and purchased for download at bandcamp.
If good ambient music forms any part of your musical diet, or if you just want some Christmas music that is more subtle and less intrusive, this is recommended listening.
David Smith currently lives in the Midwestern United States, where he teaches, writes, and enjoys a very wide range of music, with regard to which he claims no expertise whatsoever beyond that of a dedicated and appreciative listener.
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