From my late teens well into college, I spent five years under the yoke of a Kinko’s apron. There were upsides to the job: supplementing the punk scene I was knee deep in with free zines and flyers, and carte blanche to get stoned on breaks. That job made it possible for me to eke out a living, while focusing energy on stumbling toward adulthood through music and earning party school credits I’m still paying for a decade later.
Through copy shop coworkers and happenstance, I stumbled into the early aughts IDM scene. It began with a vague interest in Boards of Canada, and deepened quickly through MP3 CD’s with artist names in jagged Sharpie. Still young and intensely involved in a narrow swath of music, I wasn’t expecting anything completely outside of punk and hardcore to really hook me. Despite fifteen years of gradually digging way deeper into ambient music, I’ve maintained a soft spot for that era.
Over the last year or so, a handful of the artists I stumbled across back then reemerged with mostly new material, some for the first time in years.
Styrofoam has been the solo project from producer Arne Van Petegem, kicking around off and on for 20 years. I first crossed paths with I’m What’s There To Show That Something’s Missing, which is as musically on-the-nose as the album title. It was 2003, and painfully earnest was being done well, poorly and attempted constantly. In a sign of the time and place; Styrofoam’s remix of The Postal Service a year earlier was a likely entry point for many. I’m What’s There… fit right in with the indietronica scene of the time, but far from the sickly sweet and cold, glitchy poles. Thankfully, Van Petegem’s vocals were all the right things for this style: relatively sparse, unironic, and more accent than tentpole. As a result, much of the record still holds up most of two decades later, even if I hadn’t returned to it often.
Then, about a year ago Styrofoam reappeared with We Can Never Go Home, Van Petegem’s first record in 8 years, and first without vocals. He’s still presenting mostly sad songs composed of syrupy sounds. Neither the lack of vocals or time passed have changed Styrofoam immensely, though both serve him well. It’s nimble and melodic, hurtling next to the boundaries of cutesy or twee without ever sliding full toward either hazard.
While first navigating electronic music, my reflex to avoid things that seemed too ‘techno-y’ has survived to this day. I first heard Proem through a folder of MP3s packed with 2004’s Socially Inept and 2006’s You Shall Have Ever Been. Both mix moody Aphex Twin beats and atmospheric leads, covering a surprising range over lengthy track lists. Absolutely glitchy and beat-dependent enough to be “’techno’ as I understood it, but much more musical than the Autechre-inspired sound sculptures dominating many of the conversations I wished to avoid at the time.
It was 2007’s mellower and impossibly deep A Permanent Solution which cemented Proem as one of my favorites of the time. It mixed the same glitchy beats with clear and rounded basslines and slower, detailed compositions. While knee deep in one of IDM’s heydays, I was lucky to find something as complete and wide-ranging.
Last year (and almost a decade since the last Proem release), Until Here For Years popped up on n5MD. Over more than 45 minutes, it straddles old and new; contrasting layers of ominous beats with sparser, atmospheric arrangements. Early Proem releases sounded warmly futuristic. After an eight-year layoff it’s not exactly nostalgic now, but does mix old and new with an odd persistence and remarkable consistency.
Christopher Bissonnette – The Wine Dark Sea
Much of the ambient music I first digested was from my punk zine’s address somehow landing on Kranky’s promo list in the early aughts. Along with Windy & Carl, Christopher Bissonnette’s Periphery was one of the first really quiet albums that impacted me. 15 years later, I still lack the vocabulary to describe it properly. But the subtle details Bissonnette draws from slow-developing soundscapes are inviting and accessible, despite using tools not equipped to be either.
I happened across The Wine Dark Sea on Bandcamp as it was being released. I’d followed and enjoyed Bissonnette’s analog synth record a few years back, but was happy to hear he’d returned to something more similar to Periphery all these years later. The glacial pace is agonizing and comforting. Something approaching melodies unfurl, emerging from warm swells, odd wobbles or rhythm fragments. This is headphone music through and through, without drifting by as idle, background soundscapes.
Port-Royal – Flares (Reissue)
I remember hearing some later Port-Royal material as it was released, but wasn’t familiar with their debut LP until its 15th anniversary reissue this year. While the timeframe for the original release lines up with my own earlier discoveries, it doesn’t fit in a few ways. Mainly, it’s grounded in many IDM elements, though also covering a lot of pre-post-rock ground. Sparse beats and shiny pads carry equal weight with slow-core guitar lines. The result is less of a mash-up than it reads, a bit like Mogwai at their quietest or condensed and glitchy Godspeed.
Slow, assertive drumming arrive in tasteful and forceful increments and reinforce the wide ranging sounds and dynamics. Even at 78 minutes, it’s really remarkable how much ground Flares covers, especially considering it all happened in 2005. Somewhere between ambient techno, the end of shoegaze and the beginning of post-rock, this rolled by and I missed it completely. It seems casually grandiose and unassuming at the same time, all while holding up perfectly a decade and a half later.