Since the genre as it’s known today was more or less invented by Brian Eno in the early 1970s, a seemingly endless array of musicians have tackled the genre of ambient music in a variety of ways. Thus, a definition of the genre can be difficult to precisely nail down: some ambient revolves around very earthy tones, while others include electronic elements or reverberating guitar tones. There’s even been a number of musicians who’ve produced dark ambient that kind of replicates the mood that most horror film directors hope to establish in their movies. Overall, it seems most artists working in the ambient genre seek to create music that above all else, creates a certain mood in the listener. Often, this music is relaxing and somewhat hypnotic, but there seems to be a fine, very subjective line between not only what individual listeners would classify as being ambient music in the first place, but also between “good” ambient and “bad.”
Personally, I can appreciate a wide variety of ambient music styles: though I think one of the most effective ambient albums, Eno’s 1985 Thursday Afternoon, is also one of the most simplistic, I also very much enjoy albums like Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works I and II, Pyramids with Nadja’s self-titled album, Nine Inch Nails’ Ghosts, and Set Fire to Flame’s Sing Reign Rebuilder, perhaps the one in that list which doesn’t quite fit in with most people’s definition of what ambient sounds like. The 2014 compilation Across the Mountain: A Macedonian Ambient Music Compilation fits in pretty well with that list of albums. Many of the tracks here (the lot of which was produced by artists I’ve never heard of previously; hell, I don’t know if I could come up with one Macedonian musician of any genre) would probably fall into the dark ambient genre, and one can expect to hear a lot of grating low tones along with noisy and somewhat unsettling clumps of semi-undefinable sound. That said, there are some more altogether pleasant compositions to be found here as well, and I think the album does a fine job of representing the whole of what the ambient music label can encompass.
Sherafedin Kurt provides a brief introductory track of eerie, breathy tones to kick off the album before the Amplidyne Effect unleashes a more substantial piece with “The Introvert Microorganism.” This rather serene track slowly builds in intensity, with a jumbled, droning mass of shimmering chords featured at its center. Lonely guitar and horn parts intermittently burst forth with snippets of melody throughout the piece before it fades out. “The Sprawl” by fydhws is another lengthy number, starting off with a piano theme before sawing, discordant guitar gurgles out of the background to dominate the track. This piece may be the one here that’s most similar to the world of drone metal, with phaser-effected guitars shrieking in the background above an omnipresent throb of low tones. The piano melody creeps into the picture occasionally to tie everything together, and the piece also includes odd sound effects that give it a grittiness as it escalates towards a loud final section. Airless Project’s “Unbearable Lightness of Being” has a much warmer character to it due to its inclusion of dripping water sounds over resonating keyboard chords. There’s not much of a melody in this piece; its goal seems to be to put a listener into a trance-like state with an overload of repetitive, buzzing tones and I’d say it accomplishes this goal.
Dimitar Dodovski’s “Water Goes Somewhere,” as the title might suggest, has a very earthy sound to it, with distant, hollow keyboard heard under quietly clanging chimes and a subtle sound collage of nature sounds. Like most of the pieces here, this one too has a louder middle section in which a bouncy and rhythmic keyboard melody rises out of the sonic landscape to take center stage, but even with the sense of momentum provided, the track remains quite peaceful and airy. Post Global Trio’s “2” is perhaps a bit more minimalistic, made up largely of buzzing electronic tones that ever-so-slowly evolve and become louder. This track seems to be a combination of slightly creepy sound elements and ones which sound much more warm and pleasant: I can almost imagine a large colony of bees swarming around a hive while listening to portions of this track. Sound_00’s “Borislavec” begins with quiet nature sounds and a gentle clacking rhythm, only to transition into a much louder and more ominous middle section of creaking high-pitched tones and groaning background noise. The track also incorporates manipulated vocal elements that often sound very alien-like along with drip-drops of liquid: it’s probably the most definitively experimental and strange piece here, but also arguably the most fascinating to listen to. The album ends much in the same way it began, with a relatively brief but sufficiently melodramatic closing track again by Sherafedin Kurt.
Though I could perhaps say that none of the musicians featured here subscribe to the “less is more” philosophy of creating ambient music, I was pleasantly surprised by the relative quality of this compilation. Every track here has been finely crafted, and Across the Mountains as a whole leaves the listener with a sense of wonderment and awe. As is the case with most ambient music releases, some listeners simply wouldn’t be appreciative of what this album has to offer since these pieces are much more subtle and low-key than most of today’s music. For listeners who don’t need their music to be constantly obnoxious however, this would be a treat. Even if the album isn’t altogether hopeful and optimistic, it’s extremely calm and relaxing: I’ve found that this sort of music is quite inspiring to listen to while painting, writing, or generally being creative, but this is also an ideal album to throw on to pass time while doing some work around the house or to listen to while taking a nap. Definitely recommended.