Beautiful Decay – Outtallectuals’ Top Downtempo / Ambient Discoveries of 2020

January 14, 2021 - Audio

Beautiful Decay


Emotive tracks for cold winter busrides, rainy afternoons, saudade in the dusk & generally, navigating hope within the dystopian industrial purgatory. Here are some of the most emotionally engaging and unique downtempo songs we received for review or came across on the interwebs. From the Dalai Lama to Bristol future garage, you wouldn’t think there is a common thread, but in a beautiful decay we have found it.

Writing contributions from Molly SissonBaxtak, Chad Murray, Fati Fatene, Sean H, Bill H, and Mister Mime.

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Alternatively, you can find the playlist on YouTube.

DEFOE – Black Metal Romance

A hauntingly romantic piece from singer DEFOE that came through our blog and immediately latched onto my emotions. The song comes with an almost Hollywood-tier high-budget music video which depicts a mad scientist man’s design and manufacturing of a mass-produced female robot, programmed for unconditional love. The waltz cadence, Black Mirror aesthetic, Thom Yorke-esque vocals combine to create an ambiance which sounds like the sonification of a tragic love story stuck in a music box; a sentiment which could accurately describe such an AI’s existence.

– Written by Baxtak

Ed Geater – Part of You (Engima Dubz Remix) [Brox Records]

Enigma Dubz has tailored this track very much to his taste by lightly coating UK bass over Ed Greater’s original, mellow track. The whole EP ‘Geater Dubz’ creates an organic combination of Ed’s soft vocals with Engima Dubz concoction of drums and deep bass. With visuals shot at the Staffordshire Moorlands, Enigma Dubz creeping sub-bass and intricate sound design aligns perfectly with nature. Both musical and scenic landscape work hand-in-hand creating their own identity.

– Written by Molly

Ink Project x FiFi Rong – The End [Blind Colour]

A beautiful collaboration between Ink Project and singer FiFi Rong who ignites this steamy track with her vocal embers. Their ethereal electronic sounds merged with trip-hop is reminiscent of Massive Attack in the 90s. A delicate addition to this year’s top 2020 tracks, with subtle basslines that creep up, giving shivers down your back. FiFi Rong proves to be a vocal contortionist, with her entrancing high-pitched voice over Ink Projects harmonious and sleek backdrop.

– Written by Baxtak

Arca x Bjork – Afterwards [XL Recordings]

Venezuelan, non-binary trailblazer Arca returns with their signature brand of trip-hop in this collaboration with fellow musical pioneer Björk; a proverbial King Midas of electronic music, that is to say that everything she touches turns to gold. The overall ambience of the track is well-constructed as are the beats and the juxtaposition between the two disparate yet, complimentary vocal style is excellent. The art direction is great as well, it’s like a Chris Cunnigham take on the notorious ‘Lulu’ album by Lou Reed and Metallica. Less said about that the better. The creative synergy between Björk and Arca here will almost certainly lead to listeners finding themselves buried by the respective discographies of both artists after hearing ‘Afterwards’.

– Written by Chad Murray

Kip LaVie x Nick Shadow – Shadow Time (Days Away) [This Creator]

This is the first song I’ve heard by Kip LaVie and I love it. It kind of reminds me of the early releases of Capac, really nicely produced and austere and delicate yet percussive and simultaneously hopeless and up-lifting. I’m curious as to whether or not the vocals are samples or performed by whoever is making the music. The instrumentation on this track is baffling me though, there are sounds that I can’t even work out what they are, at one point there’s a synth or a heavily processed woodwind or singing-saw or something accompanying the vocals and it just feels so comfortingly sedately, it’s fucking excellent.

– Written by Chad Murray

Ke Thu – Bound Apart [Detroit Underground]

This duet from Detroit have mastered a sophisticated and coherent sound merging a variety of genres from minimalistic techno to soft D&B creating their euphonious EP ‘Bound Apart’. Each beat, intricate like clockwork, has its own oscillating coils of hi-hats and kick-drums creating a timeless piece of work. The songs vapour into the atmosphere creating a feeling of utter bliss, similar to the style of Moomin. Written during lockdown, we can sense the pair manifesting their need for a dance behind these dreamy tones. An EP to be deciphered at 6am when the club shuts.

– Written by Molly

Hiromu Yamaguchi – HB09p3 [AWARE Mountain]

I like the wintery mysticism of this track, the twinkly keys and glacial synths have almost a magical quality to them. The juxtaposition of the glitches and lightly distorted bass layers as the track progresses creates a sense of tension over time but, I think what makes this song special is that it has an almost radiant magnetism to it. We’re being lead through a sonic journey of texture and melody. There are moments of what feels to be deliberate rhythmic clashing and dischordance and there is also a rich variety of electronic textures that are explored in a very small space of time, like a brief yet, well-landed DMT trip on a Christmas morning. Bizarre, explorative, fantastic.

– Written by Chad Murray

Culprate – At the Gates (Aether Remix) [Inspected Records]

An Aether & Culprate blend can hardly ever go wrong, and this atmospheric remix of At the Gates from the Others (Remixed) EP is not an exception. Glistening melodies meet nano-tuned percussive elements in a sonic escapade that hints toward future garage cadences, yet exists as a ghostly reminder. This is séance to dance music; it sounds like a deja-vu one tries to remember, not quite being sure whether the first occurrence was in a dream, early childhood, or it’s a premonition.

– Written by Baxtak

Cederick Knox ft Spack in the Box – Back In The Box
[Activia Benz / Ceremonial Laptop]

Definitely one of the most unique tracks we heard this year came in the form of this collaboration between Cedrick Knox and cerebral palsy YouTube drummer ‘Spack in the Box’. The release is unique in the sense that drum recordings from Spack’s performance were recorded and not manipulated (I.e., quantised). Only by looping specific patterns, the emphasis was placed on the uniqueness of Spack’s grooves, what Cedrick describes as “great tension between mind and body”. Cedrick then placed his own piano recordings on top of the pianos, while a number of friends joined to provide recordings of piano, bass, sax, cello and vocals. While the piece of music is highly enjoyable in itself, I am personally impressed by the idea, and the notion that as someone who appreciates unpredictability in music and tends to randomise his percussive programming, I never thought that cerebral palsy can be such an advantage in this regard. One thing that is for certain is that almost no-one can recreate Spack In the Box’s unique grooves and that’s something to cherish.

– Written by Baxtak

Son Lux – Live Another Life [City Slang]

In this fascinating single, Son Lux coalesces the seemingly dichotomous sounds of percussive ambient music with anthemic pop music. The track is somewhat reminiscent of Radical Face in its use of harmony vocals but, also has the electronically melodic sensibility of Moderat (Appart/Modeselektor). Thematically, the use of what sounds like two layers of slightly out of sync beats chopping away the melody, almost pizzicato, does a great job of splitting the track into two perspectives, gradually shifting further apart as the track progresses. In the B-Side, ‘Live Another Life’ (Heal For Me), Nappy Nina contributes authoritatively rapped verses and a poignantly raw take on the chorus. The addition of secondary vocals adds further potency to the lyrics.

– Written by Chad Murray

FFO: Radical Face, Moderat

Joy Morales – Selfish

2020 has passed and we’ve all learnt a great lesson. The whole world came to a global closure, and for the first time we had the opportunity to take a deep breath and analyze aspects of life that simply used to be unnoticed. It’s in this context that Neumas’ Cry, studio album by the artist Joy Morales, saw the light. And Selfish, second track for this album, turns out to be a perfect recreation of that introspective experience. Psychedelic sounds, synths and strong vocals, torn by metallic sound effects, are the elements through which the artist conceptually represents the depersonalization that supposes to transcend common reality to immerse ourselves in a journey towards the innermost being; a journey that (she warns us through a very delicate vocal lyric) will be at least disturbing, since that is where one really faces their lowest passions, their true fears, and the shocking reflection of oneself. As if they were authentic laments, the vocals manage to make us participate in an internal duel that takes over us, posing questions as basic as self-love and self-defense, in an increasingly chaotic world, ruthless and cruel.

The sound finish manages to convey an agonizing feeling through all its elements, thus completing Selfish, like a real sound poem, an enveloping experience. Selfish turns out to be, consequently, an aesthetically formal cut, a delicate piece that fits perfectly with the rest of the production, and completes its meaning, with a storytelling that will really catch us, so that we don’t be able to limit ourselves to just listening to one song in isolation. Selfish is an experience… that is perfectly intertwined with the rest of the tracks from Neuma’s Cry.

– Written by Fati Fatene

Social Sport – Lexa [Echo Train Records]

Social Sport’s ‘Lexa’ is an agitated and sombre breakbeat workout, which moves in a sort of dance between UK funky, techno and ambient. Sporadic, guitar-like drones decay across an open field of stirring vocals and sparsely-woven breaks. The New Zealand producer is formidable with his use of breakdowns and emotive call-and-responses. The pulsating bassline throughout augments the overall rhythm, giving it a sense of creeping dread. An emotional and firm tune, showing a great deal of dance music influence.

– Written by Sean H

Newfaces x Trevin Hunte – Say Their Names

The BLM soundtracks this year were obviously plentiful and obviously for good reason. Artists, black, white and all in between made sure their sentiments are heard about the situation, or engaged in fundraising campaigns via their music. As far as those we heard, this piece by Newfaces stood out for us for its twisted glitched out composition, topped off by Trevin Hunte’s haunting vocals which were manipulated digitally for maximum wail. This is music of the soul, screamed with emotion from the depths of the cyberspace. This is what would happen if electrical instalments became sentient and they suddenly join the protests

– Written by Baxtak

Morgane Matteuzzi – Inner Voices

This acapella piece from Morgane Matteuzzi stood out for me because of its unique blending of subtle metal growls to coarsen the emotional valiance of the release. This is music where one pleads to oneself, and conceptually the tension between the various voices inside the head arguing towards the song’s crescendo is a genius and subtle idea. After the hypnotic repetition of “so I can still breathe”, towards the end of the song, the voices coalesce into one, resolving into a more serene state. There’s something about the song’s haunting nature and tense development that is truly captivating.

– Written by Baxtak

Dalai Lama – Inner World
[Gaden Phodrang Foundation]

Whilst most of us probably did not see the Dalai Lama’s debut album coming, in many ways it sounds exactly like one would expect it to. This is not a bad thing – the new age side of ambient music has always been envisioned as a soothing backdrop for voiceovers, mantras, meditation etc. – perhaps it was this moment that the genre had always been building up to. The inclusion of Anoushka Shankar’s masterful Sitar playing elevates Ama La from background listening to an engaging soundscape, and the subtle tonal shift in the last minute underpins his Holiness’ words with more emotional complexity than that of your run-of-the-mill new age jaunt.

– Written by Bill H

Bohren & Der Club of Gore – Patchouli Blue
[PIAS] Recordings Germany

Nothing particularly revolutionary from the drone-jazz masters, but why change when you sound this good. That Lynchian sensation of wading through a dream is as effective as ever, soft brass ornamentations fading in and out at will, the tempo kept so low that one constantly loses track of where the song is going – or whether it was ever going anywhere in the first place. The production is impeccable with no element bigger than it needs to be, leaving huge swathes of space for your imagination to fill in the gaps. Every potentially offending high frequency is subdued until all that’s left is a warm, fuzzy blanket. The soundtrack to staying awake past your bedtime and gazing out the window alone.

– Written by Bill H

Tomas Jirku – Touching the Sublime [Silent Season]

A collaboration between the nature-focussed Silent Season label and Tomas Jirku, a mountaineer and photographer, this is an ambitious release that endeavours to manifest Romantic era prose and stories of early alpinism in an electronic form. Whilst dub techno can at times be a restrained and conservative mode of expression, Touching the Sublime sheds any sentimental attachment to tradition and aims for the snowcapped peaks. Thundering lofi brass recordings dance freely between distorted Moog lines and thick layers of machine noise, conjuring a symphonic vision of British Columbia. Perhaps my favourite aspect of this album is its dynamics – there are truly quiet passages which are more than just breaks, and there are soaring redlined techno peaks. All too often in electronic music, perhaps as a byproduct of the technology, we keep things separated – quiet music is ‘ambient’, loud music is for dancing. Tomas Jirku has shown that there is no reason electronic musicians can’t do both; nay, that by doing both we expand our canvas ever further.

– Written by Bill H

Perfect Society – Vnblind

Reading Perfect Society’s website & press release, I must admit a little apprehension. At first glance this album came off to me as slightly manufactured – a carefully combined list of ‘exotic’ elements designed to impress more than to move. However, after a few tracks I warmed up to Perfect Society’s vision, one of peace through integration. The charango is well deployed, its inherent brightness providing a transcendental top layer that is timbrally unique to this style. The album is also emotionally more complex than the first couple of tracks might suggest; Figment’s melodic motif for example is harmonically unexpected and immediately memorable. This is a really promising first release and I think as Andreas continues to expand his musical palette and production techniques, there are truly no borders to where his music might venture.

– Written by Bill H

Three Oscillators – The Purge

‘The Purge’ by Three Oscillators is a glitchy halftime idm trot which ebbs out into an upbeat melodic canter. Playful triplets pulse purposefully through ebullient ambiences while maintaining a minimal melodic theme throughout. This is surely one of the freshest picks of Indian electronica from last year.

3 Oscillators: “I took the track (and eponymous EP) title from this scene from TRON: Legacy > https://tron.fandom.com/wiki/Purge. Somehow, the entire theme of this scene fit really well with the track. I’m heavily into dark sci-fi and dystopian themes and the theme of the EP falls under that. The entire journey of the EP flows from the arrival of the destroyers to the aftermath.”

– Written by Mister Mime

(Bonus Track) Arve Henriksen – Saraswati [Rune Grammofon]

Aquatic, almost dub-like rumbling arpeggios eventually give way to a blissful soundscape, all the while accompanied by Henriksen’s trumpet which sounds like it might actually be a flute in disguise. There is never any inclination or need to impress the listener; every element is gentle and inviting, only the bare minimum of notes played. Perhaps the element I enjoy the most is the drums, which are so far down in the mix they frequently disappear for a while behind passing clouds, emerging only to provide a little ray of energy when needed.

– Written by Bill H

Note: Here’s a bonus one for y’all. This came to our attention this year and after writing it up, we realised that it was released in 2015 so it’s not technically in the list, but why take it out? – Baxtak

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