Brian Eno may not have invented ambient music, but few dispute his role in its advancement as a genre. Since he coined the term with his Ambient series of albums, many an artist has explored the ideas Eno introduced and championed through the ’70s. A veritable delta of a genre, the many streams, forms and mediums of ambient music flow from the common point of Eno’s famous summation that “it should be as ignorable as it is interesting,” and into an ocean of sound that champions mood over melody, texture over tunes.
As with any genre, ambient music can barely be considered one at all given the vast range it encompasses. More recently synonymous with downtempo electronic music, the advances in sequencing and DAW technology allowing for an abundance of opportunity for anyone with a computer and an adventurous spirit, exemplified through the likes of Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada. But equally powerful is the manner in which organic instrumentation can be affected and harnessed in myriad ways, so powerfully put to use in the drone music of Stars of the Lid.
Not to be dismissed, Matthew Cooper has been tinkering away under his Eluvium moniker for over 15 years. An artist as reclusive, understated and humble as the music he creates, his steadfast commitment to his craft has nonetheless seen him emerge as one of the premier artists of the ambient genre. Acclaimed for blending a range of instrumentation into his expansive compositions—from minimalist piano sonatas to feedback-drenched guitar drones and generative electronic samples—Cooper’s ten studio albums as Eluvium and vast range of EPs, collaborations and side-projects find his work as prolific as it is powerful.
Such yield without hook, however, means it suffers from the ambient genre’s primary pitfall, that it can too easily be considered “background music.” As such, when seeking an entry point, it’s not always easy to differentiate any particular piece of work in Eluvium’s vast catalogue from any other, despite the unique and meticulous construction of each record. This uniformity is something Cooper himself has played with in his work, which we’ll briefly discuss later, but the truth is every Eluvium record is really music before ambience, deserving to be heard in its own right and as part of a greater whole. While clear formulaic techniques do run through his work, the only real consistency is his dedication to sheer prettiness, as though there were enough dissonance in the world without it needing to enter his music too.
Not to be conflated with the soulless algorithmic “ambient” and “focus” playlists plaguing streaming services, prettiness should not be confused with plainness. Cooper’s ability to extract aching beauty from sound gives his work an otherworldly quality that dredges up inexplicably complex emotional responses, from deep longing and sadness to becalmed peace. Indeed, when viewed in conjunction with the gorgeous, fantastical artworks of his wife Jeannie Paske that feature on almost all his covers and related material, the Eluvium project can almost be seen as world building. And we all deserve a guide to tumbling down the rabbit hole, walking through the wardrobe or whatever mode you find to immerse yourself in the rich world of serenity Eluvium has built.
(2007; Temporary Residence Limited)
Eluvium’s breakout record, if such a thing exists, Copia remains his most accessible, most diverse, most sincere and probably finest album. A collection of carefully arranged tracks, in music and album alike, it beautifully showcases the complete range of what Cooper does best. A variety of instruments used considerately and in inventive ways, from the gentle brass fanfare of opener “Amreik” to the unexpected distant fireworks—strangely heartbreaking—that punctuate the steadily evolving drones of heavenly closer “Repose in Blue.” In between, he oscillates elegantly between his signature piano work in the likes of “Prelude for Time Feelers” and “Radio Ballet,” the slow burning build and barely perceptible payoff of “Indoor Swimming at the Space Station” and cleverly manipulated brass and strings sections in “After Nature” and “Requiem on Frankfort Ave.”
Copia’s use of structure and instrumentation feels perfectly complementary, never becoming too dense—though the layers are sometimes barely distinguishable from each other as to what is organic, synthetic or sampled—and Cooper knows when to pull back and allow for individual moments of beauty. Where before this album he relied largely on his guitar for his atmospherics, here he applies his effects board to the wider range of what he has available, the broader palette reaping gorgeous results encapsulated in the cello-driven drones that largely form the breathtaking “Seeing You Off the Edges.” It’s tempting to call it grand or sweeping, and Cooper certainly doesn’t try to obscure his tricks of emotional manipulation, but there’s a subtlety to this record that exposes a heartfelt center. A sense you’re being manipulated toward something genuinely profound.
An Accidental Memory in the Case of Death
(2004; Temporary Residence Limited)
By the time Copia came around, Cooper had established Eluvium as an emerging ambient talent. But in the early days, it wasn’t completely clear what his direction was. A varied and tentative if undeniably lovely debut was followed up by this little album made up of seven simple but pretty solo piano pieces, resulting in a piece of work unique against all his other albums. The keyed composition and melodies of An Accidental Memory in the Case of Death have cast their ripples throughout the subsequent Eluvium catalogue, a waypoint for the instrumental balance he has become known for, but on this record it took centre stage at the expense of everything else. Recorded in one single continuous take and completed in just two hours, the gorgeously constructed pianowork invited inevitable references to the likes of Erik Satie and Philip Glass.
While you get the sense Cooper himself would be the first to distance himself from such comparisons, it’s nonetheless easy to see why they emerged. From the reflected melody of the bookended title tracks to the soft redolence of “Perfect Neglect in a Field of Statues,” a lovely example of Cooper’s faculty for a cleverly worked and evocative song title, it’s not only a snapshot of Cooper’s diverse abilities but is a beautiful journey in it’s own right. This year, Cooper released a complete anthology of all his piano-driven works, aptly titled Pianoworks, but I’d still recommend repeated returns to Accidental Memory for the best Eluvium piano experience.
(2013; Temporary Residence Limited)
If Eluvium spent any time in the wilderness, it was the space between Copia and Nightmare Ending. This ambitious double album, comfortably his longest at over 80 minutes, was seen as a welcome return to form after failed experiments with the introduction of vocals and a vaguely more pop-oriented sound. That’s maybe unfair on 2010’s Similes, which had its share of beautiful tracks, but it wasn’t what Eluvium does best. From that key point came the slow exhale of relief upon hearing the looped samples and soul-stirring piano chords that raise the curtain on “Don’t Get Any Closer,” the record’s stunning opening track, and a wry smile at what seemed a rare glimpse of cloaked humor in the album’s title.
It also marked his progression toward a more maximalist sound. While still ambient for all intents and purposes, and Nightmare Ending uses space and absence expertly, it’s a generally denser progression of tracks with grander ambitions. The journey of its title is an easy bow to draw in the music, disc one far darker in mood that Cooper’s previous work, encapsulated in the muddy static of “Unknown Variations” and stuttering drum track of “Envenom Mettle.” While disc two details an awakening into the light, tracks named the likes of “Rain Gently,” “Chime” and “Happiness” built on the gentle piano we all know and love, warm reverberating drones and—in the latter’s case—a vocal track from Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan that genuinely works.
Talk Amongst the Trees
(2005; Temporary Residence Limited)
Despite being the third Eluvium record, Talk Amongst the Trees has a sense of debut around it. After the solo piano of Accidental Memory, the instrument is conspicuous in its absence here, the album composed of almost purely guitar drone material. The result is warm and inviting, and another album that gives the sense of a complete and coherent piece of work. Opener “New Animals from the Air” remains the blueprint for the slowly unfolding sample and drone pieces that comprise much of his work, and also remains perhaps the best example. The 17-minute pulsing “Taken” is equally a standout, the delicate churn it entails a technique seen in later years and albums.
Cooper’s production on his atmospheric pieces has no doubt improved over the years, leading to more impressive and more elegantly layered pieces of work. But a return to Talk Amongst the Trees and it’s impossible to deny the sincerity of this record. It’s the sound of a man painstakingly making this as perfect as he possibly could, while still managing to give them impression he is letting the tracks discover themselves. The perfect album to drift you into other times, other spaces.
False Readings On
(2016; Temporary Residence Limited)
Eluvium’s most recent album proper is his grandest, most dense, and arguably most rewarding in its sheer scale. As has been covered, Cooper never really strays into dissonant territory and False Readings On is undeniably pretty. But it’s the closest thing he’s come to a record capable of unsettling a person. A piece of work as haunting as the ghostly figure on its cover, echoed choral arrangements sounding birthed from the depths of the ocean and ringing minor chords dominate proceedings amidst atmospherics equal parts swelling and spooky.
It also marks the culmination to date of the growing grandiosity of Cooper’s arrangements. These are as overloaded with instrumentation and eventfulness as music could possibly be and still be considered ambient. Most striking are the drone pieces, especially when viewed against Talk Amongst The Trees, and how much more aggression and density formulate them than ten years prior, “Rorschach Pavan” sounds like a damn bursting. Bring in the heavenly choirs of “Beyond the Moon For Someone in Reverse,” organs and phantom vocals of “Fugue State” and torrential static build of “Posturing Through Metaphysical Collapse” and you have something transcendent. It might not be as elegant or sincere as some of his previous work, and there’s something a little terrifying about it, but it’s glorious nonetheless.
Also Recommended: In truth, debut album Lambent Material was unlucky not to make the list. It’s not as accomplished or refined as subsequent works, but is nonetheless gorgeous and contains moments of sheer quality. The sprawling static of “Zerthis Was a Shivering Human Image,” an uncut diamond heralding his work to come and, if nothing else, the album contains the superbly named “Under the Water it Glowed,” a rare Eluvium track formed around a bonafide guitar riff. Similarly, EP When I Live By the Garden and the Sea is brief but beautiful, even if offering nothing particularly special that can’t be found in his studio albums; except for maybe the most delightful cover art of his catalogue and a wonderfully obscure sample of Tom Hanks from The ‘Burbs. Beyond this, it is worth looking into Cooper’s work under his full name Matthew Robert Cooper—deemed different enough to not qualify as Eluvium—especially his work for the Matt McCormick film Some Days Are Better Than Others, which fully realises the cinematic nature of his work with a genuine soundtrack.
Advanced Listening: 2017’s Shuffle Drones might be the most accessible Eluvium album or the least accessible, depending on your take. A unique experiment in modern music—let alone Cooper’s own catalogue—the artwork saw him compose 23 drone pieces of about 30 seconds in length, each designed to seamlessly blend into any other when played with zero crossfade in Spotify, resulting in an infinitely changing piece of music if played on shuffle and repeat. Cleverly utilising and subverting modern streaming-based listening habits, it’s a truly beautiful piece of work capable of states of calm seemingly removed from one’s own sense of self. But for those looking for the narrative elements a discrete piece of work contains may find it frustrating, and understandably so. Also worth tracking down is 2010’s Static Nocturne, a singular, cascading, 50-minute track of static and white noise. The only Eluvium album not released on Temporary Residence but Cooper’s own Watership Sounds label, its torrential build is genuinely moving, filling all sense of space and time so as to make them feel irrelevant. A feeling that essentially captures Eluvium’s music as a whole.
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