Last updated on May 20, 2021
Nashville Ambient Ensemble makes contradictions look easy. The first contradiction is Nashville and Ambient, as most people don’t think of peaceful, Eno-inspired music coming from the home of the Grand Ole Opry. Yet Cerulean is top-shelf ambient work that could have come out of any hotbed of experimental electro-acoustic music. Given that NAE claims being part of a scene called New Weird South, perhaps Nashville is going to be a hotbed of experimental electro-acoustic music faster than I thought.
The second contradiction is what gives Nashville Ambient Ensemble its unique x factor: the terms “ambient” and “ensemble” aren’t usually paired together. Ambient is usually a solo or duo effort, the work of small numbers of people with specific visions. Nashville Ambient Ensemble does it different, as their Bandcamp credits seven musicians on this record. Composer Michael Hix leads the charge, but there are many contributions.
The songs do feel like the work of an ensemble, as there are unique visions that mesh into a whole. The guitar noodling on “Inga” contrasts beautifully with the stylized percussion and the gentle female vocals. The mysterious synths and provocative guitar melodies of “Elegy” make it feel like Andreas Vollenweider is about to show up at any moment. The reverb-laden ’80s keys and hazy vibes from what sounds like a pedal steel in “Conversion” do nothing to dispel this lovely notion.
The 10-minute “Conversion” is the centerpiece of the record. It’s an elegant song that most sounds like an ensemble: the cooing vocals sway over interlocking piano and pedal steel, while the distorted electric guitar adds heft to the track. The pieces of this song all connect in a flowing, easygoing way that obscures how hard it is to make seven people sound like one thing in a relaxing, ambient zone. This is impressive work, from beginning to end.
Much ambient can turn into what I call “puffy clouds music”; grand, slow-moving, major key synth stacks that subtly shift and seem to float above the ground. This is the opposite of that: this is grounded, soulful, human music that is also yet peaceful. I like both types of ambient equally, but there’s not much of the type that Nashville Ambient Ensemble is putting out. If you’re into quiet music, you need to check out Cerulean. Highly recommended.