“As musical cultures, I think ambient and drum & bass certainly find parallels in each other – they both loosely connect around personal freedom – be it euphoric or mindful, as genres they are similar in the emotions they elicit …” – Ryan Griffin
In last year’s anniversary feature I had given a hint about expanding the blog’s scope to sporadic non-d&b material, essentially to music I love and enjoy, when I am not listening to drum & bass. The maxim is always the same: “I write about music I like, written by people I like”. My affinity for album covers, liner notes, film scores, ambient and modern electronica has been manifested in previous posts to the point of nausea. What I have not talked about yet though, is that I have often day-dreamt about my own vanity project, or becoming a glorified post-boy as a friend has playfully stated in a past interview here. The mechanics of creating a record label are easier than ever, however I guess that the ship has sailed for now. Counter-intuitively, one of the labels that has inspired me with their passion, meticulousness and visual aesthetics has not been covered on the blog yet and is far from what you have probably guessed. And that brings us to this month’s post. I have the privilege and pleasure to host Ryan Griffin, owner and curator of A Strangely Isolated Place, who shares his insight and narrates the background story of one of the most fascinating labels you are about to stumble upon.
A Strangely Isolated Place (ASIP) is a music blog, community and record label. Founded by Ryan Griffin in 2008, the name is inspired by Ulrich Schnauss’ eponymous debut album, who has been a great influence to ASIP. The ethos though stretches beyond the interpretation of the title; to the belief that everyone is inspired by their own strangely isolated place.
But what is this place? Is it a question of where or when? Somewhere, where nobody wants to be there and nobody wants to leave? A place where the illusion of permanence makes the lines between hopes and fears, nostalgia and lethe indistinguishable and regret is stronger than gratitude, or simply a temporary transportation to a state of reflection, self-awareness and content? It’s a de facto subjective interpretation, but for me that special place borrows elements from Homer’s Odyssey. The enchanting sirens’ song, Calypso’s island, Circe’s sorcery, temptations and distractions, hubris and redemption; all eventually culminate in a blissful ending; a journey with a destination only music can take you to.
With primary focus on shedding light on some of the very best ambient and electronica, through reviews, features and guest mixes, ASIP quickly evolved to a warm and devoted community of like-minded music lovers, which culminated in the establishment of the record label in 2012. After a series of digital releases, ASIP now focuses on limited edition vinyl releases, with special attention to the concept, aesthetics and design of each record. Fast forward 7 years later, the early releases are highly sought after, reaching eye-watering prices in the second-hand market.
Ryan reflects on the early days and his musical influences:
“The site started in 2008 with no intention other than enabling me to keep a track of the music I was exploring. I had no ambition to start a label or for it to become what it is today. And then the label; this was born not only out of my love for vinyl and dreaming of pressing a record one day, but also because of all the friends and artists I’ve met over the years, who create some brilliant music and needed a platform of similar minds”.
“In terms of influences on ASIP, it’s pretty much my own personal influences – the label doesn’t have any other agenda other than releasing music I love. It’s just me at the end of the day. My spectrum is pretty broad, so who knows where the label will go, but of course, my passion is for ambient and the more electronic side of ambient / electronica will remain a focus. I hope that in a few years time I can look back and be proud to have offered up a variety of styles that really celebrate the genre and its affiliated styles, introducing people to something new at some point”.
The label’s sound is esoteric and quite diverse, transcending genres and styles. Blurring the lines between composition and improvisation, from spacey ambience and dystopian interludes, to avant-garde electronica and contemporary classical music vignettes, the common denominator encompasses musicality, sound aesthetics and subtle emotional gravity. Despite the different musical direction and backgrounds of the featured artists, who are electronic music luminaries across the spectrum, their music magically converges, creating the soundtrack of daydreaming, adding widescreen vistas and deep, saturated hues to the monochrome silence.
One of the reasons that ASIP has had such a strong appeal to me is that the music and imagery reflect my own influences. When I started listening to electronic music in the first half of the 90s the lines between genres were foggy if even existent. In Greece at least, you could listen to LTJ Bukem and Laurent Garnier on the same bill. FSOL’s ‘Lifeforms’ and The Orb’s ‘Blue Room’ and ‘Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld’ have been the unofficial sample packs for 90s d&b and even some of the ASIP artists and affiliates (Christian Kleine, Ulrich Schnauss, ASC, Purl (etc.) made their first production forays or have strong connections with drum & bass. So in that sense, overlooking the tempo, I can hear echoes of the streamlined atmospheric 90s d&b sound in many ASIP releases. Ryan comments:
“I think anyone, who grew up enjoying electronic music in the 90’s has an attachment to atmospheric drum & bass somewhere along their musical tree, so to find it in ambient music (or ASIP releases as you put it) isn’t too much of a surprise for me. And in many instances ambient music could be classed as “Atmospheric D&B” and vice versa. As musical cultures, I think they certainly find parallels in each other – they both loosely connect around personal freedom – be it euphoric or mindful, as genres they are similar in the emotions they elicit, for me at least. Take Adam F’s ‘Circles’ for example – truly versatile and can be played in a club set or a chill-out room.
As you probably know too well, DnB is also extremely influential on whatever is made today. If I think about some ambient/DnB-leaning works that are influential on my tastes today; LTJ Bukem who brings a jazz or downtempo element to the style, PFM sampling Aphex Twin, Wisp remixing Aphex’s SAW, Kruder & Dorfmeister blending DnB with downtempo, even Ulrich Schnauss who started with DnB as Ethereal 77 (and is obviously a big influence for ASIP). More recently, artists like Ludvig Cimbrelius (Purl) is doing some beautiful stuff as Illuvia that sits smack in the middle of ambient and DnB and of course, as you mention James Clements as Comit has a stacked DnB history that no doubt comes through in everything he does. Of course, these are just a couple of instances that have influenced my taste as it relates to the genre, and I’m by far an expert in DnB, but all this to say I’m not surprised DnB still has a presence in ambient or any electronic music genre and vice versa.
Additionally, now might be a nice time to add we have a lovely atmospheric DnB album lined up for next year…”
The cover artwork adds a literal dimension that a digital thumbnail simply cannot replicate. The ASIP sleeve layout, imagery and photography are stunning, with utmost detail paid to the artwork, which normally takes longer than the actual music! Various designers and artists (Nick Brzostowski, Noah MacDonald (Keep Adding), Dennis Huddlestone (36), Mario Morales, Mike Marquez, Todd Diemer, Molly Smith and many more) have been enlisted for the projects rendering each particular record unique and collectible. Most releases are available in limited edition vinyl packages drawing from a rich colour palette.
“The common theme is only the relatively strict template I stick to. You’ll see that each artwork has a central focus – often framed – and the title and label name remain in the same position. I like to keep artwork thematic, so it feels a little more collectible, and I also like the restrictions placed on myself and the artists with this template. The template actually forces us to be even more creative with the space. It’s easy to use a photo or image full bleed on vinyl artwork, or make the typography do the hard work, but a template like this needs to work hard and needs to come to life within a gatefold; like opening a story. With regards to the designers, I choose a designer based on the brief or concept from the artist, depending on whether their style matches the music, or if they can best bring the artists vision to life”
A lost art, usually neglected in electronic music; a fine and intricate detail I really enjoy, which brings back fond childhood memories. Most of the ASIP releases include liner notes, artist quotes, epigrams or poem excerpts.
“I enjoy this “lost art” too, and would love to go even deeper with every release, but unfortunately sometimes artists just want the music to do the talking. I’ll bring aspects to a release where I can, and maybe one day I can do some kind of extended narrative. Some pieces of art call for a quote or poem, and it’s often the artist who asks for it, not me. But if I had my way, every release would have a deeper dive.
With Full Circle the entire triple gatefold was dedicated to this practice, and I provided track notes and a full write-up on the history of ASIP and the release. People seemed to really enjoy it which is nice, because it took an extremely long time to get together along with the ‘tags’ that made up part of the art”.
An eclectic variety of artists and collaborators graces the label’s roster: 36, Arovane, Christian Kleine, Brock van Wey (as Earth House Hold), Hior Chronic, James Bernard, James Clements (as Comit), Lav, Leandro Fresco, Marcus Guentner, Max Würden, Merrin Karras, Purl, Rafael Anton Irisarri (who is in charge of the mastering @ Black Knoll Studio) , Yagya and more. For extensive artist profiles visit the respective section on the ASIP website here. Ryan comments on the A&R process:
“I don’t really have a strict process, which is good and bad. As I mentioned before, I release music I like. Unlike many label models, we don’t ask artists to commit to numerous albums or releases, as I think the music should come first, not the pressure to make it. If an artist has already released on the label I do my best to continue that connection, so we can build something great together. Outside of that, it’s often a split between me asking certain artists or friends to create something for ASIP, alongside artists submitting demos or being introduced through friends-of-friends. I try and keep a good mix of styles, new and slightly more familiar faces, as I still want to be able to present new artists, whilst keeping the opportunity to release albums by artists I admire”.
If it’s all too overwhelming and you need somewhere to start, here’s a list with my top-5 ASIP records in chronological order. The official press notes on the label’s site/bandcamp eloquently capture the essence of every release, so I will only attach a short tagline:
A journey experienced through the eyes and ears of the artists, capturing their memories, travels, tributes, and exquisite musical depictions.
Favourite track: Parks – When The Last Ferry Left Helsingborg
The album began life in the summer of 2014, when Lav (Christopher Landin) was traveling (my home country) Greece and began recording the sounds surrounding him in remote, desolate places of nature.
Favourite track: Absorbed in Serenity
The ambient house side-project of bvdub, known for his epic and emotionally-draining ambient compositions, this is perhaps the dramatic sequel of his heart-breaking 2011 album ‘Songs for a Friend I Left Behind’ in a different tempo and context.
Favourite track: Who You Were
Dennis Huddlestone beautifully re-imagines and re-addresses the concept of loneliness, as captured in Visage’s song of the same title almost 30 years ago. Human interaction has now been substituted with online superficiality and social behavior is dictated by social media trends.
Favourite track: Fade to Grey
Electronic reveries by James Clements portrayed in their glorious full-length form, always ‘under his spell’, since the introduction of the Comit project three years ago for Short Trips.
Favourite track: Montage
The label’s full back catalogue of digital and vinyl releases, with notes, preview and purchase links here.
A platform supplemented with commentary, notes and track-listings, featuring the who’s who of ambient and electronica. Instead of promotional artist mixes the endeavour focuses on the showcase of musical inspirations and themes that consequently induce further musical exploration in tandem with the ASIP concept.
“It’s where I invite some of my musical inspirations of recent and past to create a mix, often based on their own inspirations, but as we’ve seen there have been several other themes too, ranging from Danish shoegaze with Jonas Munk through to Soundtracks with Helios. As long as the mix gives the listener some insight into the artist, where they’ve come from, what they’re inspired by; then it qualifies. It’s a general theme with the site I guess, to provide more information, and to help you explore more. I’ve only posted an isolatedmix without a track list once, and that was because he, (bvdub) did it live on disc-mans with no track names to reference! Additionally I ask the curator to provide track notes or an introduction. I’ve discovered so much music through mixes, so it’s important to me that they’re presented in the right way to enable more exploration and not just a promo for the curator.”
Full Circle and fast forward to the present
I intentionally omitted Full Circle (ASIPV00X) from the highlights as it deserves a special reference:
Last November ASIP celebrated their 10th anniversary with an epic package that captured the various ASIP facets. ‘Full Circle‘, a 17-track compilation was presented in various celebratory collectible bundles with all proceeds going to charity. Read all the details here.
2019 has been a very busy year with albums by 36, James Bernard, Yagya, Max Würden and at the time of writing the spectacular first full-length James Clements album under his side-project Comit. So, what does the future hold for ASIP in the 2nd decade?
“Well to even think about that is a little crazy – the thought of doing this for another ten years! But I hope my life and family enables me to continue as it’s my outlet.
2019 has been our busiest year yet – we’ve already done as many releases in 6 months as last year, and have just as many lined up if we can make it happen. And it won’t stop in 2020 – I’m on the hook with a lot of good friends right now with some stunning music to present to the world”.
Outside of the label, we just launched an online radio/streaming destination – 9128.live. It’s a curated destination by label/artist in a hope to present a new listening experience. That will undoubtedly take up some of our attention and time, but the feedback has been amazing so far so it looks to have been a good decision. You can read more about that here: 9128 – 24/7 Live Streaming“.
A benchmark article for all aspiring bloggers and music enthusiasts (like me) and an essential companion guide to ambient music and strangely isolated places written by Ryan Griffin from the ASIP blog archive here
Comment in green excerpt from an interview for the Discogs blog. Read the full interview here.
Comments in blue by Ryan Griffin exclusively for this feature.