“There is a thread that runs through all this music that ties it together. Listening to ambient came much later, but again you hear similarities. I mean, in the early days you could just remove the beats and call it ambient! No beat? Ambient!”
The first blog post of 2020 is the third part of an impromptu mini-series exploring the subtle links between ambient and drum & bass cultures, before returning to more familiar d&b territory. Apparently there are more common threads, ramifications and intersecting trajectories in our musical micro-universe than I had initially imagined and it’s been really fascinating to find out that the curators of the brilliant labels presented in the series (Ryan from A Strangely Isolated Place, Dennis from 3Six and Huw from Serein) share a similar musical background. Their labels’ output – beatless in most cases – might sound worlds apart, however I’d still argue that there are reflections of drum & bass somewhere hidden or implied in their influences; eventually all music is connected.
I have manifested in previous posts the importance of a strong visual identity. Of course, attractive logos, names and artwork don’t compensate for dreadful music. Our culture of distraction and minimal attention span seems relentless on burying new music beneath an endless scroll. Everything has become too derivative, which has effectively rendered filtering and discovering new labels and artists a perpetual challenge. Therefore, an appealing visual presence is definitely a head-start, at least from a collector’s point of view. I realize that there might be shades of pretentiousness and elitism in the above statement and I can see eyebrows raising already. Not every artist is a graphic designer, aesthetics are de facto subjective, design, packaging and manufacturing can be costly beyond reason and most importantly artwork should not sideline music per se. However, as a music producer, artist and friend of the blog has accurately pointed out: “… in many cases artwork has been hugely responsible for the image and longevity of a label/artist/band and without it they might have been portrayed completely differently”.
A boutique record label based in Wales, which has achieved that perfect balance is Serein: mesmerizing and emotional music transcending genres and styles, combined with beautiful imagery and unique visual aesthetics. I have the privilege and pleasure to host for a mini-interview Huw Roberts, music producer, web/graphic designer, owner and curator of the label. Huw narrates the background story and vision of Serein and shares his articulate views, which extend well beyond the musical sphere.
Classically trained in piano from a young age with a penchant for experimentation beyond the academic aspect of music, Roberts got involved in the tracker/demo community and started creating sample-based music. Inspired by the endless possibilities of electronic music and the advent of the internet, he started his own digital label in 2005, while he was at university, using the name Serein (pronounced seh-rain; a term taken from a meteorological dictionary used to describe ‘fine rain, falling from a clear sky after sunset’).
Serein started as a digital platform to promote artists and their work online. The label’s output was originally made available to download for free, bar a few selective releases published also in limited CDr format. By 2009, Roberts decided to expand the label’s scope with physical items. The first physical foray was a re-issue of Nest’s (Otto Totland & Huw Roberts) eponymous EP, which was originally published in 2007 (SER013), aptly re-titled as ‘Retold’ supplemented with an artwork update and 5 new tracks. The album’s success provided Roberts with confidence to explore new commercial avenues and rebrand Serein, effectively reaching wider audiences worldwide. The train-spotters might have noticed that the catalogue number prefix changed (from ‘SER###’ to ‘SERE###’). The first vinyl release followed 2 years later with the ‘Seasons’ series (SERE11.1 through 11.4).
The Serein sound is esoteric and quite diverse: from spacey ambience and dystopian interludes, to avant-garde electronica and contemporary classical music vignettes. Despite the different musical direction and backgrounds of the featured artists, the common denominator encompasses musicality, sound aesthetics and subtle emotional gravity.
‘Serein is a record label based in Wales, the UK. Since our beginnings as a net-label in 2005 we have featured artists from across the world on numerous recordings released digitally and on CD and vinyl. While focusing predominantly on crossover ambient styles, we try not to limit ourselves to any one genre. Listening to our music is the best way to get to know us!
Our music is frequently used in TV and film productions, regularly receives international radio airplay and has been featured in several highly regarded printed publications and online magazines. We’re extremely lucky to have a loyal and exacting fan base, many of whom have been following our output since day one.
Our aim since then has remained the same, to call attention to music that we think is deserving of your time. We’re excited by advancements in technology and how they can facilitate new ways to enjoy music and video. In 2005 we were distributing music digitally in MP3 format before it was seen as a financial opportunity by the music industry at large. We love the internet for the creative freedom it allows and the connections it’s helped us make’.
The excerpt above is taken from the info section of the Serein website. Things have changed since the label’s timid beginnings though and Huw reflects on the early days and the evolution of the Serein canon:
“I just read it through again to remind myself of it – it’s quite vague isn’t it?! Ha! I guess that section is intended more as a kind of background/history of the label than a “this is who we are and what we stand for”. The reason for that is that I’m still working the latter out. I suppose it was a lot more niche when we started out as a net-label. I do really miss those days, everything was a lot simpler. I would like to get back a bit of that vibe, where things can be a bit more off the cuff. Something I’m quite sure of now is that I really love discovering new artists, who either haven’t released before or who have gone completely under the radar. I prefer that to hunting out big names, 100%”.
I have an obsession with record sleeves. Whether they are hand-made or mass-produced, meticulously arranged or spontaneously created, the cover artwork adds a literal dimension to the music that a digital thumbnail simply cannot replicate. I will ‘borrow’ a quote from a recent interview with Dennis ‘36’ for the blog regarding the visual side of music, an analogy so pertinent that has deeply resonated with me: “… I can’t understand those musicians who make the most beautiful music, but show little care or attention for the visual side. It’s like stuffing a Rembrandt painting inside a £5 plastic frame from IKEA …”
Many Serein albums revolve around a specific concept or theme, augmented with stunning artwork, which complements the musical narrative and invites the listener to conjure his own images and interpretations. Huw Roberts shares his insight from a label owner/designer’s point of view:
“Design and aesthetic are very important to me as well, not the most important thing, but it’s high on the list for sure. I guess the early sleeves had more in common than the most recent ones. There are two reasons for that: I have been working with some other artists recently, whereas the early ones were all made by me. Secondly, I started to get bored of very minimal sleeves. Generally, I would like to experiment with more diverse styles going forward. I don’t particularly like labels that have such a strong aesthetic that covers can be attributed to them at a glance. For me that makes it more about the label than the artist or specific release. Each cover should be sympathetic to the music contained within.
Regarding Dennis’ quote I can see where he is coming from. It is important to give critical thought to each aspect of a release – taken as a whole things should be coherent, from the press release, artist photos and album cover to videos and so on, but that is design and not everyone is a designer – so it’s not the most important thing. Sometimes I see packaging taken way too far and it impedes or competes with the music. It makes me wonder if people are overcompensating, when they bundle a hundred extras in some deluxe (if you can call it that) package. I find that extremely tacky”.
Release/Liner notes are another fine and intricate detail – a ‘lost art’ which brings back fond childhood memories. Sadly they are often neglected or considered redundant in electronic music. Of course, music should do the talking, but some pieces of art call for an extended narrative. Serein is an exemplary exception with elaborate and eloquent notes. Roberts has even developed audiovisual micro-sites dedicated to several releases; a beacon in a sea of derivative and generic promotion.
“Well, I’m really happy to hear that you like reading them. I usually cringe when I go back and read old press releases and vow to keep them to a single paragraph next time. Unfortunately it never happens. I think I’m too verbose, but I can’t change, so I should probably just accept it! I suppose I am just trying to communicate what I feel is special about each release, why I chose to put it out. I guess they are more like reviews than press releases. Release notes on sleeves are usually really minimal, so hopefully people will appreciate having something more substantial to read on our website”.
An eclectic variety of artists, multi-instrumentalists, composers and collaborators graces the label’s roster:
Nest, Olan Mill, Brambles, Colorlist, Imprints, Strië (Olga Wojciechowska), Yui Onodera & Vadim Bondarenko, Hidden Rivers, The Balustrade Ensemble, Selffish, The Greatest Hoax, Kryshe, Max Ananyev, Hibernis, Donato Wharton, Luke Sanger, Hauschka, Inventors Of Aircraft and many more.
Huw comments on the A&R process:
“The A&R process is basically me just waiting to be sent something I like a lot of the time – secret’s out! I don’t do very much active hunting for new music. I get sent a lot of cool stuff and also the artists I’ve worked with often have new projects or put their friends in touch. It’s all very haphazard. I tried to be a bit more proactive recently with an open call for demo submissions. I think I got maybe a hundred or so in a few days, I didn’t anticipate having to listen to so many. There were one or two really, really good submissions, so it was worthwhile, they are still arriving in my inbox”.
Drum & Bass x Ambient musical cultures
One of the reasons Serein has had such a strong appeal to me is that the music and imagery mirror my own influences. I believe that anyone who grew up listening to electronic music in the 90’s has an attachment to bass music and its offshoots somewhere along their musical tree. So in that sense, overlooking genre and tempo, I can hear echoes of the streamlined atmospheric 90s d&b sound.
“All music is connected! My first real moment, where I was switched on to music outside the norm, was listening to a mix I borrowed from a friend in school, it was ‘Cream Live’ mixed by James Lavelle – a CLASSIC mix that I still listen to and still adore. I would listen to it over and over and over. It was a whole new world of sound and I absolutely loved it – hiphop, triphop, scratching, breaks, house, techno and d&b all on one mix, unbelievable. As a teenager I just loved it all and was always hunting out the most obscure stuff I could find. Mo’Wax, Moving Shadow, Ninja Tune, Warp and so on really paved the way for me in the mid to late 90s. There is a thread that runs through all that stuff that ties it together. Listening to ambient came much later but again you hear similarities – I mean in the early days you could just remove the beats and call it ambient! No beat? Ambient!”
Looking back at the music I’ve listened to and been in love with over the years (I’m now 36), I’d say it’s actually rather strange that I ended up releasing so much beatless music, especially the modern classical stuff. It was more or less an accident that it went this way, it was all set in motion after Otto and I produced “Retold” in 2009. It just set the tone and went from there. I honestly adore dance music and its offshoots; it’s why I’ve toyed with the idea of a sub-label or sister label for Serein for so long”.
Music and media
There is a common misconception that unless pressed on vinyl, music is of second-rate quality or even disposable. Huw comments on the alleged vinyl resurgence and the importance (or non-importance) of the musical format:
“It’s true and I find it really disheartening; coming from a background as a net-label even more so. Back then (and before that, when I was a small part of the demo-scene), releases were just as creative, maybe more so. Having a record somehow legitimizes a release in some people’s eyes. Maybe that’s true for most people actually, certainly for a lot of artists. I find it quite strange that the more we move forward the more desperate some people are to cling to old ways.
Of course I understand the appeal of vinyl, it’s a beautiful format, but it has many, many disadvantages. That being said, I would like to be more adventurous with how releases are delivered in the future and keep experimenting. I’ve taken a hiatus from vinyl recently, but ‘never say never’.
Given the mess our planet is in, I really hope we see more people experimenting with online spaces as a means of communicating their music. Anyone can get their music on Spotify, but I don’t see that many really interesting uses of the internet to deliver music these days and I think it’s a shame. I guess I’m a little biased in my views, as I am a web developer. I am always trying to think of ways I can marry my love of music and code, it’s why I’ve made simple ‘micro-sites’ for several of our releases. I wish more people would do things like that – experiment and create worlds they can call their own. We mustn’t become reliant on services to deliver experiences for us.”
If it’s all too overwhelming and you need somewhere to start, here’s a selection with my top-5 Serein records in chronological order. I have also coerced Huw to share his own top-5. I wasn’t really surprised that 3 out of 5 entries appear in both lists.
“Forget the night ahead”
The Serein’s irresistible call (excuse the pun), ‘Charcoal’ was the very release that caught my attention and hooked me to Serein ever since. Originally released in 2012 – a special edition was re-issued two years later with a new artwork cover – this is my favourite Serein record. Brambles portrays elegantly all colours of the night; a time for reflection with saturated glimmers of optimism and hope retreating into the myriad shades of grey and regenerating before the night is over; emotionally draining, fragile and unbearably intimate.
Favourite track: Salt Photographs
‘Salt Photographs’ is pencilled to feature in the blog’s ‘Tracks I Wish I’d Written’ later in the year.
“A stream of thoughts and images flowing underwater”
Hidden Rivers is the solo project of Huw Roberts and his brilliant debut concept album documents a half-real, half-imagined journey through the Wye Valley in Wales. Finding refuge away from the noise and paranoia of modern metropoles, Roberts explores and reconstructs the sounds surrounding him in those remote, desolate places of nature, ‘Where Moss Grows’, with deciduous forests, ridges and narrow, rocky formations.
Favourite track: Over An Open Field
“The last fortress of solitude”
The perfect travel companion, ‘Orbital Planes & Passenger Trains’ is a compilation featuring Serein and affiliated artists. Whether you are flying at 36 thousand feet, packed like a sardine in a tube wagon, gazing absent-mindedly outside the window of a train compartment or you are simply at the secluded convenience of your own home, there are imaginary destinations only music can take you to. I have been often asked (due to my profession) about the music I listen to while travelling and I always recommend this compilation, which has never left my ipod and or my car’s CD wallet.
Favourite track: The Inventors Of Aircraft – No Returns
“It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place”
‘March Of The Mysterious’ is a concept album by German multi-instrumentalist Kryshe (Christian Grothe). The album stems from music made to accompany a showing of the 1915 silent film, ‘Alice In Wonderland’. Kryshe’s modern interpretation of Lewis Caroll’s classic tale brings into the studio elements of his orchestral live performances and adapts the peculiar anthropomorphic characters of the fantasy world in an alluring contemporary context.
A few weeks ago, I attended my niece’s ‘Alice-themed’ birthday party at a café/pastry shop. After cutting the cake, the older children gathered round and I streamed on my phone snippets from the album, while narrating chapters from the original story. I can’t tell if they humoured me, but they looked mesmerized :).
Favourite track: Underlying Reality
“Regret is stronger than gratitude”
‘Perpetual Journey’ by Polish artist/composer Olga Wojciechowska (Strië) retells the sad story of Laika, the Russian stray dog and petite pioneer, who became a part of history as the first living creature to orbit the Earth and has repeatedly found new life in popular culture long after her death and the fiery demise of her Soviet ship, Sputnik 2.
Vanity, loss, grief, aspirations and fears are recurring themes in Wojciechowska’s works. Fragments of blurry happy memories interchange with fervent pipe dreams you can’t quite shake in an emotional loop of sadness and hope.
Favourite track: To Never Return Home
Bonus entry: Let’s Go Outside
When social media have become the substitute for human interaction, the plan for this year is to go out more. Better freeze outside rather than in front of a screen.
‘Let’s Go Outside’ is an exclusive mix comprising 90 minutes of music from Serein. Hear old favourites and exclusive pieces on this compilation made in collaboration with Headphone Commute.
Huw Robert’s top-5 Serein records
I can’t give this too much thought or it’ll drive me crazy – off the top of my head:
- Brambles – Charcoal
- Strië – Perpetual Journey
- VA – Orbital Planes & Passenger Trains
- Kryshe – Hauch
- Colorlist – Sky Song
If you enjoyed the previews or still want to find out more, Huw has been ever so kind to offer us a generous 30% off anything from the Serein Shop using the discount code: GODNODJ30 (valid until June 1st, 2020).
Albums by Yui Onodera, Zachary Gray, Kryshe, Hidden Rivers & more… there are some beats in there too!
For all things Serein browse through the various sections of their elaborate and impeccably designed website:
Releases: Release notes, artist profiles and sound clips
Shop: The place for all Serein physical items and merchandise
Blog: Music-related articles and views
Forecasts: Digital mix-tapes put together by Huw Roberts, select musicians and friends of Serein. Each author must take a photograph of their environment to accompany their mix and include music or sound of their own creation. These requisites allow each ‘Forecast’ to capture a unique and personal snapshot in time.
Archive: All Serein digital releases from 2005 to 2009 available for free (!)