Words: Daniel Bromfield
“In these trying times…” You’ve probably gotten an email that starts with these words, and if you’re an ambient artist you’ve probably gotten a review that sounds like that, too. But it’s as hard to divorce a title like The Darkest Place from the pandemic as it is to find any sense of death and dread in the pillowy, physically pleasurable ambient music Agustin Mena has been making as Warmth for the last half-decade. These tracks don’t quite earn titles like “No Stars Tonight,” “Wounds,” and “Everything Burns,” and either way, horizontal drift music doesn’t seem like the proper place to mourn the dead.
The Darkest Place does not depart drastically from Mena’s sound, which distills dub techno to its essence of engulfing sound design and nebulous chords. His omnipresent floor of bass and generous use of the stereo field make for music that seems to massage the very lobes of the brain. His albums Essay and Parallel are part of a very small group of ambient albums I can listen to while violently hungover. His music does not privilege individual instruments—though that’s changed on some of his recent albums like Wildlife, which introduced pianos to his sound and unclouded the mix a bit.
The Darkest Place is the first Warmth album where he’s really figured out how to incorporate those individual instruments. Wildlife and its successor Life lost a bit of mystery in pulling apart the densely packed atoms of his music, but the starlike synth plings and bits of backwards guitar ripple that feature here seem like whitecaps on a surface rather than features in a landscape. There’s piano here, but it feels less like a filigree than as if every key was an ice sheet, making a big splash every time the player presses down on it. Like most of the best ambient, it’s relaxing and a little bit humbling.
Ambient guys always seem to be mastering each other’s albums, and this is the second one to go through Rafael Anton Irisarri’s Black Knoll Studios, which has put the finishing touches on some of the finest ambient albums and remasters of the last decade. It’s surprising it took the two so long to work together. Irisarri is the central figure in ambient’s recent trend towards hi-def production, indistinct instrumentation, and bone-crushing bass. These are all qualities of Mena’s music, and the topologic rumbling under these tracks makes listening to them feel a little like facing a stone wall.
The Darkest Place is one of Mena’s best. I’d rank it as my third favorite, behind Essay and the marvelous Parallel. But that’s in spite of its packaging, which brings a heavy burden. If The Darkest Place reflects any pandemic-adjacent emotional state, it’s awe, an increased appreciation for the little things in life that sometimes develops out of a proximity to death. That’s not the lesson everyone will get out of our present situation, but at least when the clubs reopen I’ll have another album to listen to the morning after.