Dr. Atmo & Mick Chillage – Ruhleben

Happy Swapsies

In most cases, my opinion of social media isn’t a particularly good one. Too much hate, too much damage done to the souls of young people, and no one really interested in doing anything about it. My personal accounts on Facebook and Instagram are mostly just sitting there motionless, and I dropped Twitter altogether.

Admittedly, though – it’s a very different story when it comes to the 8000records Instagram experience. Every now and then, really nice things are happening there. Conversations with musicians, grateful feedback when a new post is uploaded – it’s a beautiful little virtuous circle of finding new music, writing about it, getting feedback, having conversations, and again finding new stuff to write about during these conversations.

And sometimes really awesome things happen. Like the other day when I saw a post by A Strangely Isolated Place on Instagram. It showed an admirable stack of “Pop Ambient” releases, almost the whole collection from 2001 to 2022. Almost. Two years were missing, 2002 and 2008. “Who’s up for swapsies?” I read, and I immediately liked the suggestion. Went over to the collection, checked my stash of Pop Ambient releases – and noticed with a smile: 2002 was in there twice. Up for swapsies for sure!

Sent a message, offering to trade in 2002 for an ASIP release, and immediately got an answer. Which ASIP release I might be interested in.

Tough question as there’s so much great stuff on that list. What would your choice be? I was sure that some releases would be out of question – sold out a long time ago. Like that Max Würden album which would have been be a good choice as he is featured on several Pop Ambient collections as well.

Thinking out loud, I was considering Earth House Hold as Brock van Wey showed up on both labels too. And then said you know what, just send me something that you think should be part of my collection. At that moment I was still assuming that I was probably talking to someone at ASIP headquarters that is in charge of social media.

Well – I wasn’t. Once we had agreed on how to conduct the swapsies, we exchanged addresses for shipment, and that’s when I realized that I was chatting with Ryan Griffin, the founder and owner of ASIP. As mentioned above – sometimes being on social media and doing your thing can lead to wonderful moments, and that was one of them.

Later that evening, I did a little bit of reading up on Ryan and his label, and it was quite revealing. There’s this really interesting interview on Inverted Audio where he talks a little bit about what it’s like to run a label like ASIP, and there’s this quote that made me laugh: “Most people reaching out to me think that there’s a team of five here” – just like me, only that I probably would have thought it’s more like a dozen people. No, actually it’s just him. Unbelievable, really – it’s the label and the mixes and the radio station, it’s the distribution and the artist relations, the media and the dreaded finances… All this on the side of a regular job? Damn! I definitely need to get my act together – sometimes I’m not able to write a single thing for weeks…

Ryan proved to be a man of generosity as well. He said that he’d send me the latest Earth House Hold – and an editor’s choice as well. Which means that if he should ever be looking for something to complete his collection beyond Pop Ambient I will be happy to help.

By now, you will know what the editor’s choice was – “Ruhleben” by Dr. Atmo and Mick Chillage. It proved to be an excellent choice too. And a nice one to write about. Something to dig into. Who these two gentlemen are, what the German title might be about, the vinyl-only second part of the album, and of course the things we get to hear.

What Ryan couldn’t have known is that this album would send me back to the nineties, back to Frankfurt. I spent two decades there, the city’s big Techno years included, when Sven Väth was still playing his endless sets at “Omen”. Reading up on Dr. Atmo (a.k.a. Amir Abadi) I found out that he is not just a musician and DJ, he’s an architect as well, and as such the man who is said to have designed the club back in the late 80s.

I wouldn’t say that I was a regular at “Omen” – but over the course of the ten years it existed almost everyone I knew went there every now and then, even if they weren’t much into electronic music. I couldn’t really relate to the scene and the sound of Frankfurt Techno – and I hadn’t discovered Ambient yet – which is a bit of a pity as I was living within walking distance of Pete Namlook’s studio, a place where electronic music history was written on a daily basis.

Dr. Atmo’s earliest recordings date back to the days when Namlook’s Fax label was still young, but already busy enough to have sub labels – Ambient World being one of them. That was in 1994. Seventeen years later, shortly before Pete Namlook’s shockingly early death, Abadi’s partner on “Ruhleben”, joined the list of artists on Fax when he released his second album “Faxology”. Mick Chillage (a.k.a. Michael Gainford) has adopted a release schedule that seems almost as frenetic as Namlook’s, with a large part of his work being self-released, another part being put out on …txt, where he sometimes joins label founder Lee Norris for their “Autumn Of Communion” project. Oh, almost forgot – Dr. Atmo has a release on …txt as well.

With this much in common and both artists being big fans of collaborations with other artists it’s almost strange that they haven’t put out an album together any earlier than 2021.

Ruhleben. The title is worth a few words as well. The label writes that the title is paying homage to Abadi’s Berlin roots (at some point he seems to have left his home town Frankfurt), and there is a part of Berlin that’s called Ruhleben, out West, close to Spandau. Maybe it’s where Abadi relocated to. Or maybe the word itself appealed as it suggests a life in tranquility – “Ruhe” being the German word for quiet or silence, “Leben” meaning life. A place where life is quiet, or where your life finds the quiet you long for.

The release information states that the two artists have returned to a “defining style of Ambient music” on this album. The playing times of the four tracks on this album are an indication already – in those days, a track that was less than ten minutes would have been regarded as a short one. Chillage seems to have kept this approach all these years as some of his releases are single tracks with playing times of more than an hour.

What “Ruhleben” isn’t though is a trip down memory lane. It clearly has its home in the ASIP world, fits right in – and only if you dig deeper into the work of the musicians you understand that some of the things they do come with several decades of history.

And then there is the way the album is offered. Half physical release – the first two tracks available in all formats, the other two only if you buy vinyl or CD. Interesting as this kind of special treatment is usually given to a vinyl release. Maybe extending it to the CD version is a nod towards Fax as their album releases were usually CD only. Consequently, the download that comes with the vinyl edition only includes one minute snippets of tracks 3 and 4. Fine with me. Forces me to put it on the turntable and turn it up while I am writing.

Which is what I am doing now – somewhere in the middle of the third track “Fireflow”. The label’s comments describe the music as “time-lapsed slow-motion soundtrack”, and I probably won’t find a more accurate description, especially for this piece – even though the aspects of slow motion and evoking the impression of listening to a soundtrack are somewhat defining for the Ambient genre itself. But that’s perfectly okay – in this case it is nothing but the truth – all four tracks would serve as perfect examples if you wanted to showcase a definition of Ambient at the heart of the category.

Part of the reason why it works so well lies in the combination of these two artists. Admittedly, I haven’t been able to go through their individual work too much (especially Mick Chillage’s catalogue would take weeks of exploration) – but judging from what I have heard the combination of their skills and creativity on this album creates a balance that lies both on an even deeper and higher level. “Ruhleben” as in a life of tranquility is a fitting concept.

Look at the ASIP Bandcamp and move on to the album – you will see that a video for the highlight track of the album, “Backwaters”, has been added there. Directed by Harry Yeoman (unfortunately I couldn’t find out much about him), it consists of humbling views of pure and majestic Nature (for some reason I need to capitalize it as the film lends it a very powerful identity). Many of the takes were treated with mirror effects, sometimes vertically, sometimes horizontally, and in some cases even both at the same time – and it adds to the power of what is conveyed, the abstraction leading to images that are sometimes hard to decipher, taking the viewer away from merely watching nature to understanding that nature is something we will never fully understand, and thus opening a different level of comprehension.

Sometimes bringing two different interpretations of a concept together leads to something that is more balanced, like on a scale where it would tip to one side or the other if only one aspect was represented, and then you put them both on it and they float. Like two noises that each may not move you, but create an exceptional harmony if heard in combination. Mysteriously, in a way, as we don’t understand how it can happen, how it works. But we’re not in it for analysis. What we want is balance, a moment when life itself is calm. We want “Ruhleben”.

Release for review:

Get the album on Bandcamp: Click