Uneasy Listening: Dark Ambient Music Appreciation for Pagans
by Danica Swanson
“Encoded in the earth, encrypted in our bodies, and built into temples is a knowledge that wants to live again as music.”
~ Susan Elizabeth Hale,
Sacred Space, Sacred Sound: The Acoustic Mysteries of Holy Places
“Dark ambient is definitely a big part of my spiritual life…It almost functions as a gate to another reality, where different rules apply. It’s like reading a great book or looking at a painting, but much more intense, faster, and more direct.”
~ Matej Gyarfas of Phragments
When I began my journey into the world of dark ambient music in 1992, I hadn’t a clue that this obscure musical style – originally called “industrial ambient”– would alter my life so completely that I would one day consider it indispensable to my spiritual practice.
Over the years I discovered that dark ambient music could be a remarkably effective facilitator of meditation, contemplative practice, and paths of sacred endarkenment – a theta-wave-inducing enabler of hypnagogic states, lucid dreams, and inner journeys. Since I was raised in a New Age family, I’d already had more than my fill of spirituality with a heavy emphasis on white light and transcendence; dark ambient became my perfect down-to-earth antidote.
With its discordant tones, introspective moods, extended ominous drones, and typical lack of vocals or rhythm, the genre occupies territory far removed from conventional musical norms, and has acquired a notorious reputation for inaccessibility. Reactions from newcomers upon their first exposure to dark ambient music include:
“What is this evil shit?”
“Reminds me of a Satanic Enya.”
“Now there’s some music you can’t dance to.”
“Nothing but churchbell-tolling overblown solemnity.”
“This isn’t music!”
So true that it gets funnier every time I look at this meme. (Thanks to Matej Gyarfas for the image.)
Many people – even fans of industrial, the genre that spawned dark ambient in the 1980s – consider dark ambient music unremarkable or boring at best, if not repulsive. And if you’re not among those who are instinctively drawn to dreary sounds and imagery of crumbling ossuaries, subterranean black pits, church ruins, and barren winter lands when you’re seeking out new music to enjoy, you’re unlikely to stumble across music of this sort in any context other than, say, a computer game or a film soundtrack.
As a dark ambient music specialist, author of an in-progress book featuring interview quotes from insiders, and fan of the genre for 25 years – with a passion for this music that has been described as “so intense it’s almost religious” – it is a privilege and a joy to have this opportunity to help guide your way into the shadowy realms of this obscure genre.
Dark ambient music can facilitate contemplative practice, deepen meditation, foster emotional authenticity, enliven rituals, and even boost creativity. It’s also a powerful tool for facilitating experiences of deep listening, religious worship and reverence, inner journeys, and connection to the earth. As part of my hospitality work on a path of monastic service, I design and create physical spaces for these purposes through my Black Tent Temple Project. I’ve found that careful attention to the acoustic qualities of sacred space, combined with a careful selection of atmospheric dark ambient music, can open the way for direct experience of the numinous.
I also offer a music advisory service, known as the Chthonic Cathedral Project, through which I compile custom themed playlists of dark ambient music and recommend tracks suitable for rituals, devotional work, sacred dance projects, meditation groups, and yoga classes. Enthusiastic feedback from the folks I’ve worked with (“This music is amazing! Where can I hear more? Why haven’t I ever heard of it before?”) has convinced me that there’s a need for this music in Pagan and polytheist communities that remains largely unmet because the genre is still so obscure. So I do my best to get the word out about this music, as a service to our communities, and as a way of expressing my appreciation to the musicians whose work has inspired me to write this.
Why might dark ambient music be of interest to Pagans?
It’s a tool for deep listening as contemplative practice.
I find inspiration in the late composer Pauline Oliveros’ concept of deep listening. She defines it as “going below the surface of what is heard and also expanding to the whole field of sound whatever one’s usual focus might be.” Judith Becker, author of Deep Listeners: Music, Emotion, and Trancing, defines it as “a descriptive term for persons who are profoundly moved, perhaps even to tears, by simply listening to a piece of music.”
To me, deep listening means learning how to hear not just with the ears, but with the whole body, and in connection with the deities, spirits, and the ground of being. Dark ambient music both facilitates and richly rewards this deep listening.
For Pagans, deep listening to dark ambient music can become a self-directed contemplative practice every bit as valuable as prayer, lectio divina (sacred reading), or ritual. True contemplative practice is a powerful transformative force, capable of deepening focus, discipline, clarity of purpose, compassion, and ability to tolerate frustration. The mindful capacity of attention we develop through active listening can be expanded and applied in many other realms. The skills involved in stretching your musical perception and capacity for deep listening can be learned, and dark ambient music is an excellent aid for this purpose, albeit an unconventional one.
It enhances ritual and mysticism.
It’s no accident that dark ambient music has been called “audio LSD for the activation of the divine parts of the spine,” as it can serve purposes far deeper than entertainment. For me it has facilitated journeys to realms I could not reach through any other method I tried, and helped me connect with deities and spirits more reliably than I’d previously thought possible.
One of the most exquisite pleasures of dark ambient music is the way it can relax the drive to understand the world through the intellect. Sometimes the joy of this music – and its effectiveness in ritual space – comes from not knowing, not understanding – simply allowing oneself to revel in the mystery, leave questions unanswered, and rest in the presence of the unknown.
It’s the sound of nature.
Sounds emitted by the deep earth and in space – e.g., the NASA space recordings made by Jeffrey Thompson and Richard Stamper, a.k.a. “Song of Earth” – can be readily recognized as dark ambient, both literally and metaphorically. As the venerable Drone Records puts it:
“The Drone is a metaphor for everything that vibrates, that releases energy – from atoms and elementary particles to the hum of the earth and the universe. The Drone is an entity that connects everything that exists within our own “mind-space,” perception, and self.”
It facilitates inner journeys and access to embodied sources of wisdom.
Good dark ambient music contains subtle but perceptually expansive qualities that provide just enough structure and atmosphere to keep the conscious mind occupied, but not so much structure that it becomes a distraction. In this way, it can serve as a conduit into liminal spaces, and can open doors for visions. It can even serve as an epistemological tool, as it helps open pathways for listeners to access sources of embodied wisdom that are much more deeply rooted in instinct and the land than they are in the conscious mind or waking awareness. I call these paths of sacred endarkenment.
It stimulates creative flow.
Many of us who paint, draw, design, dance, and write find that dark ambient music liberates our creativity in unprecedented ways, leading us into states of flow and light trance where time seems to expand and our awareness becomes completely absorbed in our work. Since dark ambient is deliberately devoid of the conventional elements we usually follow in a musical composition, it creates just enough space for the listener to drift off into a creative reverie of their own – inspired, but not constrained, by the work of the composer.
It creates valuable space for downward-moving or unsettling emotions.
Melancholy, loneliness, regret, foreboding, dread, sorrow…these are emotional states that can lead us on a descent into our own inner depths. In a culture that so often expects us to mask our suffering, paste on a smile, and get right back to our jobs, dark ambient can be sweet relief – a source that reminds us of the value of introspection and authentic emotional experience. “Dark” emotions are not only acceptable in dark ambient music, but artistically respected.
It provides an outlet for ecological grief.
If you truly love the earth – as most Pagans do – no doubt you are intimately familiar with the emotional landscape of grief and despair, as ecological destruction continues on unabated, and we hear and feel the sounds of the earth crying in our own bones and flesh. We carry so much of this primal grief in our bodies, much of it unconscious, and few of us have access to effective community-based practices or social support for dealing with this kind of ongoing grief as it presents itself in intermittent episodes. In order to carry on our lives in the face of repeated ecological disasters, many of us shut down some of the more primal aspects of our sensory and perceptual capacities to avoid constant overwhelm.
If you’re one of the people who keenly perceives the sounds of the earth in pain, as I do, you may find that dark ambient music can become a source of strength, reassurance, and comfort – especially if you spend a lot of time in the company of people who don’t perceive these sounds, and would look askance at you if you admitted that you do. Music like this is entirely appropriate when there’s so much to grieve! With its themes of dark barren lands, endless winters, and abandoned places, dark ambient can help give voice and recognition to the grief and despair that lurk beneath our collective facade. With time, it may even help you come to recognize and gradually reawaken capacities of ecological awareness that have been dulled or denied in order to function. But don’t take my word for it – try it out for yourself.
Dark ambient music appreciation tips for neophytes
If you can, attend a live dark ambient performance.
Dark ambient has a reputation as a genre that lends itself to solitary, isolationist listening, and with good reason. As a result, live performances of dark ambient music are infrequent. Not all musicians in the genre perform live, but if you do have an opportunity to attend a performance – especially one in a space appropriate for deep listening and bedazzling visual enhancements, such as a Maschinenfest stage, planetarium, or church – I recommend it highly. If you’re skeptical about the notion of live dark ambient music performance, imagining a bunch of sedate people quietly standing around listening to boring monotone music and watching a musician hovering over a laptop, I encourage you to give it a chance – especially if you have a chance to see a veteran of the genre such as raison d’être, Northaunt, Herbst9, Inade, Atrium Carceri, Kammarheit, Svartsinn, Lustmord, or Desiderii Marginis. There is great power in live dark ambient performance done right.
Develop a musical memory.
Identify familiar layers or patterns in the piece you’re listening to, if you can, and link them to other compositions you’ve heard. If you’re completely unfamiliar with the genre, at first you won’t have much to go on, but the more you listen, the more this capacity will expand.
Seek out audiophile space to enhance deep listening.
If you’re fortunate enough to have an audiophile friend who has access to top-notch stereo equipment and a space with great acoustics, ask them if you can listen to, say, one of Thomas Köner’s albums – I’d recommend Daikan or Permafrost – in their space. Good headphones help, too, but there’s nothing like experiencing the reverb, low-frequency bass, and deep repetitive drones of good dark ambient music in a space designed for audiophiles.
Read as much as you can about dark ambient music: album reviews, artist bios, promo text, liner notes, and interviews with musicians. Broaden and deepen your awareness of historical and cultural contexts that have shaped the development of the genre. Zero Tolerance (a metal magazine) published “Sworn to the Dark: The Definitive History of Dark Ambient,” in issue 58 (April-May 2014). It’s an article I recommend for those interested in a broad overview of the genre. As far as I know, it’s the first print source to publish something like this. Online sources include Santa Sangre, Heathen Harvest, Wounds of the Earth blogzine, This Is Darkness, and the archived material at
For The Innermost.
Minimize distractions and potential for interruptions in your listening space.
For most people, an ideal listening environment for dark ambient music is one that permits sustained, focused attention. Many artists experience a drop in cognitive capacity if they’re interrupted while working in a state of creative flow, as it takes time for the deep mind to recover. Sometimes even a slight interruption can bring the flow state to an unceremonious halt. This applies to deep listening as well. Do what you can to ensure that you won’t be interrupted, and you’re likely to find your listening deepening, especially with time and repetition as you continue to reinforce your capacity for sustained attention.
Slow down, and set the stage.
This musical style isn’t one that can be expected to reveal its secrets quickly. You’ll have a tough time learning to appreciate it if you are in the habit of speeding through tracks, clicking from one to the next if it doesn’t grab you right away. Better to deliberately cultivate a patient attitude of openness, engagement, and active waiting to see what will be revealed in the music. Give it time. Enjoy the process. With practice, most people can expand their perceptual capacities and learn to shape their attention into a supple instrument capable of perceiving ever-more-subtle layers of a composition.
Sit. Relax. Rest. Enjoy a cup of tea. Close your eyes, if you are so inclined. Learn to listen with your deep mind. Dark ambient music – like so many of life’s greatest pleasures – is far more sublime when you give it room to reveal itself gradually, at leisure. As you dwell with it and allow it in, magic happens.
A friend of mine who is a fellow long-time dark ambient fan once observed that listening to dark ambient music requires “work.” At first I thought he was referring to a certain quality of attention required for a full appreciation of this music, so his comment intrigued me. Later I learned that it was not a reference to perception, but to the early days of the genre, when fans had to put in a great deal of effort to track down dark ambient releases, since they were extremely difficult to find.
As someone who remembers those early days of the scene vividly, I’m delighted that music discovery doesn’t require that kind of work anymore. In the modern landscape of music distribution, great dark ambient music is now just a click or two away…and the genre seems to be growing, slowly but surely, so its days of obscurity may be numbered. It has a crossover appeal that I haven’t seen with industrial music in general. In recent years dark ambient music has made inroads into yoga studios, meditation retreats, and other unexpected realms far outside the shadowy industrial music scene of its origins – a sign that its potential as a facilitator of spiritual practice is becoming more widely known.
Sustained active engagement from the listener is still required for full appreciation, however, and that is one of the greatest joys of dark ambient music, as well as art in general. The meaning, emotional content, and symbolism are shaped by the listener as much as they are by the artist.
Enjoy the journey!
“…this is precisely where the beauty of dark ambient lies. It’s devoid of everything superficial…It’s so subtle that you can be listening to it in your room, for example, and the random, common passer-by won’t even notice that any music is playing at all, as if the sounds were hidden from perception, revealing themselves only to those who are searching for them. Indeed, dark ambient is not a rollercoaster ride; you can’t expect this music to take you over, you have to learn how to let it consume you. The journey is never directed forwards, only inwards. It’s not there to tell you its story, it’s there to reflect your own. If I had to find a simple phrase to sum up everything that dark ambient is, I’d most likely say – mirror of the soul.”
~ Vladimir Gojkovic, For The Innermost
An introductory dark ambient music sampler
These tracks and albums – most with Pagan themes – were selected for this list because they elicited multiple positive responses from people unfamiliar with the genre. If you enjoy them, and they are available on Bandcamp, please buy them there, as your money supports the artists directly.
Council of Nine – Chimes of the Unfortunate
raison d’être – The Slow Ascent
Mulm – Night Water Reflection
Sephiroth – Now Night Her Course Began
Herbst9 – Blood Whisper
Arktau Eos – Oracle of Frozen Sands
Asmorod – La Vallee Fleurie
Ulf Söderberg – Nordvinterögon
Cities Last Broadcast – The Cancelled Earth
Lamia Vox – Sigillum Diaboli
Herbst9 – Consolamentum
Mulm – The End of Greatness
Sinke Dûs – Akrasia
Kammarheit – Asleep and Well Hidden
Allseits – Hel
Draugurinn – Móðuharðindin
Skadi – Eliwagar
Gydja – Umbilicus Maris
Apoptose – Nordland
Thurseitr – Brenna Alheiminn
Lamia Vox – Lapis Occultus
raison d’être - The Eternal Return
Draugurinn – Urðarmáni
Penjaga Insaf – Sama Sadja
Herbst9 – The Tide
Paleowolf – Call of Fire
Asmorod & Esylt – Therianthrope
Want more recommendations? I post themed playlists with liner notes semi-regularly. Check out:
In Sorrow: Dark Ambient for Grief & Mourning, Vol. 1
No Light In Sight: A Dark Ambient Hymn to the Northern Winter, Vol. 1
The Void: Dark Ambient for Deep Meditation, Vol. 1
If you like those, you can find more of my playlists at Playmoss.
Volumes one, two, and three in my series of underrated dark ambient album recommendations - all of which were originally published at the venerable I Die: You Die - are reprinted in the Endarkenment newsletter archives, and the fourth and final volume is in the works.
My fan profile on Bandcamp also features brief review blurbs.