After Enigma - A Guide to Nu Ambient Music
Mainstream Artists
Supported Artists
Independent Artists
Artist Index
The Fringe

This is long overdue, as I haven't posted a new review for nearly a year. I perpetually think, "Oh, I'll write that up next week," but with the other projects I have going on, I never get around to it. And, while I think there remains some value in music criticism, amateur or professional, the internet of today (compared with that of five years ago when I started assembling this site) is full of streaming radio stations, social networks, and all sorts of music discovery mechanisms which trivialize the once onerous task of finding new music according to one's existing tastes. As of this writing, I have accounts on Last.fm, Pandora, and Grooveshark for just that purpose. I intend to keep this site here indefinitely, and may even make an occasional addition, but I do not intend to do so according to any schedule, and I will probably clean out the spam from the comments sections a little less often.

-Derek Smootz, October 2 2010

I love the music of Enigma. While I listen to and appreciate a wide variety of music, the early Enigma albums are the essence of music to me, against which everything else is measured. This is partly nostalgia - I clearly remember the first time I heard Return to Innocence, and how it moved me. Mostly, though, I believe that Michael Cretu meticulously sculpts exceptionally well-written and well-engineered albums.

For years, I didn't really know to what genre Enigma belonged. Eventually, I discovered that no one did - when the early albums were released, they really didn't fit anywhere. Since then, a genre has grown up around the fusion of downbeat electronica, new age, and world musics, though it still doesn't have an agreed-upon name. I prefer "Nu Ambient" as proposed by Lloyd Barde of Backroads Music.

Not knowing anyone who shared my passion for Nu Ambient, I had to hunt for it. Chain record stores usually put Enigma in either the New Age or Pop/Rock sections. I quickly discovered that random picks from those sections didn't often sound much like Enigma. Usually, if a group was self-effacing enough to advertise their CD as "similar to Enigma," I would like what I heard, but that hasn't happened often. As the internet has matured, it has become much easier to find this type of music by trawling through Amazon and the like. This site, in fact, is not dissimilar to one of the user-made guides on Amazon, sans the constant sales pitch. It is intended as an aid to Nu Ambient fans who would like some help expanding their collections.

Now for the one-time sales pitch. If you would like to support this site, the album covers on the review pages are links to Amazon - buying through these will help me buy even more music for my collection, which I'll then review here. With that out of the way, thou never shalt hear herald any more from my pocketbook.

If I were to create a site featuring all the music that I like, it would be useless to everyone else; my tastes are widely varied, and the odds of anyone else liking the same combination of genres and artists as me are quite low. The boundaries of what I will review are far from solid, but as a general rule, you will only find reviews of albums that I think will appeal to Enigma fans on this site. I highly recommend the Ambient Music Guide as a more general resource, and as a source for second opinions.

I only write about albums I've heard, and provide my own impressions of them - I do not pretend to provide objective analysis, or professional-quality reviews. If you disagree with what I say, feel free to voice your opinion using the comment box at the bottom of the artists' pages.

Let me also take this opportunity to say: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." There's much debate as to who originally said this, but it's very true. I bear it in mind whenever reading any type of review.

I've divided the artists reviewed on this site into three categories, based on how well-known and commercially successful they are. Please don't read too much into this separation - it's just an organizational tool. There is good music to be found in each group (and bad, but I won't write about too much of that).

  • Mainstream Artists: Few artists are classified here. They are widely-known and commercially successful; they have generally received mainstream radio play (Delerium's Silence, Engima's Return to Innocence). You probably already know about these artists, but you can use these reviews to familiarize yourself with my particular biases, and determine with how large a grain of salt you'd like to take the rest of my reviews.
  • Supported Artists: Generally supported by smaller record labels, these groups are big enough that their CDs are available in larger chain stores, but you might not know to look for them.
  • Independent Artists: This is where you'll find "local" artists, those without label affiliation or wide distribution. Many of these artists work out of home studios and/or do our own engineering, so these recordings might be rougher around the edges, but I won't review anything with significant technical problems.

In addition to reviews, I give albums numerical scores for three components. Each represents how good I think the album is from a very specific perspective. The higher a component's rating, the more I think fans of that particular aspect of Nu Ambient will like it.

  • New Age: Atmospheric synthesizers, soulfulness, uplifting moods and lyrics, and classical influence characterize this category. Think Enya.
  • Electronica: Beats, Grooves, and Bleeps. Albums with a high rating here might be classified as Chillout in music stores. Delerium leans this way.
  • World: Sounds you don't normally hear in the popular music world - usually from other cultures, but music from other times (such as Gregorian Chant) will effect this rating as well. Deep Forest is the quintessential example.

Comparing ratings should be quite meaningful between different albums by the same artist, less so between artists in the same tier (i.e., Supported vs. Mainstream), and not very meaningful across tiers. For example, I might give the first Era album (a "Supported" artist) a New Age rating of 3 - the same as the third Enigma album. This doesn't mean that I think the two albums are of the same quality - it's just a way of indicating which way the music leans. That said, if I think an album is awful, I'll probably give it a fairly low rating across the board.

At this point, you may be asking yourself, "Why should I listen to this guy?" Well, given the way personal tastes vary, you probably shouldn't take any particular reviewer or critic too seriously, but I like to think I'm reasonably qualified to write about this style of music. For starters, I'm a musician - I was a piano student for about twelve years, and I've been studying classical singing for about a decade (I sing with various community groups in the Austin area). Though I've only chosen to write about Nu Ambient, my musical tastes are quite broad. I contribute to this genre via a project called Longing for Orpheus and I'm working on a couple of other projects in the Synthpop genre, but they have yet to see the light of day. Previously, I played keyboards in Industrial band Guild.

Professionally, I'm a computer nerd. This page started out as static HTML at Geocities, but it's now an HTML shell populated by PHP from XSLT-formatted XML files and a MySql database. Like most computer-related pursuits, its been fun and frustrating to put together.

I currently maintain a blog about the creative arts and how they relate to each other at dsmootz.blogspot.com.