Altus: Elegant ambient/orchestral journeys
Date: Sept 1 2018
|Those out there who like the free floating ambient music of Liquid Mind or Thom Brennan should certainly listen to the output of Altus, aka Mike Carss, who hails from Ottawa, Canada.
In 1999 he got his first tastes of ambient music as he heard Pete Namlook’s “Silence III” which completely blew him away. Later, the music of Steve Roach would make an even bigger impression.
Right from the beginning as he started composing his own music, Mike was never interested in getting signed to a record label. He had heard so many horror stories about people getting screwed by record labels. It also angered him to have people making money from an artist’s hard work while the artist was getting only a small percentage. Also, he wrote music for his own pleasure, not to satisfy a crowd, so he figured that attitude would make most labels shy away from him. At the same time, Mike wanted to share his music with more than just family and friends. The internet, on which he offers all his music for free, was the obvious solution.
Before 2000 he made techno music using the moniker Goon. He wrote some music like “Perpetual Wonder”, Ode to Bambi (with Blair Vermette) and “Horizon” but by the third album Mike got rather tired of the beats. The Goon albums weren’t made available to the public as they were part of Mike’s learning process. For his next music “Moonlight” he experimented with much slower tempos and beats. The outcome really surprised him. He totally enjoyed the process of writing music where the beat didn’t lead the direction of the song.
One thing led to the other, as he composed his Altus’ debut album “24 Hours”, inspired by a train journey in 2000 during a time Mike Carss was “finding himself”. It The concept album consists of four contemplative tracks of approximately 13 minutes following the cycle of an entire day. The album starts nicely with the engaging awakening soundings of “Daybreak” before moving into the warm, meandering soundscapes of “Midday”, followed by the lofty “Nightfall” and quiet sonics of “Midnight”. This great relaxing music to enjoy the wonders and beauty of nature and let you mind settle down.
Carss only uses a pc to compose his music. He has no use for expensive hardware that can, in most cases, be emulated on a pc. For his host of his various VST’s he applies FruityLoops.
After “24 Hours” Carss absolutely loved the idea of writing a series of tracks based on an overall concept. He states that listening to a concept album feels like a journey instead of formerly just throwing a bunch of tracks together to fill a cd. This also has to do with his love for long-play albums. Altus 2nd album “Winter Embrace” was originally a 25 minute piece written after walking in a moonlit forest after a heavy snowfall. A few months after, Mike decided to extend it and expand on the theme to complete the 62 minute version. On the 2005 re-mastered version he used different string samples.
For his next project Mike Carss initiated the Elements series, in which he attempted to create images in the mind’s eye to the listener, using the track names as a catalyst. The four album cycle featuring the recordings “Fire”, “Water”, “Earth” and “Air” as such was a real challenge from the beginning as Mike wasn’t sure he would have the ability to finish it. For half the tracks of “Fire” he used old sampling sets he built himself. After getting some new tools and sample sets Mike wrote the 2nd Elements cd “Water”.
Mike Carss’ interest in astronomy and space exploration next to the idea of a possible alternate universe, e.g. being able to travel to it through a wormhole, led to the music of “Black Hole”.
The album “Autumn Breeze” was planned on being a fluffy, happy release, but turned out quite the opposite. Although melodramatic like his other albums, it’s overall sound and impact was much darker. Mike even felt it was riding the edge of depression. The album itself is also much shorter in length (45 minutes) compared to his former albums that made up for at least 60 minutes. Mike decided not to write a fifth track. A filler in the same style would be too much for one sitting, and next to that he felt he had told his story.
Altus’ release “Lullaby” is a collaboration with Silvercord, aka Geoff Nostrant, on which both musicians have created a lush and haunting album for drifting to sleep and exploring one’s dreams.
Summer 2006, Altus’ next sonic excursion “The Wanderer” saw the light of day, featuring six beautiful soundscapes carrying his typical trademark. “Winter’s Embrace II” was the first, and probably only release that was not be available to download for free. All proceeds from purchasing this release were donated to the continued success of StillStream.com, a free ambient online radio site run by Darrell Wade Burgan.
With “Excursion One”, Altus returned to his usual, accessible melodic ambient style.It contains two long tracks that are very free, slow-moving, relaxing and having a overall positive theme. It was also his first release of a new series from Altus to be distributed freely at the Earth Mantra Netlabel.
“The Grand Expanse” is Mike’s first foray into teaching himself to create a more symphonic/soundtrack sound. The outcome indeed contains lots of classic, orchestral elements blending with his distinct style.
On December 1, 2007, Mike Carss performed his first live concert on Darrel Burgan’s internet radio show StillStream,com. The 57-minute concert was called “Toward the Winter Solstice”
Mike Carrs was offered the opportunity to performed a second live concert on January 26, 2008 on StillStream.com,
On April 13, 2008, “Rapid Eye Movements” was released exclusively through the Rain-net label. The music treads the darker territory between “Artifacts of Distant Memory” and “Only One Earth to Destroy. Mike Carss didn’t write the music as a sleeping aid, but more as a sonic voyage through one’s dreams and the secrets they can reveal.
“Macro” is the outcome of noodling around with different sounds, which after all were not appropriate to the project that’s been worked on. These “behind the scenes” sounds allow the listener to hear some of the things Mike ends up with. They aren’t simply raw ideas, as they have been expanded on the initial sound or idea and polished up for a enjoyable listening experience. The outcome on the album are a series of 22 short tracks covering a broad range of sounds, from melodic ambient to atonal soundscapes, and a few oddities inbetween. As Mike puts I, the music in the spirit of Aphex’s Twin’s “Selected Ambient Works II” and Palancar’s “Precis”
On August 22, 2008, Altus played his third live concert on StillStream.com: “Cinema Fantastique: Four scenes for a virtual film”.
At the end of 2008, “Winter Embrace III” saw the light of day. It’s a long-form symphonic/minimalist ambient journey through white wilderness, and discovery of hidden vistas. The album marks the final chapter to the “Winter Embrace” series. Mike Carss originally had only planned on doing two, but in 2007 a number of people were asking when part three was coming. This made him decide to do one more.
Mike’s next project was “City of Ashes”, which premiered on June 26th at StillStream.com for the Ambitar radio show, hosted by Allan Goodman. “City of Ashes”, an audio/visual project pairing the music of Mike Carss and the photography of Shawn Sintzel, features a mix of ambient and orchestral works. According to Mike, it’s by far his most cinematic music released to date, acting as a film-like soundtrack to Sintzel’s stark and austere photography. The music, meant for active listening, is a fascinating mix of ambient, orchestral and minimalism, having its lighter and darker moments.
End of July, Mike delivered the track “Trying to elude that dark place” to Mark Stolk’s Just Not Normal internet-compilation project “no-R-mal”, which presented the finest in what is available in experimental music these days.
In the meantime, Mike also started to slowly release his entire catalogue in FLAC-format, the first being the 2004-release “Black Hole”. September 2009 saw Mike contributing the track “In the Company of Clouds” to the sampler “The Serene Files: Part One” by the net-label The Ambient Collective.
The next project Altus was involved in was Mister Vapor’s album “Falling Out of Orbit”, for which Mike remixed two original tracks. The outcome features the wonderful string-drones of Altus blending with the dark drones of Mister Vapor (aka Thomas Park).
On March 27, 2010 Mike Carss returned with “Black Trees Among Amber Skies”. Originally, it was planned to be released in early January of that year, but the album was put aside for other projects, hence the reason it’s an out-of-season theme. Nonetheless, “Black Trees Among Amber Skies” offers beautiful classic Altus music, ambient music for night-time winter walks in the city.
After this release, Mike finally focussed on something he wanted to do for a long time: Mike had been wanting to compose a beat-oriented album as he wrote them in the 90s, but he considered his beat programming was always lack-luster. Through the internet, he knew the output of Bulgarian musician trx (also known as TeeRexX), which had become his favourite IDM producer. Both parties agreed on a collaborative release, which ended up as “Crossroads”. For the clean and fresh sounding outcome, Altus provided the melodies, while trx was in charge of the beats. The long, drawn out leads combined with deep basses and addictive melodies featured on “Crossroads” takes inspirations from Planet Boelex and Esem and mixes them with the sound of legends such as Jean Michel Jarre and Vangelis.
At the end of March 2011, Mike introduced “Sleep Theory Vol. 1”, the first release in a new series delving into deep ambient, overall sounding similar in nature to “Coma Cluster”. The goal of this new series was to fill the void of drone and texture-style ambient, without the foreboding/creepy elements usually prevalent in these music genres. Originally, Mike envisioned this to be a warm drone-style kind of release, a comforting blanket of smooth sounds to lull the listener to sleep. But after completing the first pass of the three tracks, he considered scrapping the entire project as the outcome created turned out to be overall tedious and boring.
On September 5th 2011, Altus released “Symmetry and Shadow: Singles Collection Volume 2” to tide his music fans over until November, when his album “Ecotone” is published. “Symmetry and Shadow” is a compilation of single tracks from Altus covering the time between 2006 and 2011, including five unreleased tracks. “Ecotone” was released on November 10th, 2011. It’s another highly textural work of art, utilizing rhythm, epic chords and gentle soundscapes. Alltogether, they transport the listener to an imaginary place far away from everything, a land where man can’t ruin.
In April 2016, Mike released an album entitled “With You, Without” through the Burlorke-moniker, as he had been wanting to explore other genres for several years. The project, partly reflecting on Mike’s beat-driven 90s project Goon, features 80s synth-heavy vibe accompanied by leads that are reminiscent of late 70s Berlin school, but with a modern edge that doesn’t emulate either time period. Things were topped off with a few tracks that contain vocoded lyrics and end it with a cinematic climax. At the end of June 2016, Altus released “The Sun Will Rise Tomorrow” (Singles Collection Volume 3) which contains six tracks written between 2011 and 2015 that were contributed to various compilations along three unreleased tracks.
On November 5th 2017 Mike released his first factory-pressed cd: “Winter Embrace (15th Anniversary Edition)”. Originally released in 2002, it was rebuilt from the ground up in 2017. The long-play album begins in a slow-motion neoclassical minimalist structure, transforming into an ambient bed of sound over the course of 62 minutes. The music was created to accompany the sights and sounds of the first snowfall of the winter season.
“Pioneer”, put out in Mid-June 2018, saw the music of Altus return to the more active form of its past, as the last couple of Altus works had become “more ambient” in that it could easily become aural wallpaper. The concept music of “Pioneer”, a thoughtful blend of cinematic, dense, vast and ethereal atmospheres, is recommended to be played at higher volume and active listening is encouraged.
Starting the Loneward project was no easy task for Mike (plans for splitting Altus into Loneward actually had been brewing for years) although it was a path he had to take as the composer realised Altus would shift away from “more ambient/drone” style releases. There had been times where he held back where he wanted to go in an album because he felt it would alienate the listener, or it would cover too much ground, causing the overall experience to be jarring. In this respect and a perfect example of an album where Mike Carss didn’t hold back would be “Ecotone” released in November 2011. Here he accomplished everything he set out to achieve, but it turned out the album’s music didn’t make much of an impression to his fan base, assumingly because its sound was so varied.
Mike expected something similar for “Pioneer” but was surprised by all the positive feedback it received. Despite covering a lot of ground once again, “Pioneer’s” music may have turned out more cohesive in the end than “Ecotone”, but even after repeated and focussed listening that’s still hard to tell.
In retrospect, the 2017 Altus-release “Below the Root” gave another glimpse of the composers wish to dive deep into a darker world instead of going the bombastic route. Its Mr Carss current belief Loneward could become the “more popular” project over time as a lot of people do enjoy the more ambient/deep dive releases with “Coma Cluster” as a favourite in terms of popularity. To please his audience Mike tried many times to recreate the sound, mood and feel of “Coma Cluster” but failed each time.
So as it stands now, Loneward will be more familiar while Altus might turn into something different. Nothing is for sure. The muse is a strange beast, and Mike usually doesn’t have it under control. In a way, he likes that though. In Mike’s words: “It leads me places I couldn’t imagine, and that excites me…”
You can see what reviews I have done of this artist on his artist page
The Elements part 1: Fire (2002, re-mastered in 2005)
* Innerspace (2016)
* Below the Root (2017)
* Sleep Theory Vol. 3 (2017)
* Winter Embrace (15th Anniversary Edition)(2017)
* Pioneer (2018)