Pitch Black's Mike Hodgson and Paddy Free, the "godfathers of local instrumental electronica."  - Photo courtesy of Michael Hodgson (photo by Tony Nyberg)

Freed from verse/chorus structures, instrumentals create a journey that usually builds slowly, peaks intensely, then drops the listener off gently at the end. They can be transformative to the point of epiphany, but at the very least they offer ephemeral ear balm to drown out the cacophony of modern life. 

I found these tracks, firstly through my mahi as a reviewer for The Press in the 1990s, then during research into Electronic Dance Music for a doctoral thesis called WaveShapeConversion: the Land as Reverent in the Dance Culture and Music of Aotearoa. They exemplified my argument that our music sounds like our landscape, but back then they also provided soul medication during regular bouts of depression. Wherever your nirvana exists, I share them now in the hopes they help you find it. The peace they bring may last only as long as the song, but sometimes that is enough.

1. Bailter Space – Argonaut (Capsul, 1997)

Capsul is one of the more accessible Bailter Space albums, with Alister Parker straddling the divide between voice as instrument, and proper singing with lyrics that are both expansive and introspective, all delivered over a sonic base that sounds like it crawled out of the swamp Christchurch is built on. ‘Argonaut’ is the album’s unexpected instrumental jewel. Seven minutes long, it follows the rules of EDM – building gradually, delivering on that momentum, letting you down gently with an oscillating outro – but played by a rock band known more for their volume than for rolling instrumentals. Here’s what I wrote: “The best song on the album, [‘Argonaut’] is a spine-tingling instrumental that builds up with such gradual momentum that three quarters of the way through you’re wondering how in the hell they are going to end it. Then, before you’re aware of it, the song has quivered to a full stop” (The Press, 1997).

Listen to Bailter Space’s ‘Argonaut’ 

2. High Dependency Unit (HDU) – Lull – Dark Restart (Soundproof Remix) (Higher ++, 1998)

I first heard HDU in 1996 on their debut album The Sum of the Few, which my Press clippings tell me I liked, but only enough for three and a half stars. Then came 1998’s Higher ++, and from the first listen I was captivated by the tracks of the original Higher EP, before the following ++ remixes by emerging electronic artists had me dancing, right up to the Soundproof remix of ‘Lull’, which brought the shuffle to an astounded halt. Here’s what I wrote in the five-star review: “The ambience of ‘Lull’ (on the EP) is a portent, but not even the original’s seductive appeal can prepare you for the beautiful, lilting, transporting soundscape that it becomes in the hands of Soundproof” (The Press, 1998). The first time that I really got just how calming and elevating songs without words can be, ‘Lull’ never fails to provide downtime for a busy mind.


3. Dimmer – Drift (I Believe You Are A Star, 2001)

Shayne P. Carter has written several instrumentals for Dimmer, and ‘Crystalator’ is always a live favourite, but whilst I appreciate its edgy energy (along with that of fellow instrumental ‘Sad Guy’ on which HDU’s Tristan Dingemans played guitar), for this list, ‘Drift’ is the star of Star. Sitting at the midway point and coming after ‘Smoke’, where Carter’s vocals are more sultry crooner than rock god, ‘Drift’ showcases his talents as a composer. The intro highlights a keyboard refrain – presumably the drift of the title – floating above a mesmeric rhythm, a guitar line passing through here and there like car lights in mist. But it is the song’s gully that gets me; it is quiet without the familiar chords, and you yearn for their return. When they do, they are accompanied by a shimmering cymbal that enhances the ethereal quality of everything you’ve just heard – right before it drifts away again.


4. rotor+  – middle (aileron, 2000)

One artist who strives to really explore the sound and feel of the Aotearoa landscape is Dunedin’s .leyton who produces music as epsilon-blue (dancefloor), son.sine (techno) and rotor+, the latter of which often soundtracked afternoon chillout sessions at the parties. As the second track of a three-composition debut album, ‘middle – thinking of changing the rectangle to a less regular shape’ is a meandering 15 minutes of nature-inspired rhythms. In places it’s like listening to lazy cicadas next to a lake on a sunny day; elsewhere there is little other than space and gentle keyboard riffs, lilting refrains that mimic the sound of our native songbirds. Aileron is the album I turn to as a cure for insomnia; it may sometimes take two whole listens to work its charm, but given all those siesta sets in the ambient zone, I’m sure the eventual outcome is exactly what rotor+ intended.


5. Shapeshifter – Inertia (Real Time, 2001)

It’s easy to forget that Shapeshifter began as an instrumental band, but as a disgruntled judge in Christchurch’s infamous 1999 RDU RoundUp band competition, I can divulge that the only reason Shapeshifter came second was because they missed out on a possible 100 points between 10 judges for vocals. For their debut album Real Time singers graced a few tracks, and later P. Digsss became the permanent vocalist, but for me Shapeshifter’s early essence is in ‘Inertia’, a liquid drum’n’bass track centred around a keyboard motif playing nearly solo for half a minute, then joined by the drums, saxophone, and bass, entering one at a time. In the middle, the central theme drops away for a percussive interlude, before returning with a new sinuous guitar riff. Combining their jazz nous, and innate understanding of what makes a good “breather” track, ‘Inertia’ helps you do what the title suggests.


6. epsilon blue  – being (pearl mx) (we have a responsibility to our shareholders, 2002)

.leyton’s sets as epsilon blue were a mashup of trancey, dancey soundscapes and uplifting vocal stompers, but played live, ‘being’ inspired the opposite, with dancers slowing down as one, and taking time to appreciate both the fabulous views, and each other. The centre of we have a responsibility to our shareholders, ‘being’ truly captures the state for which it is named. Beginning with a rapid rhythmic sample that puts me in mind of cicadas again (albeit a speedier version than on rotor+), the layers build until the drums and bass come in, the latter a descending anchor that tethers the high-pitched motif weaving above it. During the inevitable extended quiet bit, it is the bassline that is missed, and .leyton – a master at teasing the listener – keeps it just out of reach even as the central refrain returns before it. When it finally comes back in, it is even lovelier than before.


7. The Nomad – Destinations (Step 4th, 2003)

The Nomad started in “drum’n’bass city” Christchurch with 1998’s pioneering album Movement, then through sequentially named releases producer Daimon Schwalger roamed through both hometowns and genres, and on Step 4th it all gelled with the inclusion of a host of local and global vocalists. Yet, it is ‘Destinations’ that stands out. Named after the Castle Hill event Destination, it is an auditory monument, taking you back to when you could literally dance on a rock, metres above the dusty dancefloor while Nomad played. It has it all: key riffs introduced early, tweaky themes woven in, all building until the bass kicks in with the swagger of a funk band, a chunky accompaniment to Oakley Grenell’s soulful guitar. ‘Destinations’ swoops and soars like a kāhu, its two drop-aways gliding you back to earth, so when the kick-ins hit it’s like catching a drift that takes you right back up again.


8. Jakob – Controle (Cale: Drew, 2003)

With vocals used even more sparingly than Dingemans did in HDU, Jakob are essentially instrumental, and unlike HDU who left Hawke’s Bay for Dunedin, they stayed in Napier, even naming their 2001 single, ‘Nice Day for an Earthquake’, in reference to the 1931 quake. And that Rūaumoko energy helms all of Jakob’s music, especially on ‘Controle’, the opener to Cale: Drew. It begins sweetly with a chiming guitar melody, then the momentum and volume creep up steadily to industrial, where they stay until some guitar thrashery adds a whole new level of sonic onslaught – like the middle of a fucking big one, when you’re shielding in turtle position under a table. But it just keeps going for eight minutes, thrilling, but unnerving too as you wait for it to be over. And just like a quake, suddenly the rumble drops away to the blissful quiet that was there before.


9. Alpharhythm  – Less is More (Sentient Beings, 2006)

As Alpharhythm, Dunedin musician (and keen tramper) Sam Cumming was often found soundtracking the dawn sets at Te Waipounamu dance parties in the 2000s. A fully instrumental act, any track from Sentient Beings would fit here, but ‘Less Is More’ speaks to the simplicity of Alpharhythm’s music, and reminds me of tramping through the bush, keeping a steady pace, and listening out for the sound of a korimako, rendered here as a repeating motif that doesn’t appear until so far in that you don’t even realise it was missing until you first hear it. Like a bird using its call to territorialise itself in the bush, its electronic equivalent does the same for the listener, so that when it disappears you miss it, and every time you hear ‘Less is More’ again, your mind tries to fill in the gap until it returns – well at least mine does.


10. Pitch Black – Fragile Ladders (Rude Mechanicals, 2007)

Pitch Black are the godfathers of local instrumental electronica, so I’m spoilt for choice, but I’ve included ‘Fragile Ladders’ because during the first listen, my rungs all collapsed at once, until I was crouched in the foetal position, actually howling (as Mum would put it) with a winter’s worth of tears. When I finally stopped pushing repeat and let the album play on, I got up and danced, feeling lighter than I had since the end of the summer event season. As the final entry here, I’m struggling to locate the words to describe ‘Fragile Ladders’ so I’ll leave you to find your own, but whether any of these tracks move you in some fleeting way, or leave you wholly unmoved, here’s to the power of a soaring instrumental. Whatever the genre, they’re there to take you to the places you didn’t know you needed to go. Just like therapy.