Ambient

Conrad Schnitzler “Rot” (self-released, 1973)

The late German synth master Conrad Schnitzler is one of kosmische electronic music’s most interesting secret weapons. He helped to lay the foundation for deep, spacey, and turbulent soundscapes while playing in the early incarnations of Cluster (then known as Kluster) and Tangerine Dream (Schnitzler only appeared on that popular group’s 1970 debut album, Electronic Meditation), as well as in Eruption. Yet he remained strictly a cult figure and often went ignored in documentaries and histories of German music.

Wriggling free of band settings in the early ’70s, Schnitzler set out on a madly productive solo career that spanned over four decades. You could pick any 30 or so releases by him and discover a panoply of infernal and transcendental sounds illuminating each one. Even near the end of his momentous life, Schnitzler was creating challenging music that put to shame the efforts of those a quarter of his age.

Rot (German for “Red”) is Schnitzler’s first true solo LP, and what a debut it is. Symmetrically divided into 20-minute sidelong jams, it announced the presence of a diabolically talented composer. “Meditation” begins with a keening drone—a demonic busy telephone signal, practically—that portends very bad and very interesting things. Gradually, Schnitzler inserts a menagerie of acutely contoured, haywire synth disruptions to increase the chaos factor and to keep you on the knife-edge of your sanity. The effect over “Meditation”’s duration is that of a civilization incrementally unravelling. The eventful turbulence—and that persistent, penetrating drone—occurring throughout this piece is anything but meditative. Rather, Schnitzler takes the molecular tonal catastrophes of Gil Mellé’s Andromeda Strain soundtrack and magnifies them to madness-inducing intensities.

“Krautrock” resembles some of American Buchla innovator Morton Subotnick’s discombobulating bleepathons, but Schnitzler, as is his wont, generates a more swarming and sinister aura than the creator of Silver Apples Of The Moon. (Trivia: Faust’s “Krautrock” came out in 1973, too.) This “Krautrock” sounds little like that of the genre’s best-known figures, but in its own peculiar, mad-scientist way, the track’s as psychedelic as the first Kraftwerk LP, Organisation’s Tone Float, and Seesselberg’s Synthetik 1. It’s a relentless cascade of metallic, insectoid timbres and nightmarish synth howls and wails. To its core, “Krautrock” is radio-unfriendly and an effective way to make a crowd of normcore folks scatter. But I love it to death.

The craziest thing about Rot is that Schnitzler had to release it himself. Apparently, no record company wanted to take a chance on such bizarre, uncompromising music. Thankfully, a few labels since have had the brains to re-release it and keep it relatively available. You should make it your life’ s mission to obtain this record. The excellent Bureau B imprint reissued Rot in 2012, so it shouldn’t be too hard to track down a vinyl copy. -Buckley Mayfield

Woo “Awaawaa” (Palto Flats, 2016)

All it takes is about 10 seconds of a Woo song to understand that you’re in the presence of utterly distinctive artists who appear to operate in cloistered, idyllic settings, far from the usual circumstances of music-making. British brothers Clive and Mark Ives use electronics and percussion and guitars, clarinet, and bass, respectively, to create music that eludes easy categorization. They touch on many styles, including chamber jazz, ambient, dub, prog-folk, exotica, twisted yacht rock, Young Marble Giants-like post-punk, and winsome miniatures not a million miles from Eno’s instrumentals on Another Green World.

Listening to their releases, you sense that the Iveses are totally unconcerned about music-biz trapping; neither fame nor fortune seems to enter their minds. They simply want to lay down these genuinely idiosyncratic tunes that work best in your headphones/earbuds while you’re alone in nature. That’s an all-too-rare phenomenon.

Recorded from 1975 to 1982 in London, Awaawaa only recently gained wider recognition, thanks to a 2016 reissue by the Palto Flats label. Its 16 instrumentals rarely puncture their way to the forefront of your consciousness. Rather, they enter earshot with low-key charm, do their thing for a few minutes, then unceremoniously bow out. “Green Blob” is the closest Woo get to “rocking out,” coming across like CAN circa Ege Bamyasi (sans vox) burrowing deeply into inner space, with Mark Ives’ guitar recalling Michael Karoli’s yearning, clarion tone. Similarly, “The Goodies” sounds like the Residents interpreting CAN, casting the krautrock legends’ irrepressible groove science in a more insular context.

The pieces on Awaawaa exude an unobtrusive beauty, a congenial mellowness; the cumulative effect is a subtle, holistic well-being. It’s a sprig of joy that will keep you enraptured and hearing new delights with each successive listen. -Buckley Mayfield

Laraaji “Essence/Universe” (Audion, 1987)

Laraaji’s rising profile over the last five years offers at least one glimmer of hope in an increasingly bleak world, proof that perhaps we as a species are not doomed yet. The New Age demigod (real name Edward Larry Gordon), who was discovered in the late ’70s playing his custom-built electric zither in Washington Square Park by Brian Eno, has seen several of his classic LPs reissued, embarked on frequent tours, and collaborated with Blues Control for RVNG Intl.’s excellent FRKWYS series, much to the delight of a new generation of sonic questers who crave feathery levitation. Among the stream of re-releases is Essence/Universe, which All Saints reissued in 2013. It is both essential and universal.

Consisting of two sidelong 29-minute pieces, Essence/Universe—which features the co-production and treatments of Richard Ashman—proffers one of the purest expressions of blissful ambient drift humankind has yet conceived. It’s not at all surprising that Eno would champion Laraaji; in fact, one of Eno’s greatest humanitarian deeds might’ve been his production of Day Of Radiance, which the Englishman selected for his Ambient series on Editions E.G. Records in 1980, and which brought deserved attention to his charge.

Back to the matter at hand… “Essence” wafts, drones, and tinkles in gentle fluctuations, occupying a narrow bandwidth within the aural spectrum, yet inhabiting it with an angelic grace that’s positively therapeutic. This is holy minimalism untethered to any belief system. It’s not a million kilometers from Laraaji’s mentor’s Music For Airports or Discreet Music or Fripp & Eno’s Evening Star in its ethereal grandeur. “Universe” continues in a similar vein, cocooning the listener in wisps of cloudstuff. Whereas many New Age artists err on the side of innocuousness and sentimentality, Laraaji soars above such frailties, achieving an atmospheric clarity and tonal nobility that seem to be an infinitely renewable source of holistic wellness.

Essence/Universe really is a special record, and it seemingly has no beginning or end—just an endlessly restorative middle that will keep you balanced for as long as you let it. -Buckley Mayfield

Terje Rypdal “Terje Rypdal” (ECM, 1971)

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With only a little glibness, one could call Terje Rypdal’s second LP as a leader a Scandinavian counterpart to the best electric-era Miles Davis output (On The Corner, Get Up With It, A Tribute To Jack Johnson) And it’s not just me who thinks this. A sage critic at the British magazine Melody Maker suggested that Miles should’ve tapped the Norwegian guitarist to replace the departing John McLaughlin from his band; alas, that never happened, and we are all the poorer for its non-occurrence. Regardless, Rypdal went on to cut some fantastic records with Germany’s revered ECM label, including this phenomenal sophomore effort.

I first heard Terje Rypdal on Kinski guitarist Chris Martin’s KBCS Ampbuzz show in the mid ’00s. Martin played the album’s lead-off track, “Keep It Like That—Tight,” and I was instantly mesmerized. That cut is a highlight, for sure. Rypdal keeps it sparse and suspenseful over its 12 minutes, using wah-wah to accentuate his contemplative guitar epiphanies while the bass and drums form a Cubist strain of funk that’s akin to On The Corner‘s, except much more introverted and subdued. When Jan Garbarek’s saxophone enters the fray, it adds an element of mellifluous hysteria. Near the end, Rypdal jams out a serpentine, Larry Coryell-esque solo that raises the temperature in the room by 20 degrees.

The album then downshifts over the next three tracks, delving into what could be called “chamber-jazz ambient.” “Rainbow” is a beautiful, string-powered sigh that’s tinctured with tantalizing bells while “Lontano II” becomes a slowly revolving vortex of delayed guitar and bass, generating an austere and ominous feeling. The LP’s longest song, the nearly 16-minute “Electric Fantasy,” features the distressingly angelic chants of Inger Lise Rypdal, which cast a spellbinding chill over an space-jazz meditation that anticipates the forlorn atmospheres of Miles Davis’ “He Loved Him Madly” while also foreshadowing Goblin’s Suspiria soundtrack. Rypdal’s crystalline calligraphy and excoriating eruptions à la Lard Free’s Xavier Bauilleret spar with Bobo Stenson’s electric-piano sparkles and Eckehard Fintl’s gorgeous, melancholic oboe lines. A multitude of amazing, intricate gestures pile up in this masterpiece, taking you on a journey to seldom-sojourned realms. “Tough Enough” ends Terje Rypdal with an unexpected deconstruction of early Fleetwood Mac-style blues-rock, before transitioning into a casual homage to Miles’ Tribute To Jack Johnson. Keep ’em guessing, Terje!

For many listeners (including this one), Terje Rypdal represents the peak of the coolly fiery fusion guitarist’s storied career. It also ranks as one of the most enthralling entries in ECM Records’ vast, venerable catalog. -Buckley Mayfield

Charlemagne Palestine “Strumming Music” (Shandar, 1974)

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Minimalist composition seems easy to do, but in actuality it requires a rigorous focusing on only the most crucial notes/tones to achieve that elusive sense of transcendence heard in the genre’s greatest specimens. What constitutes “crucial” varies for everyone, of course, but over the decades a consensus has built up around a coterie of composers who most consistently and rewardingly attain this level of sublimity. Count American keyboardist/composer Charlemagne Palestine among them.

Strumming Music is the eccentric performer’s second album. He recorded it in his New York City loft 43 years ago, and it has retained a timeless allure ever since. (I first heard it in 1995, when Felmay reissued it on CD.) That release bears liner notes describing his methodology: “Strumming Music [utilizes] a note alternation technique with the sustain pedal of the piano constantly depressed. This technique allows the undampened strings to resonate and compound with each other creating complex mixtures of pure strummed sonority and their overtones. No electronics or special tunings are utilized; only the finest instrument available today, the Rolls Royce of pianos, the Bösendorfer of Vienna.”

The 52-minute piece begins with gentle tintinnabulation from Palestine’s beloved Bösendorfer, generating a sound like wind chimes blessed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Gradually, a contrapuntal cluster of chords chop chops over the foundational tolling and then phantom drones start to creep into earshot.

As the album progresses, the music intensifies, accruing tonal girth—the aural equivalent of a snowball rolling down a mountain. What started out as seeming orderly and poised ever so perceptibly morphs into a whirling orb of frantic strumming. The deeper into the composition you get, the more it makes your third ear spin, until around 42 minutes in, it’s completely dizzy. At that point, the music’s forcefulness begins to diminish, although a thrumming kineticism still persists. In the last few minutes, Palestine returns to the beginning’s swift tinkling. Symmetry! Closure!

Any way you slice it, Strumming Music is a stunning physical and mental feat, requiring nearly superhuman concentration, discipline, and stamina. (I wouldn’t be surprised if mercurial Ukrainian pianist Lubomyr Melnyk took inspiration from it.) Yes, Strumming Music is an exhausting listen, but an extremely stimulating one, too.

(Aguirre Records reissued Strumming Music on vinyl earlier this year. It would be a mistake not to grab it ASAP.)
-Buckley Mayfield

Mnemonists “Horde” (Dys, 1981)

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I’ve heard a lot of mysterious, strange records in my life, but few can surpass Mnemonists’ Horde for sheer baffling otherness. Rarely has the term “nothing is as it seems” been more applicable to a piece of music. An obscure collective of musicians and visual artists in Colorado, Mnemonists—who later morphed into the slightly more comprehensible but still very challenging Biota—conjure a bizarre soundworld in which it’s nearly impossible to discern how the sounds are being generated and what instruments are being deployed. People who care about such things will feel extremely itchy while listening to Horde, but it’s best to just let the underworldly noises wash over you, like silty water from a cave on Mars. Let your subconscious have a terrifying joy ride for once, why don’t you?

Horde contains 10 tracks, but for all practical purposes it’s one monstrous (de)composition. Heard from a certain angle, the album sounds like a riot in an insane asylum or an avian slaughterhouse that somehow has a train running through it. You can understand why Nurse With Wound’s Steven Stapleton would love this album, as it captures the nightmare logic and unsettling surrealism that marked so many of his own releases.

Heard from another angle, Horde seems like the handiwork of a chamber orchestra who appear to be undergoing some sort of mental crisis. Thankfully, the players are all stalwart avant-gardists who know how to contour madness into scintillating torrents of aural legerdemain. (I’m not sure what that means, either, but if you immerse yourself in Horde long enough, that sentence may cohere into comprehensibility.)

The 1998 CD reissue of Horde that I own lists the instruments used. Contrasting with familiar ones like guitar, sax, clarinet, piano, cello, and double bass are shawm, crumhorn, “processing,” and “tape work.” It’s the latter two—guided mainly by Bill Sharp and Mark Derbyshire—that likely have most influenced the primordial soup of disorienting improv brewing on Horde.

This is experimental music at its most gnomic and subtly horrifying. Listening to Horde totally sober is an ordeal; experiencing it under the influence of a hallucinogen could lead to unparalleled revelations or, more likely, a descent into insanity. But what a way to go… -Buckley Mayfield

Terry Riley “Descending Moonshine Dervishes” (Kuckuck, 1982)

 

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If you will allow a controversial opinion, I maintain that nobody’s music embodies pure peace like Terry Riley’s. From In C to A Rainbow In Curved Air to Persian Surgery Dervishes to Shri Camel and beyond, the legendary American composer has forged a body of work that’s established minimalism as an ultimate conduit of sonic transcendence and an overall sense of well-being. If all of your chakras aren’t resonating with utmost harmoniousness while you’re listening to Riley, you may want to schedule a soul-doctor appointment.

Although Descending Moonshine Dervishes isn’t typically rated among Riley’s greatest accomplishments, it should be. Honestly, I’ve always been a Rainbow In Curved Air/Persian Surgery Dervishes/Shri Camel guy, but Portland label Beacon Sound’s fantastic 2016 vinyl reissue—with a strong remastering job done by former Seattle producer Rafael Anton Irisarri—has me reconsidering. The more I listen to it, the more I’m convinced that Moonshine is Riley’s peak, which means that it’s among the loftiest works of art in the Western world. If you will allow another controversial opinion…

It starts with urgent burbles similar to those of one of Riley’s greatest hits, “Poppy Nogood And The Phantom Band,” then ascends to an ever-so-dissonant cruise-control drone that pits two competing organ motifs against each other to create a wonderful friction. Sporadic surges in intensity increase the sublimity of the drone, creating the sensation of frantic yet salubrious cellular activity. (I should say that this magnum opus was mostly improvised live at Berlin’s Metamusik Festival in 1975. Terry was on a goddamn roll that night, y’all.)

At times, Descending Moonshine Dervishes is almost too much to handle, as the surfeit of silvery tones gather density and crash against the shore of your consciousness, inundating you with way more pleasure than you deserve in one lifetime, let alone in one sitting with an LP. Such is the man’s benevolence, though, that he keeps bestowing you the godly goods, never really letting up on celestial symphony that emanates from his modified Yamaha YC 45D organ.

Really, Riley? 52 minutes of this? How are we ever gonna deal with the escalating shitshow of reality after such a glut of galactic gloriousness? If god exists, she’s playing this in her lair—and then perhaps seguing into an epic Bösendorfer piano piece by Charlemagne Palestine, for good measure. -Buckley Mayfield

 

23 Skidoo “Seven Songs” (Fetish, 1982)

 

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Funk got really weird in the UK in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The Pop Group, A Certain Ratio, Medium Medium, Cabaret Voltaire, Rip Rig + Panic, and, to a lesser degree, Pigbag were all finding interesting ways to mutate the American art form in their own severely agitational, Anglo manner. London’s 23 Skidoo were right in the thick of that heady era of funk reinvention, and Seven Songs was their crowning achievement. Here they mastered a sort of funk concrète and wasteland ambience that suggested a bizarre meeting between the Meters and Throbbing Gristle. (That group’s Genesis P-Orridge and Peter Christopherson co-produced the record with Ken Thomas.)

Seven Songs spectacularly launches with “Kundalini,” which starts with what sounds like a Theremin being finger-banged and a rendition of Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner.” Then comes a mad conflagration of death-march kickdrums, rapid-fire bongos, Tarzan hollers, and dudes grimacing commands like “Move me, get down, spread!” and “Rise!” This is sex music of extreme urgency and chaos. And, as the title indicates, it’s writhing with the sort of primal, libidinous energy that accumulates at the base of the spine… if you believe in Hindu philosophy and that intense branch of yoga. Fuck yeah.

This amazing LP-opener leads into the ultra-tight funk sparkplug “Vegas El Bandito,” which sounds like a lean, late-’60s James Brown instrumental, but Latinized and dubbed out, with Alex Turnbull’s trumpet dispersing into Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis territory. That trumpet part gets delayed and dispersed into a cauldron of heavily FX’d guitar and ghostly drones of unknown origin on “Mary’s Operation.”

The desolate, post-industrial scrapyard dub of “New Testament” recalls “Super 16” on Neu! 2, but in the last minute, it transitions into a distant, Zoviet-France trance-out that sets the scene for “IY,” the album’s most flagrant party jam. This bongos-heavy, pell-mell jazz-funk juggernaut makes you want to have tantric orgasms and overthrow corrupt governments (sorry for the redundancy). The relentless momentum grinds to a near halt with “Porno Base,” in which uptight Englishwoman Diana Mitford natters on about the benefits of young people avoiding pleasure while a reverbed bass plucks and chains rattle in the foreground. It’s an early-’80s British thing; you wouldn’t understand.

The EP closes with“Quiet Pillage,” a sly homage/subversion of Martin Denny’s exotica landmark “Quiet Village,” its idiosyncratic percussive timbres, strange animal and bird sounds, whistles, and thumb piano making the record feel as if it’s staggering to the runoff groove with a dazed expression. What a baffling and oddly satisfying way to finish things.

23 Skidoo went on to cut some other interesting records—1983’s Coup EP (the Chemical Brothers’ pilfered its bass part on “Block Rockin’ Beats”), 1984’s Urban Gamelan, and 2000’s 23 Skidoo—but their best ideas cohered most fortuitously on Seven Songs. There’s nothing else like it. -Buckley Mayfield

 

Tonto’s Expanding Head Band “Zero Time” (Embryo, 1971)

 

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This fucking album. You’ve probably seen it in a one of your finer music emporia sometime over the last decade, looking all intriguing and phantasmagorical, whether with its original cover art or the reissue with the man-frogs and tadpoles.

Herbie Mann’s excellent Embryo imprint released Zero Time in 1971, and somehow Stevie Wonder heard it and became enamored of the dazzling constellation of analog-synth sounds created by Tonto’s Expanding Head Band’s members Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff. Shortly thereafter, the duo got behind the console for the Motown legend’s strongest run of albums. In a brief period of time, TEHB went from obscure synth geeks to super-rich studio wizards. Boy, did they deserve it.

One listen to Cecil and Margouleff’s debut LP and you can understand why an innovative, intuitive musician like Steveland Hardaway Morris would want to siphon some of that aural magic. Created largely on a massive synth invented by Cecil called TONTO (The Original and New Timbral Orchestra), Zero Time purveys a genuinely futuristic soundworld, albeit one that still carries traces of symphonic richness and grandiose melodies.

Case in point is the opening song, “Cybernaut,” a gorgeously desolate brooder with a momentous bass line. There’s almost a Hollywood lavishness to this track, and it’s a mystery why it’s never appeared in a sci-fi film. Speaking of which, “Jetsex” always causes severe disorientation and creepiness with its metallic termite chittering, Doppler-effected whooshes, ominous bass growls, and proto-industrial-techno timbres. It’s an intensely visceral simulation of mechanical dysfunction and impending doom, and a perennial favorite for my weirder DJ sets. Play it at a party and watch everyone in the room grow extremely uneasy.

Things lighten up a bit with “Timewhys,” which is pretty much the polar opposite of its predecessor. It begins with a fade in of enigmatic whistling ululations before a spacey, awe-struck motif manifests out of the desolation, followed soon by a modified cha-cha beat and a libidinously thrusting bass line. Thence, it morphs into a bizarre species of dance music. This piece just sparkles and throbs with cosmic bonhomie. It’s no surprise why Future Sound Of London would sample it for their track “Her Tongue Is Like A Jellyfish.” Keeping things spacey, “Aurora” coaxes lunar wind storms into a forlorn and anguished symphony.

One of Zero Time‘s highlights, “Riversong” could be a forerunner of New Age—you know, the kind that sounds like it took a proper dosage of lysergic acid before assuming the lotus position. “Riversong” is a glistening wellspring of keening, clear-light tintinnabulation (the sound of angel orgasms?) beamed into your third ear, as a voice somewhere between robot and human eerily intones a poem written by Tama Starr “about the idea that we exist where heaven and earth meet, and that the stream of life flows on endlessly,” as Cecil explained in the liner notes to the CD reissue of Zero Time on Real Gone Music. Listen to “Riversong” next to David Byrne and Brian Eno’s “Mountain Of Needles” and try to tell me the former didn’t influence the latter. The album’s only real dud is closing cut “Tama,” which is both tonally slight and melodically schmaltzy, which puts it out of alignment with the rest of Zero Time.

Still, five out of six ain’t bad. On Zero Time, Tonto’s Expanding Head Band originated a vivid and variegated vocabulary of timbres and tones that have vastly influenced electronic music… and it still has the power to activate/enhance a drug trip, if you’re into that sort of thing. -Buckley Mayfield

 

Richard Pinhas “Chronolyse” (Cobra, 1978)

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Throughout the ’70s, the French group Heldon forged one of one of progressive music’s most fascinating discographies. Their seven albums never wavered from greatness. The first few largely featured somber takes on languid, Robert Fripp-ian guitar meditativeness and drone tapestries while the last four found the music morphing into a more percussive, infernally throbbing brand of electronic space-rock that sounds like the ultimate score for a harrowing acid trip. (Hear Interface‘s title track for the peak of the latter style.) Heldon were led by Richard Pinhas, a guitarist and synth player enamored of dystopian science fiction and French philosophers. These interests fed into compositions that radiate an intense existential dread, albeit sometimes tempered by passages of eerie serenity and even pastoral bliss.

In Pinhas’ solo career, he muted some of the more horrific elements of Heldon’s output, but in his first LP under his own name (recorded in 1976), Chronolyse, you can still hear the mad scientist in thrall to Frank Herbert’s Dune in its nine tracks, which were done in one take, with Pinhas using Moog 55 modular synth in addition to his trademark guitar and Mellotron. The first seven pieces are relatively short and bear the title “Variations I Sur Le Thème Des Bene Gesserit.” (Wikipedia informs me that Bene Gesserit are “an exclusive sisterhood [in Dune] whose members train their bodies and minds through years of phyiscal and mental conditioning to obtain superhuman powers and abilities that can seem magical to outsiders.”) They consist of insistent, repetitive pulsations that build a sense of great expectation. Think a more primitive and darker-hued version of Philip Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack for an idea of the mantric zones explored here.

The 98-second “III” is particularly manic, threatening to spiral out of control, but never doing so. The bedazzled “IV” is a mere 1:45 long, but its momentous, interstellar theme—which many ’90s techno producers replicated, consciously or not—makes you wish it were 10 times longer. “V” also sounds like an embryonic attempt at techno; if its tempo were increased by 30 bpm, it could’ve thrilled the masses at raves worldwide. “VII” would make an ideal score for a sci-fi thriller flick directed by a Stanley Kubrick disciple.

“Duncan Idaho” combines the compressed-air ominousness of “Interface” with the Autobahn-jaunty synths of Kraftwerk and Cluster ca. Sowiesoso—which makes it godly. Last but certainly not least, the 30-minute “Paul Atreïdes” begins with repeated modulated blurts of Moog that recall the pew pews of futuristic weapons in loads of sci-fi movies. These are overlaid with ominous drones that foreshadow some sort of incomprehensible catastrophe. About six minutes in, Pinhas finesses some King Crimson-oid guitar filigrees that arc and wail in great anguish. Then around the 15-minute mark, Heldon drummer François Auger’s odd, quasi-funk rhythm enters earshot, while Pinhas continues soloing on guitar with increasing fierceness and complexity. Toward the end, the piece cycles around to the opening theme, but now with a sense of resignation to accompany the dread.

Of the many records inspired by Dune (which I haven’t read nor have I seen David Lynch’s film, sorry to say), Chronolyse ranks way up there with Bernard Szajner’s Visions Of Dune (recorded under the name Zed). Such is its malevolent power, Chronolyse makes me want to investigate a genre I normally don’t enjoy. -Buckley Mayfield

Fripp & Eno “Evening Star” (Island, 1975)

 

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Evening Star‘s cover art—by Oblique Strategies co-creator Peter Schmidt—looks like fairly typical New Age LP fare, but the music therein is far from typical in that genre. This meeting of the prog-rock deities—King Crimson leader/guitarist Robert Fripp and former Roxy Music synth wizard Brian Eno—resulted in some of the most sublime ambient music this side of Discreet Music For Airports [sic]. Of course, the duo had cut the tape-delay masterpiece No Pussyfooting in 1973, its two sidelong tracks dilating listeners’ sense of time and ensnaring their minds in seemingly infinite loops. So fans were somewhat primed for another deep dose of head music. While not quite as lapel-grabbing as No Pussyfooting, the five tracks on Evening Star do possess a subtly alluring quality.

Opening track “Wind On Water” enters earshot on supremely gentle guitar ululations in the upper register, swathed in ambrosial drones that evaporate all cares and induce a preternatural calm. This makes  “The Heavenly Music Corporation” off No Pussyfooting sound like heavy metal. “Evening Star” deepens the pervasive sense of tranquility. A gorgeous, crystalline three-note keyboard motif that should be your phone’s ringtone forever chimes in the foreground while Fripp launches foghorn-y wails in the background. An acoustic guitar jangles in the slim lacunae between those elements. The whole thing’s ecstatically lugubrious.

“Evensong” is a slight lullaby that pales in comparison to the two classics before it. However, the Eno solo composition “Wind On Wind” sounds like a benevolent god murmuring “there there” to you as she caresses your forehead. It’s a one-way ticket to Cloud 9, the key to absolute mental peace. Thus side one ends.

For side two, Fripp & Eno have something completely different in mind. Where side one floated in utmost placidity, the 28-minute “An Index Of Metals” tolls like an Emergency Alert System alarm. The tension is palpable from the start, and it only gets more ominous as it goes. The plot thickens with each passing minute, as Fripp’s guitar starts rolling in ever-larger waves, crashing on the shore of your ears with greater intensity and inhabiting more foreboding atmospheres. By the end of “An Index Of Metals,” you’re convinced it belongs in the pantheon of darkest music you’ve ever cowered to.

I’d wager it was Fripp who steered the ship into possibly the creepiest waters either musician had ever plunged. I keep thinking about the hilariously shocking transition that occurs on King Crimson’s debut LP, where the diabolical climax of “21st Century Schizoid Man” smacks abruptly against the utterly pacific “I Talk The Wind.” Fripp loves to subvert expectations. Your puffy-cloud fantasia’s been subsumed by a sinister undertow. Who is Eno to get in the way of that? -Buckley Mayfield

 

A.R. Kane “Up Home!” (Rough Trade, 1988)

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Heads still ain’t ready for A.R. Kane. The British duo emerged in 1986 on One Little Indian, sounding like the black Jesus And Mary Chain on their debut single, “When You’re Sad.” Maybe too much. It was a nice homage, but it reflected little of A.R. Kane’s unique personality. That would soon come with 1987’s Lollita EP on 4AD and the Up Home! EP in 1988, followed closely by their debut full-length, 69 and the Love-Sick EP. These records revealed a group commingling dream pop, soul, ambient dub, and electric-era Miles Davis in a wholly distinctive manner. (Major footnote: A.R. Kane also contributed to M/A/R/R/S’s 1987 smash hit “Pump Up The Volume,” which you can still find in bargain bins with some regularity.)

Opener “Baby Milk Snatcher,” the track that became the highlight of 69, slowly arises from slumber into recumbent, refracted dub bliss. It revolves around irradiated guitar grind, cyclical bass pressure, and Rudy Tambala’s tranquilized soul croon. The chorus of “baby, so serene/slow slow slow slow/baby, suck my seed” summarizes the mood of casual, lush eroticism pervading the song. “W.O.G.S.” features lyrics about being sold down and floating down the river, which aptly mirrors the music’s aquatic, solemn dubgaze haze.

“One Way Mirror” is the EP’s zenith, a fractured, shimmering specimen of radiant psychedelic-rock/dub fusion that reifies your disorientation. Tambala sings in surrealistic puzzles, but the line “I’m going up till I lose my skin” sums up the general feeling of self-abnegating transcendence. The record concludes with “Up,” which is some kind of peak of weightless, amorphous rock. It’s about ascending a stairway to heaven on the Black Star Liner (the shipping line that Jamaican politician Marcus Garvey instituted in 1919 to transport goods and people to Africa), and it’s unbearably poignant.

A.R. Kane would go on to record the housier, astral-jazzier, and more accessible “i” double LP and the not-so-great New Clear Child, but Up Home! remains their most concentrated blast of brothers-from-another-planet rock sorcery. You can also find these tracks on the 2012 double-CD compilation Complete Singles Collection. -Buckley Mayfield