Ambient

My Bloody Valentine “Tremolo” (Creation/Sire, 1991)

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This four-track EP was like a coming attraction for the monumental, instant-classic LP that came out a bit later in 1991, Loveless. Although it’s generally overlooked in comparison to its successor, Tremolo actually contains some of My Bloody Valentine’s greatest compositions.

“To Here Knows When,” of course, appeared on Loveless, but it’s a bizarre choice for a single. Then again, that’s how crazy-like-a-fox Alan McGee operated Creation back in those halcyon daze. The man did not subscribe to conventional wisdom—at all. “To Here Knows When” blooms like a flower on Pluto, or plumes like an exploded New Age composition whose hazy amorphousness is shot through with Bilinda Butcher’s luscious coos. This could be the theme song for every baby in every womb—all atremble with wonder, but burbling with an undercurrent of foreboding at the horrors to come once the umbilical’s snipped. “Swallow” may be the most beatific song in MBV’s blessed canon—which is saying a helluva lot. But seriously… I dare you to find a more opiated, erotic piece of exotica than this Butcher-sung tune. MBV mastermind Kevin Shields really hit on a sensual, peaceful groove here. I could use at least 30 minutes of it, to be honest.

By contrast, “Honey Power” is about as straight-ahead of an uptempo rocker as MBV wrote in this era. Still, it contains plenty of those urgent, tremolo-laden guitar torrents, as Shields and Butcher unleash lavender flames of quasi-kazoo-like timbres. As with the preceding two tracks, “Honey Power” features a coda that adds a wonderfully disorienting aura to the record. (If I were more of a contrarian, I’d say these concluding tangents were the best parts of Tremolo.) The closing “Moon Song” swirls in an almost old-fashioned mode of romantic balladry, although the honeyed drones and muted bongos beneath Shields’ sincere singing nudge the song away from sentimentality.

In 1991, MBV could do no wrong. Tremolo‘s phantasmagorical whirl of astral ambient rock found them pulling way ahead of the pack… and it wasn’t even their peak release from that year. (By the way, we really could use a vinyl reissue of this EP.) -Buckley Mayfield… Read more›

Steve Hillage “Rainbow Dome Musick” (Virgin, 1979)

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Remember that one time the flamboyant guitarist for prog-rock juggernauts like Gong, Khan, Arzachel, Clearlight, etc. cut a New Age album around the time the Pop Group’s Y, Wire’s 154, PiL’s Metal Box, and Gang Of Four’s Entertainment! were coming out? Oh, you forgot? Well, here’s a handy reminder. Steve Hillage’s Rainbow Dome Musick is the proto-chillout record of your mildest dreams (compliment!). It’s no surprise that Hillage later went on to collaborate with the Orb in the ’90s. It’s a bit of a surprise that he went full-on techno with his System 7 project, along with Miquette Giraudy. But I digress.

Rainbow Dome Musick—on which Giraudy also appears—consists of two sidelong tracks: the 23-minute “Garden Of Paradise” and the 20-minute “Four Ever Rainbow.” Right away, with its sample of gently running water and tranquilly tintinnabulating and twittering synth emissions, “Garden Of Paradise” sets you at utmost ease. Every sound on this epic zoner seems purified and heavenly (including the Tibetan bells and lambent guitar trills), intended to induce only the most relaxing and beneficent vibes. And that approach makes some people angry, somehow. More highly evolved beings should luxuriate in the bubbly ethereality and levitational beauty Hillage conjures with the saintly patience of a licensed massage therapist. This track makes Popol Vuh sound like Slayer.

“Four Ever Rainbow” carries a bassier tone from the Moog synthesizer and is somehow even more languid and blissed out than “Garden Of Paradise.” Damn, Hillage was beating Klaus Schulze at his own game. This is the ultimate terminus of the hippie-rock trip, brothers and sisters. What began in complex guitar pyrotechnics and kinetic propulsion gradually downshifted into the flowing stasis and crystalized calm of New Age—an oft-scorned genre, but when done right, it’s an effective conduit to inner peace and profound mindfulness. And Rainbow Dome Musick is New Age done very right. -Buckley Mayfield… Read more›

Jon Hassell/Brian Eno “Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics” (Editions EG, 1980)

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This album is the dream that keeps on giving. It is mainly the work of trumpeter Jon Hassell, a student of both Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pandit Pran Nath. On this LP, Hassell pioneered a unique brand of ambient, subliminally rhythmic music he dubbed “Fourth World.” Brian Eno added his discreet production touches and conceptual suggestions, but it’s Hassell who stirs the sound into its timeless placelessness. Attentive listeners will notice Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics‘ influence on Eno and David Byrne’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, which came out a year later.

Throughout Fourth World Vol. 1, Hassell makes his trumpet utter exotic avian and animalistic cries, sighs, and murmurs; it really is like nothing else I’ve ever heard. The five tracks on the first side—“Chemistry,” “Delta Rain Dream,” “Griot (Over ‘Contagious Magic’),” “Ba Benzélé,” “Rising Thermal”—could be Plutonian jazz or ritual music for a prehistoric race… or for accompanying whatever ceremonies humans will hold in the 31st-century. These tracks are at once unsettling and calming, alien and poignant. They make you feel bizarre emotions that seem outside of human experience. “Delta Rain Dream” is the zenith of the LP’s hazy oneiric drift, with Nana Vasconcelos and Ayibe Dieng’s congas enhancing that feeling by tumbling in an uncannily off-kilter cadence. The sidelong “Charm (Over ‘Burundi Cloud’)”—bear with me here—could’ve soundtracked those slow row-boat rides in Apocalypse Now… if the film had swapped out its hellish milieu for a heavenly one. The trance-inducing “Charm” is the perfect finale to an album that gently launches you out of reality into an imaginary environment that only a genius of Hassell’s caliber can conjure.

In 2014, Glitterbeat Records (run by ex-Seattle musician Chris Eckman of the Walkabouts) reissued Fourth World Vol. 1 with liner notes by Pat Thomas, which include an interview with Hassell. -Buckley Mayfield

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Boards of Canada “Music Has the Right to Children” (Warp, 1998)

poster_shIt’s the work of Eno and Klaus Schultz fleshed out without ego, for the satisfied id’s of post-rave home listeners. Well, Boards of Canada are actually not those guys, but two fellows from Scotland recording for Warp around the second half of the Nineties on…

Along with the likes of Aphex Twin and contemporaries on the Planet Mu label, Boards of Canada made music that seems to work best before and after dancing, or any space between for that matter. Such is modern life. Prompt command line:

C:\Users\prepare-for-abandon-re-load-normalcy-settings.exe

Actually, “Music Has the Right to Children” has a number of sketches as opposed to straight ahead dance tracks like opener “Wildlife Analysis” and “The Color of Fire” that show very different moods using the same equipment. These songs go any direction they please other than directly heavenward.

But don’t get the idea that this is purely ambient swirl working within techno parameters, though. Many of these songs are up front and fully formed, just not quite dance floor optimal. Give “Rue The Whirl” a spin and the downtempo vibe of Boards will be apparent. -Wade… Read more›

Brian Eno & John Cale “Wrong Way Up” (All Saints Records, 1990)

tumblr_map24qj6nn1qdwm6bo1_500When one pushes synthetic sounds to the realm of unreal and back again, what else is left to do? Brian Eno’s work behind an engineering board had taken him far and far out by 1990… The exciting world music he had envisioned did not match the world music found in the New Age marketing-niche of the previous decade, and albums bearing his name seemed to carry his signature thumbprint, even when thoughts of strong structure more or less faded away with each LP.

On “Wrong Way Up” the studio still acts as the lead instrument, but song structures make a return. And who better to help Eno return to strange but impactful songwriting than musical-foil John Cale? All sorts of beats and chirps assembled throughout these tracks are meshed through Cale viola, not to mention any sort of instrument the duo could get their hands on. What they come up with most of the time are musical figments riding chopped and screwed grooves.

Lyrics are not esoteric but definitely familiar to fans of either Eno or Cale; impressionistic views presented in a pop context. The results can be surprisingly affecting like on “Cordoba” when repetitious mentions of buses and stations highlight an obvious separation, or on choice single “Spinning Away” with it’s constant citing of colors and shades.

Eno and Cale are to pop what they were to Rock… That is, artsy. And like Duchamp’s urinal, placed the wrong way up. -Wade… Read more›

Fripp & Eno “No Pussyfooting” (Island, 1973)

To say this album is the birth of ambient music is misleading. (No Pussyfooting) came out 5 years before Eno coined the term, and several years after the sonic experiments of LaMonte Young and John Cage (amongst others) that had influenced Eno in his “ambient” experimentations. This here album and Eno’s great Discreet Music are his early attempts in making music that was “as ignorable as it is interesting.”

In this respect, (No Pussyfooting) is ambient music. It exists in two spheres of appreciation: active listening and passive listening. The quality of ambient music is measured in it’s appeal in both modes, not just one or the other. In an active listening mode, this album is incredibly rich, textural and hyperactive. It is ironic to me that Robert Fripp’s most frenetic, wild and virtuosic playing of his career can be found on his first attempt at playing “ambient music.” To the attentive listener, both of these long gorgeous tracks are endlessly rewarding.

Eno takes care of the rest, making it “ambient” and loopy and other-worldly, making it a good passive listening experience. This music, as ideally all good ambient must be, can function as decor or as architecture as much as a the colour of a wall or the shape of a room. This music can be lived in, without paying any attention to it. How many times in a day do you notice the walls are off-white? This album can play as oxygen for your ears. It is, however, contrary to the off-white wall, stunningly beautiful and hypnotic.

Historically, (No Pussyfooting) is a true landmark, not only for its contribution to the genre, but as cornerstones in the careers or both Robert Fripp and Brian Eno. Fripp made use of the technology invented by Eno for this album (ie two Revox reel-to-reel recorders sharing the same magnetic tape, one recording with its erasing head removed, one playing) to create his own system of ambient guitar music he called Frippertronics. From Frippertronics, he moved on to more modern Soundscapes, but the point is Fripp never stopped being an ambient artist, creating his own singular vision of guitar loop music, strange and beautiful and totally Fripp. Eno, of course, went on the become the godfather of ambient music, with his own Ambient series of records, on to perfecting more studio skills to become one of the greatest producers of his time.… Read more›

Terry Riley “Shri Camel” (1980)

The one feature that usually sets Terry Riley’s music apart from all the electronic minimalists and new age hucksters that followed in his path is just intonation, a method of tuning instruments in which the frequency of notes are related by ratios of small whole numbers. The end result is a harmonic sound different from modern (post 18th century) western harmony that instead leans toward a sound more similar to ancient music from around the world, particularly Asia. Its this just intonation that gives Riley’s music a natural grit that raises it above overly pretty new age homogeneity and makes it part of the natural world of wind whistling through the branches and small life setting a field a buzz with minute interconnecting noises.

Shri Camel is similar to other well-known Riley masterpieces, such as Rainbow in Curved Air, in that the major sound component is Riley’s interweaving electronic keyboard lines treated with slightly psychedelic production. The difference with Camel is a more stately classical Asiatic sound that is accented with a more severe just intonation than usual and a slower unfolding of events that mimics classic Chinese and Korean court music. The end result is one of the finest compositions in Riley’s career and one of the most beautiful albums I own. —JSRead more›

Harold Budd & Brian Eno “The Pearl” (1984)

While their other masterpiece ‘Ambient 2 – Plateaux Of Mirror’ was serene, misty and transporting, ‘The Pearl’ turned all these factors up to ten. It really shows the pair’s mesmerizing ability for creating other-worldly, yet so beautifully earthy soundscapes. It never sounds pretentious or over-done, it’s all created with a superior sheen and their attention to detail (particularly on the part of Brian Eno’s electronics) which makes this a surprising, engulfing and thoroughly rewarding listen play after play. It never really gets old, as you can ignore it if you choose to and it will still have a glacial and absorbing effect on you. What is also intriguing is the sense of mystery that inhabits the tracks; the whole record is full of ghosts and soft breezes. The opener ‘Late October’ really demonstrates Eno and Budd’s skill at holding your attention, with its hypnotic piano melodies and whirring and wisping electronics. A great thing about this album is that neither of the two musicians are over-shadowed by the other; Budd’s piano is at the forefront, yes, but it wouldn’t be particularly effective without Eno’s production and sheer atmosphere that he does so well.

Proving once more that Eno seems to have something of a midas touch when it comes to music, ‘The Pearl’ is one of the most atmospheric records ever released. It clears your mind for thoughts of your own and takes you to places you’ve always wanted to see. It’s a record perched on those golden hours when the world around you is asleep and you are left to enjoy the silence. —JoeRead more›