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Penguin Cafe Orchestra (1981)

Moments of sheer idyllic bliss along with quirky weirdness. A lot of albums could be described in this way, but this is probably the most fitting. It’s got a sentimental and calm feel to it, forcing you to think about happy things. It’s almost as if the album is made up of a group of people you know, rather than a group of songs. Some of them are delightfully innovative; they charm the hell out of you, like ‘Telephone and a Rubber Band’ – which samples a telephone signal – sounding like some pleasant dream that makes you chuckle as you wake up. Each track has its own personality, be it thoughtful and calm or lively and energetic but there are rarely any sad moments. It may be relaxed, but it’s a very conscious record; you can’t fall asleep to it, which is a shame because it’s a kind of record that’ll put you into a really good dreamy mood for it, although, ‘Yodel 1′ and ‘Numbers 1 – 4′ could supply that. It’s also so much more of an organic record than its predecessor ‘Music From The Penguin Cafe’. That record sounds more like black and white kitchen floors compared to this natural-sounding wonder.

With this album, the Penguin Cafe Orchestra achieve something higher than cheefulness and/or dreaminess and achieves it with personality and charisma. An almost universally likeable record. —Joe

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. —JS

Andy Summers & Robert Fripp “I Advance Masked” (1982)

A fortuitous meeting between the King Crimson and Police guitarists, the all-instrumental “I Advance Masked” is built around a number of seemingly improv-based couplings of the artists’ signature sounds – the needle like leads and polyrhythmic gamelan influenced patterns that propelled albums like “Discipline” dominate, but ever-present as well are Summers’ bright guitar textures.

Both of these guys’ main gigs during the 80’s held in common the ability to create an indistinctly exotic yet contemporary atmosphere, and while clearly more experimental than thoroughly composed, “I Advance Masked” taps in to a similar vibe with wonderful results. —Ben

Irmin Schmidt & Bruno Spoerri “Toy Planet” (1981)

A great forgotten 1981 album from the Can keyboardist, Irmin Schmidt. Delicate synth passages a few sudden astonishing gypsy disco stomps. Slightly camp, but in a good way. Sometimes sci-fi creepy, like watching Tron after eating Nutmeg. Irmin’s album does not overstate itself or outstay its welcome. It cheers me up with happy tunes. —TheGreatCurve

Stereo Laboratories: An Introduction to 
Sound Library & Production Music

Discovering library music is a fascinating thing. This is music that was initially created for commercial purposes (created to be sold or licensed to film, television or radio). Library production music can be the most liberating, genre-bending musical experience, due to its lack of constraints on creativity. It varies from straight orchestral fare, bossa nova pop, quirky electro, disco, demented and moody electro-acoustics, folk, and everything else in between.

There were numerous labels of all shapes and sizes, mostly from France, Italy, Germany and the UK (L’illustration Musicale, de Wolfe, Telemusic, KPM, Selected Sound, Musique Pour l’Image, and Bruton being among some of the larger, more reknown labels), some with wide distribution, and others relegated to obscure status almost immediately. Composers would knock out several albums a month, often for different labels, and even more common, under a different name – leading to very difficult research, and a very tricky time for anyone trying to figure out any sort of discography trajectory. Some examples of aliases include the ever prolific Piero Umiliani, who also traded under Zalla, Moggi, Herbana, The Braen’s Machine (with Alessandro Alessandroni), and a few others. Nino Nardini was another big composer, getting his start in the 40’s as a big band jazz leader, soon becoming one of the towering figures in all of library music, often under his Georges Teperino guise. His friend and recurring musical partner Roger Roger typically issued zany electronics under the name Cecil Leuter. This story is typical among the legions of composers.

I feel the high point of library music vitality was from roughly 1968-1982, though the amount of decent 80’s libraries is scarce. Further into the 80’s the music got increasingly tacky, especially on the British labels Bruton, de Wolfe and KPM, mixing rock elements with fusion and disco, resulting in many failed ideas that neverless ended up gracing many television programs and radio themes.

These are pretty broad statements meant to clue some folks in to library music as a whole, though on the fringes there were numerous small labels who only issued a few albums, and even still, some labels are only noteworthy through rumor, having become so scarce as to not being tracked down at all. Many of these labels produced some very challenging and often avant garde music, some venturing more into the modern interpretive dance music, and less a commercial venture. I’m sure there are so many thousands of stories hidden within those recording studios, television and radio stations, etc… with hundreds of faceless, seemingly selfless composers pushing out the goods to little or no fanfare. Some of these composers were relatively famous through other means and did libraries for a little extra cash (many tracks did in fact became famous themes for TV, radio and film). For some of these composers, it was their sole creative and financial venture, but it’s safe to say that now for many younger people who’ve discovered them anew, they are like rock stars.

Much of this music is a goldmine for sample hungry beatheads looking for “breakz.” I tend to approach it differently. Sure, I love a good solid groover, but I also look for something more cerebral, conceptual, or just plain different, to go deeper than just funky instrumental music.

Picking just several favorites was a difficult task. The ten titles below were chosen to showcase a variety of composers, labels and styles. A quick Google search of a composer or favorite title will quickly put you on your own path of discovery.

1. Sven Libaek Solar Flares (Peer/UK, 1974). One of my favorites! A very solid collection of groovy orchestral pop, but with that Libek twist: lots of dreamy vibes, clever, hooky arrangements, subtle wah-guitar, sneaky Moog, strong brass work, etc… Many fantastic tunes here, with a slight futuristic bent, but more in line with hazy summer days circa 1975.

2. Oronzo de Filippi Meccanizzazione (Leo/Italy, 1969). A stunning library album featuring a strange mix of Morricone harpsichord phrasings, Jobim esque bossanova lounge, and some shifty Dave Brubeck tempos, with little bits of weird sounds thrown in. All in all it’s very sunny, hypnotic stuff. Deserves to be recognized as a solid latin jazz album. There’s a strong resemblance to Dots… era Stereolab in parts, regarding the jazzy latin rhythms and instrumentation.

3. Serge Bulot Les légendes de Brocéliande (Sonimage/France, 1981). Moody and atmospheric, this is a very strong album – veering from ambient synth and folksy acoustic guitars to subtle violin arrangements; all set against a dreamy, swirling early 80′s post-punk haze that’s actually quite effective, recalling at once a sort of Factory records Durutti Column/Virginia Ashley type collaboration with some very slight ambient prog tendencies from the late 70′s. Bulot is a noted multi-instrumentalist with a vast, impressive collection of worldly instruments. From the looks of his myspace page he’s currently quite active composing and performing.

4. Francis Monkman Tempus Fugit (Bruton/UK, 1978). Phonkay space age fuzak! Here the keyboard wiz tears through stellar fantasy lifestyle music, with the terse focus of a falcon and the cheese merchant chops of Rick Wakeman’s little brother (?). Of course, this was on the British late 70′s standard jazz disco funk label Bruton. Here you’ll find plenty of Rhodes massaging, synth-swell galore, and hard clavinet stomping mood pieces that do little to deter your image of spacemen in tight red leather pants, headbands and elbow length white gloves. Run (don’t walk) away slowly.

5. Nino Nardini & Roger Roger Jungle Obsession (Neuilly/France, 1972). Classic moogxotica, though the electronic element is very minimal. This album is a little over-hyped in my opinion, but it’s still a very solid effort. There’s absolutely no weirdo synth filler here (good news for all those weird synth album haters), but elegantly composed lounge jazz with a heavy exotic vibe, befitting the title, and some requisite animal sounds chirping and roaring here and there.

6. Armando Sciascia Sea Fantasy (Vedette/Italy, 1972). A stunning, fully formed album of sea themes from symphonic to light jazz. Beautiful orchestration, use of experimental electronics, and most of all there’s an elegant haze over everything.

7. Jacques Siroul Midway (Montparnasse 2000/France, 1975) A damn good batch of Morricone-esque groovy instrumental pop, with a little Andre Popp and Serge Gainsbourg tossed in. The rhythm section is beefy and flawless, giving the whole “lounge” factor a total makeover. The harmonica (which I typically don’t care for) makes very frequent appearances on this album, though it is in a melancholic “Midnight Cowboy” vein, and not an annoying bluesy-folk one. There are a couple of corny piano pop concertos, but the zig zag moog and top notch compositions make this one very solid and unique overall. I like to call it “elevator prog”. Yes, I just made that up. This has reissue written all over it, from the crowd-pleasing heavy beats to the smart arrangements and generally great tunes. It’s quickly become one of my favorite albums!

8. Stringtronics Mindbender (Peer-Southern/UK, 1972). This is something of a showcase effort from Barry Forgie, Anthony Mawer, Nino Nardini, and Roger Roger, each displaying their own brand of baroque jazz, with the emphasis on furiously sawed strings. [The first half of Mindbender is a 6-track suite composed by UK library legend Barry Forgie. Recorded in one 3-hour session, it’s a unique psych/funk/baroque exploration that’s made this LP the holy grail of library music collectors for years.]

9. Joel Vandroogenbroeck Contemporary Pastoral and Ethnic Sounds (Coloursound/Germany, 1980) Ah, what a beaut’! Joel Vandroogenbroeck (aka: VDB Joel) was the main, only consistent member in Brainticket, and on this album he blends the requisite flute with synths and exotica tinged percussion, and comes up with a winner, an almost pop/mainstream approximation of the exotica-library variety. Surely this era of his work is probably lumped in with the new-age crowd (if it is lumped in anywhere at all!), but don’t let such things deter you from a wonderful listen. Majestic peaks of sound wash around, with an Echoplexed flute zipping all over the spectrum. I’m reminded of some long lost Herzog film, as the pastoral post-hippie vibe here bodes well with mid-period Popol Vuh, though in a slightly more synthetic way. There’s even a funky track with sample worthy “breaks” and some nasty clavinet; a seemingly out-of-place track, but it works well. For the most part, Vandroogenbroeck brings an old school krautrock/prog sensibility to the proceedings. Highly recommended!

10. Various Artists Under Water Vol. 2: Under and Over the Water Surface (Sonoton/Germany, 1978). Absolutely stunning! This is a top notch collection of spooky yet elegant jazz played with beautiful unease. The woodwinds soar alongside the harps, plucky bass, water logged tubas and trombones, and the brief synth vignettes all add up to a great flow. Fans of moody modal jazz would find much to love here. It’s not too out-there like many conceptual libraries, and is a wonderful, darker cousin to Sven Libaek’s stellar Ron & Val Taylor’s Inner Space, though perhaps a bit more cerebral. It fits into the underwater-as-outer space metaphor quite well – both dark places of mysterious power, stifling vulnerability, and utter loneliness. Standout album track for me is “Wet Suit”. Side one is the mostly jazz section, composed by the duo of Sam Sklair and Oscar Sieben (with one short track by J. Fox & M. Prindy), while side two consists of moody electronic ambience courtesy of Mladen Franko. Very highly recommended!

For further listening: A few more of my favorites worth tracking down are Walt Rockman’s space-age fairy-tale lullaby, Biology (Sonoton/Germany, 1978), Simon Park’s prog-ish Electric Bird (de Wolfe/UK, 1974), Romolo Grano’s Musica elettronica 1 (Joker/Italy, 1973) featuring superb, scary ambience and bleep-bloop blast, the disturbingly dark Egisto Macchi Voix (Gemelli/Italy, 1970), and the certified classic Cops, Crooks and Spies featuring some moody crime jazz cues by Eddie Warner.

View my complete list of over 350 library records here. —Norm

Do you have a favorite Sound Library composer or title? Share them in the comments field below:

Mike Holt “Dreamies” (1974)

In 1972 Bill Holt quit his suit job and descended into his basement with an acoustic guitar, a synthesizer and other electronic equipment, and a 4-track, and created this completely unique and hauntingly beautiful album.

The songs are 2 long sound collages sort of like “Revolution #9″ by the Beatles, from which he drew inspiration (they are entitled ‘Program 10′ and ‘Program 11′, obviously to be seen as continuations of the Beatles’ ‘Revolution #9′. But Holt’s songs sounds different from that, in that they are structured around meditative and simple innocent poetic verses and chords strummed on the acoustic. The effect of this mixed with soundbites from radio and television from the 1960′s, and household noises, and electronic noises, is to create a unified whole where all the sounds of life mix together, all the registers and filters that we use to process the barrage of information that we receive, get torn down, and it all mixes together with Holt’s childlike, slightly disturbing verses to create a semi-Freudian mix. The songs are made interesting by Holt’s lovingly built songs, in which he spliced together what must have been hundreds of pieces of tape by hand, and where glass breaking, popcorn popping, snippets of Beatles songs, radio broadcasts of Cassius Clay fights, and Kennedy speeches mix together.

I only hope that the story I have told makes it sound as interesting as this album is. I know that the sound collage method is a sort of independent music strain of its own, and I must admit that this is my only real dabbling in it. But other sound collage material is less easy to listen to than this. The songs are long (25 minutes or so each) but the sensibility with the acoustic guitar is not as restricted as other sound collage pieces, this one is a man reaching out with the breadth of his wonderful ideas to create a beautiful, honest, frightening trip. —Mike

Centipede “Septober Energy” (1971)

This ominous double LP has been sitting there in my record collection since 1973. I don’t know why I haven’t played it for ages, I used to play it a lot. So, the first of October is an apt day to play and review Septober Energy. It is a project assembled by Keith Tippett and produced by Robert Fripp (both members of King Crimson at the time). These two gathered virtually the entire creative British music scene – a who-is-who of some 50 musicians, horns, brass, strings, singers, Alan Skidmore, Elton Dean, Ian Carr, Alan Skidmore, Paul Rutherford, John Marshall, Robert Wyatt, Ian MacDonald, Boz Burrell, Julie Driscoll (Tippett at the time of recording), just to name a few. The music sounds as if Tippett and Fripp were struggling to find a home for their jazzier, freer ideas which they couldn’t incorporate into the King Crimson concept.
There are moments of grandezza, pathos, Jazz-Rock passages, Free Jazz – both loud and aggressive and soft and gentle, Bolero-like crescendos, concert music, sheet music, smashing arrangements and orchestrations, all of it played live in the studio and simultaneously recorded. Of course, due to the concept, there are also passages which don’t succeed or which are too long – I’m thinking of the finale. Septober Energy has been put down as megalomania, usually from King Crimson fans. I don’t agree. It’s difficult music, certainly. You have to make an effort to follow the music. It might just not be your taste. But that doesn’t make it a flop. Septober Energy is like nothing else from the early seventies, it’s an important musical document from one of the most exiting musical phases in the twentieth century. I’m glad I re-discovered this album. It’s out on CD and should not be overlooked. –Yofriend

Tiny Tim “God Bless Tiny Tim” (1968)

A walking freak show and the ultimate novelty act of the ’60s. But behind Tiny Tim’s fruity falsetto antics lay a genuine love of his material, most of it taken from the 20’s – an equally odd time in popular music–before the rise of Bing Crosby–when nearly all white male vocalists were no-voice freaks. I can’t honestly say that Tim’s debut LP survives its own novelty value in the end. But it’s a well-produced smorgasbord of highly entertaining moments complete with genuine hilarity (“The Viper”) and some genuinely touching performances as well, especially the ones done in the singer’s natural baritone (Gordon Jenkins’ “This Is All I Ask,” “Then I’d Be Satisfied with Life.”) Another curiosity: why was this kind of faux-vaudeville so popular in the ’60s? Does anybody remember “Winchester Cathedral”? In that sense Tiny Tim fit right into his times. During the late ’50s and early ’60s when he performed at Hubert’s Museum (singing Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me” underwater) and appeared in Jack Smith’s Normal Love, he was merely freakish. –Singer Saints

Buckner & Garcia “Pac-Man Fever” (1982)

It all started with the video junkie smash single, “Pac-Man Fever,” probably the most stirring celebration of hitting rock bottom since the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” and blossomed into this full length cash in. You can take Pac-Man Fever as mere novelty, or read between the 8-bit lines for the real story. Check out the chilling “to a Centipede,” as the protagonist’s emotionless voice warns “don’t try hiding behind the mushrooms… I see you” like a calculating serial-killer, the shell-shocked pilot in a kill or be killed battle at the heart of “Defender,” or last humanoid on Earth “Goin’ Berzerk” as an ever-increasing wave of robots and Evil Otto close in. All the pressure comes to a boil in the complex set of dance floor directives, “Do the Donkey Kong,” one unrelenting amphetamine rush of a track. Pac-Man Fever stands as a one of a kind archive of a long lost age that will never return, as wood-paneled consoles rot in the back of pizza parlors while the youth of today live out their homicidal fantasies at home, their hot-pocket stained faces permanently glued to X-Boxes and Wiis. –Ben

Ananda Shankar “Ananda Shankar And His Music” (1975)

A scorching soundclash that mixes western funk and fusion with traditional Indian music to stunning effect. The result is some of the funkiest and out-there music from the 70’s. Mad sitar playing, buzzing electronic effects and heavy use of percussion and a non-stop groove makes for some great listening. This is cross-cutural music of the highest order that pandered to no fashions and managed to avoid sounding contrived. High on energy and catchy riffs as well as a good insight into more traditional Indian sounds. –Jon

Ravi Shankar’s nephew, Ananda, fuses traditional Indian music with heavy psych-funk creating one of the best “Indo-fusion” albums of all time! –David