Ambient

Brightblack Morning Light “Motion To Rejoin” (Matador, 2008)

Brightblack Morning Light essentially have one song—but lord have mercy, what a wondrous song it is. Their third album, Motion To Rejoin, finds singers/multi-instrumentalists Nathan Shineywater and Rachael Hughes continuing to hone their slow-music formula to a sublime burnish.

Generally speaking, the nine songs here creep in on worn-out moccasins, emit a holy glow, and slouch into a groove akin to Dr. John’s “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya” on Quaaludes. Nay and Ray croon as if trying not to wake a baby in the next room—a vocal style that perfectly melts into the molasses-y ASMR-rock they summon.

As with Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock, faint glimmers of cool jazz seep into BML’s hazy, nocturnal soundworld; the bass part in “Oppressions Each” even recalls Cecil McBee’s resonant, majestic motif on Alice Coltrane’s “Journey In Satchidananda.” Yeah, that’s the kind of hallowed ground upon which BML tread.

Ultimately, Motion To Rejoin ranks as one of the greatest records to play first thing in the morning or last thing at night. It’s at once one of the most calming LPs in rock—and one of its most sensual. It didn’t get much better than this in 2008. -Buckley Mayfield

Located in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, Jive Time is always looking to buy your unwanted records (provided they are in good condition) or offer credit for trade. We also buy record collections.

Brian Eno “The Shutov Assembly” (Opal, 1992)

Everybody and their sister rave about Brian Eno’s ’70s and ’80s ambient releases, and rightly so. They influenced many essential chillout specialists and became crucial soundtracks for meditation, deep-tissue massage sessions, and childbirth, among other things. But it would be a grievous mistake to overlook his ’90s output in that genre. :Neroli: from 1993 is another Eno ambient gem that often gets lost in the gush of praise that’s bestowed upon, say, Music For Airports, Ambient 4 (On Land), and the highly overrated Discreet Music. Unquestionably, The Shutov Assembly belongs in any serious discussion about mid-period Eno’s most interesting work.

By the ’90s, Eno was a rich man thanks to his production work for U2, Talking Heads, and James, so he basically could do anything he wanted in the studio and get it released. On The Shutov Assembly, Eno delves into atonality and eschews scales and pitch, which lend the 10 tracks a peculiar liminal quality. Everything sounds unresolved and mysterious. Recorded from 1985 to 1990, these pieces previously appeared in art gallery and museum installations.

“Triennale” opens the album with a paradise of twinkling synths undergirded by serene droning and that enlightening beam of clearlight keening last heard on Tonto’s Expanding Head Band‘s “Riversong.” If you’re not immediately lured into Eno’s enigmatic cathedral of sound, you have some explaining to do. “Alhondiga” presents a fragrant whorl of suspenseful and somewhat sinister drone poems while “Markgraph” offers effortless entry into a strange sonic (sur)reality, in the process creating a new genre: New Age horror.

The alienating and metallic oscillations of “Francisco” make it perhaps the album’s weirdest cut. “Innocenti” renders a gorgeous evocation of stasis; think of it as eternity’s on-hold music. The longest track by far at 16:08, “Ikebukuro” is a languorous depiction of desolation, all long bell tolls, lassoing rope whooshes, and velvety drones.

You may get the sense that this music is “going nowhere.” (I hate this line of thinking. Why do you presume that music must have a destination?) Maybe that’s true from a conventional standpoint, but the suspended-in-mid-air feeling Eno manifests here results in subtly gripping ambient excursions that seemingly emanate from machines, with minimal human input. The Shutov Assembly actually sounds like A.I.-generated music, three decades before the fact. But it’s good—very good.

All Saints finally reissued the album on vinyl in 2014 and again in 2020, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find. I also recommend the CD, a format ideally suited for longform ambient releases. A digital version found on streaming services contains seven bonus tracks. -Buckley Mayfield

Located in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, Jive Time is always looking to buy your unwanted records (provided they are in good condition) or offer credit for trade. We also buy record collections.

Seesselberg “Synthetik 1.” (self-released, 1973)

I’m fascinated by artists who release one amazing album and then go quiet, for whatever reason. Examples? Skip Spence, the United States Of America, Tomorrow, Friendsound, Ibliss, McDonald & Giles, Kendra Smith, Young Marble Giants. German brother duo Seesselberg belong in this pantheon, too.

In the early ’70s, Wolf (b. 1941) and Eckhart (b. 1952) Seesselberg self-released some of the most innovative electronic music this side of Conrad Schnitzler and Morton Subotnick, and then vanished in a puff of fried synth circuitry. If you own one of original 1,000 copies pressed, however, you could sell it and travel the world on the earnings.

Thankfully, golden-eared curators have kept the nine precious cuts on Synthetik 1. in circulation over the decades, preserving what sounds like the birth of certain strains of IDM and techno, over 10-20 years before those styles emerged. The Seesselberg bros were clever electronics boffins who built their own synths, which obviously added special sauce to their distinctive sound. These 46 minutes reveal two nerds reveling in the temperamental strangeness of their gear, testing its parameters, and thereby drawing a blueprint for future synth iconoclasts to emulate—assuming they had the keen instincts to find Synthetik 1. and the maverick talent to fuck with its DNA. It is indeed an exclusive cult who have done so.

Synthetik 1. starts spectacularly with “Overture (If Somebody Survives We Will Have A Return Match),” a compendium of burbling, zapping, and oscillating sounds that sets a disorienting tone and warns the listener that Seesselberg are serious about sending you to the craziest quadrants of the omniverse. The 62-second “Eintrachtkreis-Paranoia” is a staccato panic-inducer that resembles the Ronald Frangipane-composed “Fuck Machine” sequence in The Holy Mountain. The equally brief “Verhütungsfreudenwalzer (Kontinenzmusik Für Eine Akademie)” sounds like a computer stuttering a disturbing mantra. These two snippets come off like the brothers playfully fucking about with their equipment. The more focused “Speedy Achmed (Verhaltensanweisung)” offers low-key, sinister pulsations and eldritch screeches that foreshadow Throbbing Gristle and Chris & Cosey. The A-side closes with a nearly 11-minute track bearing an absurdly long German title. Its ominous whirs, distant abattoir emissions, and eerie avian whistles make it a close cousin of Tonto’s Expanding Head Band‘s “Jetsex.”

The flip side begins with Synthetik 1.‘s highlight, “Phönix,” a 10-minute piece Wolf composed for a 1972 film of the same name. It’s a dazzling menagerie of high-pitched synth discombobulations ruptured by pulsating spaceship-door percussion, emergency-warning bleeps, and weaponized drones. I imagine the track scoring the movie’s climactic scenes in which astronauts meet terminal doom. There’s no way anyone gets out of this piece alive. The last two tracks (both with long German titles you’ll instantly forget) reiterate Synthetik 1.‘s m.o.: creating bizarre electronic abstractions that “go nowhere” in the traditional sense that dull people expect them to venture to. Essentially, Seesselberg are all about generating an interesting array of tones for its own sake—escapism with a sense of danger about it.

Some will complain that Synthetik 1. lacks “humanity” or “warmth,” but sometimes it feels great simply to immerse oneself in the alien sonography of custom-built synthesizers and lose all sense of reality. Seesselberg made that scenario a breathtaking certainty nearly 50 years ago. Enter their secret society.

[Synthetik 1. has been reissued officially on CD by Plate Lunch (2001) and on LP by Wah Wah (2013). Both are pricey imports, but totally worth it.] -Buckley Mayfield

Lenny White “Venusian Summer” (Nemperor, 1975)

For a musician who played drums on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and lent rhythmic bombast and intricacy to fusion gallants Return To Forever, Lenny White is (un)fairly obscure. But his debut solo album, Venusian Summer, is a stunner, every bit as dazzling as its Larry Kresek-illustrated, sci-fi cover.

It helps that White gathered some of jazz’s most burning instrumentalists to help him realize his ambitious vision. The extroverted funk of “Chicken-Fried Steak” features Ray Gomez spraying bold guitar graffiti over White’s and bassist Doug Rauch’s greasy-as-a-KFC-grill groove. Organist Jimmy Smith’s adds another layer of spiciness. I’d never eat the titular dish, but I’ll gladly lap up this track dozens of times. Funk gets stronger and more tensile yet on “Away Go Troubles Down The Drain,” with more guitar and organ pyrotechnics, this time by Doug Rodrigues and Weldon Irvine, respectively. The song’s like that old carnival ride, Tilt-A-Whirl, but with better rhythm and dynamics. Fans of Herbie Hancock’s Man-Child will tear their bell bottoms doing the splits to this.

Dedicated to the crew of the Starship Enterprise, the 10-minute “The Venusian Summer Suite; Part I. Sirenes” is commandeered by synth master Dr. Patrick Gleeson, with help from Peter Robinson on synth, Tom Harrel on synth and flugelhorn. They all engage in awe-inspiring, stellar tone painting; this is deep, overcast ambient music in the Klaus Schulze and Peter Michael Hamel veins. On “Part II,” Harrel’s flugelhorn kicks in and things oscillate to a higher level, recalling Deodato in “Also Sprach Zarathustra” mode or Isaac Hayes stretching out with one of his orchestral-funk epics. Hubert Laws’ far-roaming flute solo and Robinson’s clavinet co-star in this space-pimpin’ track.

Side two’s dominated by a couple of lengthy showcases for that furious fusion virtuosity your punk-loving buddies warned you about. “Mating Drive” is the most RTF-like song here, a gleaming, cruising, rococo tour de force that would make prime-time Mahavishnu Orchestra bow in respect. The piece revels in excess like the most audacious prog-rockers and fusioneers, and earns their indulgence tenfold. That’s to be expected when you have studs such as Larry Young (organ), Rauch (bass), Gomez (lead guitar), Onaje Allan Gumbs (organ), and Rodrigues (rhythm guitar) at your command. LP-closer “Prince Of The Sea” begins mellowly then gradually accelerates into a fluid jazz-funk groove filigreed by Gumbs’ icily pointillistic acoustic organ. What follows is a battle royale between guitar gods Larry Coryell and Al DiMeola: the former’s insanely intricate and mercurial guitar solo versus the latter’s fleet-fingered, fuzz-toned curlicues of virtuosity. We get articulate wails galore from both of these prolix axe heroes in this duel for the (s)ages.

I bought my copy of Venusian Summer for $3 many years ago, but it still usually sells for under $10 in the US. So there’s really no excuse to not grip your own copy and cheaply ride the lightning out of this solar system. -Buckley Mayfield

Ned Lagin “Seastones” (Round, 1975)

Seastones might be the strangest document to emerge out of the vast Grateful Dead diaspora. From 1970-1976, Ned Lagin was the psych-rock figureheads’ modular-synth guru, a computer-savvy maverick who generated bizarre subliminal electronics onstage and in the studio. Outside of those actions, Lagin composed Seastones from 1971-1974 with help from a lot of the same crew who contributed to David Crosby’s 1971 cult classic, If I Could Only Remember My Name: Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, Grace Slick, David Freiberg, and Croz himself. But aside from Garcia and Slick’s distorted voices, it’s nearly impossible to detect these prominent musicians’ personalities amid the microcosmic mysteriousness of Seastones.

Lagin classified this record as “Electronic Cybernetic biomusic,” and superficially it resembles the ambient excursions that Brian Eno purveyed in the ’70s and ’80s, Morton Subotnick’s disorienting Buchla synth parabolas, and Gil Mellé’s unsettling Moog miasmas in The Andromeda Strain soundtrack. But parts of Seastones also point ahead to the mercurial glitchtronics of ’90s IDM. Whether artists such as Markus Popp or Alva Noto ever heard Lagin’s arcane opus remains unknown, but the similarities are remarkable.

Seastones is divided into 10 tracks, but the album seems like one organism—or maybe it’s more accurate to say that it flows like a lysergic dream, with subtly changing episodes. Lagin keeps the sonic activity submerged near the ocean’s floor, with most of the vocals appearing to ripple from underwater. While the credits list Garcia’s guitar, Lesh’s bass, Hart’s gong and Spencer Dryden’s cymbals, they’re hard to discern among the synths (ARP, E-mu, Buchla), prepared piano, clavichord, and Interdata 7/16 processor that Lagin deployed to manifest these microbial movements. But you don’t need to know how this sausage was made to enjoy its peculiar flavors.

If you’re the type of Dead fan who thinks American Beauty represents the pinnacle of their career, you’ll likely find Seastones impenetrable, and you can keep on “Truckin’” without it. But if you dig, say, “What’s Become Of The Baby” and adventurous electronic music that nudges your mind to strange, subaquatic realms, you’ll find Seastones an engrossing enigma. Just be prepared to give it many listens—preferably on quality headphones—in order to grasp its crab-like maneuvers.

Important Records reissued a remastered version of Seastones on LP and CD in 2020. -Buckley Mayfield

Terry Riley “Shri Camel” (CBS, 1980)

As we round into the most stressful week of the most stressful year in recent memory, we need frequent immersions into the transcendent sonic world of Terry Riley, the greatest living American composer/improviser… if I may be so bold (and I may).

Now, the great thing about this master of minimalism and mesmerism is that you can dip into almost any record in his discography and find succor. I’m partial to anything Riley’s done from the ’60s to the ’80s. And that’s where Shri Camel falls. Commissioned by West Germany’s Radio Bremen in 1975, Riley started composing it that year and performed an early version of Shri Camel in Bremen the following year. In 1977, Riley cut a different iteration of the work, dividing it into four suites at a San Francisco studio. For some reason, CBS didn’t issue the recording until 1980. Better late than never, he understated.

Using a modified Yamaha YC-45D combo organ tuned in just intonation and augmented with digital delay, Riley applied lessons learned from Indian raga guru Pandit Pran Nath, especially regarding “singing in search of swara, or ‘the knowledge of profound pitch relationships which reigns supreme,’” as Hugh Gardner put it in the liner notes. Suffice it to say, Riley synthesized Nath’s ancient wisdom with modern technology and his own spontaneous creativity to summon a zoner for the (s)ages.

Seemingly sputtering out of a golden spigot in the holiest temple, album-opener “Anthem Of The Trinity” is a fanfare for a benevolent god who only wants you to feel buoyant, warm, and loved for eternity. Throughout most of Shri Camel, Riley dazzles up a momentous motif—a bass-y three-chord figure (da da DAAA)—that sounds as if it could be a sperm whale’s mating call. The track ebbs and flows from elation to sternness, with moments of warped turbulence. “Celestial Valley” unspools more introverted fractals of organ drones, spiraling inward to massage all of your chakras. At times, Riley’s organ swells to revelatory dimensions (no double entendre, sorry), generating flurries of vamps geared to excite and exalt your every atom. You wonder how much pleasure your head can endure under such an onslaught of heavenliness.

Obviously, there’s no way to maintain that level of highness, so Riley downshifts on “Across The Lake Of The Ancient Word” into a more somber feel, like the entrance music for the funeral of a benevolent cult leader. Riley embroiders that aforementioned bass-y three-chord motif with frantic bubbles of keyboard spume. It feels like you’re floating in an ocean of champagne. “Desert Of Ice” starts where “Ancient Word” left off, and then intensifies and embellishes it. Riley appears to be playing a vibraphone made out of said ice with an elegant swiftness that seems supra-human, à la Conlon Nancarrow’s player-piano works. The bass-y three-chord pattern’s urgency keeps surging into the increasingly ebullient organ carbonation, and Riley begins to improvise variations on the spacey theme, with every tonality contoured to levitate you light years from earthbound reality. This is how you close an album. Bow down to the master of aural transcendence. -Buckley Mayfield

Jon Hassell “Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two)” (Ndeya, 2020)

I don’t usually review new albums here, but this one by a world-class innovator, 83-year-old American trumpeter/keyboardist Jon Hassell, deserves to be heard by as many people as possible.

With Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two), he has found new ways to elaborate on his distinctive sound. Dubbed by Hassell as Fourth World Music, it’s a hybrid of Asian and African styles tempered by minimalist compositional strategies influenced by Terry Riley and Kiranic-singing guru Pandit Pran Nath, and is distinguished by Hassell’s electronically treated horn. It’s tempting to call Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two) and its 2018 companion Listening to Pictures (Pentimento Volume One) as late-career resurgences, but Hassell has never fallen off in over 40 years as a bandleader.

Pentimento means “a reappearance in a painting of an original drawn or painted element which was eventually painted over by the artist.” This suggests that Hassell is renovating previous innovations. While that’s partially true, long-time fans will hear new facets. Hassell suffused Listening to Pictures with eerie mists of trumpet and grounded it with thick, tumid rhythms of hazy origins, qualities evident on his luminous 1978 debut LP, Vernal Equinox. Listening to Pictures intensifies his music’s patented meditative and predatory elements while adding new textures and rhythms to his adventurous repertoire.

Seeing Through Sound continues down that path, swirling both minor and major gestures into a rich mosaic. “Fearless” sojourns through Stygian miasmas of smeared keyboard shrieks à la Miles Davis’s “Rated X,” bass smudges, slack funk beats, and eldritch plumes of trumpet. Disorientation reigns from the start. Hassell’s most famous collaborator, Brian Eno, singled out “Unknown Wish” for being “one of the most mysterious, seductive and enchanting things” Hassell has done, adding that he’d never heard anything like it. It’s a highlight, for sure, its twitchy guitar and keyboard interplay giving way to unsettling sighs recalling Goblin’s Suspiria soundtrack and the panther-like stealth of Davis’s In a Silent Way, courtesy of Peter Freeman’s electric-bass pulsations. “Delicado” also pushes into new territory, as slabs of low-end frequencies shunt ominously, forming an intrusive yet oblong rhythm more likely to get you moving toward the exits than the dance floor. The contrast between this and the icy keyboard drones and plaintive wisps of trumpet exemplify Hassell’s paradoxical inventiveness.

Drifting in on a morose, majestic drone, “Timeless” closes Seeing Through Sound on an aptly oblique note. With bass that’s more like pressure fluctuations than chord progressions, spare keyboard dabs, and scuttling crab noises, “Timeless” has too much happening for it to be deemed ambient, but its amorphousness and strange amalgam of elements make it hard to slot into any genre. The track’s yet another paragon of Hassell’s shape-shifting uniqueness. -Buckley Mayfield

A.C. Marias “One Of Our Girls (Has Gone Missing)” (Mute, 1989)

A.C. is Angela Conway, the mysterious chanteuse who cowrote the 10 songs on One Of Our Girls (Has Gone Missing) with Wire/Dome guitarist Bruce Gilbert. She’s also appeared on Wire bassist Graham Lewis’ He Said records and Gilbert’s The Shivering Man LP, as well as these Wire dudes’ Dome and P’o projects. Clearly, Conway was a key figure in the Wire diaspora throughout the ’80s, so it makes sense that she would cut her own full-length with those in their orbit. And what a quiet little treasure One Of Our Girls is.

With a voice pitched somewhere between the Dream Syndicate/Opal’s Kendra Smith and Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell, Conway radiated an ethereal gravity with A.C. Marias. The group included Paul Kendall (studio wiz who’s worked with Gilbert and Loop and Main’s Robert Hampson), John Fryer (producer of This Mortal Coil, Cocteau Twins, Nine Inch Nails, etc.), and Gareth Jones (producer of Depeche Mode, Wire, Diamanda Galás, Einstürzende Neubauten, etc.). Conway’s singing may not be technically extraordinary, but she optimizes her narrow range with an intriguing delivery and glazed timbre. She keeps her emotions close to the vest, forcing you to lean in to try to discern the details.

Case in point is the opener, “Trilby’s Couch.” It begins with a melancholy woodwind melody redolent of seaside desolation. Then a stealthy walking bass line and woodblock taps appear as Conway sings about a hypnosis session. When the avian synth twitters surface, you can’t help getting chills. “Just Talk” furthers the hypnotic quotient with a simple yet transporting guitar riff that cycles over a high-pitched, majestic drone. Conway croons in hushed tones about an enigmatic scenario featuring two lovers and a gun, while meditating on the nature of language and time.

“There’s A Scent Of Rain In The Air” might be the album’s oddest highlight, a mix of pneumatic beats, gaseous gusts, faraway airplane-engine drones, and spidery, glinting guitar accents, like if the Edge had shown more restraint on The Joshua Tree. Another highlight and an outlier is “Give Me,” a serious stab at dance-floor domination, similar to the propulsive yet cool-browed cover of Lou Reed’s “Vicious” from a previous A.C. Marias single. The warped, spiraling guitar filigrees and punchy drum-machine beats form a foxy foundation for Conway to request a “stolen kiss” and a “little bliss.” Hell, she’s earned it.

One Of Our Girls (Has Gone Missing) climaxes on the title track, one of the greatest songs of the ’80s. Powered by a valiantly galloping rhythm and buoyed by softly stroked guitar and sighing synth undulations, the song bears a melody as sublime as that of Wire’s “Map Ref. 41ºN 93ºW.” After playing “One Of Our Girls” hundreds of times, I can attest that it’s one of the most satisfying syntheses of happiness and sadness in songform.

Following Conway’s sole album as a songwriter, she went on to direct several music videos, including those by Wire, Nick Cave, and Bryan Ferry. We’re fortunate that she dropped One Of Our Girls before finding her more lucrative calling in film. This album is one of those cult artifacts that make aficionados feel as if they’re in on a special secret. Unlike you and me, it never gets old. -Buckley Mayfield

Gong “You” (Virgin, 1973)

Led by guitarist/vocalist Daevid Allen and singer Gilli Smyth, Gong perfectly threaded the needle between prog rock and psychedelia during their early-/mid-’70s peak. The group’s ability to blend the whimsical, the absurd, and the cosmic culminated in their Radio Gnome Invisible Trilogy: Flying Teapot (1973), Angel’s Egg (1973), and You (1974). Composed of British and French musicians, Gong combined some of the most interesting traits of both countries’ progressive scenes, creating fetching melodies, funky and jazzy grooves, and deep space excursions. One can hear these elements and more coalesce into a stunning zenith on You.

The album flows like a brilliant DJ set on purest LSD. After two short, inconsequential pieces of goofy space-out and zany prog shenanigans, You really kicks into gear with “Magick Mother Invocation.” With its gong hit, calming “om”s, Smyth’s beatific sighs, and Tim Blake’s arcing, lysergic synth ripples, the song creates the sensation of flipping end over end in space. And how often does that happen?

This heavenly drift sets the scene for “Master Builder”; everything’s been, uh, building to this masterpiece. It’s a tom-tom-heavy astral-jazz-funk mega jam of monumental dimensions, with Allen’s Leslie-speakered vocals adding tasty frosting. Drummer Pierre Moerlen, bassist Mike Howlett, guitarist Steve Hillage, synthesist Blake, and saxophonist Didier Malherbe are all on peak form. A flaming wig-out for the ages, “Master Builder” makes you feel as if you’re on all of the drugs at once. The beneficent comedown after that mindfuck is “A Sprinkling Of Clouds,” a methodical, burbling-synth explosion. This one merely makes you feel as if you’re on most of the drugs and foreshadows chillout-room ambient music by about 16 years, before the beats and bass lines start punching out the stars and the music starts to emulate early Pink Floyd in their most aggressively extraterrestrial zones. An abrupt mood shift occurs on “Perfect Mystery,” which twirls into jaunty, Zappa-esque prog territory, as Allen and Smyth natter on about “cops at the door” and “octave doctors” and “middle eyes.” The xylophone work here is bonkers.

Side 2 goes deep, y’all. One of Gong’s most adventurous tracks, the 10-plus-minute “The Isle Of Everywhere” is totally devoid of the wackiness that occasionally mars their music. Smyth’s opiated chants and murmurs intertwine with Blake’s synths while Howlett’s and Moerlen’s suavely funky groove never stops ascending. Malherbe’s sax solo is one of the most flavorful and sophisticated in rock annals; Hillage’s guitar solo is a serpentine wonder that would make Larry Coryell and Peter Green jealous. I’m high as fuck just listening to this on my headphones on a Tuesday night in the middle of a pandemic.

You Never Blow Your Trip Forever” is a jolly continuation of “Isle”’s interstellar trek. Allen jibber-jabbers as if he’s auditioning for Monty Python’s Flying Circus before settling into more conventional space-rock vocal mode. The band locks into a centrifugal groove that morphs into a zonked waltz, then downshifts into a “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun” creep, filigreed with poignant, trilling flute. Contrary to the title, I think I did blow my trip forever.

In the end, Gong are You, and you are Gong. -Buckley Mayfield

The Art Of Noise “Who’s Afraid Of The Art Of Noise?” (ZTT, 1984)

The Art Of Noise’s debut album has the air of a Dadaist art prank (orchestrated by NME journalist and propaganda minister Paul Morley) mixed with the savvy production of a prog-rock/synth-pop genius (Trevor Horn of Yes and Buggles fame), bolstered by the keyboard mastery of composer Anne Dudley and the studio ingenuity of programmer J.J. Jeczalik and engineer Gary Langan. Who’s Afraid Of The Art Of Noise? Is not great all the way through, but at its best, the album’s a brash exhibition of sonic collage and complex mood conjuring.

“A Time For Fear (Who’s Afraid)” establishes the Art Of Noise’s exceptional affinity for brutalist beat science, ominous synthetic orchestrations and atmospheres, and deeply poignant melodies. It’s this contrast of extremes that makes AON’s music so tantalizing. The group’s first single, “Beat Box (Diversion One),” gets reprised here, and it’s simply one of the most clever minimalist-maximalist dance tracks ever, powered by some of the smashingest beats ever conceived (samples of Yes’ Alan White) all the while keeping the funk factor Empire State Building high. It almost sounds like a novelty tune, but the few well-chosen elements cohere into club classic that’s more Kraftwerk’s “Numbers” on steroids than Laibach. Maybe best of all, it ends on a languorous soul-jazz piano motif that no one saw coming. This is an exemplary use of typically non-musical elements to build memorable sonic collage.

“Close (To The Edit)” stands as the more exciting twin of “Beat Box”; it slams even harder and grooves even funkier, if you can believe it. Seriously, this must have caused beat envy in producers worldwide. Inspired by the spirit of Dada and musique concrète (stuttering car ignition, power saw revving, etc.) and fueled by an unbelievably studly bass line, “Close (To The Edit)” might be Trevor Horn’s crowing achievement in the studio.

I’ll skip over the filler tracks, but note that the other good but lesser cuts include “Who’s Afraid (Of The Art Of Noise)” and “Snapshot.” The former is disorienting, industrial anti-disco, like Swiss electro pranksters Yello with stronger beats and less whimsy while the latter consists of a minute of perky, Buggles-like synth pop.

On “Moments In Love,” AON dispense with the junkyard/factory-floor tomfoolery and get down to the important business of creating a soft, shimmering electro-pop reverie that exquisitely evokes the title over its 10-minute duration. This is Dudley’s shining moment.. Deemed a classic by the Art Of Noise’s most ardent fans, this song’s a cross between 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” and Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman.” It really is that special. -Buckley Mayfield

Tangerine Dream “Phaedra” (Virgin, 1974)

A lot of smart people—and yours truly, too—think Phaedra represents peak Tangerine Dream. With a catalog as vast as this German electronic group’s, you’ll never get a consensus on said peak, but for this blog’s purpose, let’s go with Phaedra.

While I dig the four preceding Tangerine Dream opuses, it always seems like I need stronger drugs to truly understand what the hell’s going on with albums such as Electronic MeditationZeitAtem, and Alpha Centauri. Not so with Phaedra. It’s as if Edgar Froese, Christopher Franke, and Peter Baumann clarified what the group does best and then magnified it to infinity.

The opening sidelong title track is a case in point. It’s a 17-minute masterstroke of oscillations, arpeggios, fibrillations, whooshes, woobs, whistles, and phantom choirs criss-crossing and intertwining across the firmament in dramatic arcs. Ever so subtly, Tangerine Dream’s three VCS 3 synth and Mellotron maestros modulate the sounds to optimize tension and release. I once played “Phaedra” in a large club where I was DJing, and it might’ve been the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like a god.

Side 2—which reputedly was accidentally mastered backward—isn’t quite as momentous, but it is great. The Froese composition “Mysterious Semblance At The Strand Of Nightmares” exudes an enigmatic orchestral grandeur—which explains why it was used in the 2018 film Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. Sounding like a harsh meteorological event transpiring in an aviary by the sea, “Mysterious Semblance” is pretty dang disorienting. “Movements Of A Visionary” offers a menagerie of tantalizing tones and timbres—icicle-tinkling, motorized twittering, Doppler effect arpeggios and drones, etc.—to which any sensible person would want to dose. Finally, Baumann’s piece “Sequent ‘C’” closes the record on an elegiac, haunting note.

Tangerine Dream would go on to do a lot more good work—Rubycon, Sorcerer, Thief, Exit, etc.—but none as stunning as Phaedra. -Buckley Mayfield

Edgar Froese “Aqua” (Brain, 1974)

Edgar Froese was on fire in the mid ’70s, both as leader of Tangerine Dream and as a solo artist. For the former, he helmed the super-deep kosmische space-outs of Phaedra and Rubycon, while under his own name he released the ambient classics Aqua and Epsilon In Malaysian Pale. For many people, Aqua was the best work out of all of those classics.

Herr Froese sure knows how to start an album. The 17-minute title track begins with the sound of burbling water, aptly enough, followed soon by a rippling, chirping synth that sounds like a bird panicking in a submarine engine. Right from the get-go it becomes apparent that Aqua is one of those archetypal headphone albums. You need the cans to capture every frosty, frothy detail Froese generates with his keyboard arsenal. (As a bonus, Günther Brunschen applies effects through the “artificial head system.” I don’t know what that is exactly, but it sounds cool as fuck.) As “Aqua” progresses, it really does feel as if you’re floating in gently turbulent waters. Are there planetariums, but for oceans? Well, if there are, “Aqua” needs to be in heavy rotation there. The effect is simultaneously tranquil and troubling—a rare feat.

Things get really deep and ominous with “Panorphelia,” with its bassy synth oscillations pulsing like the vein on a blue whale’s head throughout the whole track, topped by a swirling, Mellotron-like motif that recalls the dramatic tenor of the Rolling Stones’ “2000 Light Years From Home,” of all things. (Did you know that a blue whale’s veins are big enough to allow a small child to pass through them? Just don’t let your kids near them, okay?) Where were we? Oh, yeah, “Panorphelia”: If you want to get the crowd moving (toward the exits, in fear), play this killer jam.

For the 15-minute “NGC 891,” Tangerine Dream member Chris Franke provides Moog accompaniment on this weird, imaginary sci-fi soundtrack that’s somewhere between Tonto’s Expanding Head Band’s “Jetsex” and Gil Mellé’s Andromeda Strain OST. Album-closer “Upland” is a liturgical spasm, sacred music besieged by fibrillating synths that sound like the emissions of grotesque sea life. It’s at once grandiose and unsettling—a hell of a way to peace out of an album.

Unlike a lot of spacey, beatless music, Froese’s flaunts extremely interesting dynamics and timbral fluctuations. On Aqua and many other entries in his catalog, this mensch really takes the listener on a proverbial journey, and it certainly isn’t to anywhere mundane. -Buckley Mayfield