Tuesday, November 20, 2007
ISOLATIONISM, genre survey/thinkpiece
ArtForum, January 1995
by Simon Reynolds
In Brian Eno's original definition, ambient simply meant 'environmental'. It was music as decor, a subliminal accompaniment to everyday life; later, with Eno's On Land, it became psychogeographic music, an evocation of real or imaginary landscapes.
Ambient has assumed a different meaning in the last four years with the rise of ambient techno in Britain, Europe and increasingly America. Evolving out of the post-rave phenomenon of chill-out music, ambient has become a genre unto itself, based around albums more than 12 inch singles,and with its own stellar artists (Pete Namlook, The Irresistible Force, Future Sound Of London, Biosphere, The Orb). Whatever its stylistic debts to Eno, Jon Hassell, Harold Budd et al, this nouveau ambient is closer in spirit to New Age. Swaddling the listener in a wombing sound-bath, today's ambient means retreat from the environment, relief from the stresses of urban existence.
Inevitably, there's been a reaction against ambient's dozy, cosy pleasance, in the form of a sort of ambient noir. The Aphex Twin shifted from the idyllic, Satiesque naivete of early tracks like "Analogue Bubblebath" to the clammy, foreboding sound-paintings of his recent Selected Ambient Works Vol II. Aphex Twin and fellow ambient noir-ists like Seefeel and David Toop/Max Eastley have drifted away from rave and into the vicinity of "Isolationism". This term, coined
by critic Kevin Martin, describes a loose network of disenchanted refugees from rock (Main, Final, Scorn, Disco Inferno, E.A.R.) and experimental musicians (Zoviet France, Thomas Koner, Jim O'Rourke). Now all the above, plus another 13 avant-rock and post-rave units, have been corralled onto a landmark compilation, masterminded by Martin and titled Isolationism. It's the fourth in Virgin UK's
best-selling series A Short History of Ambient, which has ridden the crest of the chill-out boom; ironically, because Isolationism breaks with all of ambient's feel-good premises. Isolationism is ice-olationist, offers cold comfort rather than succour. Instead of ambient's pseudo-pastoral peace, it evokes an uneasy silence: the uncanny calm before catastrophe, the deathly quiet of aftermath.
Musically, Isolationism still shares many attributes with ambient.
First, the emphasis on texture and timbre: many tracks are a fog of numinous drones,
generated by effects-processed guitars, samplers or, in Thomas Koner's case, the
long decay of gongs. Second, the abscence of rhythm: if there's
percussion, it's either a metal-on-metal death-knell (Null/Plotkin's "Lost (Held Under)"), or gamelan-style texture (Paul Schutze's "Hallucinations"). Third, it adheres to Eno's dictate that ambient music should be uneventful. But instead of being lulling and reassuring, Isolationist repetition induces a pregnant unease.
One of the best tracks on the compilation is David Toop & Max Eastley's "Burial Rites (Phosporescent)". Toop is a critic as well as musician, and recently he wrote of how certain strands of contemporary music reflect "the sensation of non-specific dread that many people now feel when they think about life, the world, the future". He argued that this sensation was the other side of the coin to a sensation of non-specific bliss. Toop's bliss/dread notion fits with the way Isolationism turns ambient inside out, so that the sonic traits (hypnotic loops, amorphous drones) that normally signify a plateau of orgasmic/mystic bliss (in techno) or serenity (in ambient), induce the opposite sensations: slowburning panic, dissassociation, disorientation. With Isolationism, the abscence of narrative signifies not utopia but entropy, paralysis. But there's still a neurotic jouissance to be gleaned from this music. It's a victory over what Brian Massumi calls 'ambient fear' (the omnipresent low-level anxiety of the late 20th Century mediascape): by immersing yourself in the phobic, you make it your element.
Other Isolationist artists withdraw from paranoia-inducing reality into
a kind of sanctuary of sound. Unlike ambient techno (which models itself on that pseudo-womb, the flotation tank), Isolationism's idea of utopia is empty space. If this music evokes mind's eye images of unpopulated expanses, it's because it's purged of all the normal signifiers of 'humanity' or 'sociability' in pop (vocals, lyrics, a funky beat). Koner has recorded a series of albums inspired by Antarctica, while other Isolationist pieces induce reveries of deserts, tundra, subterranean grottoes, post-apocalyptic wastelands or virgin planets. Typically, the music suggests extremes of climate or temperature--Zoviet France's "Daisy Gun" conjures up the polar twilight in Siberia, Total's "Six" is as
astigmatic to the ears as staring into a blast furnace is for the eyes. The common denominator is inclement environments, hostile to human life.
What is the appeal (for Isolationist music does have an uncanny magnetism) of these
morbid reveries, so different from the oceanic surge of 'intimate immensity' that you feel when listening to cosmic rock or ambient techno? In The Intellectuals and the Masses, John Carey notes the tendency of modernist writers to fantasize about world destruction or mass annihilation, diagnosing it as a response to a verminously overpopulated planet. The empty landscape/soundscape seems intimately connected with a heightened, fortified sense of
individuality; it relieves the perennial avant-gardist anxiety about disappearing in the morass of the masses, about the purity of art succumbing to the mush and pap of an abject popular culture. In another sense,the Isolationist impulse, and its accompanying 'face the future, brave the unknown!' rhetoric, seems to
be a redirection, into inner-space, of perennial male longings for the frontier; a harsh bracing wilderness, fit for a rugged masculinity, and far from the soft-options of domesticity.
If rave and rock culture are about creating an ersatz community
in the face of atomisation, Isolationism, with its fetish for asocial spaces, is a renunciation of that illusory solidarity. This is music that embodies and embraces the 'death of the social'; music that's impelled by a near-monastic impulse to flee pop culture's noisy hyperactivity for a rigorous aesthetic of silence and sensory deprivation. At its ultimate degree, this becomes a kind of aestheticised death-wish. Perhaps the rock precedent for Isolationism is Nico's The Marble Index, on which the Ice Queen's nihilist hymns are framed in John Cale's vistas of vitrified sound. Nico seems possessed by Freud's nirvana-drive, a longing to revert to an inanimate, inorganic state, free of the irritation of fleshly, animal desire. Devoid of R&B's hotblooded vitality, The Marble Index is one of the whitest albums ever.
As wideranging as its parameters are, the Isolationist compilation
also seems a bit too Caucasian. Stretch just a little bit further, and it could encompass strains of modern black music whose aura of desolation and entropy verges on Isolationism, albeit reached via a different route: blues, dub reggae, and blunted rap. There's the burgeoning British genre of ambient rap [ie trip hop]: artists like Portishead, Massive Attack, DJ Shadow and above all Tricky (just check the titles of his brilliant singles "Aftermath (Hip Hop Blues)" and "Ponderosa"). And there's London's jungle scene. Jungle draws on hip hop, techno and ragga, but its sound and mood is more like dub reggae gone ballistic. Its hyperkinetic drum'n'bass is designed, like dub, for ganja-smokers. But devoid of Rastafarianism's utopian hope, jungle's apocalypse is faithless: dread without Zion. One strand of jungle, 'dark/ambient', combines treacherous breakbeats and minefield bass with soothing heavenly textures: a mish-mash that expresses, non-verbally, its audience's divided impulses--to lose themselves in amnesiac bliss and to stay vigilant, to flee and to face down "inner city pressure".
Various Artists: Isolationism--Ambient IV (Virgin)
Aphex Twin--Selected Ambient Works Volume II (Sire)
David Toop and Max Eastley--Buried Dreams (Beyond)
Thomas Koner--Permafrost and Nunatak Gongamur (Baroni)
Tricky --"Aftermath" and "Ponderosa" (4th & Broadway EPs)
KK. Null/J.Plotkin--Aurora (Sentrax)
Zoviet France--Shouting At The Ground (Charrm)
Various Artists--Drum & Bass, Selection 1 and Selection 2 (Breakdown)