Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Music of Belief
(Release the Bats)
director's cut, The Wire

by Simon Reynolds

Don't know about you, but I was sold on Dolphins Into The Future the moment I saw the name. Is that silly? Naming a group is half the battle, I think. Done well, the name works as a miniature poem, a manifesto condensed to slogan size. It frames and guides the sonic experience like "set and setting" does with psychedelics. An outfit called Dolphins Into The Future could hardly fail to have something going for it.

Onset - Beyond Clouds from Adam Sammons on Vimeo.

As it happens, "Dolphins into the Future" is a cultural readymade, re-porpoised by Lieven Martens, a 28 year old from Antwerp, Belgium with an extensive pedigree in "freenoise", a string of aliases (notably Duncan Cameron and collaborative project Blobs), and a cassetteography as long as both your arms. It's the title of a memoir by Joan Ocean, a groovy lady who's spent many years communing with a "pod" (a tribe, I guess) of Hawaiian spinner dolphins. But you don't need to know about her Damascene encounter with a California grey whale, her theory of "sound holography" (how cetacean creatures communicate), or her New Age resort Sky Island Ranch, for the name Dolphins Into the Future to do its magic. Those four words get reveries in motion: musings about dolphins as the alien race, that we imagine is out there in some corner of the cosmos , already in our midst; Gaia-conscious grief for the abuse we've inflicted on Mother Water ( pollution, garbage dumping, overfishing, polar ice cap melting, unstaunchable oil leaks from deep sea drilling).

But listeners would probably be picturing coral reefs and luminescent bottom-feeders even if Martens had picked the name Hot Pink Freon Jizz. Much of his sound-palette, as heard on cassette-only releases like Mountains Saturnus, suggests whale-song, sea horse stridulations, and other subaquatic chatter. Produced using tape-loops and a mixture of analog and digital synths, and often altered by slowing-down or pitching-up, Martens's textures typically have a smeared, swaying off-pitch quality redolent of Boards of Canada. But there's also glinky, glass-bottle percussive sounds suggestive of gamelan, and rustling, chittering ambiences that could be painstaking forgeries of ethnological field recordings or samples directly taken from "Nature Sounds" cassettes.

Martens is a prominent figure in the international post-noise network catalysed by the Skaters. But while there's clearly a debt to Spencer Clark and James Ferraro's strain of Pacific-idyllic New Millenium Exotica (specifically the 2006 Pan Dolphinic Dawn single), Martens has fastened on one rivulet in the torrent of ex-Skaters output and developed it into a distinct and more fully realized sound-stream. Dolphins Into the Future is a significantly more electronic proposition, touching on just about every decade of its history, from early Dutch operators like Dick Raaijmakers, through the Seventies analogue synth gods and their New Age-y Eighties offshoot "space music" (Martens gives props to Windham Hill sub-label Private Music, artists like Michael Stearns and Emerald Web, and America's long-running Hearts of Space radio show), up to Nineties electronica heads like The Orb.

"The Voice Of Incorporeality," the 30 minute opening track of Martens's first CD release, actually reminds me a little of "A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld," The Orb's debut single. It raises the delicious thought that Martens is, deliberately or not, pushing retro-chic into the early Nineties, or one sector thereof: chill out rooms, smart drinks, Mixmaster Morris, Fax Records, Telepathic Fish, etc. But since that moment had its own retro-futurist and "cosmic camp" invocations going on, "Voice" equally reminds me of Rainbow Dome Musick, the two LP-side-long compositions recorded by Steve Hillage as an ambient soundscape for the 1979 Festival of Mind-Body-Spirit. Like that album's "Garden of Paradise", just about every sound in "Voice" is a glisteningly gauche signifier of Heaven or Eden. The trickle of a waterfall and the liquid chirruping of tropical birds establish the mise-en-scene: an aquatic bower-of-bliss in a jungle clearing. Harp-like twinkles of synth cascade gently while a dazzling drone gyrates, like a polygon whose mirrored facets keep catching a shaft of sunlight. Yet this isn't really New Age: the music's contours aren't picked-out cleanly enough, everything's too saturated and overloaded, and as the never-changing/ever-shifting track reaches its end the final effect is bruising bliss.

Taking up Belief's second half, "Observations Through the Halocline of the Worlds" is a nine-part suite whose components range from thirty seconds to eleven minutes long. Highlights include the third sequence (plinking gamelan, offset by what could be light raindrops skittering across a drum skin) and the fifth (the closest to "classic" Dolphins Into the Future, a swatch of aqueous yet fractured texture, like a National Geographic seascape photo spread chopped up and tessellated into an abstract blue collage). These longer pieces are juxtaposed with environmental snippets suggestive of a rainforest canopy or a savannah watering hole at dusk. "Observation" #9 is a celestial organ solo, an echo-shrouded spire of melody swirling up and away into outer space.

When I read in David Keenan's hypnagogic pop overview in the Wire last year that New Age music was all the rage with the post-noise underground, I was tickled pink. It struck me initially as a well-established hipster move: the subliming of kitsch, pioneered by groups like Butthole Surfers in the late Eighties, albeit using figures--Black Sabbath, Donovan--that now seem straightforwardly canonical, not cheesy. When the text that come with The Music of Belief describes "The Voice Of Incorporeality" as a "soundplay accompanying you during your ascension on the ladder of Mystical Tones towards the Silence, the Nada "or dedicates "Observations Through the Halocline" to "Saturn as the Throne, the Sea, Mitragyna Speciosa, J.C.L. and the Cetacean Nation", it's hard not to wonder how deep Martens' tongue is lodged in his cheek. And yet he plays it very straight, with none of the obvious winks to the listener that the Buttholes or indeed The Orb would place in plain view. My sense is that he is both amused and amazed by New Age culture, the gaudy kitsch of crystals, flotation tanks, wind-chimes, and all the outlandish beliefs and outré sonics that come with them. But he's also profoundly attracted to the underlying concepts: healing music, serenity, deep listening, getting in touch with your anima.

At a time when our computer-based lifestyles involve a lot of frantic surfing and skimming across the shallows of culture, the idea of slowing down, breathing deeper, listening calmly, and re-establishing contact with the elemental (hello trees, hello sky) has rather a lot of utterly non-ironic appeal. If, like me, you spend most of your working day engaged in data-processing and sign-decoding, while the bulk of your leisure involves media of one kind or another, you can end up with an existence that's simultaneously immaterial yet devoid of spirituality. The idea of a life that is more earthed and embodied but that at the same time at least entertains the possibility of higher planes, seems attractive.

Adhering to the hippie maxim "be here now", New Age was one path taken out of the Sixties. As a result New Age music has a number of perfectly respectable neighbours: from Krautrock to Jon Hassell's 4th World zone, from Obscure and Ambient Series artists like Harold Budd and Laraaji to cosmic fusion and ECM. Perhaps Martens is trying to locate the buried utopianism in New Age, reactivate its psychedelic potentials? In which case, the title of this lovely album--The Music of Belief--lays it on the line. It's a dare to the listener: suspend your cynicism.

Lieven tells me he used to be a big fan of The Orb, and also that David Toop's Ocean of Sound was a huge influence on him

1 comment:

cighah said...

"Faux age" seems like an appropriate name for this genre.