Tuesday, July 21, 2015

gender, rebellion and rock 'n' roll

an interview looking back at The Sex Revolts, done a few years ago with Christina Mohr

You wrote „The Sex Revolts“ together with your wife, journalist Joy Press – what was it like to write „as one“? (Given that the book is 17 years old this seems like a very cool gender-bending project!) And why didn´t you do it again?

It was very enjoyable. We came up with the idea together during one long conversation after a dinner with a friend who brought along a musician friend, then in quite a well known underground noise band. And this musician told a sick joke, seemingly to test how cool we were. The joke was: “What’s the worse thing about raping a six year old? Having to kill her afterwards.”  We failed the cool test. 

Afterwards Joy and I got to talking about why so many bands at that time had songs about killing women, and we initially envisaged writing a book about misogyny in rock. But then it seemed more interesting and ambitious to look at all aspects of gender in rock, from more mystical and positive views of women in men’s song, to women’s own representations. 

There was never any doubt that it would be a joint project, we conceived it together. Initially we were a little worried that the stress of doing such a big work – and all the practicalities and tensions of collaboration --would affect our marriage, but apart from a few arguments about specific artists, it was a great time for us. We had a project and a focus and looking back I’m not sure how else we would have spent our time during those two years. Probably gone to a lot of movies and art museums and so forth.  It was a huge amount of work and we could easily have spent several more years working on it, but the money ran out and so we had to speed it up! We wanted to get it out quickly too because it felt timely: there was a lot of female stuff going on in rock, from PJ Harvey to the “Angry Women” (Hole, etc) to Riot Grrl and Liz Phair.  

My only regret about that book is that it was so time consuming doing the Sex Revolts that it was taking me away from my new passion, which was the rave scene.

“The Sex Revolts” was and still is very important for any feminist rock/pop critic – do you think that there were many changes during the last two decades concerning women´s appearances in the pop business?

Obviously if we were to do it now there would a whole bunch of major figures that would have to be dealt with, and would probably alter the way the book divides things into categories. Everything from the Spice Girls and the mainstreaming of the “grrrl” idea, to Lady Gaga.  The R&B divas and female hip hop artists: Missy Elliott, Beyonce, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj. In underground rock you have the rise of synthesiser solo artists like Maria Minerva, Julia Holter, Laurel Halo, etc, and also figures like Grimes and LA Vampires. And many more… 

However many of these new artists fit into the archetypes and strategies that we described in the Sex Revolts. For instance Gaga is a development of the  Madonna approach to reinvention of personae and a revelling in posing and artifice.  The R&B divas are a development of the strong woman archetype. And so forth.

One thing the book doesn’t deal with is gayness in music, which is a big omission but we felt that the topic was a book in itself, and possibly not one we were qualified to write about. But perhaps if we were to do it now, we would feel like we had to deal with that in some way, because gay performers are more and more prominent.

Not a female performer, but Odd Future, the rap group, would be a rich subject, in terms of songs about killing women and the twisted negativity and sick humour of young men. At the same time one of their crew is a lesbian and their associate Frank Ocean recently came out as gay. So clearly a complex outfit.

After re-reading “The Sex Revolts” I was wondering why you do not mention Blondie and Debbie Harry – why? (a very personal question as I´m a big fan of the band´s early records – and Debbie Harry was a role model for me as a child… J)

I’m not sure how she slipped through the cracks. I really like Blondie also. At the start of her career she was considered a punk, this tough women from New York who was relatively old and experienced compared with other punks. She managed to keep some of that edge even as she became a glamour queen and Blondie’s music got more glossy and commercial.  Yes, Debbie is an omission, but equally, there are quite a few important figures left out of The Sex Revolts or passed over quickly. Unless you want to do an encyclopaedic treatment of the subject, that’s always going to happen.

What makes you a feminist (or would you call yourself one)?

Definitely I would identify as a male feminist.  It’s partly through life experience and seeing the things my mother had to deal with. It also comes from reading Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch at an early age, and then reading other feminist works like The Dialectic of Sex by Shulamith Firestone, who died recently.  

I think even without those inspirations from real life and from reading books, though, I would probably have absorbed feminism from the postpunk culture I grew up with.  It was a big current in music at the time, with groups like The Slits, The Raincoats, Delta 5, Au Pairs, and it informed a lot of the music writing I grew up with in the UK music papers, particularly the NME, which was quite “right on” as we used to say in those days. Certainly an awareness of sexism and also of the mutability of gender was very much in the air.

I was also very interested in androgyny, in part because of an interest in the Sixties and the counterculture, but also that seemed a big part of music in the early Eighties - -there was a lot of sexually ambiguous male performers around, a kind of “new glam” spirit.

I should also mention that feminism was strengthened and expanded for me by friends I made at university, especially a woman called Hilary Little - who now goes by the name Hilary Bichovsky - who becamepart of the team of people who did the magazines Margin and Monitor, which was where my first public forays into writing about pop culture took place. The Monitor crew was a tight group of friends and kindred spirits, and a lot of ideas were explored, among them radical feminist ideas.

“Retromania” (which is finally translated into German) deals with the phenomenon that pop culture / pop music constantly refers to and reproduces itself while still promising to create something totally new. Which kind of female retro-models would you define?

I don’t know if there is a particular gender angle to retromania, although it does seem to be the case that the more chronic kinds of record collector are male. A lot of the obsessive curating and archiving of the past seems to be done by men.

Looking at most of the people I critique for retromaniac tendencies in the book, they tend to be male artists. Although I do critique the Amy Winehouse/Duffy/Adelle school of soul revival – white British females of the 2000s who want to sound like black American females of the 1960s.

Another female perpetrator is La Roux, with her Eighties synthpop. I quite like “In For the Kill” and her general aura of sullen bitterness. But musically it’s a replay of the Eighties.

When it comes to female pop music role models it´s always and always again good old Madonna with her ever-new-creation of herself. Are there any female singers and/or musicians you´d wish they would get the same public and media attention?

There’s loads of interesting groundbreaking figures in music history that deserve to get more attention. Kate Bush could always do with more love. Grace Slick. Siouxsie Sioux has been a little bit forgotten, but what an amazing force she was, hugely influential. 

As a music journalist you´re working in a very male-dominated area – do you sometimes wish there were more women writing about pop music? Like Ellen Willis?

Yes. There could definitely be more in the way of gender parity. However having worked at a music magazine as the reviews editor, I can attest that part of the problem is that not enough women approach the magazines in the first place.  I think for every female writer that send in sample reviews in the hope of getting to write for the magazine, there were five or six letters from aspiring male writers.  Maybe more. Now that may be because men are more pushy. It may be a circular, self-perpetuating process where because women don’t see that many female by-lines in a magazine, they don’t think there’s a place for them there. But at Spin, where I worked for a year in 1998, we were very conscious of the need to get more female writers in and that meant actually searching for them. So I would look in small magazines or fanzines for female talent and track writers down.

When and why did you start writing about music? Do you remember? Would you describe yourself as a rather nerdy type of guy?

I wanted to be a writer first, being a music journalist came much later. My parents are both journalists and I grew up in a literate household, as a child I read a great deal. What I wanted to write at any given point was based on what I was into. When I was into science fiction, I wanted to write science fiction novels. When I was into Monty Python, I wanted to write that kind of surreal comedy. And then when I got into music, and discovered the music press, it seemed like a field of action. An arena where you could write about almost anything, in terms of politics or philosophy or whatever, using music as a prism. And you could write in a very free style.

I wouldn’t describe myself as nerdy – I’m not particularly good with technology or computers, I enjoy physical activities and outdoor things. But I was a book-worm as a youth and I did spend a lot of time indoors, reading and writing and drawing and thinking and dreaming. And listening too.  I was introspective and still am to some extent. 

You´re going on a book tour through Germany presenting “Retromania” – are you nervous or do you feel comfortable talking about your favourite subject (pop music)?

I’ve done a lot of public appearances now and so I’ve got pretty comfortable with it. I can riff out ideas pretty easily in front of a group of strangers. That is one of the more enjoyable aspects of doing public events and tours, the question time when you are asked things you’re not expecting. You have to come up with ideas on the spur of the moment and often I surprise myself with new thoughts that I would never have had otherwise.

Is pop music still relevant – or has it lost its furor / has been replaced by other things like tv series or computer games? (There may be a difference between young people and older ones, like me)

It’s still relevant – I think as long as people want to dance and as long as people fall in love, have relationship problems, feel alienated or restless or uncertain – music will fulfil that function, it will produce songs that resonate and heal.  But certainly rock and pop music do not seem to have the same privileged and central role in the wider culture that they did in the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and even still the Nineties. Other things like games, social media, Internet communities, apps, gadgets like smartphones, iPads and so forth – these seem to be what have caught the imagination of the young generation.  My son is just about to turn 13 and he is all about games and online communities and movie-maker programs and YouTube oriented stuff.  He likes music but it is a relatively small area of interest, something he hears on the radio or in the background of games. I can’t imagine him ever buying music. But who knows, when he becomes a proper adolescent and has hormone-driven emotions and starts to question things, maybe music will become more important to him.  I do think that music has undeniably become demoted in the scheme of things. It used to be the centre of youth culture and popular culture, now it is just one of a number of zones that include movies, games, TV, social media. Todays pop stars try to become transmedia stars as soon as they can, move into movies and other areas of popular culture.

Your female favourite bands/musicians/singer/songs and why:

The Slits, for their exuberance and oddness.

Poly Styrene of X Ray Spex, for the power and the great, funny lyrics

Throwing Muses, for the passion and the vivid imagery.

Kate Bush, for being a pioneer.

Siouxsie Sioux, such a searing voice, such a mesmerising presence.

The Raincoats, for their ragged splendour and charm.

Electronic music and musique concrete pioneers like Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, Lily Greenham, Laurie Spiegel, Pauline Oliveros, Ruth White, Daria Semegen, and more.

There’s many more – Grace Slick, Salt N Pepa, Missy Elliott, Delta 5, Aaliyah, Liz Fraser of Cocteau Twins, PJ Harvey, Nicki Minaj, Grace Jones, Chrissie Hynde, Mica Levi of Micachu and the Shapes, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson in the B-52s, Debbie Harry, Clair Grogan of Altered Images, Annabella Lwin in Bow Wow Wow, Tina Weymouth in Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club…

Songs and movies that make you cry and why (not necessarily by women):

Just a few songs, because otherwise I’ll be here all day:

“There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” by the Smiths

I have actually been moved to tears by “Autobahn” and “Trans-Europe Express” and other songs by Kraftwerk – not because they are particularly sad but just the sheer splendor and majesty of the music. On my last book tour of Germany, I got to play “Autobahn” on an actual autobahn, while watching all those  electricity-generating windwills  go past, and I did get teary eyed.

Movies – too many to list really. But one is Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout, which is partly because the film is poignant and beautiful but also because of John Barry’s soundtrack.  The last time I saw the film was at a special screening of the reissued and restored version at a theater in New York. Afterwards I had to hurry out of the theater and find a quiet place to pull myself together.  The combination of the movie and the music destroyed me.


Another film that has a devastating effect on me is The Dream Life of Angels. The second time I saw it was when I had come back from a club and was slightly drunk and  vulnerable, and it happened to be on TV. I had forgotten how it ends and  so when the terribly sad ending came - and it comes really quick -  I was taken by surprise and really shattered. I actually felt like bashing my brains out against the wall.  

In some ways it is pleasing to know that art can have that kind of effect on you. One of the definitions of art is that it is a bad experience - -painful or disturbing-- that you voluntarily put yourself through. A book or movie where what happens actually hurts you.   

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Dubstep, Noise, Metal - Pazz 'n ' Jop 2006 Essay

Dubstep, Noise, Metal - Pazz 'n ' Jop 2006 Essay

published as
"Reasons To Be Cheerful (Just Three)"
Village Voice, January 30th 2007

by Simon Reynolds

Discussed:
Mastadon, Blood Mountain, #44
Boris, Pink, #76
Burial, #89
Wolf Eyes, Human Animal, #297

This year it felt like everyone I knew—  - people of widely divergent musical persuasions— - were for once strangely united. We thought 2006 was a lousy year for music, with no new movements or developments, genres stagnant or at best just stolidly holding steady, the picture brightened (as always) only by isolated flickers of maverick genius. Running into one rock-crit friend (usually a poptimistic sort) and finding him even more bummed out than me, I blogged that here was conclusive proof that verily, all was shite. Only to find me and my buddy called out for our "pure laziness" by another journo-blogger, Phil Freeman, who contended that "barge-loads of fantastic music" were happening beneath the critical radar, most of it "METAL." As the end-of-year polls started coming through, it seemed that the only folk feeling positive about the State of Music were the über-hipsters, those nonlazy fiends who dedicate every waking hour to hunting down edition-of-200 hand-decorated cassettes and lathe-cut vinyl. Said fiends touted three reasons to be cheerful in 2006: noise, dubstep, and yes, metal.

What's striking about all these genres is that they're not just unpop, they're anti-pop. Rejecting the pop principles of accessibility and instantness, they're hard to find and hard to get into. Noise, dubstep, and extreme metal are also hard sounding, mixing varying degrees of aggression and abstraction, physical impact and structural convolution. Ideologically, they are ultra-rockist, cherishing a trinity of interlocking values—difficulty, danger, darkness—and fervently upholding the ideal of underground versus mainstream.

Pazz's electorate tilt more toward generalists than genre-rists, so this dark 'n' hard shift hasn't registered as seismically as it has elsewhere. But something is going on when "hipster metal" faves Mastodon enter the Top 50 out of nowhere, while the hugely acclaimed debut by dubstepper Burial makes it to 89 as an import. Beyond this poll, you can see the shift in everything, from the sales figures for doom-metal gods Boris (they've already sold twice as many of 2006's Pink as of 2005's Akuman No Uta, while their label, Southern Lord, enjoyed its best year yet) to the fact that Manhattan hipster temple Mondo Kim's now has a metal section, albeit cunningly rebranded as "aggressive." Noise remains some ways below the generalist critic's radar (Wolf Eyes' Human Animal just cracked the Pazz Top 300, despite being on Sub Pop), but the excitement around that scene continues to build.

One reason these underground scenes are gaining ground could be that they are all "reality-based communities." We live in cold, dark times, and these genres register that coldness and darkness—seldom in a directly politicized way, but more often through allegory or abstract sonic atmospheres. The most hipster-favored style of metal is doom, as purveyed by Boris, Electric Wizard, Om, and Sunn O))), a genre founded on the down-tuned riffs and depressive vibes of Black Sabbath, whose "War Pigs" has horribly renewed applicability today. Dubstep, crudely defined as a slowed-down descendant of drum'n'bass, is plastered all over the soundtrack to Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón's dystopian movie set in London 20 years in the future (but like all science fiction, a displaced version of contemporary anxieties). Strangely, noise—for all its harrowing din and album titles like Black Vomit—is the most cheery of the three undergrounds. Shedding its industrial past, it's no longer so much about a "truthful" depiction of reality (as unremitting horror) as pure sensory overload and Dionysian mayhem. This de-industrialized noise has started to overlap with metal, a shift captured by Wolf Eyes' self-description as "it's noise, but it's rock" and by the U.K. noise mag Rock-A-Rolla —a title surely more suited to a French fanzine for leather-pants-wearing Stooges fans.

Another anti-pop aspect to these netherworlds of hard 'n' dark is the sheer physicality of the sounds. All low-frequency drone and trudge-tempo sludge, doom metal is a sort of visceral mood music, midway between assault and ambience. Dubstep's sub-bass impacts your viscera (there's actually a subgenre nicknamed wobble-step after its tremolo basslines), and noise immerses the listener in a hideously voluptuous sound-bath. All three styles are heard at their utmost in live performance or (with dubstep) DJ'd through a mighty sound system. A good stereo cranked high in a lights-off living room (bong optional) makes for a poor second best. It's pretty pointless hearing this stuff through your computer speakers, let alone an iPod. Modern pop production is mixed to work with the thin-bodied sound of MP3s and is often seemingly composed to end up as ringtones; "placeshifting"—the portability and import-ability of music—is the dominant paradigm. But noise, dubstep, and metal all resist this notion of consumer empowerment that only serves to disempower Art.

Did I mention weed? Dubstep, with its links to reggae's sound-system culture, its ponderous "half-step" rhythms, and sheer bass-weight, is obviously a stoner scene, while doom metal signposts its pot penchant with titles like Electric Wizard's Dopethrone. Both genres use trance-inducing repetition and ascetic minimalism to create a meditational vibe often described by fans as spiritual. (It seems telling that one member of doom pioneers Sleep, the precursor group to Om, left to enter a monastery.) In true burnout style, nobody in these scenes bothers too much with appearance: The doom dudes tend to be bearded fuglies, the noiseniks often look like they crawled out of a sewer, and dubsteppers are mostly whey-faced British boys in nondescript street wear. Nobody even knows what Burial looks like (except his label, Hyperdub). These underground sound-boys and noise-girls reject modern pop's subordination to the visual, its iconographic culture oriented around photo shoots and videogenic charisma.

A few years ago hipsters of the sort now rocking Kode 9 and Corrupted enjoyed flirting with mainstream pop, putting a Justin Timberlake or Tweet album, a "Toxic" or a "Yeah," in their Top 10s. But the palpable shift back to undergroundist values has been facilitated by the fact that overground pop is not coming up with the goods at the moment. Oh, you still get lone loonies claiming merit for Paris Hilton's CD while conscientious generalists urge us to check out modern country, but overall there's been a return to a default-mode rockism that prizes substance, complexity, edge. If TV on the Radio and Joanna Newsom represent the beguiling, easy-on-the-ear version of those values, those looking for a harder hit are turning to metal, dubstep, noise.

And there's much to admire about those renegade genres: the seriousness, the earnest aspiration to innovate and overwhelm, the sheer strenuousness and commitment entailed in being a fan. Yet personally I'm ambivalent about all three. (Most of my 2006 faves have a pop tinge: Scritti, Hot Chip, Lady Sovereign.) Noise in particular seems suspect to me, its belief in absolute states of intensity often leading to a sort of aesthetic fascism. Occasionally its impulse to shock and offend leads to puerile flirtations with the political sort, too. To be fair, such dodgy provocations are rarer these days, with noise operators like Yellow Swans and Sunroof more often seeing what they do in terms of chaos worship and ecstatic abstraction. Still, even this equation of lack-of-structure with freedom seems slightly pat and old hat. Dubstep really ought to be right up my exiled-Londoner's street, being the latest product of the city's pirate radio culture. But too much of what I loved about its post-rave precursors has been subtracted: jungle's frenzy, 2step's slinky sensuality, the personality of grime.

And then there's metal. There's a tiny part of me that can't help thinking that if hipsters are looking here for nourishment, things have gotten really desperate. Then I remember I actually have liked some metal myself. As a Sabbath lover and fan of the original doom crew Saint Vitus, it's the slow-and-low end of the current spectrum that hits me: Om's mystical and incantatory Conference of the Birds (like Saint Vitus meets Black Sun Ensemble maybe) and Boris— 0 the latter especially when they don't sound like yet another Japanese homage to Blue Cheer but go into ambient mode, as with much of Altar, their 2006 collaboration with Sunn O))). Other doom exponents tend to sound a bit like Saint Vitus screwed-and-chopped. Beyond the low-frequency quagmire, Pelican seem overly fussy, while Mastodon, consummate in their way, are hardly pushing the metal genre beyond itself.

As a post-punk kid who lived through the blithering idiocy of the new wave of British heavy metal (Iron Maiden, et al), it's hard to shake one's ingrained prejudices completely. Yet it's also true that if the ideals of post-punk live anywhere today, it's in metal. Just check out the world of "real metal," which overlaps and subsumes "hipster metal," but is much vaster and much dafter. The bands featured in magazines like Terrorizer and Decibel are conceptualist and progression-oriented to nutty degrees, at times so serious they're hard to take seriously. The premium set on formal innovation has resulted in sub-generic splintering that surpasses even the hair-splitting neologists and taxonomists of electronic dance culture: goregrind, tech-grind, prog-grind, sludge, drone, crust, brutal death metal (as opposed to technical death metal and melodic death metal), and power metal, and we haven't even touched on the dozen flavors of doom (including funereal doom, stoner doom, gothic doom, and my favorite, retro doom). Extreme metal is a world where 42-minute tracks (often devolving into long stretches of ambient noise) are just standard business, where bands compose concept albums about the Black Death or embark on bizarre postmodern projects of meta-metal that entail cloning Carcass's pioneering sound by studying the group's riff structures with Talmudic intensity. All this fervent experimentalism and genre-splicing makes the overtly post-punk-aligned revivalists of the last several years look like the lightweights they truly are. Of them all, only Liars could qualify for a feature in Terrorizer.


Metal's rise to the forefront of hipster consciousness seems symbolic. If all art aspires to the condition of music, then you might say that all art-music vanguards now aspire to the condition of metal. Recruiting a fresh crop of "soldiers of darkness" each year, metal represents a model of subcultural stamina over the long haul (while also holding the possibility of erupting into the mainstream every seven years or so). If noise and dubstep don't envy metal's infrastructural stability and the fanatical loyalty it commands, they should.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Elvis Costello

ELVIS COSTELLO AND THE ATTRACTIONS
Blood and Chocolate
Melody Maker, September 13th 1986 

by Simon Reynolds

Another one?! So soon?! How much quality product can a body digest in a single year?

Elvis Costello is undone by his own prolific stamina and consistency. A month ago I made an unlikely comparison between Costello and Cabaret Voltaire: the shared problem of routine brilliance. The possibility of his surprising us recedes because of his prior accumulated excellence. Each time, it becomes steadily more difficult to argue that you NEED another Costello record. But his fans aren't buying "surprise" anyway. Costello services a stable demand for one sure voice of sanity and compassion. It's a matter of keeping the faith.

Equally, it becomes less and less plausible to present Costello as the thorn in pop's flesh, a radical intrusion of intelligence, simply because these days he barely interacts with pop at all. Costello, all of us in fact, inhabit a little world that's drifted apart from the mainstream, a world whose parameters are night-time radio and the music press. "Progessive pop" occupies a different space to pop altogether, perhaps equivalent to that occupied by literature 50 years ago. Nothing is in jeopardy.

Everything valuable about Costello — craft, dignity, content, depth — actually disqualifies him from the pop race. Pop was always meant to be surface flash, rupture, contrivance, a spree of strangeness — not good work and firm conscience. Everything about POP! should be capable of absorption within a matter of moments. With Costello, you have to work.

So here comes a fresh glut of WORDS — a round of media hagiography, no doubt, plus a mass of artfully tangled statements for us to decipher. These days, when Elvis speaks out, the result is a prolix, purple sprawl of place names and mixed metaphors, leaving only the vague impression that he's pointing the finger at something. Much more useful are the more private songs, like "I Want You", a stark, extended gasp of choked longing.

Elsewhere, Costello's writing seems to increase in opacity as he turns over and over his familiar concerns — domestic deceit, doomed relationships, bread and circuses, the hegemony of the trivial and the tawdry. You come to wish he'd be less zealous in his anxiety to avoid insulting our intelligence

[portion of review missing here]


But such dissent seems destined to remain isolated and contained. No matter how he struggles to shake up the settled state of his career — this year's peculiar gambit of "murdering" the Costello persona — Elvis Costello is doomed to make only big splashes in a small pond, our pond. "Hang The Deejay" could well have been Elvis Costello's very own anthem.



Elvis Costello / Martin Amis
Arena, 1991
by Simon Reynolds

Listening to his new album, "Mighty Like A Rose", I had an abrupt insight: Elvis Costello is the Martin Amis of pop. For the people who don't read many books and/or don't listen to many albums anymore, Amis and Costello are the only ones left who dare to go for the grand, over-arching vision of our time. They take the pulse of the age and diagnose the malaise. Nobody else has the ambition or temerity to take on this task, which is why Amis/Costello are seen, by some, as saving graces and solitary saviours.
   
Amis has made two magnum opus stabs at encapsulating the shittiness of the Eighties in "Money" and "London Fields", with their Dickensian anti-heroes John Self and Keith Talent: repulsive incarnations of the era, pimples on the zeitgeist's backside. Costello, too, has been lunging for the Big Picture's jugular for over a decade. Songs like "Pills and Soap", "Beyond Belief" and "Tokyo Storm Warning" are dystopian panoramas in the tradition of Dylan's  "Desolation Row". His albums are cross-sections of a diseased British body politic, drawing the dots between personal and political squalor, between the husband's brutal fists and the election-winning war ("Armed Forces" was originally titled "Emotional Fascism"). 

 Against this backdrop of degraded private and public language, Amis and Costello dramatise themselves as solitary bulwarks against the "moronic inferno" of popular culture. Amis flinches and shudders at the masturbatory nature of 'remote control' culture (TV, porn, video games). Costello has perennially diatribed against the 'bread and circuses' of tabloid culture, the "chewing gum for the ears" of conveyor belt pop. On his new album, "The Other Side Of Summer" is a predictably vituperative blast against rave culture:  "the dancing was desperate, the music was worse". In Costello's jaundiced eyes, the post-Aciiied scene is merely a culture of consolation, an anaesthetic/amnesiac refuge from an intolerable reality. "Invasion Hit Parade" similarly dramatises Costello as one of the few who refuse to collaborate with the new regime of "non-stop Disco Tex and the Sexolettes".

 For Amis/Costello, one of the reasons the world is in such a state is precisely because no one reads books or listens to albums anymore - or at least the kind of books and the kind of albums that tell you what a state the world is in (precisely the kind they write/record). Both mourn the disappearance of depth in a world of surfaces, slogans and cliches, the withering of attention spans thanks to blip culture. For Amis, the role of the author has been usurped by soap opera, gutter press, even style mags. For Costello, the problem is the decline of the songwriter in the face of a pop culture organised around videos, 12" remixes, the sampler and the dee-jay. In the embattled Amis/Costello worldview, the kind of reader they demand is an endangered species: people who've absorbed a lot of literature, who are schooled in the rock canon, and are thus well-versed enough to get the references that riddle the Amis/Costello ouevre. The prospect of a 'disliterate' population (technically literate, but who never bother to read anything) or, in Costello's case, a rock culture no longer based around the reverential interpretation of lyrics, is terrifying. A future based around TV/video/12 inch rather than novel/album bodes a nightmare world of emotional illiterates, like John Self in "Money" who doesn't have the self-analytical skills to know why he's fucked up, or the teenage girl in "The Other Side of Summer" who's "crying cos she doesn't look like like a million dollars", but "doesn't seem to have the attention span" to work out how media and advertising have messed with her mind.

 In the Amis/Costello universe, stuff is always dying: love, language, truth, the planet are all on their last legs. America has a particularly diabolic status; it's the leading edge of the apocalypse, the original "moronic inferno". The replacement of politics by advertising, the castration of rock'n'roll, a junk culture where porn is the biggest grossing leisure industry, mugging, yuppies, MTV - you name it, the US trailblazed it. Amis and Costello document a Britain slowly succumbing to the crappiest aspects of US mass culture but without the space and the naivete that is America's saving grace. In America, the born-to-run reflex is a safety valve for class antagonisms: people just move on. In Britain, rage festers and turns to bile. Amis/Costello have a vivid grip on the stuffiness of English culture: Amis is good on the modern British pub, stuck between the  fustiness of tradition and the plastic tackiness of the future. Costello could have been a Springsteen, but, growing up in more confined circumstances, became a poet of claustrophobia rather than of wide open spaces.

In their early days, both Costello and Amis were regarded as bitter and twisted misanthropes. Costello talked of how he only understood two emotions, "revenge and guilt"; Amis was reknowned for stories that left a bad taste in the mouth. Although both have mellowed somewhat with age, matured into a more compassionate and humanist outlook, their forte is still the banality of evil and the evil of banality: portraits of bastards, brutes, cheats and crushed inadequates, vividly etched with an insider's insight into what makes a shit tick. Revealingly, neither of them can "do" women. Whether manipulative or manipulated, their female characters are ciphers. Nicola Six, the 'heroine' of "London Fields" is even compared to a black hole, the ultimate misogynist metaphor for the femme fatale/vagina dentata.

But ultimately this misogyny is just a facet of a generally misanthropic worldview. Amis and Costello belong to a peculiarly British strain of the satirical imagination, a tradition that includes Evelyn Waugh, the Ealing and Boulting Brothers comedies and Private Eye. In this fallen world(view), there are no heroes, only shits and shat upon - an odious, privileged minority and the loathsome, downtrodden multitude. "Good' characters aren't admirable, but despicably unwordly and naive, weak and gullible fools like Guy Clinch, the amorous fall guy in "London Fields".

 Amis and Costello give this black, bilious brand of satire an apocalyptic, fin de siecle twist. "London Fields" was at one stage  entitled "Millenium"; new Costello songs like "Invasion Hit Parade" and "Hurry Up Doomsday" are panoramic panic attacks. Through Amis's  paranoid uppercrust eyes, the Portobello Road is transformed into a  hellzone of lowlife iniquity. Costello's distempered gaze pans across a culture rank with the stench of mendacity, rife with "professional liars" and "perpetual suckers", zombies and bloodsuckers. Like all apocalyptic visions, the Amis/Costello worldview is prone to overstatement, over-ripe imagery, a certain stylistic overkill. And one problem always looms for the professional prophet of doom: how to keep on upping the apocalyptic stakes. Both Amis and Costello's future would seem wedded to further deterioration of the social fabric, to the continued viability of 'The End'.

While "Mighty Like A Rose" suggests Costello is condemned to spurting exquisitely crafted bile in perpetuity, Amis has taken a sideways step towards an obliquer angle on the Big Picture. His work-in-progress "Time's Arrow" (previewed in Granta 31) borrows its premise from science fiction: the protagonist experiences time running backwards through the eyes of an American doctor called Tod Friendly. This has the salutary effect of making our everyday human procedures and transactions seem eerie and absurd: all power and energy mysteriously originates from the toilet bowl, kind-hearted pimps give money to whores who then squander it on old men, doctors make their patients sick and ambulances rush victims from their hospital beds and painstakingly insert them into wrecked cars. Although the device has been used before in science fiction and comics, Amis does it well: after reading the Granta excerpt, it takes a couple of hours for the uncanny feeling of time running in reverse to wear off.

Abandoning the omniscient, God's eye view for a baffled and bemused first person is a smart move for Amis, and timely too. The judgemental gaze (seeing through facades, looking down on folly) is too sneery and know-it-all for these dazed and confused postmodern times. In rock, fewer and fewer people look to a Big Figure, a Dylan or Lennon, to tell them "what's goin' on"; instead of a counter culture, there's an array of undergrounds orbiting a lost centre. Contemporary literature offers not The Truth, but a plethora of worlds each with their own singular truth, partial glimpses of the Big Picture. Still fatally hung up on the notion of author-as-oracle, Amis and Costello ply their magisterial trade in an ever-expanding void. 

The leading edge in contemporary fiction and music aims to mirror chaos, not offer salvation from it (the kaleidophrenic whirl of Don DeLillo's writing, My Bloody Valentine's neo-psychedelia). But this cutting edge can be hard to grasp for those who cling to an oldfashioned idea of art as reinforcer of values or source of guidance. These people still look for an angry voice of sanity. Deploring the waning of literacy and the craft of songwriting, but lacking the energy to keep up with the state of the art, these middlebrow types look to Amis and Costello for reassurance: firstly, that the culture is still deteriorating; secondly, that they are on the side of righteousness. In reality, they're part of the problem. 

Thursday, July 2, 2015

ambient archaeology




Genealogy of ambient with multiple lines of descent - something I did for Details in 1993. The text / timelines. not the actual design. 



AMBIENT / CHILLOUT thinkpiece /feature package with SEEFEEL, MAIN, STEREOLAB and TELEPATHIC FISH 
Melody Maker, 1993 

by Simon Reynolds

    In '93, 'ambient' is everywhere.  The span of music that 
calls itself 'ambient', or is ambient-tinged, is staggering. 

     In the post-rave zone, there's Aphex Twin, Orbital, 
Bandulu and the Infonet crew, R & S's Apollo offshoot 
(Biosphere, Jam & Spoon), Sandoz, Psychick Warriors Ov Gaia, 
and the triumvirate of Peter Namlook/Dr Atmo/Mixmaster 
Morris.  In a post-Orb stylee, there's the sometimes beatific 
(Original Rockers, Higher Intelligence Agency), mostly boring 
'ambient dub' on the Beyond label.  And there's a yawning and 
yawnsome expanse of "electronic easy listening" (Sven Vath, 
Future Sound Of London, the Recycle Or Die label etc) - 
pseudo-mystic bilge that you too could cobble together, with 
some bird-song samples, 'cosmic' synth-sounds, a 24 track 
studio and a spliff. 

     On the post-indie front, there's Stereolab's muzak-of- 
the-spheres; the ice-olationist tundra-scapes of Main, Thomas 
Koner, Ice, Scorn and Lull; the post-MBV locked grooves of 
Seefeel and Moonshake; the post-Eno art-rock of Papa Sprain 
and Bark Psychosis.  And if you really want to stretch the 
definition a bit, you could add the sampladelic Spector of 
Saint Etienne too. 

     So what does it mean to align yourself with 'ambient' 
these days?  Rock starts to take on an ambient tinge almost 
as soon as it departs from 'naturalistic' recording, the 
simulation of a live band.  If you go down the path of using 
the studio-as-instrument, what Eno called the creation of a 
"fictional psycho-acoustic space", chances are that you'll 
finish up making ambient. 

     In some ways, ambient is the ultimate destination of the 
psychedelic impulse. Technically, in that psychedelia 
pioneered stereo and the illusion of spatial dimension; 
spiritually, in that ambience is the heavenly end of the 
psychedelic trip. Where acid rock plunges into into the 
cosmic beyond, ambient is more like treading water, drifting 
in cosmic/oceanic womb-space. For instance, Spacemen 3 
started out trance-rocky, then got progressively more ambient 
and nirvanic ("Playing With Fire", Spectrum and 
Spiritualized).  The blurry zone between psychedelia and 
ambient is a bit like the way abstract art is always on the 
verge of lapsing into mere decorative art (in rock terms, 
think of the way MBV evolved from the action-painting chaos 
of "Isn't Anything" to the almost ambient placidity and 
prettiness of "To Here Knows When"). 

     The current invocation of 'ambient' as buzzword and 
rallying cry is really a quiet revolt against grunge, a 
nouveau hippy riposte to grunge's punk revivalism. It recalls 
that moment in the late Eighties when former hardcore/noise 
musicians decided it was more radical to whisper rather than 
scream: Cowboy Junkies (who were tres ambient in that they 
recorded in a church), Hugo Largo (who abandoned drum beats 
and riffs), Swan's reverberant offshoot Skin, etc.  The 
ambient impulse is an anti-rock gesture, or rather a 
rewriting of the meaning of rock: rock, as in a cradle 
motion, or rock as in petrified, stoned immaculate.  Ambient 
is un-rock'n'roll because it's built up by layers, whereas 
rock is about jamming: instruments fit together like cogs, 
forming a rhythmic engine that kicks your ass. Ambient is 
kind to your ass. It's sofa rock, Erik Satie's "furniture 
music". 

     For rave musicians, pledging allegiance to 'ambient' is 
a revolt against a different kind of hardcore: manic 
breakbeat-driven 'ardkore, which has alienated droves of 
burned out ravers, encouraging them to abandon speedy E for 
dope.  Ambient techno is dance music for the sedentary, for 
oldsters who want to chill out rather than shake that butt. 

     And the future? Well, the anti-grunge guitar-based 
experimentalists, and the post-rave sampladelic artists seem 
to be merging into a single, seamless continuum of 
progressive music.  I have seen the future, and it's flat on 
its back. 


OPEN MIND/TELEPATHIC FISH: THE AMBIENT TEA PARTY 

    "Basically, what we're trying to create at our events is 
a massive bedroom. After raves, we used to chill out in each 
others' bedrooms. Now we've turned the bedroom into a party." 

     So says Kevin Foakes of Open Mind, the organisation 
behind the 'Telepathic Fish' series of 'ambient tea parties'. 
He and colleagues/flatmates Chantal Passamonte, David Vallade 
and Mario Tracey-Ageura formed Open Mind last summer, after 
becoming disillusioned with rave culture's "harder, faster" 
ethos.  The first party was in their East Dulwich flat, and 
featured DJ-ing by ambient ally Mixmaster Morris of The 
Irresistible Force. It was a huge success, obliging them to 
holding the sequel outside the flat. There've been four so 
far, and the fifth is taking place this Sunday in Brixton 
(for details, see below). Open Mind hope to turn Telepathic 
Fish into a monthly event by Xmas, despite problems in 
finding suitable venues. 

    "Traditional clubs just don't work," say Chantal.  Most 
promoters are interested in people getting overheated so they 
buy overpriced drinks. "We're into tea rather alchohol!". 
The flyer for one event even incorporated a tea bag! 

    So what is an average tea party like? 

    "There's an abundance of mattresses. Lots of soothing 
lights - strictly ultraviolet, no strobes.  Lots of oil 
projectors, computer graphics." Where your standard 'ardkore 
rave is stress-makingly staccato (cut'n'mix beats, epileptic 
strobes), Telepathic Fish is all undulating ebb-and-flow , a 
wombadelic sound-and-light-bath.  The last event was styled 
after a fish-tank, and Sunday's party will boast "deep sea 
decor".  The music ranges from post-Orb ambient to Dead Can 
Dance and Main. And the punters?  Some do floaty dancing, 
most simply get recumbent and spliff up. 

    "We went clubbing a lot last year," says Kevin, "and by 
the end it got so fast, it was like you had to work to have a 
good time." Where 'ardkore's slogans often mimic the language 
of graft and toil ("get busy", "work it up", "shovelling 
tunes"), Open Mind don't like the 'work hard, play harder' 
mentality (where you're a slave to the rush hour, then rush 
your nut off at the weekend).  "People who can afford to go 
to a 15 quid rave have all this aggression to get out of 
their systems from working all week.  The crowd we attract is 
more laidback and bohemian".  The feud between 'ardkore and 
ambient is like the split between the mods, who were 
city-loving, insomniac amphetamine-freaks, and the hippies, 
who were into dope, pastoral indolence and sleep, and 
declared 'speed kills'.  And so Mario will refer derisively 
to "gurning E-heads", while Chantal talks of the ambient 
thing as being "more organic.  Our parties are as close to 
getting it together in the country as you can get in London." 

     Of course, ravers have been chilling-out informally 
since the early days of rave, inventing their own rituals to 
enhance the post-E afterglow and cushion the come-down. 
"People are doing this in their bedrooms all round the 
country," says Chantal. "But we decided to do it for 300, 500 
people, not just 10".  And they're not alone. There are 
similar outfits all over Britain: Sonora in Glasgow, Sunday 
nights 8 til 12; Oscillate in Birmingham, every second 
Friday; London's Zero Gravity (every other Wednesday at 11 
Wardour St) and Dream Time Environment (midnight Friday right 
through to midnight Sunday, at 67, West Yard, Camden Lock). 

    Open Mind have larger ambitions. They're bringing out an 
ambient magazine, Mindfood, whose first issue contains 
articles on Terence McKenna and floatation tanks.  And 
they're linked with an ambient specialist record shop, 
Ambient Soho (5 Berwick St, London).  For idlers, they're 
pretty fucking busy. 

     'Telepathic Fish IV: The Fishing Trip' is this Sunday, 
October 3, from 12 noon to 10 pm, at Cooltan, 372 Coldharbour 
Lane, Brixton. For info, call 081 693 9903 



MAIN 

    Mick Harris, who left Napalm Death to form ambient dub 
terrorists Scorn (plus his own pure ambient side project 
Lull), claims that "if you play early Eno records from the 
70's and turn them up really loud, there's a darker edge to 
it all, it becomes really quite unnerving." It works the 
other way round, too: Gibby the Buttholes once said that if 
you play thrash-metal really quiet, it sounds ambient. 

     It's this zone of un-easy listening over which Main 
currently rule supreme.  Formed by Robert Hampson of Loop, 
Main explore the kind of post-catastrophic soundscapes that 
always seemed the logical aftermath for Loop's apocalyptic 
trance-rock.  Shifting the emphasis from riffs towards 
guitar-generated and environmental timbres, Main owe a fair 
amount to Eno's original ambience, although Robert insists 
"we take it a lot further." 

     Robert's pretty scornful of the current vogue for 
ambient. He's never liked hippies, always preferred the 
proto-punk nihilism of The Stooges or MC5 or the post-punk 
gloom'n'doom of The Pop Group and Mark Stewart.  "I can't go 
along with the hippy attitude, you do need a bit of ugliness 
and confrontation.  'Cos we don't all love each other, we 
don't want to embrace everything." 

     And yet he talks of how Main "want to embrace our 
environment, not retreat from it like ambient techno. Main 
music reflects the way we're surrounded by noise, all the 
hums and buzzes of traffic, planes, road drills, the constant 
clatter you can never really escape".  The band use what The 
Young Gods' called 'urban sonorities": a new track is based 
around a backing drone, "the sound of a main road, processed 
through an effect so that it's sounds really beautiful." 
Robert describes the recent Main instrumental EP "Firmament" 
as "musique concrete dub", reflecting his love of 
drone-theorists like La Monte Young, Terry Riley and 
Karlheinz Stockhausen (Mains' first EP "Hydra" was dedicated 
to the Kraut electro-acoustic composer). 

     Kevin Martin has coined the term 'Isolationist Music' to 
describe the likes of Main. "I dunno about that," says 
Robert. "But I do feel isolated musically.  Rock is getting 
really stale again".  If he has one "comrade in arms", says 
the Main-man, it's Thomas Koner, maker of austerely beautiful 
meditational music, that's often inspired by Antarctica. 
"Emotionally, his music stabbed its mark on me, just the fact 
that such extremely minimal music could stir so many visual 
feelings. I thought 'Nunattak' was the most beautiful thing 
I'd heard in ages.  Then 'Permafrost' took the minimalism to 
its logical extreme." A Main/Koner collaboration looks set to 
happen next year.

     Main's twin EP's "Dry Stone Feed" and "Firmament" are 
out now on Beggars Banquet. 


SEEFEEL 

   "Ambient's lost its definition," reckons Mark Clifford of 
Seefeel. "Now it just means anything that's droney and 
drifting, anything that isn't too bothered about songs. But 
it's good that there's so many different meanings to 
'ambient' now.  The term's either been emptied of meaning, or 
it's been filled up with lots of meanings." 

     Seefeel's billowing bliss-rock tapestries illustrate how 
'ambient' has become a sort of horizon for post-Cocteaus/ 
post-MBV bands, or as Mark puts it, ""any band that want to 
go beyond the constraints of 3 minute punky pop, beyond 
choruses".  So is 'ambient' the final death of punk? 

     "We did a gig where we played one truly ambient piece, 
almost like a whale song, and this old punk shouted 'bring 
back the Sex Pistols'. It seemed such a negative and old- 
fashioned comment. That really inspired us to go even 
further. Anyway, someone like Richard James is modern punk, 
his music has that DIY, lo-fi naivete. That said, most 
ambient techno is really safe and boring." 

     On their latest EP "pure, impure", Seefeel got Aphex to 
remix "Time to Find Me", and a full-fledged collaboration is 
in the pipeline. With "Time to Find Me", Richard James paid 
them a rare compliment, in that, rather than junking almost 
all of the original track as usual (see Curve, Jesus Jones) 
all the sounds he used came from Seefeel's song. 

     Seefeel are also highly influenced by ambient's cousin, 
dub reggae. But does this mean that today's ambient, like 
dub, is 'just' music to get stoned to? 

    "I'd be upset if the only way you could get into Seefeel 
is to get wasted. A lot of the mediocre ambient techno is 
like that. Actually, a good litmus test for ambient is: if 
it's good, you don't need to get stoned to enjoy it". 

     Seefeel's "pure, impure" EP is out now on Too Pure. 
Their debut LP "Quique" is out in late October. 


STEREOLAB 

     The first of Stereolab's two albums of 1993, "Space Age 
Bachelor Pad Music", paid homage to an earlier genre of 
proto-ambient easy listening: the 'exotica' and stereo- 
testing records of the Fifties/early Sixties, artists like 
Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman. 

     "I've been into stereo test, sound effects and Moog 
albums for a while," says the Lab's Tim Gane.  "I like the 
pseudo-scientific language on the sleeves.  Our name actually 
comes from a hi-fi testing label, Stereolab, an offshoot of 
Vanguard.  We liked the name 'Stereolab', cos it's 
yesterday's idea of 'futuristic', but today it seems quaint 
and kitschy.  With Martin Denny & Co, I like the idea of 
taking something that was utilitarian and very much part of a 
specific era, and taking it out of that context so that it's 
this alien music.  Plus, it fucks up the official history of 
rock, the fact that amazing records came out in 1961!" 

     So is 'exotica' a sort of illegitimate father to Eno's 
ambient? "Well, those were the first records designed to make 
you sleep. But Stereolab are more into minimalism than 
straight ambience". By minimalism, Tim means everything from 
John Cage and La Monte Young's Theatre Of Eternal Music to 
the Velvets to Krautrock (he's a big fan of Neu and Cluster's 
"meditative doodling").  Stereolab followed one of the more 
obscure Krautrock tangents by linking up with Nurse With 
Wound, whose Steve Stapleton has a massive archive of German 
avant-rock.  For the recent "Crumb Duck" 10 inch, Stapleton 
Faust-ified a Stereolab song using tape-manipulation 
techniques. 

     Then there was their homage to the grand-daddy of 
ambient, the 7 inch single "John Cage Bubblegum".  "That was 
just a way of saying you can like avant-gardists like Cage 
and you can like bubblegum like The Archies, and you can even 
combine the two.  Because they're both extremes in their own 
way." Similarly, on the 'Bachelor Pad' album, Stereolab's 
titles are meant to evoke imaginary genres that really should 
exist, e.g. "Avant-Garde MOR" . Another fictional genre that 
Gane & Co are currently hatching is 'ambient boogie': "I like 
the idea of taking an almost Status Quo bass-riff but looping 
it, making it just go on." Generally, Gane says the band are 
interested in making "rock music without rock dynamics, no 
solos, just ebb and flow", as on their brill new LP 
"Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements". 

     Stereolab have a peculiar, rarified approach to music - 
they really are like boffins in a soundlab, gene-splicing 
in order to create mutant styles. But so long as the results 
are captivating, who gives a tinker's cuss? 
     Stereolab's latest LP is out now on Duophonic. 


PROPHETIC MOMENTS IN AMBIENT'S EVOLUTION 

JOHN CAGE - "4' 33''" . Erroneously known as 'Silence', 
Cage's composition instructs the pianist to do nothing, 
forcing the audience to listen to the barely audible noises 
of the environment. 

TERRY RILEY - "In C" . A symphony in one note, sifting and 
shifting layers rather than developing melodically. 

JIMI HENDRIX -"1983, A Merman I Should Turn To Be/Moon, Turn 
The Tides...  gently gently away" ("Electric Ladyland, 1969). 

MILES DAVIS - "He Loved Him Madly" ("Get Up With It", 1975). 
Teo Macero's soundscape production is cited by Eno as the 
inspiration for "On Land". 

NEU! - "Leb Wohl" -("Neu! 75).  Krautrockers switch off the 
motorik engine and bask in a seaside idyll. 

KING TUBBY -"King Tubby's Special 1973-1976".  Along with 
Perry, Pablo, Far I etc, this dub-meister paralled Eno in the 
use of echo to create spatial, sacrosant, meditational music. 

JON HASSELL -"Dream Theory In Malaya" LP (1981).  Trumpeter 
pal of Eno's and pioneer of "Fourth World" ethnodelia. 

JAN GARBAREK - "Paths, Prints" LP (1982). Or anything else on 
cooler-than-thou jazz label, ECM (motto: "the most beautiful 
sound next to silence"). 

BRIAN ENO - "On Land" LP (1982).  Uncle Bri's ambient 
pinnacle: no pitches, just timbres, plus sounds of sticks, 
stones, and insects. 

ARTHUR RUSSELL -"Let's Go Swimming" (1987). Aqua-funk by NY 
avant-gardist who loved disco's hynpnotic repetition. 

MY BLOODY VALENTINE -"Instramental" (bonus 7inch with "Isn't 
Anything", 1988).  Erik Satie-esque glide guitar drifts like 
a disconsolate ghost over junglistic hip hop beats. 



RECENT PARAGONS OF AMBIENT 

POM MI RU - "Koh Tao" (from Infonet CD comp. "Beyond the 
Machines").  Bandalu + hippy guitarist = pastoral bliss. 

THE IRRESISTIBLE FORCE - "Flying High" LP (Rising High) 

THOMAS KONER - "Permafrost" LP (Baroni) 
Wanna chill out? Try these hypothermic wastelands. 

METALHEADS - "Angel" (Synthetic 12").  Ambient ardkore?! 
Hyped up jungle beats collide with lush, languishing jazz- 
tinged melancholia worthy of David Sylvian's "Gone to Earth". 

ORIGINAL ROCKERS -"The Underwater World of Jah Cousteau" 
(from 'Ambient Dub II', Beyond). Oceanic dub: Zion = 
Atlantis. 

PETE NAMLOOK -"Air" LP (Rising High) 

SANDOZ - "Digital Lifeforms" LP (Touch) 




Ambient the Buzzword of 1993 
Christmas 1993 overview mini-essay
Melody Maker, December 1993

by Simon Reynolds


    Aphex Twin's "Selected Ambient Works 1985-92" wasn't just the
most sheerly beautiful album of '93, it was also the most
significant. It signalled a Zeitgeist-shift, pointing the way to a
whole new future.  First, by being so accomplished, it gave credibility
to the then emergent genre of ambient techno (a.k.a intelligent
techno, electronic listening music etc). It singlehandedly won over
many indie fans who hadn't really listened to much techno, thus
encouraging them to seek out more.  Second, it's had a profound
effect on the more progressive elements in British indie-rock, the
results of which will really BLOSSOM next year.  The fact that bands
as diverse as Curve, Jesus Jones, Saint Etienne and Seefeel rushed
to submit their songs to Richard James' remix-mutilation showed how
keen the smarter indie popsters are to get in on the NEW THING.
     
"Selected Ambient" and James' other releases (Polygon Window's
"Surfing On Sine Waves", AFX's "Analogue Bubblebath 3" etc) weren't
the only proof that techno has matured into an aesthetically (and
commercially) viable album-based genre.  There were splendid
offerings from Sandoz, Orbital, Bandulu, Reload, Black Dog, Pete
Namlook, Mixmaster Morris and more.  But inevitably, the ambient boom
has also opened the floodgates for a deluge of mediocre spliff-and-
sofa muzak (B12, Sven Vath and droves more Vangelis-with-a-beat
types).  Another dubious development was 'ambient dub': sometimes
wonderfully spacey (Higher Intelligence Agency, Original Rockers),
more often vaporously insipid sub-Orb stuff.  Like trance, ambient
techno has reached something of a dead end; hopefully the sharper
operators will step sideways into more interesting territory.  Aphex
Twin's long-awaited sequel "Selected Ambient Works 2" - a double-CD
of sombre minimalism and music concrete sound-paintings -will blow a
lot of the competition out of the water.

     As for the indie avant-garde, 'ambient' is useful as a loose
umbrella term for any band that deploys the studio-as-instrument and
sampling in order to imagine some kind of FUTURE for rock (one that
doesn't rely on blues-rock riffs, glam postures or punky-pop
choruses).  Perhaps the most techno-affiliated of these bands were
Insides and Seefeel (who actually linked up with Aphex on the sublime
"pure, impure" EP).  Both bands demote the guitar to just another
iridescent thread in their swoony tapestry of sampled and sequenced
sound.  Disco Inferno ditched their axes for samplers, while the
art/cosmic rock of Bark Psychosis and Papa Sprain is also ambient-
tinged.  On two superb 1993 LP's, "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music" and
"Transient Random Noise Bursts", Stereolab explored the unlikely
links between early 60's muzak and late 60's drone-rock (Velvets, La
Monte Young).  The 'Lab also imagined 'impossible' but desirable
genres like "Avant-Garde MOR" and "John Cage Bubblegum".  Other bands
took Eno's legacy in a chilling, as opposed to chill-out, direction.
This "isolationist music" or "uneasy listening" ranges from Ice and
Scorn's post-apocalyptic dub-metal, to Main and Thomas Koner's
lustrous, meditational soundscapes.

     The upshot of all this is that British avant-rock and left-field
dance are coalescing into a single, seamless vanguard of progressive
music.  The zone in which they commingle is the fertile hinterland
between the dreampop of MBV, A.R. Kane and 4AD (so many techno
artists cite the Cocteaus as an influence!), the
Kraftwerk/Detroit/Warp techno lineage, and dub reggae's echo-drenched
expanses.  The resultant halcyon, herbalistic sound is the fulfilment
of Erik Satie's fantasy of "furniture music": sound that enhances and
tints your life like a fragrance.

     "Ambient" is the rallying cry of those in revolt against two
different kinds of 'hardcore'. For indie-rockers, it's a revolt
against grunge (hardcore punk gone metallic and bluesy); for techno-
heads, it's a revolt against 'ardkore's manic frenzy.  After the
false start of 1991's ambient house craze, chill-out clubs and events
made a comeback this year, thanks to outfits like London's Open Mind.
The latter are responsible for the 'Telepathic Fish' parties:
"massive bedrooms", strewn with mattresses and bathed in wombing
lights, where burned-out ravers recline, spliff up and mellow out.
Open Mind's DJ's mix Irresistible Force and Pete Namlook with Main
and Dead Can Dance.  Where grunge offers crude catharsis and ardkore
ravers find release through going mental at the weekend, the ambient
response to our increasingly grim, anxiety-wracked world is to seek
refuge in a sacro-sanctuary of sensuously spiritual sound.  Ambient
caresses where grunge/ardkore concusses.  (That said, one of the most
interesting developments of late '93 was 'ambient ardkore', bands
like Metalheads and Foul Play who fuse jungle beats and langorous
textures to bizarrely beatific effect.)

   Yes, it's all a bit hippy. Is ambient the final death of punk?
Does quiet music = quietist politics (Stereolab would say no).  Given
given the choice between Rage Against The Machine and soft-machine-

music, though, there's only one response: BLISS ON!



sidepanel to some kind of big feature package on ambient in Melody Maker

In the UK right now, avant-rock and left-field dance are
coalescing into a continuum.  On one side, there's the likes of
Seefeel, Disco Inferno, Main, Stereolab, Moonshake, Papa Sprain,
Insides (formerly Earwig), Ice, et al, truly independent bands who
have very little to do with the trad connotation of "indie" (i.e.
scrawny Luddite grot).  On the other side, you have post-rave
innovators like The Aphex Twin, Orbital, Sandoz, etc, who are
reaching beyond the dancefloor to a new audience of disenchanted
ex-indie fans.  In this new state-of-play, an "indie" band like
Seefeel patently has far more in common with a "techno" artist like
Aphex than either has with its supposed genre-peers. Which is why
they've collaborated with each other rather than, respectively,
Slowdive or Sven Vath.

     For better or for worse, the word that's come to crystallise the
merger of neo-psychedelia and post-aciiied is "ambient".  For bands
looking to transcend indie rock, "ambient" signifies going beyond
riffs; for the techno-heads, "ambient" means leaving behind the dance
beat.  But ambient isn't inappropriate, because all this post-rock
and post-rave stuff (the stuff worth cherishing in '93) does
ultimately descend from Brian Eno (with a few extra genes spliced
from dub reggae).  The original soundscape gardener, Eno pioneered
the techniques that are the foundation of progressive Nineties music:
the studio-as-instrument, tape loops (or its easier, quicker modern
equivalent, sampling), the use of effects and treatments so that
timbre and texture is more important than chords or riffs.  Any music
that exploits the studio, that doesn't sound "naturalistic" (i.e.
like you're five rows from the front at the Falcon) is in some sense
Eno-ite. To put it another way: ambient is the polar opposite of
grunge.

     Of course, the likes of Papa Sprain and Stereolab probably have
only an indirect relationship to Eno, as mediated through A.R. Kane
and My Bloody Valentine, who themselves drew more from the sources
that inspired Eno (Can, Velvet Underground, Hendrix, dub) than the
man himself.  MBV, in particular, paved the way for the sampladelic
non-rock of Seefeel and Moonshake (whose last record featured
virtually no guitar).  Kevin Shields said that it was "the weird
noises on hip hop records" that goaded them towards "Isn't
Anything"'s guitar-reinvention.  Then MBV fell under the spell of
rave: "Loveless" saw them sampling their own feedback and looping
beats and basslines.  Along with the Primals' "Higher Than The Sun",
MBV's "Soon" showed that it's the subliminal influence of rave
culture that gives British avant-rock the edge over its US
counterpart.  The Krautrock deluges of Mercury Rev, the epileptic
eclecticism of Thinkin' Fellers and Pavement, are great, but they're
hidebound by garageland, by the Luddite limits of bass/gtrs/drums. US
avant-rock is crippled by the abiding delusion that "disco sucks".
   
  Because they both inhabit a Eno-ite universe, the UK's
avant-rock and neo-techno units are inevitably merging into a single
phalanx of progressive whatever-you-wanna-call-it. For this kind of
music, 'ambient' is a sort of horizon: the outer limit of
form-dissolving halcyon chaos that it strives for, but doesn't
necessarily reach.  Because sometimes it's better to travel than to
arrive.