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
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
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
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).
Biba Kopf [or was it 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.
"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.
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
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 -"Instrumental" (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 =
PETE NAMLOOK -"Air" LP (Rising High)
SANDOZ - "Digital Lifeforms" LP (Touch)