Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Ambient - the Buzzword of 1993

Ambient - the Buzzword of '93

Melody Maker, Christmas 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 signaled a Zeitgeist-shift, pointing the way to a whole new future.  First, by being so brilliant, 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!

Friday, May 7, 2021

Saturday, May 1, 2021

The Grid

                                            singles column, summer 1990, melody maker

The Grid
Melody Maker, July 7 1990
by Simon Reynolds

The Grid

The Observer, 30 September 1990

by Simon Reynolds

This summer, The Grid released 'Floatation', a single that perfectly captured the New Age mood that has pervaded club culture in 1990. 'Floatation' combined deep exhalations, submarine sonar blips, waves lapping the shore, with the mellow, moonwalking groove that has dominated dancefloors all year.

Like a session in a flotation tank, the track was designed to soothe your soul, lower your metabolic rate, and leave you feeling "centered".

Despite being a big success in the clubs, it narrowly missed being a chart hit, because it was too long for radio play. "We want to promote the idea of music that's not limited to a three-minute pop format," explained Richard Norris, The Grid's conceptualist and a former music journalist, "music that's not focused particularly on the lyrics, that you can use functionally, as a soundtrack to your life. The Grid has more in common with Pink Floyd or Brian Eno."

Norris sees encouraging signs of a willingness to experiment in the UK dance scene. "This year, it's seemed like there's more people like us involved, introducing all these art-rock elements. Dance music is a lot like dub reggae at the moment, in its use of space and weird effects. We've always been more interested in head music than music that makes your body move. But I think the good thing now is that those two things are being integrated."

Norris is taking that fusion even further with plans for a future album, The Origins Of Dance. It's a collaboration with the guru of psychedelia, Timothy Leary, and Fraser Clarke from the psychedelic magazine Evolution. "Fraser taped Leary reciting a speech at the Cafe Largo, which has been a beatnik enclave in San Francisco from the Fifties," Norris said.

"The speech itself was 20 years old, and is a Leary manifesto about the psychedelic powers of dance. We composed a techno-mantra backing for his recitation. Later, we met up with Leary in Amsterdam [he's still banned from the UK] and he gave it his seal of approval. He described it as 'hi-tech paganism'.

"Leary is a very impressive figure. He's in his seventies, but seems very aware and open-minded. He's totally hip to what's going on in house music, how it relates to the trance-dance idea that goes back to the earliest origins of music. And he liked the fact that acid house was a working-class phenomenon, whereas the counter-culture had been a bit bourgeois."

Norris's partner in The Grid is David Ball, the techno-boffin half of electro-pop duo Soft Cell. Norris and Ball are busy remixing and reworking Soft Cell's early Eighties classics, such as 'Tainted Love' and 'Memorabilia', in order to reintroduce them into the contemporary dance scene.

They are also producing some of ex-Soft Cell singer Mark Almond's new songs, composing music for Japanese TV commercials and soundtracks for Columbia Pictures.

The Grid's debut album, Electric Head, reflects these interests, ranging from ambient music to the "tacky disco" of the current chart-bound single, 'A Beat Called Love'.

"The Grid is a kind of reaction against theory and conceptualism," said Norris. We're neither trying to be ironic, nor make serious statements. We like to do throwaway, superficial, crass pop songs like 'A Beat Called Love', as well as atmospheric pieces like 'Floatation'. In both cases, we're not trying to 'say' anything. It's not the text that's important, it's the sensual textures of the sound."