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!


Russ Tuffery said...

“Our increasingly grim, anxiety-wracked world.” Can I have this 1993-level of grimness and anxiety back, please?


haha. yes when i look back at things i wrote in the '90s it's full of references to how awful things are, apocalyptic darkness looming, and pre-millennium tension, and how the music reflected this - and I'm like, "we didn't know we were born!"