Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Ambient Jungle - Nostalgia of the Year (of Every Year)

 [from Faves + Unfaves of 2000 - director's re-cut]

The greatest track of the 1990s? 


Another Pop Mystery I've been contemplating recently relates to the life cycles
of genres, their arc and fall. You can be basking in the blooming fullness of a
genre's annus mirabilus, and somehow it never occurs that this is obviously the
golden age, the peak, the best it's ever gonna get, and that the only way
forward now is downhill. When you're in the thick of it, you think it can just
carry on forever at this perpetual crest.... Records that at the time seem like
portents or glimpses of so-much-more-to-come turn out, years later, to have been
swan-songs, the last of the summer wine. Who'd have thought, for instance, that
Adam F's 'Metropolis' and Nasty Habit's 'Shadowboxing" were destined to be the
historical pinnacle of techstep (and therefore drum'n'bass), that they were
form-defining and form-exhausting ultra-tunes?

These thoughts emerged during a spate of compulsive re-listening to what they
used to call (alright, what I used to call) "ambient jungle", which inspired
musings on the lines of why couldn't this music just stay forever at this
sustained peak of awesomeness? Why do musics have to deteriorate or die? Tracks
like Dillinja's "Deep Love" and "Sovereign Melody," Bukem's "Atlantis", EZ
Roller's 'Believe" and "Rolled Into One" (Moving Shadow's last masterpiece?),
the Steve Gurley's remix (more like re-production) of Princess's Eighties
Britsoul classic of yearning "Say I'm Your Number One," still sound so
fantastic----why couldn't they have carried on like this until the end of time,
or at least lasted out the decade. 

A peculiar twist of hind-hearing is that even tracks I didn't rate that highly at the time sound fabulous now, like PFM's "One and Only"---the way the bass moves and drops, the ripple-trails and
glistening vapors of ambience, the explosive entrance of the diva vocal. Then
there's Peshay, a producer I never particularly rated--his track on the first Logical
Progression, "Vocal", is amazing, and I never even noticed it at the time; that
kind of Speed-oriented mellow jazzual track was the enemy, back then. Now, long
after the battle's subsided, whatever was at stake a faint memory, I can hear it
as a tour de force of exquisitely mashed-up beats and diva deployment, using a
vocal sample (India from the River Ocean track "Love & Happiness") that's got more in common with a beautifully designed commodity, a sports car or leather sofa, than say Aretha Franklin; it's all
burnished technique and poise, not raw soul. After 2step I can appreciate what
is basically a kind of capitalist utopianism behind such fetishising of elegance
and surface slickness. 

Another example: in my disappointment that Omni Trio had
abandoned the euphoria fireworks of the "Renegade Snares" formula, I missed how
good bits of Haunted Science are--"Who Are You?" and especially "The Elemental",
an early neurofunk-style two-stepper beat with keyboard lines as delicate as dew
settling and bass-drops like tender thunder--how cleverly Rob Haigh had
developed a new, calmer but still compelling style of drum'n'bass for the home

The truth is that there always was an integral side to drum'n'bass that wasn't
about rudeness (nasty B-lines, mash-up breakbeats) but about supreme dainty-ness
and neat-freak finesse. It's a different kind of rush--the tingle you can get
from the groomed delicacy of a hi-hat pattern, the nimble, glancing panache of a
synth-chord flourish. Jacob's Optical Stairway, the oft-maligned alter-ego album
by 4 Hero, is some kind of pinnacle in this respect: the detail in the music
induces its own kind of high, the aural equivalent of putting on your first pair
of glasses and suddenly everything's ultra-sharp.

The chill-ness of "ambient jungle" and the jazzy stuff that followed is also
more appealing, partly because of the feeling that I've listened to enough
extreme music for a lifetime so why not go with sheer beauty and pleasantness
for a bit, and partly because there's nothing like parenthood to make you
appreciate the aesthetic of stress-reduction. 

(Actually, a few years ago I had something of an epiphany: a plane trip, creating the typical intense stress situation right up til you go with all the getting work done before departure
and packing in a rush. Coiled as tight as bedsprings, we got in the cab to JFK;
the driver had the radio tuned to one of those lite-jazz stations, the kind that
plays what Jackson Griffiths dubbed "biz jazz", the post-ECM, post-fusion
travesty of jazz favored by many corporate executives (and Yellowjackets fan
Goldie). Any other day my response would have been nausea, but the music hit
like a IV drip pumping liquid valium straight into the spine. Instant
tranquilizing bliss. That day, I could dig it.)

                                         Xanaxophone  -  Smooth FM insta-serenity injected direct to the amygdala. And the cover of                                                 the single  is as ghastly as a 1980s fusion album.  Love this though
                           - actually prefer it to the celebrated Trace remix 

Of course, people still make this kind of drum'n'bass (or carry on doing something pretty similar in spirit e.g. broken beats/West London Sound) and it's not as good as the 94/95 stuff. Tje breaking through of - the breaking through into - "musicality" was more thrilling and suggestive than the arriving there fully.

LTJ Bukem's long-awaited debut album came out this year--encased in a striking
period-looking jazz-fusion style cover, and with a montage of snapshots of his
jazzbo heroes on the inside--but it got almost no attention. Bit sad, for a guy
who once commanded dance magazine cover stories.

But going back to the golden period that late 93/94/95 phase when darkside
started to flirt with musicality, blossomed into artcore/ambient-jungle, and
then went too far into the fuzak-zone.... quite a few tracks from that era fit
the syndrome of "lost future" music, or genres-that-never-were (but could/should
have been). Sometimes A-sides, more often B-side tunes or track four on an EP
jobs, these tunes--Blame's "Anthemia", Trace's "Jazz Primitives", Myerson's
"Find Yourself" (with its painted bird of a Flora Purim sample flitting through
a labyrinth of future-jazz foliage), lots more--feel like they could have been
blueprints for entire worlds of sound , but of course they weren't. The DJs
weeded them out; the massive rejected them. Still, I'm fascinated by these
tracks that represent a path not taken.


suggestions welcomed -  entreated, even!



Bachelard-influenced further thoughts on Ambient Jungle:

It's like dancing inside a dream

Like dancing inside a painting

(I was going to say that "One and Only" is the Sistine Chapel of d&B just in terms of the scale and grandeur, but keeping it ambient-aligned, probably should say Monet's Water Lilies or Matisse's "Swimming Pool")

As the titles suggests - usually they reference the aquatic, the cosmic, the aerial, etc - the music invites Bachelard-style reveries of spaces and places.... forms of movement like ascension, floating, cruising, gliding etc etc.

The genius of it is that is contemplative but it's still physical and impactful. Ambient jungle is made to be played on big systems just like any jungle. The bass sounds like thunder.


The original Ambient Jungle piece from The Wire, September 1994

"Prescient, moi?" - interesting to see at the end of this paean that I am already warning of tendencies towards prissy wussy self-conscious musicality.

People seem to have a hard time understanding my dialectical conception of  music - what is the right thing to be doing musically in '93-94, is not necessarily going to be the "right" thing to be doing in '95/'96. In fact, it's highly unlikely to be the right thing to be doing still, by that point. Music moves in a reactive, sharp-swerving sort of way. (Of course, there will be some consummately achieved "stragglers" coming out in the older, obsolete mode - things can be acknowledged as late beauties while still affirming the current state-of-art, the new direction).

It's not even a conception, it's more an ingrained way of feeling music - conflict, backlash, inversion, reversal - these are the energies, the transvaluative surge, that fuels the music's forward movement, and that fuel one's fandom.  Musicians feel these impulses as strongly as any bystander; practitioners and critics are equally invested in the principle of things constantly moving forward. 

Did I not notice at the time that this track is a sort of annotation-cum-tribute to "Atlantis"? 

the ultimate mesh of militant and mellow?


bonus bliss  - real-time review of ambient jungle etc in MM's Stone Free column 94-96

in the hurry of reviewing, missing the form-unravelling genius of "Anthemia" - look, nobody's perfect


Anonymous said...

Not sure if Aphex's "Flim" quite meets the criteria- but it's as heart-rending as anything on SAW or SAW2.


I suppose it is fast choppy breakbeats + ambient, so maybe it counts.

A really lovely tune, oddly I have no recollection of ever hearing it before! It reminds me a bit of "Alberto Balsam"

mms said...

funny how the first of those stone free columns has a review if d-generation, mark fishers punky hardcore band


Well, you know I interviewed D-Generation right? Didn't speak to Mark, though, but another member of the group - Simon Biddell.

Actually wrote about them twice in Melody Maker