Hey, DJ — The chilled-out charms of ambient techno

RICHARD JAMES has seen the future and it’s nothing special. In fact, it’s nothing at all. Nothingness itself. Vast, blank wildernesses, majesticaly vague cityscapes, machines that quietly break down and people that let them.

Having seen this, James, who calls himself the Aphex Twin, wrote some music that doesn’t sound like anything. His Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (R&S Records, Belgian import) is dub-inflected, propulsive, and oddly poignant electronic music. It’s nothing like the synapse scrape of hardcore techno, but also nothing like the ambient music Brian Eno recorded some fifteen years ago for his minimal classic, Music for Airports. As the Aphex Twin, Richard James makes music that floats above tangible meaning even as it retains a mighty power of suggestion. Selected Ambient Works 85-92 is a soundtrack that keeps conjuring up different movies.

James is just one of a batch of mostly English musicians moving away from techno by dialing down the bpm’s and redefining Brian Eno’s redefinition of ambient music. When Eno recorded albums like Music for Airports, Music for Films, and Discreet Music (all recently reissued by EG/Caroline), he was building on and extending the ideas of experimental composers like Erik Satie and John Cage. He intended those pieces for keyboards and vocals as aural environments that would be “as ignorable as they are interesting.”

Unfortunately, in later years, Eno’s work inspired lots of ignorable records: whale mating-call soundtracks, ocean-noise albums, and lots of assorted new-age postmusical dreck. Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond, better known as the prototechno, anarcho-comic KLF, understood Eno a little better. Before releasing club hits like ‘Justified and Ancient’, the KLF recorded an ambient album called Chill Out (Wax Trax/TVT) in 1990. Chill Out, now out of print, was a great, loopy album of song traces and radio bites that evoked a road trip through Elvisland, USA.

Around the same time, Cauty’s friend Alex Patterson, a late-night/early-morning DJ at London’s Land of Oz club, began mixing up Eno, sound effects albums, and an old German artrock record called E2:E4 during his sets in the club’s “chill-out” room. Patterson, as most of a group called the Orb, began making spacey-yet-almost-danceable records. In 1992, the Orb’s second LP, U.F. Orb, inexplicably entered the U.K. charts at number one. Just as Nirvana had “invented” grunge in the U.S., the Orb, despite Patterson’s grumblings, were credited with the “invention” of ambient house.

Inspired by Eno, Chill Out, and the Orb, and dismayed by techno’s evolution from trippy dance music to hardcore beats for speed- wrecked kids, groups such as Amorphous Androgynous, Black Dog Productions, and Seefeel have begun to make electronic listening music. On these new ambient records, guitar and bass sounds are allowed but generally synthesized, while drumbeats and disco handclaps proliferate but aren’t required. Actual lyrics are verboten and vocals are suspect — unless they’re sound bites about drugs, or sound like they could be hollered from a minaret.

Individual ambient “songs” usually throb and pulse for a minute or two before revealing their flavors and percussion themes, and some records seem so hookless that they sound different every time you play them. A note inside of Black Dog Productions‘ Bytes (Warp/Wax Trax/TVT) reads: “Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of your opponent’s fate.” The new ambient music is meant to be a little blank, so that you can live inside of it.

This is head music, an antidote to the physical exhaustion from a long night of raving. Artificial Intelligence (Warp/Wax Trax/TVT) is a fine ambient compilation with a cover illustration of an exhausted robot lying back in his armchair, and hey, what’s that on the floor? It’s the sleeve of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.

As the makers of a new kind of psychedelic music, ambient composers are fascinated by seas of tranquillity, by wilderness. Their records are full of intergalactic sound fx, deep-sea squiggles, and song titles about deserts, biospheres, and black holes. It’s ironic, this obsession with any place where man (and his technology) is absent, since these musicians are also deeply obsessed with electronic machinery. But it’s symptomatic of artists who are concerned with the spaces between notes, the silences between the blips.

For a rougher analogy, imagine electronic music as if it were computer binary code, a series of ones and zeros. Techno is the ones, ambient the zeros. Both provide information, but techno is power, a green light burning go! Ambient music is the green light turned off. It washes over you and the room, recedes and looms up simultaneously, builds from nothing, seemingly unconcerned with any end point. It’s like a lover who takes her time.

Of course, bad ambient music can be like another kind of lover: one who doesn’t deliver. Some ambient records from both England and California sound like dentist-office music, or the soundtracks to overcooked horror films, or marital aids for fortysomething sci-fi fans. B 12‘s Electro-Soma is better than that, reminiscent in spots of the second side of Bowie’s Low, but it’s ultimately a bit chirpy. Fortran 5‘s Bad Head Park (Mute) features some cool ambient sections (and samples of a very tranquilized cricket announcer), unfortunately interrupted by sappy electro-pop.

The new interest in ambience is luring a lot of old hands out of the woodwork. Steve Hillage, who kicked around in 70s prog-rock groups like Gong, is now doing trancey dance music with his group System 7. Industrial music pioneer and acid-house enabler Genesis P-Orridge is back with a new Psychic TV record, Kondole (Silent). The best of this new old wave of ambience is, unsurprisingly, Brian Eno’s Neroli, a fifty-eight-minute meditation on the pleasures of scent. It’s ultraminimal (two notes, maybe), quite beautiful, and only distantly related to younger artists like Richard James.

One new kid who’s faithful to Eno’s ideas about ambience is Kim Cascone, who runs San Francisco’s Silent Records. His ambient project is called the Heavenly Music Corporation — which is a little like calling your metal band Slamming Demonic Riffs. The Heavenly album, In a Garden of Eden, is nearly beatless and so chilled out that, according to Cascone, it’s meant to “induce a theta state in the listener’s brain,” whatever that means.

For other artists, ambient offers something like an appearance on MTV’s Unplugged — a chance to stretch out and show your tender side. Instinct Records’ Chill Out! compilation features ambient tracks from Meat Beat Manifesto and Technotronic’s Jo Bogaert right next to stuff by new groups like Young American Primitive. Then there’s Moby‘s Ambient (also on Instinct). Moby, a.k.a. Richard Melville Hall, is a tough little techno punk and the composer of the assaultive ‘Thousand’, listed in Guinness as the fastest song ever recorded. His Ambient is, by contrast, gentle and lovely, evoking something like a glide down a bleak European expressway. Despite some occasional slips into Enyaville, Moby fills much of this record with sneaky, hypnotic pieces like ‘Myopia’ and ‘House of Blue Leaves’.

Moby tilts one of the central assumptions about electronic music: that it’s about harmony between man and machine. Moby and other ambient artists sometimes display more daring than deference to electronics. They trust that if they set their infernal machines on endless repeat, those devices will eventually reveal the warmth of the human hands that made them. And then the machines will shudder to a halt.

Dub is the organic ingredient within the throb and weave of new ambient music. Its influence is everpresent in two magnificent EPs by Seefeel. On More Like Space and Pure, Impure (both on Too Pure, English import), the band use both guitars and electronics but sound neither like a rock group nor a techno producer asleep at the controls. ‘More Like Space’ is just a dub bass bumping along under layer after layer of rich, colorful echoes and quasi-notes. It’s unintrusive and hypnotic, an atmosphere where it’s easy to get lost.

Seefeel sound less like the future than one long rainy today. Unlike techno producers, ambient artists understand that nothing dates a piece of art or music more irrevocably than an inaccurate attempt to predict the tenor of an era yet to come. Some even slot memory lane into the mix: Several of the artists on the essential Excursions Into Ambience compilation (Caroline) sample bits of 70s experimentalists such as the Soft Machine and Robert Wyatt, as well as even more bizarre slices of American pie. To offset their use of electronic instruments, both the Psychick Warriors ov Gaia and Amorphous Androgynous dabble in tribal rhythms and rain forest noise. The Psychick’s song ‘The Tides (They Turn)’ on Ov Biospheres and Sacred Grooves (Restless) starts off in a grass hut somewhere and grows into a trance of percussion and counterrhythms before you even notice how artificial the drums sound.

Amorphous Androgynous do more than go native; they wanna house you. Sort of. More than a little of Tales of Ephidrena (Caroline) smacks of house music, particularly in the way that AA stack layers of rhythm on top of each other, then reverse and peel back these layers as if they were onion skin. They’re more likely to sample a Peruvian pipe player than a soul diva’s vocals, but Amorphous Androgynous are a compelling example of ambient as the link between the heretofore polemical disciplines of house and techno.

Richard James, using the pseudonym Polygon Window (besides this and Aphex Twin, he also calls himself AFX, Analogue Bubblebath, and the Dice Man), establishes then blows away a link between ambient and metal on Surfing on Sine Waves (Warp/Wax Trax/TVT). His ‘Quoth’ is heavier than Motörhead, and, in an airless, compressed way, far more relentless. It’s so suffocating it’s almost unlistenable. ‘Quoth’ and most of the rest of Surfing seems to be about how difficult it is to disconnect from something once it turns you on.

But the new ambient music is all about unplugging. Backing down from the adrenaline of the club, loosening the constrictor coils of hardcore techno, stretching out one crystalline moment, turning off. So it’s not really fair to say that Aphex Twin doesn’t sound like anything. Aphex Twin sounds like awe. Because awe is just the act of unplugging from everything you’ve known until this instant.

© Pat BlashillDetails, November 1993

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