Thursday, March 15, 2007

I Think Therefore I Ambient

Humans have been chilling out since Stone Age man kicked back with a doobie and listened to the birdsong. So, despite there being a precedent, I imagine the whole concept of the chill out room in nightclubs must have been met with the same incredulous guffaws that greeted the first person who suggested that the world may in fact be round. “You want to put sofas into a nightclub and play laidback music to a bunch of gurning, pilled-up mentalists?” Despite the seeming incongruity, as we all know, it ended up being a hugely successful concept and for me personally, the chill out room was often my salvation. Depending on what state of mind I was in, I was often more up for a sit-down and a chat than I was for chucking out crazy shapes with my head wedged in the bassbins. Every time someone mouthed, “Fancy heading to the chill out room?” I would nod gratefully and race into it’s cosy seclusion. It was a bit like hanging out in someone else’s front room. A blim burnt sofa, the odd UV making teeth glow and everyone look like they had chronic dandruff, some batik wall hangings and an old hippy spinning Gong and Brian Eno records on a single deck. Of course, as time progressed they got more sophisticated, until the ‘Chill Out Zone’ became just as important as the club itself. DJs started to forge careers around their liking for the more mellow elements of music, and artists like the Orb and the Mixmaster Morris became stalwarts of the ambient music scene. It wasn’t long before the music that was previously confined to the chill out room became the focus of entire club nights as, during the early 1990s, promoters like Megadog put together hugely successful DJ tours all over the country. And it wasn’t just in the clubs that chilling out became de rigueur. The post-clubbing experience was all about where you could go and have a relaxing comedown. A mate of mine used to fill his lounge with all the pillows, cushions, rugs and duvets he could get his hands and we’d all go back there and drink tea, eat toast and marmite, smoke gigantic reefers and fade out into oblivion, to whatever mellow sounds were selected.

Some of my favourite musical memories are associated with ambient music; from driving through Yosemite National Park with Boards of Canada on the stereo, to being up a mountain in Austria, looking out over an incredible view to the lake below while listening to ‘Feel So Sad’ by Spiritualized on a walkman. I didn’t intend for this post to be a chronological guide to all things chill out and ambient as I couldn’t possibly write about all the music I like, and there are many gaps in my knowledge of the genre. However, I would like to touch on some of the music I’ve enjoyed or more accurately, “chilled out to”, starting with the KLF’s seminal and self-explanatory ‘Chill Out’ album, released in 1990. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve passed out with this burbling away on the CD deck, then woken up to the sudden sound of a freight train hurtling past or spooky Tuvan throat singing, before being lulled back to a comatose state by the distant reverie of Elvis singing ‘In The Ghetto’ or Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Albatross’. It was recorded live in one take in the basement of Jimmy Cauty’s Stockwell squat, and as a body of work, I think it is unsurpassed in the ambient genre. I would post it, but an extract wouldn’t do it justice and if I uploaded the full 44 minutes, I wouldn’t have any space left on my server. Therefore, if you don’t own it already and want to revel in its awesomeness, you should buy it. The KLF’s other masterpiece of this era was ‘Space’, a series of extended sparse ambient workouts, taking the listener on a voyage through the solar system.

I long to get my hands on a cassette a friend of my brother’s made, which spliced a Tangerine Dream album with dialogue from episodes of Star Trek. It was a bizarre union but it worked perfectly as music to lose yourself in, the dreamy soundscapes of Tangerine Dream combining with Kirk and Spock’s out-there and often hilarious observations on beaming down to yet another strange planet. Every time I hear the sound of the doors on the Enterprise (shishtikoof, or something similar), I am transported back to my brother’s house in Oxford, lying around with a bunch of altered heads, going on fantastic mind journeys to distant planets…

The Orb also provided many musical high points for me, and their live performance at Glastonbury in 1992 was probably one of the greatest I have ever seen. They managed to combine the ambient concept with very danceable beats, thus making the perfect music for both mind and feet. I absolutely love them and they deserve (and will get) a much longer and more detailed post from me, but I couldn’t really write this without at least mentioning them.

The Irresistible Force - Sky High

Now to the music... first up is ‘Sky High’, a wonderful 12 minutes from the stone cold ambient classic that was the debut album from Mixmaster Morris’s Irresistible Force. ‘Flying High’ was released by Rising High on 1992 and featured 6 lengthy tracks, which combined found sound elements like faraway planes and twittering birdsong, with dialogue from meditation instruction tapes, undulating analogue synths, ambient washes and live instrumentation, taking the listener on a magical journey wherever their brain fancied going. Morris started out DJ’ing with the Shamen as part of the Synergy collective, putting on parties that utilised strobes, projectors, psychedelic lighting and virtual reality equipment, creating a multi-sensory experience and revolutionising the clubbing experience. He went on to become famous for his all-night DJ-sets in chill out rooms all over the globe, and songs like ‘Sky High’ were central to these sets, which clubbers likened to spiritual journeys.

Autechre - Chatter

The Artificial Intelligence series on Warp took ambient music to a completely new dimension over the course of eight albums, released between 1992 and 1994. The sleeve image from the original ‘AI’ compilation that kicked it all off, featured a robot sat in an armchair blowing smoke rings with headphones on, and the album’s subtitle of ‘Electronic Listening Music From Warp’, gave a very clear image of where the label felt this album would be best enjoyed. The compilation was a seminal release, creating ambient techno in the process, and show casing the early work of Autechre, Black Dog Productions, Aphex Twin (as Polygon Window), B12, Speedy J, Richie Hawtin (as F.U.S.E.) and many others. The six artists mentioned also released albums as part of the series, all of which are incredible. I could quite happily listen to nothing but these albums for the rest of my life. The series concluded with the second ‘Artificial Intelligence’ compilation, from where I have plucked ‘Chatter’ by Autechre. Out of all the music Autechre have produced, this has to be my favourite song of theirs. I’ve watched a roomful of people dance in bizarre slow motion to this song, and while it may not be ambient in the truest sense of the word, it is a wonderful piece of music, and a surprising one, given that its composers are better known for dark and complex compositions. A long intro of resonant bleeps leads you towards gentle, layered beats and warm atmospherics to create something that is about as close to pure joy as you can get.

Chapterhouse - Delta Phase (Retranslated by Global Communication)

Chapterhouse’s second album ‘Blood Music’ was, if I can be frank, a bit shit. I was a big fan of the band, but the direction they took their music in post-‘Whirlpool’ left a lot to be desired. Their second album, ‘Blood Music’ was a kind of wishy-washy mix of shoegazer rock and electronics, which ended up being neither here nor there, and was eventually withdrawn due to sampling issues. However, redemption was on the expansive horizon, as the mighty Global Communications reworked the album to stunning effect in the shape of ‘Pentamerous Metamorphosis’. The sleeve notes describe it as being ‘Composed from the cells of ‘Blood Music’ by Chapterhouse’, and although many elements from ‘Blood Music’ are present, it really is a transformation on a par to that Jesus fella’s alleged magic trick with water and wine. It’s really hard to get hold of, which is perhaps why it isn’t mentioned more often alongside other great works from the ambient genre. All five tracks (or phases) of the reworking are amazing - complex, deep and unbelievably beautiful. I’m posting ‘Delta Phase’, as I love the combination of guitar, deep bass and lush, warm pads and effects. Seek it out if you can, it’s a masterpiece.

Buy 'Chill Out' by the KLF
Buy everything by The Orb
Search eBay for 'Flying High' by the Irresistible Force
Buy 'Artificial Intelligence'
Have a car boot sale to raise funds to buy 'Pentamerous Metamorphosis' on eBay
KLF website
The Orb's website
The Irresistible Force at Ninja Tune
Global Communication at the Reload website
Chapterhouse fansite
Tangerine Dream website