Ambient Pleasures

While I like music which is in-your-face, it’s also nice to have something a bit more background. I like to listen to music while writing, and you can’t always be digging hardcore tunes or stuff that requires attention, like Captain Beefheart. Ambient music, nowadays mostly marketed to the post-club smoke-off “chill out” market, with The Orb very much to the fore, is actually a far older subgenre with broad and deep roots. Its very nebulousness allows it to encompass a remarkable range of styles. It’s not just the background listening aspect of ambient music that’s good about it. (Hey, if you want something that’s insipidly undemanding, listen to Coldplay). Ambient music uses techniques that are perhaps not so commonly found elsewhere: giving music space to breathe (Miles Davis and David Gilmour both do this very well), constant repetition, lack of structure (no verse-chorus-verse here), strong visual qualities, and a focus on timbre. Not all of these might be present, but these comprise the general toolbox.

I don’t in any way claim to be any kind of expert: the Wikipedia page on ambient music highlights a whole bunch of acts I haven’t even heard of. Nonetheless, ambient is one of my favourite genres. Here are some of my picks.

1. Spiritualized, “Electric Mainline”
Which I think is a metaphor for smack. Ugh. Regardless, this is a fascinating track. It makes me think of cosmic soup, as though seeing the world, or the cosmos, from such a scale that everything seems a dense stew of cosmological particles. Or something. Nearly eight minutes of inter-weaving loops and drones, it’s a brilliant exercise in texture, atmosphere and control.

2. Aphex Twin, “Lichen”
Richard D. James has two specifically ambient albums, Selected Ambient Works 85-92, and Selected Ambient Works Vol 2. Of these, the former has actual beats and structures, while the latter album is almost entirely ambient textures without tune or form. This is the one I prefer: it’s astonishingly atmospheric in places. This track is called “Lichen”, but actually makes me think of being an eagle floating high above mountains, gliding on thermals and espying the land far below.

3. The Orb, “A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld”
I have a great memory of getting absolutely out my face to this song. The Orb are a bit of a cliche, being popular with students and what you might call the crusty section of society. Still, “Little Fluffy Clouds” and this one are both absolute classics. This track has a relatively insistent beat, but with its spacious production and tingling keyboard, it is a brilliant post-club chillout track to mong out to as the sun comes up.

4. Brian Eno, “1_1”
What’s great is the large amount of space here in between the piano chords, which are left to resonate and breathe. This is the first track from Eno’s Music For Airports (1978), which pretty much inaugurated the ambient genre. It’s so simple, but conceiving the idea and executing it with such conviction (others might have hedged their bets with a mushy orchestral wash or metronomic rhythms) is a stroke of genius.

5. Moby, “Heaven”
Moby’s career pre-Play was pretty hit and miss. He had a big hit with “Go”, but his albums didn’t really take off until Play, and even that took a year. He tried various things: alternative rock, hardcore “rave” (it was the early 90s, man) and his 1993 ambient album. This is actually pretty good: it gets a bit samey, but the second track “Heaven” is terrific. Pulsating with low-key electronic beats glistening with vibrato, it’s a fleeting glimpse of the ineffable.

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Radiohead: An Evaluation

Radiohead

Radiohead are the rock band which is now most critically esteemed and popular, the one considered to have a solid body of work and to have innovated new trends, rather as Pink Floyd did in the 1970s or, say, REM did in the 80s. None of their “britpop” contemporaries are any longer worthy of attention, even if together, while post-millennial rock has often been noted for its lack of ambition and – let’s not beat about the bush – crushing lack of talent. While Blur, Oasis and Pulp managed to string one or two decent/good albums together, band like The Killers or The Libertines barely even managed that. So now Radiohead are the elder statesmen, the grand dames of alternative rock. Lauded for their triple-guitar sonic assault in The Bends, hyped to the nines for the innovative OK Computer, and considered “brave” for their Warp Records-inspired Kid A and Amnesiac, Radiohead have been the quality album rock band to beat.

Trouble is – a disturbingly high proportion of their songs are simply not very good. They do have numerous absolute beasts of songs, tunes which not only sound great but which expand or redefine what a rock song can do – the true sign of greatness. But a disturbing high proportion of songs on all of their albums verge between filler and utter meaninglessness. Nietzsche says somewhere that poetry’s arguments are always inferior to philosophy because poetry’s ideas are carried along by their rhythm. The same might be said about music – sustained by rhythm alone, songs which articulate nothing plod on through their structural frame. I would argue that there are some Radiohead songs like that. (Filler, on the other hand, can just be songs which aren’t up to much, but sometimes these have a certain charm. Iron Maiden were another band which always struggled to do a consistent good album, but some of their album filler like the instrumental “Los’fer Words (Big Orra)” is quite fun. It must be really bloody hard to put together an album every two years when you tour like the Irons.)

Maybe I can grade Radiohead’s songs by their success.

GENIUS

You should know these by now. “Fade Out (Street Spirit)”, with its beautiful video. The warped majesty of “Paranoid Android”. The magnificent bad-acid jazz of “The National Anthem”. “Creep”, millstone though it became. “My Iron Lung”. “Karma Police” and its painful singalong coda. I have a particularly strong admiration for “The National Anthem” which is unlike anything I have ever heard, apart perhaps from John Coltrane’s almost violent explorations of atonality (in Live At The Village Vanguard… Again! for example). Thom Yorke’s tinny voice, the malevolent parping of the atonal brass, the insistent obligatto of the bass, the overwhelming atmosphere of mounting despair and horror, completed by the crushing final chord… oh boy. A ferociously articulate song.

GOOD

This sub-strata includes songs which say something clearly and successfully – “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, “Knives Out”, “Sail To The Moon”, “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors”, “Morning Bell” (both versions), “High And Dry”, “Fitter Happier”, “Pyramid Song”, “Everything In It’s Right Place”… Got something to say and say it. They don’t stretch the boundaries like the ones listed above, but they make their point.

MEH

Now we’re on the songs that just exist. This does not necessarily refer to Radiohead’s more experimental or abstract songs (which by definition do not have the traditional verse-chorus-verse structure). I mean that they do not articulate anything, lack any kind of point. One of the worst offenders is “Black Star” – although it goes through the motions of appearing heartfelt and such, it just feels utterly bland. Rock to be anything has to be transgressive; “Black Star” is Radiohead by numbers. Other crapola includes the last two songs on OK Computer, “Lucky” and “The Tourist”. While the second side (that’s the latter part of the album, you youngsters) is definitely inferior to the first, these two are so pallid and banal that they dispel the cumulative atmosphere of the entire album! I always always skip them. On the other hand, “Hunting Bears” sounds like Johnny Greenwood doing some guitar scales. What the fuck is the point of that? I can dig “Treefingers” lack of melody or rhythm because of its atmospherics (it’s not too far from Aphex Twin’s magnificently synaesthetic “Select Ambient Works”. But “Hunting Bears” is nothing. And I almost always feel that Radiohead’s adoption of skittery breakbeats adds nothing to their music… And Pablo Honey is almost entire snooze-a-thon.

*

For such a critically lauded band, I think it’s interesting that there’s little mention of Radiohead’s significant lacuna in some songs. Hardly anybody even expects a fully satisfying album anymore, content as they are to buy individual tracks from iTunes, or just to download the whole fucking lot then make your own playlist.  But as a devoted album listener, I would just like to point out that about one third of their songs are, as Sick Boy said, “just… shite”.

Synaesthesia

Which is a fancy word meaning the mixing of the senses – hearing colours, smelling textures, feeling flavours and so on. Music of course is a great means of promoting synaesthesia, especially visually and texturally. (Not sure anyone ever did a song which you could taste). The timbre of music is of course a recognised quality, being the qualities beyond its pitch and volume – to take some random examples, consider the stark wintry strings in “Eleanor Rigby” (so well produced, with no reverb, that you can feel the cello strings vibrating) and the plasticky wah-wah of The Edge’s guitar on “Zooropa”. (Co-produced by Brian Eno, much of the album Zooropa is unusually atmospheric for U2 – well, the first side, anyway: the second half is disappointing). However, what I really really like are songs which bring to mind visual images. I’ve mentioned previously the revelation on first listening to The Beatles’ 67-70. The colour, the sheer vivid psychedelic technicolour, just dazzled me, like suddenly being conscious of a new dimension, or perceiving an entirely new sense. (Or, of course, dropping acid). This vastly expanded my musical taste, and I cherish the memory.

So let us share some great examples.

1. Aphex Twin, “Metal Grating”

The ambient works of Mr. Richard D James are filled with synaesthetic moments: not much by the way of a tune, but the stuff on his Select Ambient Works Vol. 2 are filled with atmospheric and highly visual moments. Consider this: the sound of water dripping to form a stalactite in an ancient cave, or this, a spaceship silently landing  on a glacier at midnight. My favourite though is this one, an Inca tribe dancing round a fire in a clearing in the forest in the middle of the night. I have played this track to people of various nationalities and a high proportion of them have “seen” the same thing as me, which I think is quite incredible. In another sense, it reminds me of some of Jackson Pollock’s action paintings.

2. Gustav Holst, “The Planet Suite: Mars”

OK, so this is a bit of a cliché, but one can see why it became so. Written during 1916 when the industrialisation of war had been brought to a hideous apotheosis, this piece is harshly simplistic, calling to mind the pounding rhythms of the machines of war, the stomping of boots, and the grim portents of death (via the trumpets). Classical music of course is much more technical than most rock, and much more familiar with appealing to a broader range of senses. What’s impressive here is the vivid brutality within the confines of a highly technical performance.

3. Pink Floyd, “A Saucerful of Secrets” (from Umma Gumma)

The Floyd have said that this song is about a battle and its aftermath. I’m not quite sure I see that – the second section (“Syncopated Pandemonium”) sounds more spacey, with Gilmour’s overcharged echoing guitar taking you into orbit – though it is admirably chaotic. Either way, the bit that really affects me is the last section, “Celestial Voices”. Gilmour’s wordless singing is just incredible, bringing to mind majesty and magnificence and glory, not triumphant but redolent of painful labours and grim, perilous trials. It doesn’t sound like a lament; it’s not mournful, though it could be a salutation of an epic confrontation, I suppose. Something in it reminds me of Tolkien, too: not the bucolic Shire but the epic tales of Elves and Men standing against Morgoth, the primal source of all evil. It’s hard to describe how I see this exactly (how does one visualise something abstract like “magnificence”?) but I find it deeply moving and utterly majestic.

4. The Beatles, “Strawberry Fields Forever”

Sorry, but I really felt I had to include this! The colour, man, the colour! The opening sepia-toned mellotron, the trumpets, the surging cellos, the cinematic dissolve of the zither, Lennon’s slowed and deepened vocal, the foreboding orchestration. Just incredible. (Dig the outro, too – “do I wake or sleep?”)

5. Kraftwerk, “Neon Lights”

I really got into Kraftwerk during my first year of university, way back in 1996-97. They’re The Beatles of electronic music aren’t they? As good, and as important. It was a campus university, and had a lake in the middle between the halls of residence and the teaching admin and student union buildings, so going to and from the union meant crossing a white concrete bridge. As you made your way back to your room, the halls loomed ahead, filled with life and drama and learning and laughter and crisis and love and tears and friendship and music.  The lights from all the rooms in the halls sparkled in the water, too, and I have always thought of this when listening to “Neon Lights”, a wonderful peon to urban living (which is simply life for most of us!).

How about you?