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.

Songs So Good They Make You Cry

There’s nothing more boring than reading a blogpost where the writer apologises for not posting more. Well – sorry, but I have been really busy. As some of you may know, I’m a magazine editor, and I’m in the process of revamping the magazine a bit, adding columnists, changing layout and all that jazz. I really do love my job – it’s the first one where I feel totally suited to what I’m doing – but the hours are long.

But enough of my complaining. The other weekend, I was at ‘dazefeast with my wife and daughter. Between sets, the DJ was spinning a few tracks, and one came up out of blindside and righthooked me. It was an utter surprise, and I couldn’t even speak, just had to listen in dumbstruck admiration as my eyes moistened at the brilliance of it. The degree of articulation is phenomenal; it seemed to encompass everything I’d ever felt in my life. The encapsulation of the literary frame in the mind and the climactic advice “If you put down your pen, leave your worries behind / Then the moment will come and the memory will SHINE” is so wise, and the musical frame of the quiet murmured opening which builds in colour and potency towards a glorious outro of hope, defiance, and humanity is just so right.

The song was Belle and Sebastian’s “Sleep The Clock Around”.

And, as Robert Plant said, it made me wonder: what other songs are so good, so great, that they bring a tear to the eye? I don’t mean just emotional, ballad-type songs, but ones which fill you with amazement and wonder at the degree of their achievement. You’ll have to forgive me if I retread some familiar ground, but hey.

The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever”

“I knew you were going to say that, Mike!” Well, indeed. But what can I say? This song constantly astonishes me with how good it is. From the dreamy Mellotron opening, to the miraculous splice of TWO DIFFERENT VERSIONS OF THE SONG (at 1.00, when the cellos enter), to Lennon’s slowed-down vocal (a radical reimagining of one of the best rock n’ roll vocalists ever – to think that just three years earlier he had been roaring through “Twist And Shout”!) to the drooping trumpets to the magnificent cellos (thank you, George Martin!) to the glorious climax – “Strawberry Fields Forever” is a song of dazzling imagination, articulation and artistry.

Mike Oldfield – “Tubular Bells (Part 1)”

The trouble, or difficulty, with the long song is that you must have either a vision or narrative. Without either, you end up with stitched together piece of waffle (see later Oldfield long tracks like “Crises“) or blancmangey piles of steaming nothingness (see the Floyd’s “Atom Heart Mother” and The Doors’ “When The Music’s Over“). Shorter songs can always get by on the verse-chorus-verse-bridge-solo-chorus-outro structure (as memorably demonstrated by Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty in their brilliant The Manual: How To Have A Number 1 The Easy Way) but long songs need to either tell a story or take you someplace. (Examples of story: The Who’s “A Quick One While She’s Away”, Guns N’ Roses “Estranged”, Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle” (probably his finest solo moment). Examples of vision and taking you someplace: “Echoes” by Pink Floyd, Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew”, “Cop Shoot Cop” by Spiritualized (the only song I have ever heard which approximates the sound of a vortex)).

Anyroads. While Mike Oldfield’s later lengthy pieces were just crafted, stitched-together patchworks of nothing much, his early albums had an obvious sense of vision. He really saw what he was creating; they are so visual, so literate. Tubular Bells remains by far the most famous, but I also highly recommend Ommadawn, Hergest Ridge and Incantations. Take Part 1 of Tubular Bells as an example: section by section, it is some of the most emotionally resonant music I have ever heard. And the glorious build up of instrument after instrument seems like a glowing, rich metaphor for and testament to life itself. Amazing.

Nike Drake – “Cello Song”

Compared to “Strawberry Fields Forever”, this song is almost sparse – Drake’s accoustic guitar and voice, bongos, and cello. But my god! What stunning riches within. Drake’s guitar-picking is astonishing, almost mesmeric, and the cello deliciously melancholy. I don’t want to waffle on too much – just listen to the song.

Nirvana – Unplugged in New York

Hard to pick out just one song here. For some reason, and this is a feeling that hasn’t subsided as time has gone by, I feel more empathy with Kurt Cobain than any other musician I can think of. While obviously I hugely admire people like Bob Marley, Paul McCartney, Roger Waters and John Lydon, with Cobain I somehow feel a connection beyond how I feel with the others. Maybe it’s the raw honesty of his music and interviews, maybe it’s his unfortunate crown as King of the Doomed Young Men (taken over from Ian Curtis), maybe it’s his role in tearing rock music away from the dreadful (if fun) posturing of hair metal, maybe it’s his pro-gay rights, pro-feminist, pro-choice, liberal politics. I dunno. But maybe it’s down to the aching grandeur of Unplugged in New York, an album which pulses with emotion. This is Nirvana stripped of all amplified rock ballast, baring their souls. Utterly affecting, it is a tragic hint of what could have been.

How about you?

Great Albums

My constant ranting about bands that can’t put together a decent album made me think – well, which albums (qua albums) are really great? Which albums hang together in their entirety; which have that enormously satisfying quality of having no crap? Despite Paul’s belief that few bands manage to avoid filler, I think there are actually quite a few bands manage to do at least one really great album – though very few do more than two, I’d reckon, being unable to develop beyond their initial sound. So here are some of my own nominees for the “No Crap” club of great, consistent listens.

1. Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space by Spiritualized

A magnificent album which I think is in the top 3 for the 1990s. Building on the long dense grooves of Lazer Guided Melodies, LAGWAFIS adds a bucketload of heartbreak and a few thunderbolts of overblown Stooges-y guitar, making the album not dreamy but utterly pulsing in emotion. You’ve got the wry “Think I’m In Love” with its brilliant phon/antiphon couplets (“I think I can rock and roll – Probably just twisting / I think I wanna tell the world – Probably ain’t listening”), the surging “Electricity”, the revelatory “Cool Waves”, and the astonishing cacophonic vortex of “Cop Shoot Cop”, perhaps the nearest musical approximation of THE VOID I have ever encountered. Not a song is out of place, not a moment wasted, even in the seventeen (count ’em) minutes of “Cop Shoot Cop”. (Is it just me or is it no coincidence that this is the same length as “Sister Ray”?) LAGWAFIS is – and I really believe this – as good as Dark Side of The Moon, though it maybe doesn’t quite reach the same majestic heights as “Eclipse”.

2. The Stone Roses by The Stone Roses

When they were big, in 1989-1990ish, I absolutely despised the Roses, just as I did The Happy Mondays, The Inspiral Carpets, and all the Madchester scene. Of course I did – I was a greaser and anything new and fashionable must therefore be liked by weak minded fools. Well, I’ve grown up (a bit) since then, and it seems to me now that Madchester and the contemporaneous “rave” scene were about the last organic musical revolution in the UK – at least to affect the whole of British pop culture. While The Soup Dragons and The Charlatans were really just ephemera, The Stones Roses is an album of the utmost quality, one which I really can’t praise enough. Quite apart from the classic songwriting, there are so many moments of absolute genius – the delicious vocal harmonies on “Waterfall”, that delirious surge into the chorus of “Made Of Stone”, the HOLY FUCK THIS IS INCREDIBLE psychedelic jam ending “I Am The Resurrection”, that wonderful instrumental section in “She Bangs The Drums”, where Mani plays Hall (from 1.40) a simple but tension-filled groove, over which Squire solos, the whole thing building and building until Reni thumps in on drums (2.19) to release the musical orgasm of the utterly joyful chorus. Genius. The sense of youthful delight and possibility coursing through the whole album is utterly infectious.

3. The Man Machine by Kraftwerk

Pop/rock has The Beatles. Alternative music has the Velvet Underground. Metal has Black Sabbath. The blues has Robert Johnson. And electronic music, almost in its entirety, is the progeny of Kraftwerk. Their great albums are stunningly consistent, and of their amazing run Radio Activity (1975) – Trans Europe Express (1977) – The Man Machine (1978) Computer World (1981), only TEE  stumbles with “Hall Of Mirrors”, which has not aged well. Still, with absolute landmarks like “Europe Endless” and “Trans Europe Express”, there’s not much to complain about. I would suggest though that of those four, The Man Machine is the one crammed with the most riches. The insistent robotic electronica and delicious dry wit of “We Are The Robots” (sample line: “We are programmed just to do / Anything you want us to”), the highflown indifference of “Spacelab”, the wry fuck-you of “The Model”, the sheer sonic brilliance of “Neon Lights”: here’s an entire album of incomparable musical vision and magnificent execution. If it was released today, it would sound fresh – it’s thirty-fucking-four years old!

4. Closer by Joy Division

Let us not worship  at the altar of the doomed young man. It’s juvenile to glorify unfulfilled promise untempered by the trials and compromises of life – which is precisely why such figures are so popular with adolescents (see also Richey Edwards; Sylvia Plath; Kurt Cobain). Quite apart from that, Joy Division were a stunningly talented band, with complementary talents: Peter Hook’s prominent bass, Bernard Sumner’s dissonant shards of guitar and glacial synths, Stephen Morris’ highly kinetic drumming, and Ian Curtis’ sonorous vocals and haunting, literary lyrics. Closer has more variety and breaks more ground than Unknown Pleasures: the shambling rhythms of “Atrocity Exhibition”, the icy synths of “Isolation”, the haunting funeral procession of “The Eternal”, the sotte voce heartbreak of “Heart And Soul”… not a dud moment.

5. Appetite For Destruction by Guns N’ Roses

Insanely brilliant.

6. Animals by Pink Floyd

Animals seems to be the great forgotten Floyd album, the lonely child in their incredible Dark Side of the Moon-The Wall hot streak. Everyone knows Dark Side spend a gazillion years on the charts and everyone knows “Another Brick In The Wall II”; likewise Wish You Were Here is most often cited as the best Floyd album.


While Dark Side is definitely a leap on from Meddle and a massive soar from Atom Heart Mother, there are a couple of things that bug me about it. (“How iconoclastic!”) First, the production – OK, in numerous points it’s absolute fucking genius – see “On The Run”, and also the excellent Classic Albums program on Dark Side, where Gilmour takes the viewer through all the (8) tracks in the song and how it was mixed in real time. But there’s something about “Money” which I find irritating: it seems stiff and jerky. It would have been better perhaps to keep it in the deep blues arrangement in which it was first essayed. Also “Time” – the vocal in the first verse annoys me – too dry, or something. Also, “Us And Them” seems a bit wishy-washy. This is not to say I dislike these songs, as these are really just minor quibbles, but when you’re talking about genius it’s the minor things that differentiate them. And WYWH – while “Shine On” is majestic and “Wish You Were Here” one of the finest articulations of empathy and humanity in rock music, “Have A Cigar” seems like a long sneer and “Welcome To The Machine” a bunch of sound effects over self-pitying lyrics.

Oh, but Animals! Perhaps it requires a certain openness to or appreciation of the longer song – certainly Animals can appear as three unapproachable slabs of +10 minute songs (“Dogs”: 17.08, “Pigs (Three Different Ones)”: 11.33, “Sheep”: 10.21). But being one who has always enjoyed long multi-sectioned songs, Animals hits the spot every time. Consider “Dogs”: it’s the longest of the lot, true, but it has four distinct sections. First, there’s the second-person description of the businessman (“You gotta be crazy / Gotta have a real need”) ready “to put the knife in”, and a fierce howl of a solo from David Gilmour (the one starting from 5.31), a masterful example of space and economy. (The entire song is probably his best Pink Floyd work). Then there’s the drifting, shadowy, echoing section, the word “stone” repeating like a tolling bell. Then there’s the section sung by Waters, the lyrics shifting to first person (“Gotta admit that I’m a little bit confused / Sometimes it seems to me like I’m just being used”), giving the character’s thoughts and reflections at the end of it all. Finally, there’s the final summation of the worthlessness of this form of life, each line beginning “Who was”, rather like the first section of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl – “Who was broken by trained personnel”, “Who was fitted with collar and chain”, “Who was dragged down by the stone”. With razor-sharp musicianship (each member of the Floyd has a moment in the spotlight), incisive social commentary, keen sense of sonic possibility and intelligent structure, “Dogs” exemplifies the best of Waters-era Floyd. “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” and “Sheep” are almost as good. The caustic gloom and enormous tension of “Pigs” is terrific, and where else can you find a line as good as “You radiate cold shard of broken glass”? The pastoral revolt of “Sheep” is brilliant, especially in the final verse: “Have you heard the news? The dogs are dead!” The structure, with the introduction and coda of “Pigs On The Wing” is smart, too, giving a human touch to an album of some considerable anger and belligerence.



Some others: Burnin’, Catch A Fire and Exodus by Bob Marley; Revolver by The Beatles (I’m tempted to say the White Album too, but we all know this isn’t really true); Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells; The Specials; Loveless by My Bloody Valentine; Automatic For The People by REM; The Velvet Underground (i.e. without Nico); The Queen Is Dead by The Smiths; London Calling by The Clash; Dolittle by The Pixies.


Albums and What They Mean To Me #1

Neuroscientists may be able to explain why particular sounds or smells link so strongly to certain memories. I’m sure we all have scents that bring back huge waves of childhood nostalgia: some for me are kippers frying on hotplates at a harbourside fete (an immensely salty tang); ginger beer (I was very fond of this as a wee lad) and Fisherman’s Friends (ditto). Music is obviously immensely powerful in this area, so much so that trashy albums remain popular through the power of association rather than any musical qualities. Why else would I remain fond of Skid Row‘s Slave To The Grind and Motley Crue‘s Girls Girls Girls?

One album with particular memory-associative powers for me is Lazer Guided Melodies by Spiritualized. Perhaps less well-known and under-rated in comparison to their masterpiece, Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space, it’s an album arranged in four suites or movements, each of several separate sections.  Musically, it is exemplary early-Spiritualized, with floaty, dreamy, shimmering textures, droning, repetitious melodies, implied rhythms, soft understated vocals, and a processed and digitised production taking off the rough edges even on the strongest-hitting of sections. The druggy implications are pretty obvious, though there’s nothing overtly psychedelic, no talk of “gnomes” or “witches hat sitting on her head like a paraffin stove”. Rather, it’s dreamy, spacy, blissed out.

You can hear a fine example of all this here:

A sparkling arpeggio intro leading to a repetitive guitar-shard, under which a mobile bass-guitar melody suggests deep, anxious feelings hidden by an unchanging exterior – with releases of tension dramatised by the horns, though the underlying anxiety of the bass and guitar continue on. The build-up and release of tension, of course, are key aspects of sex, music and drugs (especially opiates); though there’s nothing overtly sexual here, there’s a sensuality to some of the music, while the druggy aspects are more pronounced, with some of the music verging on the unsettling. While Ladies and Gentlemen would make the painkilling, soothing aspect of the drug experience explicit, there’s surely an aspect of that here already – a recurring feeling of strife and discomfort soothed over, or an unsuccessful attempt to soothe over pain and anguish.

This all seemed fairly resonant with me at the time. In the summer of 2000, I had just graduated and had to face the fact that I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Although I had been moderately successful as a student, gaining a 2:1, I hadn’t succeeded in getting what I thought was a “good job” after rebuffs following final interviews with the Big 5 consultancies, the civil service etc. I’d been close, but not good enough: I had vainly imagined that I would swan into a good job and live happily ever after in some nebulous future, in the same way as I’d been successful all the way through my educational career. But it seemed the real world was a rather tougher place, and this unnerved me. Similarly, I’d moved into an apartment with a friend, anticipating finding a job of at least some kind soon enough – again, erroneously, and bills soon began to pile up. I signed on with a mixture of weary resignation and sneering superiority from wounded pride. I was lovelorn and single, but also depressed and poor; numerous romantic rebuffs also took their toll, stripping my confidence and souring my attitude. I had ambitions to write, but had no idea of any way to use this productively; I even, in an attempt to stop being so over-analytical and self-conscious, gave up my habit of keeping a journal. At the time it seemed like a good idea; in retrospect it seems like I was running away from myself, trying to escape from a present around which ominous clouds were gathering.

This all seemed perfectly suited by Lazer Guided Melodies. It soothed, but was foreboding; it was dreamy and captivating; it was intense yet oddly relaxing. There was none of the surface agony of Ladies and Gentlemen, but it was just as emotional. And it seemed to capture my mood perfectly.

(Other key albums of that moment were Rhythm and Stealth by Leftfield and The Contino Sessions by Death In Vegas – both equally dark and foreboding. The road I was on seems pretty clear, in retrospect).