20/05/20 This week I have been mostly listening to

Global Communication – 76:14 (1994). I am nowhere near the first to say it, but what an incredible album this is. 76:14 will no doubt be considered by many as the peak of the early 90s ambient house / listening techno scene (explosion is much too vigourous a term for such chilled out music). 76:14 being the run time of this album, it takes its time – one of the hallmarks of this era was long drawn out lavish expansive double albums (cf Lifeforms, etc). 

The mood is firmly situated on the lighter side of ambient – everything is very easy on the ear. No spooky samples or disorientating effects – the whole experience is the aural equivalent of a visit to a luxurious health spa. 

Although there has been something of a resurgence in ambient music in recent times, fueled no doubt in part by the mindfulness and wellness movements, to many modern listeners the pure unashamed lushness of 76:14 could come across as cheesy. I guess New Age had already well peaked as a movement by 1994 and the sounds of trickling water and the gentle tinkling of ‘mood bells’ will be forever associated with faux spirituality, crystals, and general cringeworthy mysticism. 

While 76:14 would work perfectly played on repeat in a shop selling crystals, incense and other New Age paraphenalia, that shouldn’t deter discerning fans of electronic music. The portentous organs on intro track, 4:02 makes it clear this is the start of an epic journey. The ticking clock that introduces the second track (14:31) is an explicit an indicator as possible that you should slow down and appreciate the gentle passage of time and accompanying scenery, as the track gradually unfurls its melodic elements across 14 beautiful unhurried minutes. The ‘peak’ of the album, if it can be said to have one is the pairing of track 7 and track 8 – a simple riff (which almost sounds like it could’ve been generated with a picked electric guitar string) is repeated across 8:07, with further elements being added as the track builds (reminiscent of original New Age crossover maestro, Mike Oldfield). There is probably a technical musical term to describe the way a counterpart to the original note pattern is reintroduced on the following track (5:23) and the whole thing builds and builds again, mantra-like, into a glorious symphonic resolution.

Although I’ve had this in my collection for years, it never lodged in my brain as being a classic album. I think this was partly due to the admin error of filing it under ‘Ambient’ (a folder I would seldom delve into) rather than ‘Electronic’ . But it truly deserves its place in the parthenon of electronic greats alongside Selected Ambient Works, Lifeforms, et al.

Joey Beltram – Aonox (1994). This is an uncharacteristic album from Joey Beltram, a name synonymous with no-frills, all-thrills, hard hitting old school Techno. Which makes this something of an under appreciated gem, again from that early 90s golden age of electronic music. 

The whole vibe of Aonox is pretty bleak and austere – soundwise I’d draw parallels with SAW2 and Autechre’s releases from the same era. The chilly melodic elements and industrial percussion could make this a forbidding prospect but like the best electronic music, Beltram wrings a great deal of emotion from the machines to help these tracks worm their way into my brain. Across the Hemisphere being the most insistent and compelling of the bunch.

Alder and Elius – Parental Guidance (2000). I happened upon this album thanks to Quinoline Yellow’s Secret Thirteen mix – a mix which led me on to several fruitful avenues of discovery. Parental Guidance seems to be an almost forgotten release on the Skam back catalogue (and I don’t know what became or either Alder or Elius) but listening to obscure releases out of context is a regular pastime of mine so I’m more than happy to give it an airing. 

Perhaps this album’s obscurity resides in the fact that it was out of step with erstwhile trends in electronic music on its release. 2000 being around the time so called IDM got ‘serious’, with the approach of Confield, Geogaddi and Drukqs. In comparison to those heavy weights, Parental Guidance feels like it was thrown together with gay abandon and the thrill of chucking a load of stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. And in this case, around 70% of it does stick. 

Sound-wise, Alder and Elius draw a lot from electro: the album is full of retro-sounding synths and synthesised drum hits. There’s also a healthy dose of humour in the liberal use of samples – see Terry’s Medication where Terry, presumably, recounts the experience of coming across a naked midget appearing in her kitchen in the middle of the night, pretending to the the son of Satan.

The rhythms tend to be jagged and staccato, rather than sticking to a steady beat – many of the tracks have the jerky stop-start motion of a robot knocked up in some mad scientist’s basement. This, along with the schlocky sci-fi samples, ‘basic’ melodies and percussion that at times sounds like someone is just repeatedly bashing their finger on a kick drum pad, imbues many of the tracks with a tongue-in-cheek silliness. (Which is no bad thing, especially in the arch field of ‘IDM’). 

But here and there, are moments of real spine-tingling beauty, where the retro synth sounds and sci-fi samples align perfectly to tap directly into your childhood brain and that sense of awe and wonderment you felt as a six year old watching (insert cult 80s sci-fi/fantasy movie here) for the first time. For me, it happens on Avatar and Blackwolf, which features an extended piece of narration from the 1977 animated fantasy film, Wizards. I’ve never even seen the film (as far as I know) but there is something powerfully evocative in the sample and the other elements of the track, I come out of it feeling like I’ve just witnessed something epic. 

Forest Swords – Compassion (2017). I started listening to Engravings (Matthew Barnes’ first album as Forest Swords) last year and that’s shaping up to be one of my favourite electronic albums of the last 12 months (that I’ve listened to). I’m only a couple of plays into Compassion but already I feel like it’s even better.

It’s very much a continuation of the sound he developed on Engravings: sombre and haunting in atmosphere but with enough rhythmic swing that the tracks don’t dissolve into dour murk. The feeling of drama and tension has been retained, and increased even, and to my ears anyway the mediaeval vibe is still strongly present: in the chanting voices, echoing battle drums and regal horns.

This album accomplishes the enviable feat of expanding a signature sound, yet at the same time refining it and amplifying the artists’ unique voice. With Compassion, Matthew Barnes has embedded himself more deeply on the territory he’s staked out for himself on the windswept fringes of electronic music. Recommended.

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