Steve Roach – “Dreamtime Return” (1988)

From time to time my buddy Andy and I mail each other random records. A couple of months ago I sent him something, though for the life of me I can’t remember what… and to return the favor he sent me a copy Steve Roach’s 1988 double album Dreamtime Return, which had apparently been a favorite of his back in the day. I like Andy’s taste in electronica (we’re both big fans of Kiasmos), so I figured I was in for something interesting.

I got a bit more than I bargained for when I dropped the needle on Dreamtime Return this morning, a dreary, cold, dark and rainy one here in Seattle, where I was working from home at the dining room table. Without looking up any info on Roach or this album, my initial impressions were that it was the sound of Aboriginal people from Australia being transplanted to Sedona, Arizona. The Aboriginal influence is in the percussion and some of the instrumental sounds, while the electronic pieces that wander about, occasionally soaring, remind me of the vortex and crystal capital of the universe that is Sedona. The music would be the perfect accompaniment to one of those nature documentaries where they put a time-lapse camera in the southwestern desert pointed at some red rocks and sky, and you watch as the sun rises, then sets, and then the sky fills with the density of stars you can only get in places that are a long way from towns and artificial light.

As it turns out, for once I was pretty spot on. The notes notes on the jacket reverse go into detail about the Aboriginal influence, as well as noting that part of the inspiration had come from a conversation Roach had with documentary filmmaker David Stahl who was working on something related to Aboriginal rock painting at the time. Damn, look at me calling my shot there! But that really does say something about the music on Dreamtime Return – for being ambient-ish (though generally much fuller and richer sounding than typical ambient), it has a very strong undercurrent that runs throughout the two records, making it feel more like one cohesive piece of music than a group of songs. The music conveys a clear emotional state and mood, putting you into a different time and place, which is no easy feat.

Dreamtime Return won’t appeal to everyone. It’s not EDM, with it’s more nature-derived feel, and in some ways could be described as “the adult contemporary of electronic music,” which is both snarky and more than a little apt. But I don’t mean it as an insult, because the composition is thoughtful and effective. I feel like you need to be in the right frame of mind to listen to Dreamtime Return, but if you time it right, you’ll be rewarded.

Brian Eno – “Ambient 1: Music for Airports” (1978)

I’ve read a bit about Brian Eno, since his name seems to come up almost everywhere. He was in Roxy Music, was one of the very earliest pioneers of ambient electronic, and he has worked with just about everyone… and just about everyone seems to credit him as an influence. Yet I’ve managed to make it this far in my life without ever having heard his music.

I came across this pristine copy of Ambient 1: Music for Airports a few weeks back at Easy Street Records, and as soon as I saw it I knew it was time to see what Eno was all about. Released in 1978, it was part of a four part ambient exploration, and it was literally composed to provide a more relaxing mood to the generally stressful and frenetic airport experience.

There are four distinct tracks here, all of which are quite long – the entire thing has a run time of 41+ minutes, the songs are named only using numbers. The opener (“1/1”) is a very quiet piece, primarily defined by its very soft and slow piano playing. The other track on side A (“2/1”) is actually a bit anxiety inducing for me – there’s echoey vocalizations here that sounds like a choir singer holding very long notes, and while it’s beautiful, for me it isn’t relaxing. On side B, “1/2” brings the first two songs together, at least thematically, giving us the choral vocal sounds along with the piano. This is probably the densest piece on Music for Airports, though it’s still definitely ambient in nature, intentionally designed to be background music. The final song (“2/2”) drops the voice sounds and gets us back to a purely instrumental world, though much richer than where we started with “1/1.”

Holly wasn’t sold on this one at all. I actually ended up taking it off when we were listening to it together and came back to it a few weeks later for a solo session while working from home. And, you know, in that environment, alone in my house and working on the computer, it was a very pleasant accompaniment. I could see playing this in lots of situations, but most of which would involve me doing something else – reading, doing chores, writing… though it might be a bit much, at least for my brain, to just sit and purely focus on.

“An Endless Journey – Family Affair Vol. 2: From Ambient to Trip Hop” Compilation (1996)

I don’t know much about ambient. Don’t know much about trip hop either. But I know this double album that I bought the other day out of the DJ Masa collection of used vinyl over at Silver Platters in Seattle is pretty damn cool. Twelve tracks of ambient trip hop (is that one genre or two… I don’t know… and I really don’t care) with a great vibe, perfect for listening to while drinking a cocktail or three with that special (or soon to be special) someone. One the rocks or straight, I think you’ll enjoy it.

“One A.D. (Volume One Ambient Dub)” (1994)

I have admitted to buying an album based on the strength of the cover alone on more than one occasion, and I won’t apologize for it. One of the big things (literally) records have going for them when compared to CDs is the big jackets with their photos, drawings, symbols, or whatever other crazy crap the artists decide to put on there (though to be fair I’ve seen some crazy CD packaging as well). And it was the “not a cover” that drew my attention to One A.D., a double album in plain white sleeves with nothing more than two pieces of old style FAX machine paper to explain what the album is all about. Apparently the official release is on clear blue vinyl, which sounds cool; but what I came across at Silver Platters was the test press. Which is cooler.

The style of this 1994 11-track compilation is described as “ambient” on the press sheet issued by the label, Waveform. And whatever you do…

Beware! AMBIENT is not dance music, though its roots are firmly
planted in the chill rooms of the club scene. It’s not reggae, though
dub flows easily within its boundaries, and please, DON’T even
think of calling it new age!

Well damn. We’ve been sufficiently warned.

I didn’t know anything about any of the nine bands included, nor do I claim any understanding of what defines “ambient” (except now I know to not even THINK of calling it new age). I didn’t even put it on the turntable at the listening station. It seemed chill enough. And in fact it was. This is some cool techno. The pace is pretty relaxed in typical dub fashion, some of it with vocals and some without. I don’t know if I’ll be rushing out to find other work by some of the artists included, but I can promise you that this will get future plays. It’s great hanging out music.

Cabaret Voltaire – “The Conversation” (1994)

Holly is a big fan of Cabaret Voltaire, and I like their stuff as well, so whenever I run across something of theirs in decent shape and for a good price I usually pick it up. Needless to say, the DJ Masa collection for sale at Silver Platters has lots of Cabaret Voltaire in it, so on my recent visit I came away with the Colours EP and this hefty, four record (!) album from 1994, The Conversation.

The Conversation is a departure from the Cabaret Voltaire we’re used to from Code, Groovy Laidback and Nasty, and The Drain Train, all earlier releases. For one thing, it’s well over two hours long. And for another, it’s way more down tempo and ambient electronic then much of their earlier work, the continuation of a trend they started with 1992s Plasticity. Sure, some of the songs have killer beats. But that’s not what this album is about. Some reviewers describe it as more of a soundtrack than an album, and I can see where they’re coming from – it isn’t hard to imagine these songs as part of a movie since for the most part they are not forward and attention grabbing, but more in the background. And that by no means should be read as a criticism; Cabaret Voltaire put together some impressive soundscapes for us on The Conversation, some entirely instrumental and others with some manipulated vocals, most of which sound like clips from movies or TV shows.

I’m going to need to keep an even sharper eye out for more Cabaret Voltaire records. So far I’ve been impressed with everything of theirs I’ve heard, even as their style changed and matured. They’re the kind of band that won’t bore their fans by putting out the same old album over and over again, and there is also an abundant amount of remixed material out there as well, so it’s sure to stay fresh to my ears for a long time to come.