|Ambient House: The Ecstasy Fantasy|
10th March 1990
IT'S TIME TO CHILL OUT, STEP OFF THE DANCEFLOOR AND STEP INTO THE FUTURE. AMBIENT HOUSE COULD BE THE MUSIC FOR THE NINETIES. IT'S ALREADY BEEN PIONEERED BY PEOPLE LIKE A GUY CALLED GERALD, 808 STATE AND THE BELOVED. HERE PAUL OLDFIELD CHARTS THE MUSIC'S GROWTH AND ITS RAPID ASCENSION TO THE NEW TRANCE SENSATION.
ON THE NEXT PAGE, PUSH REPORTS ON THE KLF, BILL DRUMMOND'S NEW BAND AND WHO'RE AT THE FOREFRONT OF THE AMBIENT HOUSE MOVEMENT. AFTER THE JUSTIFIED ANCIENTS OF MU MU AND THE TIMELORDS, THE ARCH-SCHEMER TALKS ABOUT THE NEW NAME, A NEW ALBUM THAT'S BEATLESS, STRUCTURELESS AND TIMELESS AND HIS NEW ROAD MOVIE
AMBIENT HOUSE MUSIC HAD TO HAPPEN.
Perhaps a year ago, no one could have predicted at DJs would soon splice together ambient or New Age music's minimal, subliminal soundscapes (eg Brian Eno), newly-rehabilitated prog-rock experimentalists (Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream), cocooning soundtracks like "Betty Blue", and House's climactic beats. But it makes perfect sense. The Nineties have started with connections finally being made between House's trance-dance and the entrancement of ambient's dream-pop: two different, but converging, paths to the same ecstasy.
Listen to the evidence. THE ORB's 12-inch, based on their club mixdowns of House beats and sound effects records, is a succession of cupolas full of sunlight and choirs, washed by a surf of white-cap waves and children's voices, all intercut with the dew-fresh psychedelic soul and birdsong of Minnie Riperton's "Loving You". Or there's KLF s "Chill Out" LP, a fluent trajectory on the thermals and ocean-currents of Pink Floyd's "Echoes", an album full of greensward, dusty daylight and the gilded daybreak of "After The Love Has Gone". Or try INNOCENCE's glass-surfaced streams, Womacks-liquid, chaste vocals and faded memories of Floyd's "Wish You Were Here"...
As Alex Patterson of The Orb (and also, significantly, an A&R man for Eno's record label, EG) points out, the chill-out of ambient pop was always latent in House music.
"You listen to Fingers Inc's 'Washing Machine' or 'Can You Feel It', minus the beats. Very ambient," he says.
He could equally have mentioned Joe Smooth's slow-motion "Microdot", or Free Style Express' remixed 12-inch, with its ball-bearing swirl of vibes and deep-space whispers. From the start, House's synths were indebted to the advances by Euro technicians like Kraftwerk, Klaus Schulze, or Yellow Magic Orchestra.
ALL the same, why has this crossover happened now? Alex Patterson gives the now-received account:
"It all happened last summer. We were clubbing all night and seeing the dawn in . One day we ended up on Brighton beach at sunrise, recovering. The next day we mixed the 12-inch."
But that's not the full story. The music's no longer just the aftermath of club-going. Ambient rooms are appearing in some clubs as an alternative to the dancefloor. As Steve of Phuture Records, the new store based in The Garage market-hall in the King's Road, says, "At the Oz club, you can watch films being projected on big white sheets, and in ambient rooms you can chill out, play backgammon, or just daydream."
It really sounds as if ambient House could take many of the causes the Maker's championed in pop of late - the triumph of peace over pace, possession over posture, communion over communication - into the very heart of clubland.
The allure of the new House lies in ecstatic possession as well as peace. Although it's been called New Age House, the best cuts aren't background music, aren't the anodyne aural equivalent of a Radox bath. The new House is a descendant of the music on Germany's ECM label, or of Eno's EG records, or of Kraut-rock's huge expanses. As KLF's Bill Drummond says, such music envelops you with "sounds we've heard all our lives, but never listened to". It doesn't have a background or foreground: it simply un-focuses your perceptions, absorbs you utterly, so that you lose all consciousness of yourself, all sense of being apart from what you're listening to.
THIS kind of ambient House can be just a breath away from oceanic rock, the womb-like suspense of a band that Steve at Phuture Records describes as absolutely seminal, The Cocteau Twins. And New Age House is quite unashamed of its debt to the "galactic" rock of 20 years ago. KLF, like Innocence, revisit the Floyd back catalogue, while Tomita, Steve Hillage and the like, regularly turn up in club mixes.
All these musics, whether they suggest sky, ocean or arctic wastes, are about sinking back into an undifferentiated, inarticulate condition, about being embraced in maternal flesh and blood again: on the breast or in the womb. Ambient House is even beginning to usurp indie non or Sixties non's monopoly on Oedipal mother fixation (listen to Pale Saints, or the young Floyd, to "Mother Might", or "Atom Heart Mother", then check out KLF's safely-grazing sheep and lambs).
But the mother that New Age House really fetishises is mother Nature. Ambient House artists sound as if they want to be children of nature, want to rediscover Eden, as QUADROPHENIA's "Paradise", or Innocence's "Natural Thing" suggest. The new House has even been dubbed eco-House because it has an environment-friendly, tread-lighly-on-the-earth feel, because it wants to enjoy, rather than exploit, nature.
Yet ambient House's approach to the natural world, or to underdeveloped cultures, is not really like "caring" pop's attitude. Rock music's developed a conscience about green issues, true. But the likes of Sting or Midge Ure have simply transplanted all our latest Western concerns into this "natural" and primitive world: nature spells natural health, uninhibitedness, community values, and, above all, respect for tradition, for "living history" and endangered habitats that have to be saved. Rock's Utopia is in the past.
New Age House keeps the concern for the environment, but does so without the heritage industry. So, A GUY CALLED GERALD establishes his green credentials by having a humpback whale song on "Eyes Of Sorrow", by naming a percussionist from the Amazonian rainforest, Arito Maria, as a big influence, and by agreeing to appear on a benefit LP from Ark, the makers of green household goods.
808 State, too, put a picture of Earth from space on their first LP sleeve, hinting at ideas of the world as one inter-connected living system (the Gaia theory). And even clubbers like DAVE DORRELL and MARK MOORE are into the eco-movie "Kooanisquatsi", with its Philip Glass soundtrack (and there's another bridge between minimalism, ambience and dance music). Finally, Alex Patterson declares that "the Nineties will be a decade of rainforest consciousness, a backlash against the rape of mother earth".
FINE, but better still the new House music has separated this care for the earth from the mainstream pop world's theme-park tendency to embalm ethnic musics and threatened ways of life. Ambient House's green politics embrace a high-tech future. A Guy Called Gerald crystallises the difference when he talks about "living in a new planet" and "starting afresh", rather than conserving.
Gerald's music always comes from a fictional, technotopian tomorrow, in which technology's no longer an enemy of nature; and 808 State's leafy tropics are full of the state-of-the-art electro of Juan Atkins or Kraftwerk. This greening of planet earth will be a more benign colonisation, not a celebration of out-grown forms of community life. It may be uncomfortably close to the "electronic cottage", green capitalism idea of the New Age Nineties, but what's important for us is that it keeps the future alive in pop.
AMBIENT House doesn't borrow from ethnic or traditional music. And when it alludes to other cultures, it's no longer Africa, that supposed mother of civilization, that casts its shadow. Ambient follows the lead of Eighties industrial-poppers and avant-gardists (eg 23 Skidoo's "Easter Island", Cocteau's Australasian titles) and listens in to the Pacific: 808 State's "Pacific State", for example, or KLF's use of Pacific-coast surfing music like Floyd's "Echoes" or Fleetwood Mac's "Albatross". Instead of the life-enhancing upfulness of Africa, there's the lotus-eating pacifism of Polynesia. The Pacific's the really motherly, soporific hemisphere, home of Bounty-bar plenty and peaceful paganism.
It's also the home of the aboriginal "dreamtime", of belief in telepathy and astral-body trips. This connects ambient House with another of its predecessors, the techno-primitive bands of the early Eighties, Throbbing Gristle, Chris And Casey etc. Just listen to the fetish-worshipping chant of Gerald's "Voodoo Ray" (now mixed way down by Frankie Knuckles), the limbo rhythm of 808 State's "State Ritual", or Mysterious Art's version of "The Omen". This is modern-day primitivism that replaces self-expression with ritual, and puts technology at the service of magic, the enchantment that rationalism tried to banish. That's why you'll see House sweat-shirts covered in cabbalistic, magic symbols in every high street; and that's why Richard Norris, former collaborator with Genesis P. Orridge, now makes ambient House music as THE GRID.
The magical, dreamtime Pacific might be New Age souse's natural domain. But outer space has some of the same connotations for it. It's as if space travel has suddenly re-entered pop's imagination: "I've been an astronaut in my head since I was eight," says Alex Patterson. "The name Orb comes from 'orbiting'..."
The Orb plan an LP called "Space" and use astronauts on their record sleeve, while House duo GTO use Apollo mission soundtracks on "Peace".. . all under the influence of Brian Eno's last LP, "Apollo".
Space doesn't just correspond to New Age's drift into tranquillity and boundlessness. As in the late Sixties, the astronaut's become a metaphor fora generation leaving the old world behind, for the unborn child, or for the drug user. Hence Acid, and now ambient, House's fascination with alternative sci-fi, such as "2001 ", with its theme of a trip back to childishness and the metamorphosis of man into an enlightened star-child (an obsession shared by indie pop such as Loop).
Whether it's atavism or futurism, the Pacific's spirit-travel or astronautics, the morning after or the start of a new age, ambient is about freeing your perceptions from the censorship of reality. It's a journey to peace. Chill out.
AMBIENT HOUSE DISCOGRAPHY
INNOCENCE: "Natural Thing" (Cool Tempo)
LAND OF OZ (At Heaven, Mondays)